Ireland’s workers up in arms?

The Irish Citizen Army by Ann Matthews
(Mercier Press, €14.99/£11.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was developed by James Larkin during the 1913 Lockout. To cope with violence against striking workers by the police, he transformed a picket-militia into a uniformed pocket army. To this end he was advised by Jack White, a decorated veteran of the Boer War. White subsequently directed the exercises and training of the ICA and was chairman of its army council.

In January 1914, Larkin was compelled to advise the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union members to return to work as best they could. His relations with officials of the union became fraught and in October he set out on a speaking-tour of the US from which he did not return until 1922.

James Connolly took over as acting general secretary of the union and as commander of the ICA. 

By late January 1916 he and the leadership of the IRB had agreed on a joint uprising. The union headquarters in Liberty Hall became the headquarters of the ICA and Connolly led about 200 of his comrades into the Rising. About 50 of these fought in the GPO; most of the rest were in action at St Stephen’s Green and the City Hall.

With the collapse of the Rising and the execution of the leaders, including Connolly, the ICA was in disarray. By 1918 it was re-organised but its contribution to the War of Independence was insignificant. 


A unit comprised of 20 members from Dublin’s southside, co-operated with the IRA in the Terenure area of Dublin. They were involved in intelligence gathering, acquiring rifles and moving guns and ammunition from place to place.

After the vote in Dáil Éireann in support of the treaty in January 1922, the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party attempted to bring the ICA under their control to ensure that it would not be used by either the pro- or anti-treaty faction of Sinn Féin in a civil conflict which was becoming more and more of a probability. 

They invited the ICA to become part of a new, expanded force, sponsored by the labour movement and named the Irish Workers’ Army. In the hope of securing money for their needs, representatives of the ICA accepted the invitation and an executive, consisting of five of their members and five trade unionists, was formed to control the new force. 

However, growing dissension among them on the treaty issue, fomented mainly by Constance Markievicz, proved to be too much of a strain on the link between the executive of the Irish Workers’ Party and the nucleus of that army, namely the ICA. So even before the civil war erupted a majority of the ICA opted for the anti-treaty side.

Following the stand-off at the Four Courts, the ICA was mobilised and became an auxiliary of the anti-treatyites. Some fought in the Four Courts and others took over Findlater’s premises in Sackville Street and later the Hammam Hotel. With the end of the civil war the ICA was wound up and a small number of former members subsequently became involved in newly-formed left-wing political organisations.

This book’s appendices are most informative. Appendix I lists the names and addresses of the 363 members of the ICA and their locations during the Rising. The other appendices list the Boy Scouts and women in the ICA in 1916 and those who took part in the War of Independence and the civil war.


By the 1930s, the story of the ICA had morphed into the nationalist narrative of the revolutionary years. In 1937 the Old Irish Citizen Army Comrades Association commissioned RM Fox to publish a history of the ICA. 

Thereby, as Matthews states, he rescued it from obscurity. With this well-researched monograph, she also contributes to that end.