My friends in Ireland will not forget me

On Sunday, 16 June the Belfast branch of the Connolly Youth Movement organised a commemorative hike to McArt’s Fort, Cavehill, to commemorate the first fathers of Irish Republicanism. The Belfast branch was joined by comrades from Lasair Dhearg as we reflected on the lessons and legacy of the first generation of Irish Republicans.

The hike took place to commemorate the famous oath taken in June 1795 by Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson, and Robert Simms. The oath was to never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence”. Shortly after this oath, Tone departed Ireland on his mission to enlist French Republican support for a rising in Ireland. The next time that Tone would be in Ireland it would be as part of the ill-fated French expedition that would lead to his arrest, and ultimately his death.

Speeches explored both the positives of Tone, but also reflected critically on the lessons of the failure of 1798, and what the future direction of republicanism must be; towards a socialist republic. The commemoration ended with a reading of Requiem for the Croppies before attendees made the return hike.

The aspirations of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen still remain a core component of the republican movement to this day. The ideal of an egalitarian, independent Irish Republic free from imperial domination and sectarian division is a fundamental one to the CYM.

A transcript of the CYM speech can be seen below:

We have gathered here to commemorate the United Irishmen; the first fathers of Irish Republicanism, who laid the groundwork and set forth the ideals we still maintain to this day more than 200 years later.

In recent years, these ideas have become warped by some claiming to be republican, and so it is worth a recap on some of the basics. What Tone and the United Irishmen set out to achieve was not a “shared Ireland”, where they envisioned two separate communities co-existing in an awkward peace. Tone was crystal clear in what his vision was:

“To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter”

Nor was this aim done with the idea that we would simply remain affiliated to the British Empire, or get caught up in imperial alliances. His aim was clear: to break the connection with Britain and assert the independence of Ireland.

A number of supposed republicans would do well today to remember this when they speak of re-entering the Commonwealth, joining NATO, or extolling the virtues of EU imperialism.

It is for this reason that Tone placed such little faith in the propertied classes of his day; going far beyond any of the revolutions in America and France, Tone was clear with the most revolutionary class in society. Tone placed his faith in the “numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property”

The view from atop Cavehill.

Tone recognised that those with a stake in the system could never be expected to overthrow the system which they profited from. Time and time again this has been proven in Irish history; it has always been the peasants, the small farmers, and the workers who formed the bravest of our rebels. It is those who have nothing to lose, but all to win who have shown themselves to be the truest of republicans and most committed to the cause.

Is it any wonder then that there is seemingly such little enthusiasm for a United Ireland at present? In decades past, the republican movement could count upon thousands, and proved its credentials as the most radical movement in Ireland. Yet now that a border poll is seemingly around the corner and unity is imminent, where are the mass rallies? Where are the strikes? Where are the tens of thousands willing to fight for a Republic? Because the leadership of the national movement has no interest in fundamentally changing Ireland. Tone foresaw this.

“When the people come forward, the aristocracy, fearful of being left behind, insinuate themselves into our ranks and rise into timid leaders or treacherous auxiliaries. They mean to make us their instruments; let us rather make them our instruments.”

The “aristocracy” of Tone’s day have since became the landlords and profiteers of our own day.

Tone’s ideals and Tone’s actions are well known. It is worth reflecting on Tone the man, and indeed of the other leaders who took the oath on this spot.

Tone was not a born revolutionary; his radicalisation was a result of seeing the world around him and of realising the inequality inherent in the Anglo-Irish relationship. For most of Tone’s early life his politics was unremarkable, he was a typical Protestant Whig who had faith in the British system. Indeed, Tone had even proposed colonial ventures to the British Prime Minister.
It was ultimately Britain’s war with Spain which prompted Tone to first explore his politics, he recognised that Britain’s enemies were not Ireland’s enemies and that it was not in the interests of the Irish people to be used as cannon fodder for an Empire that denied them equality.

It is worth remembering too how deeply human Tone was. People often forget how human revolutionaries are. The Tone that speaks to us in his journals is a deeply compassionate young man, wrestling with the necessity of the task he set himself. He was honest; writing that he would be unsure how he would act when the time to act came. He wrestled with principles and pragmatism. Throughout it all one of the constants is his deep love for his wife. Represented in Tone is not only the clear vision of Irish Republicanism, but also the human complexity of a genuine revolutionary.

This is particularly important to us as young republicans. Tone was only 35 when he died, and had became politically active at the age of 28. With Tone we see how someone’s path in life and politics does not need to be dictated by their previous ideas, or even their background. Indeed, Wolfe Tone was unique even amongst the Protestant United Irishmen. Tone was the only leader from the established Church of Ireland, whilst other leaders were Presbyterians. With Tone we see the drive and energy which young people can bring to the movement, something we saw with most leaders of 1798. Henry Joy was only 30 when he was executed. Thomas Russell was also 35 when he was executed for his role in the 1803 rebellion, which was led by the 25 year old Robert Emmett.

In 1796 Tone wrote in his journal, “if the worst comes to the worst, my friends in Ireland will not forget me”. Comrades, have we forgotten him? I ask everyone here to pledge themselves as Tone did; we will not desist until our country is free!

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