A commemoration event in memory of Joe McKelvey, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Rory O’Connor took place in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery on December 8, organised by the Seán Mac Diarmada Republican Society and the Irish Republican Martyrs Commemoration Committee. The main oration was delivered by éirígí activist Sharon Pickering. Below we carry the text of her speech.
It is an honour to be invited to speak at this commemoration today. As we know this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Harbinson plot. In 1912 This Celtic Cross was erected on the plot beside us and was dedicated to all those from the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who had been imprisoned in Belfast Gaol. It is named after William Harbinson a member of the IRB, who died in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Jail on Monday 7th September, 1867.
As we gather here to remember Joe McKelvey, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Rory O’Connor on the ninetieth anniversary of their execution by Free State forces, we also remember all those died in the struggle for national freedom. Including Seán McCartney, Séamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, Seán Gaffney and Terence Perry who are buried in this plot alongside Joe McKelvey.
The struggle to defend and uphold the Irish Republic declared by Connolly, Pearse, Tom Clarke, and their comrades in 1916 was conducted by many courageous men and women.
The four Republicans we remember today were among those. They were picked for execution because they had all been officers in the Four Courts, were members of the IRB, and each one represented a different province of Ireland. Joe McKelvey from Ulster, Rory O’Connor from Leinster, Dick Barrett from Munster and Liam Mellows from Connacht.
They were then buried in four different counties of Ireland. Rory O’Connor was to be buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Joe McKelvey in the Republican Plot, Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, Dick Barrett in his home parish – Ahiohill Churchyard, Co Cork and Liam Mellow, according to his own wishes, in Castletown Churchyard, Co Wexford.
All four men were born into an Ireland which, just a few decades earlier, had experienced the unprecedented ravages of An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger. Between 1845 and 1850, approximately 1.5 million Irish men, women and children died of starvation or related diseases. By 1855, more than two million more had fled Ireland to avoid a similar fate.
It was an Ireland where the wealth of Ireland was controlled by a landowning aristocracy loyal to Britain where families were evicted from their homes at the point of British bayonets. An Ireland where a new middle-class was being created as industrialisation commenced.
It was an Ireland where the IRB and other like-minded individuals sought to organise and fight for freedom.
An Ireland which by the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century was again attempting to rebuild and reclaim its cultural heritage through organisations such as the GAA and Conradh na Gaeilge.
As Ireland moved into the second decade of the 20th century, those patriotic stirrings, along with events occurring elsewhere, were leading many to question the British presence in Ireland and to set about preparing for armed revolt.
Similarly, Irish workers were also becoming more organised and were engaging in major industrial action.
Those two currents merged together at Easter 1916 when the Irish Republic was proclaimed through force of arms. Those who organised and participated in Easter Week clearly set out a political agenda based upon national self-determination, social and economic justice and democracy, of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, of claiming the wealth of Ireland for the people of Ireland.
Although defeated militarily, the men and women of Easter inspired others to act.
But unlike 1916, the subsequent struggle for independence during the Tan War saw a greater influence being wielded by those who were politically conservative.
Nevertheless, through the use of guerrilla tactics, electoral interventions, civil disobedience and the establishment of alternative political structures, Republicans had virtually wrested control of the country from the British state. Britain only retained power through armed force, terror and repressive laws.
At the same time, other struggles began as workers and small farmers took control of factories and the broke-up large ranches. Workplace occupations and land seizures began taking place.
In the eyes of the middle-class and conservative nationalist elements involved in the independence struggle, there was a danger that the struggle could become one by the exploited classes against their domestic oppressors as well.
When Britain commenced the Treaty negotiations, it knew that these events had scared middle-class Irish nationalists. Britain recognised that the best way of securing its interests in Ireland would be by those same conservative middle-class Irish nationalists realising that Britain would defend their interests too.
Those conservative elements in Irish society, the middle-classes, the church, the press and the business- and land-owning capitalists combined to undermine the Republican struggle in favour of the Treaty.
The Republican demands for national self-determination, for social and economic justice and democracy, of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, of claiming the wealth of Ireland for the people of Ireland were abandoned. No longer was the objective to be securing the greatest measures of political, social and economic freedom for the mass of the population.
Instead, these objectives were ditched in favour of a Treaty that would see the creation of two partitionist states within the British empire where control of the means of production and wealth generation would still remain in the hands of a small, but very wealthy, minority.
The men we honour today recognised that fact and opposed the Treaty.
As Liam Mellows stated – “It would be folly to destroy English tyranny in order to erect a domestic tyranny that would need another revolution to free the people. The Irish Republic stands, therefore, for the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland. It means that the means and process of production must not be used for the profit or aggrandisement of any group or class.
“Ireland, if her industries and banks were controlled by foreign capital, would be at the mercy of every breeze that ruffled the surface of the world’s money-markets...
“In our efforts to win back public support for the Republic we are forced to recognise, whether we like it or not, that the commercial interests and the gombeen man are on the side of the Treaty. We are back to Tone – which is just as well – relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country people’ were never with the Republic. They are not with it now and they will always be against it....”
The two states on this island which were created through the Treaty and partition were, and still remain, hostile to the interests of Irish workers and have acted against the struggles of Irish workers time and time again.
The total number of unemployed across the 32 counties is now over 600,000 people, many thousands of others who are employed are facing wage-cuts and are hanging on to their jobs and their family homes by their very fingertips. Thousands of our young people are again being forced abroad as economic migrants. The working class, the unemployed, the ill, the elderly and the young are under attack across the whole island.
Yet the property developers and landlords, the bankers, and the corrupt politicians, those who amassed fortunes at the expense of others still retain their ill-gotten gains.
That was not the kind of future which Mellows, McKelvey and their comrades had envisaged. They knew only too well that partition would lead to the carnival of reaction envisaged by Connolly, and that carnival of reaction has been in full flow in recent years.
The Ireland of today remains controlled by imperialism, all be it in a new and more subtle form.
Liam Mellows was quite emphatic in his view that those who support and endorse the structures of partition had placed themselves firmly in the camp of the counter-revolution.
From his prison cell in Mountjoy, he urged Republicans to concentrate on politically educating the youth of Ireland.
He believed that the failure to initiate proper political awareness and political education programmes was a major contributory factor that led to many former comrades accepting the Treaty: “The reason for so many young soldiers going wrong is that they never had a proper grasp of fundamentals. They were absorbed into movement and fight - not educated into it. Hence, no real convictions.”
That could still be said today about other treaties and agreements.
We must again educate others into the nature of the Irish Republican struggle; that our struggle is not based on a narrow-minded nationalism; it is about achieving real political freedom, it is about delivering social justice, it is about economic equality for all.
The objectives to which Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor and many others pledged their allegiance; the objectives for which they gave their lives are the same objectives which were clearly and unmistakably enunciated through the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of 1919. Those objectives have not been achieved.
Settling for anything less than the complete achievement of those Republican objectives was not an option for those whom we remember and honour today.
They sought to establish a free, sovereign and independent Irish Republic – a workers’ republic as Mellows called it.
The goals and objectives of those who were executed have never been secured.
The task for each of us is to help create a modern vision of a new Irish Republic and to re-awaken the inherent desire for true political, social and economic freedom and justice that exists among all people, young and old alike, in our villages, towns and cities, in our workplaces, in every one of our communities.
So as we remember Joe, Liam, Richard and Rory, let their example encourage us all to continue to struggle onwards to achieve their vision of a free, and truly independent, socialist Irish Republic.