James Connolly: A Political Biography 
by Austen Morgan.
Manchester, 244 pp., £9.95, October 1989, 0 7190 2958 9
Show More
James Connolly: Selected Writings 
edited by P. Beresford Ellis.
Pluto, 256 pp., £8.95, April 1988, 9780745302676
Show More
Show More

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.

Recent historical work such as David Howell’s treatment of Connolly in his A Lost Left (1986) has drawn attention to the defects in Connolly’s interpretation of the Gaelic past. Austen Morgan’s book represents the most incisive demonstration to date of the extent to which his socialism, by virtue primarily of the agrarian issue, was alien to the mass of Irish people. As Morgan points out, Connolly cut himself off from the social revolutionary struggle for peasant ownership of property, and had little to say to the rural bourgeoisie which was emerging as a powerful social force. In Connolly’s outlook, and in the concerns of the Irish Socialist Republican Party which he founded on his arrival in Ireland from Scotland in 1896, the tiny Irish proletariat (outside Ulster) overshadowed the teeming peasantry.

The proletariat inside Ulster, or rather the majority Protestant part of it, presented another major problem with which Connolly never came to terms. Here, Morgan reinforces the critical revisionist work of other Marxist scholars such as Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, particularly the latter’s Class Conflict and Sectarianism (1980). The basic defect in Connolly’s approach was, as David Howell, too, has argued, that it assumed that the idea of an Irish national identity was unproblematic. Connolly never seemed to appreciate or understand the depth of Ulster Protestant feeling on the connection with Britain and the prospect of an independent Ireland. He also failed to appreciate how divisive his concept of an Ireland based on Gaelic and Catholic values was.

Connolly’s view of the Unionist or Orange cause was that it was essentially an Ascendancy one – and therefore a dying one. He failed to appreciate its popular basis and the degree to which popular Unionism or Orangism was a phenomenon quite independent of the Ascendancy and bourgeois classes. As Morgan and the other scholars mentioned in relation to this theme all point out, Connolly simply explained away working-class loyalism as the product of manipulation by the boss class: he never seems to have considered the possibility that it had its own dynamic. Moreover, he appealed to the Protestant working class through the medium of a propagandist use of nationalist historiography, apparently unaware that such a resort to history could be divisive, and that it was likely to reinforce prejudice, suspicion and tribal loyalties.

Morgan rightly underlines Connolly’s most astonishing error from a Marxist viewpoint: his failure to acknowledge the very significant economic interest which the Protestant working class had in opposing Home Rule. Connolly’s intense hostility to British imperialism prevented him from fully appreciating the Protestant workers’ belief in social and economic progress as inextricably bound up with the Empire. This, too, was the belief held by Belfast Labour leaders such as William Walker, with whom Connolly clashed polemically in 1911, on the question of whether Irish Labour should be integrated with the British Labour movement.

Morgan deals competently with this well-known controversy and with Connolly’s failure to convince Protestant workers that they would be better off in a Home Rule Ireland. However, he does not tease out as much as he might have the inconsistencies and anomalies in Connolly’s position in relation to Home Rule. This has been illuminatingly done by Brendan Clifford in his Connolly: The Polish Aspect (1986). Clifford shows that Connolly supported the full extension of British social welfare legislation to Ireland while he worked towards the goal of separating Ireland from Britain; that Connolly desired Home Rule and stressed the socialist potential of Irish nationalism, but repudiated Redmond’s Home Rule party and tried to get British Labour to treat is as an enemy, despite its overwhelming support among Irish people; that Connolly urged the British Labour movement to support Home Rule while warning it that a Home Rule Irish government would be likely to be the most reactionary in Europe. While in theory all of this could be ironed out in accordance with Connolly’s overall view that Ireland could not be socialist within the context of its colonial relationship to Britain, in practice it must have been confusing, particularly for those in the British Labour movement trying to make a socialist case for Home Rule. More importantly, as Morgan argues; Connolly contributed to the working-class polarisation in Ireland by insisting that Home Rule was a socialist principle. Morgan also echoes, in places, Clifford’s concept of Connolly as a British socialist outsider in Ireland, an interesting notion which encourages us to question the degree to which Connolly really understood the mechanics of the society he was trying to radicalise, and the impulse of the national struggle which he tried to turn to socialism’s advantage up until 1914. Connolly is perhaps an example of an Irish historical figure whose image up till now has been excessively and misleadingly non-British, or has been non-British simply by virtue of his anti-Britishness.

Connolly’s syndicalism – another reason for the antipathy of Walker and his Belfast Labour followers – constitutes, for Morgan, his main contribution to the socialist tradition. It was developed during Connolly’s time in the USA, from 1903-1910, a period which saw him associated with Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and, latterly, with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). By the time of his return to Ireland in 1910 Connolly believed in the primacy of economic over political action, although he never repudiated the latter in any spirit ‘pure’ syndicalism. Morgan is an excellent guide to Connolly’s travels through radical politics in America, but David Howell and Bernard Ransom have linked up more insightfully the development of his syndicalist views with that of his Irish concepts and historical concerns.

The theme of Connolly and Catholicism is a problematic one for historians. Connolly stated in a letter written in 1908 that he had long since ceased to be a practising Catholic and that he was only posing as one, a piece of evidence taken at face value by some historians and treated sceptically by others. Morgan believes that Connolly had ceased to be a Catholic around 1892-3, and did not resume until after the Easter Rising; he is concerned only to show that Connolly’s polemics against Catholic prelates served to dilute, and even deny, his socialism. This is a pertinent argument, but it might have been strengthened by a discussion of the ideas of scholars like Ransom (greatly influenced by the earlier work of Owen Dudley Edwards) who see Connolly’s socialism as evolving out of his Catholicism. Similarly, the arguments of John Newsinger deserve notice: he, like Morgan, believes that Connolly was not in any meaningful sense a Catholic for a long period, but that he nonetheless consciously cultivated a ‘safe’ religious position in order not to alienate the mass of Irish workers. Hence Connolly’s contention that socialism was only about economic questions and not about moral and family matters. Then there is also Brendan Clifford’s view that Connolly, as a British socialist, did not understand that the Catholic Church in Ireland was stronger than anywhere else in Europe, and did not grasp its relationship with Irish society. Clifford argues that Connolly saw the Church’s influence as a product of the nationalist struggle with Britain, and believed that it would decline after the establishment of Home Rule or an independent state.

It seems to me that Morgan rather skirts round the question of the extent to which Connolly identified Catholicism with Irish nationality and social revolution. Connolly attempted quite painstakingly to harness the emotional commitment to Catholicism of the majority of the Irish people to his goal of Ireland’s reconquest. It is arguable that he was so taken with what he saw as the revolutionary potential of Catholicism in Ireland that he did not face up to the implications of the Church’s role as a symbol of Irish national identity, or, as Howell has put it, resolve the issue of what in socialist terms the consequences of Catholic rebelliousness would be.

Connolly’s participation in the Easter Rising and death by British firing-squad have exercised historians almost as much as myth-makers, but Morgan’s is the best attempt yet to combine a searching analysis of the reasons for Connolly’s choice of nationalist gesture with a detailed narrative of the confluence of events preceding it. He pinpoints four historical events the cumulative effect of which propelled Connolly towards nationalist insurrection: first, the failure of the Dublin Lock-Out struggle in 1913 emptied him of optimism regarding the prospects of Irish proletarian advance; second, the threat of partition undermined his political vision; third, the perceived collapse of international socialism removed his sense of political certainty about its eventual triumph; fourth, the outbreak of war opened up a new context for revolutionary nationalist possibilities. Of these the second and last drew on Connolly’s nationalism and the first and third indicated that his socialist vision was in eclipse. Morgan does not hurl the epithet of ‘socialist apostate’ at Connolly, but he considers that ‘a seed of nationalism ... nurtured by a historical crisis’ came to dominate his politics.

The debate, however, will continue as to whether or not Connolly was betraying socialism by taking part in the rebellion. Morgan’s work is, in this context, a forceful reply to those who have viewed Connolly’s participation in the Rising as a logical end to his life’s work or as a Leninist stroke pulled in the interests of international socialism. Morgan stresses just how contingent Connolly’s decision was on the extraordinary context created by war. Moreover, Connolly clearly departed from his dogmatic dictum in the foreword of Labour in Irish History. In practice, he repudiated the notion that the working class would have to achieve their and the nation’s freedom and instead became the most committed advocate of revolutionary action by a tiny minority, few of whom shared his socialist beliefs. Connolly also imbibed the whole mythical nationalist concept of the rebellion as a sacrificial and redeeming act – his rhetoric from late in 1915 was increasingly that of Patrick Pearse. This is a dimension Morgan might have incorporated more tellingly into his analysis; again, the work of Newsinger could have been discussed.

However, Morgan does bring out clearly the extent of Connolly’s pro-Germanism from 1914-16. Connolly in effect blamed the war on Britain, and he saw much to admire in the ‘modern German nation’. (His modernism was somewhat at odds with the anti-modernist character of sections of the Irish nationalist movement, something which adds weight to the speculation that he did not fully comprehend the nature of Irish society and Irish nationalism.) Taking part in the Easter Rising was for Connolly not simply taking advantage, in traditional Irish nationalist fashion, of England’s difficulty; it was a chance for Ireland to strike a blow for her freedom in alliance with a socially progressive power.

So in the end he might just have pinned his socialism to the flag of German reformism, as he understood it. He had always combined positions which were revolutionary and reformist. He had sought the extension to Ireland of British social welfare legislation while trying to bring about Ireland’s separation from Britain. He recognised such legislation as progressive and he desired it in order to bolster socialism in Ireland, in spite of its source. It may have been the case that he wanted Ireland, in the throes of a nationalist revolution, to have an ally which would supply that same socially progressive influence.

But the evidence, I believe, still points to Connolly’s at the very least subordinating his socialism in 1916 to the nationalist objective. He placed himself more obviously in the Fenian nationalist tradition by taking part in an act which was intended to atone, in accordance with Irish nationalist ideology, for the past, rather than to shape the future in accordance with socialist ideals. Connolly subscribed wholeheartedly in the end to a creed which built an aura of piety, sacred duty and elitism around itself as the repository of the nation’s soul and best interests. Indeed, there had been a suggestion of this even in Labour in Irish History, where Connolly tried to trace a tradition of nationalist resistance which also had a radical dimension. All he ended up doing, it might be said, was reaffirming the myth of the nation’s soul being repeatedly saved by a heroic few, while failing to establish the significance of their actions for socialists. It was an effort, indeed, which lent a rather absurd socialistic gloss to desperado heroes of the nationalist pantheon such as Tone and Mitchel. Connolly himself was not above myth-making.

Morgan quotes Eoin MacNeill as saying, with Connolly in mind, that ‘no man has a right to seek relief of his feelings at the expense of his country’ (The Irish Volunteer, 25 December 1915). There is certainly a sense of personal catharsis about Connolly’s whole involvement in the world of nationalist imperatives after 1914. As a result, he is a very difficult figure to rescue from the myth-makers.

Nonetheless, Morgan’s book, along with much recent work on Connolly, has succeeded in moulding Connolly’s reputation into a form more accurately suggestive of the man’s enigmatic quality and deep complexity. This body of work has cautioned against the tendency to shroud Connolly’s reputation in an aura of transcendental heroism and to ignore, simplify or distort his weak points, failures and contradictions. However, even a warts-and-all Connolly lends himself more than most to myths, and historians have to acknowledge the continuing power of such myths to influence the way Connolly is perceived.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences