James Connolly


Courtsmartial and Revolution


From Irish Work 19 December 1914.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

“The Earl of Halsbury said that in deference to the wishes of the Government he would not press his objections, but he thought the proposal of this Bill was the most unconstitutional thing that had ever happened.”

The foregoing sentence is from a report of a debate in the House of Lords on the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, on Friday, November 27th. This precious Act gives the military authorities power to arrest civilians and try them by Courtsmartial, sets aside all the ordinary safeguards of civil liberty, and empowers these Courtsmartial to inflict the death penalty or any lesser sentence. In other words, and plainer language, it establishes Martial Law as the law of the land, and places the lives and liberties of all in the power of a military unaccustomed to the restraints of civilised courts of justice, and ignorant of the laws of evidence.

A German, a French, an Italian or an Austrian Government would have openly and honourably sought to attain those ends by a declaration of Martial Law; the hypocritical and cowardly gang of assassins who control the Government of the British Empire seek to achieve the same objects by clandestinely and treacherously destroying civil liberties whilst professing a desire to safeguard and protect them. This is but a fitting culmination to all the anti-democratic and liberty-hating diplomacy which brought about this war, and now seeks to destroy every agency which would help to unmask its injurious conspiracy against mankind, or tell the truth about the terrors that accompany it. As a result of this Act there is no longer liberty in Ireland – liberty of speech, liberty of association, liberty of the press, liberty of the subject are all gone. No longer may a man or woman demand to be tried by his or her peers in an open court-room, before the eyes and hearing of his or her fellows. At any time any man or woman may be arrested, day or night, and dragged off in secret, to be tried in secret, and condemned and assassinated in secret by the hired assassins of the British Empire.

Aye, there is no break in the continuity of the methods of British Imperial Rule in Ireland. Dublin Castle is always Dublin Castle, the same at all times, loathsome, lying, hypocritical, murderous.

Of course we have the word of this Government that no death sentences will be carried out until Parliament meets, and of course we all know what the word of the Government is worth. Belgium knows it now, knows that this Government pledged its honour to maintain Belgian neutrality, and then manoeuvred to leave Belgium irrevocably committed to sink or swim with one side in this struggle in which she was supposed to remain neutral. Ireland knows it, knows that the Liberal Government pledged its word to give Home Rule to all Ireland then pledged its word to Carson not to force Home Rule upon all Ireland, pledged its word to place a representative of Labour upon the Commission of Inquiry into the Dublin police outrages, then deliberately breaks its solemn word, and appointed no such representatives; pledged its word to appoint an independent Commission of Inquiry into the Bachelor’s Walk massacre, and yet declared in Parliament beforehand that the said Commission would exonerate the uniformed murderers of peaceful citizens. Aye, Ireland knows the value of a Government promise, as our fathers knew it in the past!

But let ‘messieurs, the assassins,’ beware. There are in Ireland today many scores of thousands of earnest men neither committed to the British Empire nor to the cause of revolution. For the most part these are men who, wearied of the chaos of Irish politics, gave a grudging adhesion to the parliamentary attempt to secure some form of Home Rule as an organised legal expression of Irish nationhood. Loyalty to the party entrusted with that task has kept these men silent and inactive even whilst that party was betraying their trust, and besmirching their ideals. Always the hope persisted that eventually Home Rule would come, and then these traitors would be punished by an outraged people. But if the British Government once more throws off the mask of constitutionalism and launches its weapons of repression against those who dare to differ from it, if once more it sets in motion its jails, its courtsmartial, its scaffolds, then the last tie that binds those men to the official Home Rule gang will snap. On that day we will see once again all the best and brightest in Ireland definitely arraying itself on the side of revolution, fully realising that freedom and the British Empire cannot co-exist in this country.

The constitutional mask, the simulacrum of civil liberty still paralyses the activities and holds the hand of many a true Irish patriot, as the boasted freedom of contract of the wage-system still hides from many a worker the reality of his slavery. But once let the Government drop that mask, or abandon that presence of civil liberty, and then the result will see such a resurrection of Irish revolutionary spirit such as has not been seen for generations.

A resurrection! Aye, out of the grave of the first Irish man or woman murdered for protesting against Ireland’s participation in this thrice-accursed war there will arise anew the spirit of Irish revolution.

“The graves of those murdered for freedom bear seed for freedom
Which the winds carry afar and re-sow.”

Yes, my lords and gentlemen, our cards are all on the table! If you leave us at liberty we will kill your recruiting, save our poor boys from your slaughter-house, and blast your hopes of Empire. If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and, mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you.

We defy you! Do your worst!

Whether this death sentence upon Irish prisoners of these new Courtsmartial will or will not be carried out will depend, not upon the plighted honour or solemn assurances of Cabinet Ministers already foresworn and discredited even in their own country, nor yet upon any action of the degenerate Irish Members of Parliament who sat still and helped to destroy the constitutional rights of which they prate so loudly; nor yet upon the British Labour Members who, like all apostates, are readiest to stab and destroy all those who remain true to that ideal of democratic freedom they have deserted and dishonoured. No, the question of life and death will depend solely upon the temper of the people of Ireland. If they remain dumb, nerveless, lacking in intrepidity, quivering too mutely in the leash laid upon them by the apostles of ‘caution and restraint,’ then the blow will fall in increasing severity and ferocity, arrest will follow arrest, blow will follow blow, and sentences will increase in savagery in exact proportion to the tameness of the Irish people, until at last the death penalty will once more strike down those who embody the rebellious people of the Irish race. Oh, it is all well planned. Their fathers in Hell could not have planned it better!


Note: The Irish Worker was censored in late 1914 for its anti-war editorials, so Connolly presented this essay in a two-page pamphlet under the cover name Irish Work.


Last updated on 14.8.2003