‘The Class of 1916’ by Brian John Spencer


The rebels of 1916 came from all ranks of society, but a majority were lower-middle-class. In a time of high unemployment, the vast majority of the rebels were employed. David McWilliams wrote, “most were from the class that Marx would describe as the hated petit bourgeois.”

The Irish rebellion of 1916 was a moment precipitated by poets and playwrights, individuals that would in today’s vernacular be called radical bohemians and hipsters. Certainly it was highly ironic when Diarmaid Ferriter wrote (satirically) in ‘50 things we need in Ireland in 2016, that he would like to see heavily bearded young men interned in Frongoch, where the rebels had been incarcerated after the Rising. But of course the rebels were masterfully hirsuted gents, with wonderfully kept beards and moustaches.

Those in the Citizen Army were ordinary working-men and dock labourers. They loathed the capitalists of Dublin and were radicalised by the Lockout of 1913.

The great mass of rebels, the Irish Volunteers, were very different from the Citizen Army. Many occupied respectable, even eminent jobs.

John F Boyle, in ‘The Irish rebellion of 1916: a brief history of the revolt and its suppression’, provided an inventory that was recorded of the occupations of several hundred prisoners transported after the Rising from Richmond Barracks, Dublin to Knutsford Detention Barracks, England. They the rebels were:

Actors, Apprentices, Artists, Bakers, Barmen, Barristers, Belt-makers, Bookbinders, Boiler-makers, Brush-makers, Cabinet-makers, Canvassers, Carmen, Carpenters, Caretakers, Carters, Chauffeurs, Clerks, Coach-builders, Coopers, Drapers, Drillers, Electricians, Engineers, Farmers, Farriers, Firemen, Gardeners, Goods-checkers, Grocers, Grocers’ Assistants, Grooms, Hairdressers, Hole-borers, Insurance Agents, Insurance Inspectors, Journalists, Labourers, Law Clerks, Librarians, Locksmiths, Loco. Firemen, Mattress-makers, Motors-drivers, Night Watchmen, Office Boys, Painters, Paper-cutters, Plumbers, Porters, Poulterers, Printers, Professors, Riveters, School Teachers, Sewing Machine Agents, Shorthand-typists, Shirt-cutters, Shunters, Slaters, Students, Tailors, Upholsterers, Vanmen, Waiters, Wax-bleachers, Weavers, Wood-workers.

The Irish rebels were untypical revolutionaries, especially compared to early 20th Century revolutionary movements. A focus on respectability and hostility to social revolution marked the Irish revolution as a 19th Century one. David McWilliams wrote:

“[This was] not a proletarian revolution but a Rising of the petite bourgeoisie or the lower middle class. They were Christian Brothers revolutionaries.”

The poor Dublin working-class were fighting on the Western Front. With them, from the well to do Catholic establishment, was the traditional nationalist officer class – men educated at the Home Rule and loyal schools, Clongowes, Belvedere, Blackrock, Terenure, Castleknock and St Mary’s .

The lower-middle-class Christian Brothers rebels would not only overthrow the British, but also the upper-middle-class establishment who were positioned to inherit the government of Home Rule Ireland. The first Dail was dominated by the lower-middle-classes with a strong nose for respectability, with virtually no working-class representation. Dairmaid Ferriter wrote:

“The class bias of a revolutionary generation that had much more in common with the administration they were attempting to overthrow than they cared to admit.”

In contrast with the bourgeois revolutionaries, the Irish hinterland was full of a rural peasantry in no position to entertain the restrictive and pious respectabilities preached by the revolutionaries, as typified by the Ethics of Sinn Fein (1917). Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in his 1966 essay ‘The Embers of Easter 1916-1966‘:

“As things have turned out, both parts of Ireland are firmly in bourgeois control, and no significant labour movement has emerged.”

Contrary to the cherished ideals of 1916, Ireland from its inception has been a thoroughly bourgeois state. A pro-British aristocracy was replaced by a republican nobility.

Leave a Reply