The 1996 film Michael Collins shows a badly wounded James Connolly being carried on a stretcher to a chair in Kilmainham Gaol, to which he is tied before being shot by a British firing squad. Connolly was one of the fifteen rebel leaders executed in May 1916 for their part in the Easter Rising, when at least 1200 rebels battled the British forces in Dublin for six days with the aim of establishing an Irish republic. The rebellion led to a wave of arrests, mainly of innocent people, as well as around 450 deaths, mostly of civilians. In Neil Jordan’s film, Connolly’s contribution lasts ten seconds. He is one of the ‘men of 1916’ whose collective sacrifice inspired a revolution led by Collins and Éamon de Valera that reconfigured the UK, created the Irish Free State and generated a bitter civil war. Who Connolly was, what he had stood for and the reasons he took part in the rising were of no consequence in Jordan’s film. What was important was the goal of independence for which the fifteen had given their lives. This depiction was in line with the way the rebels had been remembered in Ireland. In 1966, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the rising, train stations across the republic were named after the fifteen men. Amiens Street station became Dublin Connolly. The state’s appropriation of Connolly’s memory was paradoxical, given the highly conservative nature of 1960s Ireland and the fact that Connolly was not only a socialist but a revolutionary Marxist – affiliations out of tune with a deeply conservative, Catholic and patriarchal state that for many decades had shunned socialism and class politics. How Connolly ended up participating in an insurrection that became central to such a nation’s creation myth has never been all that clear, so it was simpler just to honour the action.
Connolly was born in 1868 to Irish parents in Cowgate, a slum area of Edinburgh dominated by Irish migrants. He joined the British army at fourteen, giving a false name and age, and served in Ireland. In 1890 he married Lillie Reynolds, a domestic servant from a Protestant family in Co. Wicklow, and the pair returned to Edinburgh, where Connolly worked as a manure carter, as his father had done. Until the 1890s he was a practising Catholic, but abandoned his faith around the time he was first politically active. He became involved in several of the groups that made up the early labour movement: he was secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation (in 1895), a founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (1896) and the Socialist Labour Party (1903), a propagandist and activist for the Socialist Labour Party of America (from 1903 until 1910), and the leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (1914).
He was one of the early beneficiaries of the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, which made primary education compulsory, and like many of the Scottish socialist activists of his generation, he was a prolific journalist, producing pamphlets and essays, editing papers and writing books on politics and Irish history. But Connolly’s work has not always been taken seriously. Last year, Richard Bourke and I tried to remedy this by publishing a selection of his writings in The Political Thought of the Irish Revolution.Liam McNulty’s new book also helps us to understand the international and transnational contexts that shaped Connolly’s ideas and actions. McNulty demonstrates the importance of late Victorian British socialism and of the Second International, founded in 1889. In the cities of Edinburgh and Dundee, organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and its offshoot, the Socialist League, sought to educate the populace in basic socialist ideas via meetings, speeches made on soapboxes and street corners, and through printed propaganda. As the 1890s progressed, movements such as the ‘new unionism’ of unskilled workers and calls for the establishment of independent labour representation in Westminster via the Independent Labour Party (ILP) made socialism both more obvious in Scotland, England and Wales and fragmented in purpose and design, with clear differences emerging among socialists as to how they might best achieve their goals. This rich world of socialist activity was where Connolly’s political initiation took place; it provided invaluable training for his next venture, in Ireland. Despite his background, his move there in 1896 was coincidental. John Leslie appealed in the SDF’s paper, Justice, for a socialist organisation to hire Connolly, who was facing destitution, and a job offer came from the Dublin Socialist Club at the modest salary of £1 per week. His time in Ireland would help shape his thinking about international socialism, and Ireland would be the testing ground for many of his ideas.
From the outset it was clear that Connolly needed a thorough understanding of the national question if his fledgling Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) was to attract the working class. He drew on Alice Stopford Green’s The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing, the first study of its kind to employ rigorous research and referencing, to argue that a version of primitive communism had existed before the Norman invasion of the 12th century. He also made use of the ideas of European and North American anthropologists and historians such as Charles Letourneau, Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Maine, who suggested that common ownership of land had been the basis of primitive society in most countries before its replacement by capitalist relations of production. In monthly pieces in the ISRP’s paper, the Workers’ Republic, later collected in his book Labour in Irish History (1910), Connolly made the argument that colonialism and private property steadily eroded the clan nature of Gaelic society, so much so that Ireland was now taking on the character of the ancien régime. What was required was not simply the replacement of one set of property owners (whether British or Anglo-Irish) with another (i.e. the Irish peasant), or an amendment to the constitutional relationship between Britain and Ireland through the introduction of Home Rule. Rather, Connolly envisaged establishing a new social order that would restore the pre-modern Irish socialist republic. What was needed was a wholesale revolutionary programme that would reform economic, social and intellectual relations.
But his efforts to advance this programme had to wait. In 1902 an invitation to the ISRP from Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party of America (SLP) led to Connolly embarking on a highly successful speaking tour across the US East Coast and Midwest. In 1903 he moved to America, prompted by splits within the ISRP and mismanagement of party funds while he was away, as well as increasing difficulties with his own personal finances. During his time in the US, Connolly changed his views. He distanced himself from De Leon over his party’s attitude to religion and socialism, arguing that socialism could be entirely consistent with the holding of religious belief, and soon left the SLP for the larger Socialist Party of America. At the same time he became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, or the ‘Wobblies’, a militant body that promoted revolutionary syndicalism and industrial unionism through mass action and solidarity strikes. The Connolly who returned to Ireland in 1910 was a different man, with more advanced views on socialism and morality as well as on the importance of direct action in achieving political goals. This change of position has puzzled many scholars, but McNulty makes the development of his ideas clear.
Connolly joined forces with the trade unionist Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). They co-founded the Irish Labour Party in 1912 and were centrally involved in the Dublin Lockout, which began in August 1913 after the city’s chief employers decided to sack workers they thought might be ITGWU members or who refused to say they wouldn’t join the union. They then locked out at least 15,000 workers. There were violent attacks on both strikers and strike-breakers, and the police killed two workers and injured hundreds after a baton charge at a meeting where Larkin was speaking. The starving workers returned to work in January 1914. Connolly now believed, as he wrote in The Reconquest of Ireland (1915), that social democracy would be best achieved by a combination of labour unionism, political agitation and revolutionary militancy.
The necessity for revolution became all the more urgent after the outbreak of the First World War. McNulty highlights the way the collapse of the Second International in the face of war reconfigured Connolly’s worldview, as socialists across Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Russia caved into the demands of their rulers. The working classes were to be sacrificed on the altar of capitalism; socialism seemed to be ceasing to exist. Connolly’s writings suggest that courageous action was even more necessary now that working-class leadership across the UK and Europe had all but collapsed. Most of the British labour movement backed the government’s war effort despite opposition from Keir Hardie, John Maclean and others. The picture was similar across Europe, and Connolly lamented the way socialists in France, Germany, Austria and Russia performed a volte face on whether to participate in war once the conflict began. Ireland, he thought, could and should lead a great wave of revolutionary action, a huge uprising of the working classes to stop the war, which would have a domino effect across Europe and beyond. As 1915 dragged on, not only was talk of conscription in the air across the UK, but Ireland had settled into the war, supporting the Allies in all kinds of ways, from recruitment to fundraising and war work. For Connolly in Dublin, at the heart of war mobilisation, this must have felt like the ultimate capitulation of the Irish working class to the demands of bourgeois nationalist leaders. Labourers and farmers felt the allure of profit and sold their wares to feed the war effort, while urban workers susceptible to the appeals to bravery, courage and sacrifice made by politicians, businesses and recruiters alike were enticed to join up. Never was the need for revolution clearer, and McNulty shows that Connolly was prepared to embark on insurrection alone (Larkin had gone to America in 1914 to raise funds for the ITGWU).
And yet he did not. Connolly had already worked with republicans and other nationalists when protesting against the Boer War and was familiar with Dublin’s radical networks. In late 1915, however, his frustration with these groups was palpable. He goaded them in his writings, hinting at insurrection. In January 1916 the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the command centre of the secret society behind the rising, approached him to see whether a military alliance was possible. It was, and planning for an uprising began.
Connolly’s involvement with the IRB and his subsequent participation in the rising can and should be distinguished from that of the other rebels. Divisions between Connolly’s men and the republicans had existed for some time. In 1914, Connolly’s workers’ defence force, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), which was drawn from members of the ITGWU, had clashed with the Irish Volunteers, a militia of more than 150,000 men prepared to defend Home Rule at all costs. The Volunteers were scathing about the ITGWU’s radical syndicalism and the impact of the lockout on the capital, especially the violent response by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Members of the ICA wondered aloud whether Home Rule would merely transfer ‘the stick which beats the worker’ from the British imperialists to the Volunteers. Connolly wanted a socialist republic, and didn’t support the catch-all nationalism of Patrick Pearse, author of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which he would read outside the General Post Office at the start of the rising. Connolly had criticised Pearse in the Spark for glorifying the war and repeating the tropes about blood sacrifice that had propelled so many men to take up a rifle. ‘The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields,’ Pearse had written, welcoming ‘the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country’. ‘Any person … whether English, German, or Irish, who sings the praise of war is, in our opinion, a blithering idiot,’ Connolly retorted in the Workers’ Republic.
And yet an alliance was made. McNulty’s book implicitly demonstrates that historians should not have been asking whether Connolly abandoned socialism for Irish republicanism. Seeing the two as opposed is a fundamental misunderstanding: Connolly increasingly came to believe that national and socialist questions were synonymous in the case of Ireland. Instead, we should be asking what inspired Connolly to embark on insurrection. The answers to this are now clear: his personal experiences in Scotland, Ireland and the US, the outbreak of the First World War, the collapse of the Second International, the weakness of the working-class movement in Dublin and elsewhere after the war began, and the opportunity of allying with a bigger organisation of Irish republicans. As McNulty argues, Connolly’s journey from moderate socialist to Marxist syndicalist would in fact make more sense in the post-1919 world of the Comintern, as questions of national self-determination took on revolutionary importance in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War. Connolly might well have flourished in this context, but in 1916 he was ahead of his time. The reconquest of Ireland that he desired could be achieved because the cause of Ireland became the cause of labour. For republicans, however, the cause of labour was definitely not the cause of Ireland. And, ultimately, their view triumphed.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.