Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Few people in human history have shaped the world to such a significant degree. At the time of his passing in January 1924, the historian R.M Fox, who would write much on the Irish revolution, noted “it is too early yet to appraise or condemn his work as a whole, we can only bow the head to the passing of that great man who broke the age-long tyranny of the Czars.”
Lenin had observed the Irish revolution from a distance – at the time of the 1913 Lockout, he wrote in Pravda:
Dublin, the capital of Ireland—a city of a not highly industrial type, with a population of half a million—the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war. The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed—such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.
Significantly, he understood the importance of the Easter Rising too, rejecting the views of other leading Bolshevik thinkers (such as Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky) that the rebellion was little more than a nationalist “putsch.” Lenin instead viewed the Rising in the context of the First World War, from which it could not be severed, as a weakening of Empire. Lenin insisted that “the misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured.”
During the Irish revolution, there had been several engagements between the ‘Irish Republic’ and Bolshevik Russia. There was enthusiasm in revolutionary Ireland for the Russian revolution, even among some conservative nationalists, who took Lenin’s expresison of support for national self-determination to mean support for the cause of Ireland. Frank Robbins of the Irish Citizen Army would recall that he and his comrades regarded events in Russia “as being the end of Russian participation in the war, and we visualised Britain’s defeat as almost certain, and our independence as a nation in sight”.
Patrick McCartan, essentially Sinn Féin’s Ambassador in the United States during the revolutionary period, even spent time in Bolshevik Russia in the early freezing months of 1921, seeking recognition for the Irish Republic, and, recent research suggests, arms as well. He thought little of society there, remarking in correspondence to Dublin that “the idea of whether or not the present regime represents the will of the people is openly laughed at”. For little came of the flirtations between Bolshevism and the Irish Republic. For those like McCartan, it was a question of realpolitik, but for others like the prior mentioned Irish Citizen Army, Lenin’s Russia was a beacon.
Lenin’s passing in January 1924 led to unusual scenes on the streets of Dublin. Lenin died on 21 January in Gorki. His body was transported by train to Moscow two days later, and by the 27th it was delivered to Red Square. Internationally, his passing was mourned in the contemporary socialist press. In Dublin, Jim Larkin’s The Irish Worker reported on its frontpage LENIN IS DEAD, in typical Larkin fashion giving the story second place to a story on himself, and rumours he was about to leave Ireland. Larkin’s tribute to Lenin is significant:
Although Lenin was the acknowlerdged leader – one would almost write master – of the revolution, there was nothing of the aloodness, the superiority of the so-called great man about him. He wore no air of greatness, no affectation of authority. He was easily approachable and a ready listener to what one had to say, and painstakingly patient in explaining his position.
On January 27th, posters were issued for a commemoration in College Green to mark the passing of Lenin. Some six thousand people assembled, marching by torchlight, while Larkin’s newspaper noted “The Fintan Lalor Pipe Band and the Band of No.5 Branch, Irish Transport Union, turned out….to rally the workers.”
Media coverage of the commemoration focused on Larkin’s speech. The Belfast Telegraph reporting:
He denied the Czar had been murdered, but he had been justly executed. Some day the workers of Ireland would also rise in their wrath against unrighteousness and assert their will.
Curiously, as the meeting came to a conclusion, “three revolver shots were fired from a passing motor car. A number of people on the outskirts of the crowd made a dash for cover.” This seems like a very significant occurence, and while reported in the mainstream press, it didn’t warrant mention in Larkin’s newspaper. Perhaps Dublin was still a city where the sound of a revolver didn’t put too much fear into certain hearts.