Originally raised to defend workers during the Lockout in 1913 and a central part of the Easter Rising, the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) remained active for many years afterwards, explains historian Brian Hanley.

The ICA was re-organised after the 1916 Rising by a number of veterans, including James O’Neill, Frank Robbins, Michael Donnelly, Seamus McGowan, Dick McCormack and John Hanratty.

It remained a largely Dublin-based body with smaller units in Balbriggan, Lucan and Terenure amounting to perhaps 300 volunteers in total. At various stages units were also organised over the next four years in Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Monaghan (led by Peadar O’Donnell) and in Glasgow.

The organisation remained open to women as well as men; Countess Markievicz was an Army Council member and women were also involved at rank and file level. The ICA drilled weekly and held intermittent training camps. It campaigned against conscription in 1918 and for the release of republican prisoners.

The organisation co-operated with the IRA during the War of Independence, helping with intelligence gathering and arms procurement. There are a few instances where ICA members engaged in armed action themselves, such as when four policemen were shot at a banned Connolly commemoration in May 1919 and during the Custom House attack of May 1921 in support of the IRA.

But in 1921, the Citizens Army divided over its attitude to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. A section of the ICA wanted to form a new Irish Workers Army that would remain independent of both pro and anti-Treaty factions, seeing both of them as anti-labour. The Irish Workers Army was to be recruited largely from the Irish Transport Union; its aims were to defend Ireland against foreign aggression, protect strikers, secure the rights of workers as citizens and fight for the workers’ republic.

But another group saw the Treaty as a betrayal of Connolly’s ideas and were prepared to fight against it. Some ICA members also cautiously supported the Treaty and the organisation split over the issue. Anti-Treaty ICA members took part in the fighting at that start of the Civil War in Dublin. They again supplied intelligence, particularly on the docks and railways. By late 1922 about 200 ICA members were engaged in support for the Anti-Treaty IRA and at the end of the Civil War, several ICA volunteers had been jailed.

The nucleus of the ICA was maintained after the Civil War but it was not until 1934 that it re-emerged publicly. A factor in its reorganisation was the rise in right-wing violence and the growth of the Blueshirts.

The ICA saw itself initially as an ‘anti- Fascist’ force, organised around the trade unions.

When the IRA split in March 1934 and the Republican Congress was formed, the ICA affiliated with the new movement, and ex-IRA officers such as Frank Ryan and Michael Price joined the ICA, as did several hundred former IRA volunteers. James Connolly’s daughter Nora took up a position on the ICA leadership as did her brother Roddy.

During 1934, the ICA was active during strikes and in conflict with the Blueshirts. It had units in Belfast, Kilkenny, Limerick and Cork and marched behind the Starry Plough flag at Bodenstown that year. The ICA argued for a ‘triple alliance’ made up of a workers’ army, one big industrial union and a new socialist party.

ICA volunteers were told that their “skill with a rifle was not more important than your patience on a picket line, nor are either of these more salient than your electoral activity”. Members were again jailed when they intervened during the Dublin Tramway strike of 1935. However, by that stage the organisation had been damaged by splits in the Republican Congress movement.

A number of leading ICA members, such as Michael Price, argued for joining the Labour Party. By 1936 Price and Roddy Connolly were members of the Labour Administrative Council and pushed for the organisation to adopt the ‘Workers Republic’ as its objective.

Other ICA volunteers followed Frank Ryan to Spain to fight for the republican government there – former ICA training officer Kit Conway was killed at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. Following this period, the ICA dissolved as a distinct organisation although some of its members would still meet socially and for commemorations. However, the mixture of republican and socialist ideas associated with the organisation would continue to play an important, if unfulfilled, role in Irish life.

Brian Hanley is a historian and author.
This article appeared in the March 2011
issue of Liberty

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