Gaelic Communist

Graham Walker

  • James Connolly: A Political Biography by Austen Morgan
    Manchester, 244 pp, £9.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7190 2958 9
  • James Connolly: Selected Writings edited by P. Beresford Ellis
    Pluto, 256 pp, £8.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7453 0267 X

James Connolly is not a figure historians can confidently aspire to demythologise. His importance in Irish history lies as much in the images which have been fashioned of him as in his actual writings and actions. Images and myths, of course, are central to the creed of Irish nationalism, and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that many influential ones have been constructed around the only leader, and martyr, of the Easter Rising of 1916 with a socialist reputation. These myths have been further reinforced by the continuing topicality and intractability of issues which exercised Connolly and whose complexity is part of the problem in assessing him. I refer, primarily, to the sectarian and national divisions in Northern Ireland, but also to the extraordinary hold of the Roman Catholic Church over the mass of the people in Ireland, and the weakness of socialism – or, indeed, social democracy – in any part of Ireland.

To detach Connolly, in some spirit of scholarly purism, from the myths would perhaps also be to lose sight of what they reveal about the issues which concerned Connolly and which are central to any attempt to assess his reputation. To study Connolly, therefore, is to study Irish nationalist perceptions of Unionists, especially the Protestant working class; it is to study the tortuous, tense and ill-defined relationship between socialism and Irish nationalism; and it is to study the role of Catholicism in Irish social and cultural life. There are few historical figures in whom the dilemmas, conundrums and contradictions of Ireland are more comprehensively and intensively concentrated than Connolly.

The welcome and long overdue appearance of Austen Morgan’s book provides an opportunity to assess the state of the Connolly historiography and to examine themes which are central to his reputation. The book is a critical study which, in conjunction with other recent published work, redresses the hagiographical bias of the previous biographies by Ryan (1924), Greaves (1961) and Levenson (1973).

In the Late Victorian and Edwardian years, Connolly made an intellectually impressive and, indeed, ingenious attempt to accommodate socialism to Ireland’s dominant national and religious traditions. Bernard Ransom, in his Connolly’s Marxism (1980), has labelled this venture the ‘Hibernicisation of Marxism’. In Connolly’s scheme of things, the Irish working class, inspired by a Marxist analysis of Irish society which he sought to provide, would bring about the ‘reconquest’ of Ireland from English rule and the Ascendancy landlord class and restore Gaelic and Catholic ethical values in the achievement of a socialist republic. Notions of Gaelic Communism were particularly important in Connolly’s attempts to find common ground between socialism and Irish republicanism, and they were to feature also in Connolly’s most substantial analysis of Irish history from a Marxist perspective, Labour in Irish History (1910).

His analysis, for all its cleverness, had weaknesses. These derived from his failure to grasp the implications of the agrarian revolution which occurred in Ireland in his lifetime. This revolution created a large class of farmer owner-occupiers and accentuated the divide between rural ‘haves’ and rural ‘have nots’. There was simply no evidence that those who got ownership of their land hankered after a Gaelic system of common-ownership. In the foreword to Labour in Irish History, he wrote that ‘the progress of the fight for national liberty of any subject nation must, perforce, keep pace with the progress of struggle for liberty of the most subject class in that nation.’ The problem was that by the time of Labour in Irish History workers and farmers could not both claim to represent the national struggle. A powerful farming class was already girding itself against the threat from below, and it would be this class that would dominate, and profit by, the nationalist revolution. Connolly did not seem to grasp the extent to which class relations within nationalist Ireland were changing and the working class’s position weakening.

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