Sunday 25 August 2019

The James Connolly Reader: writings of a class warrior

Non-fiction: The James Connolly Reader, Edited by Shaun Harkin, Haymarket Books, paperback, 250 ­pages, €20.49

James Connolly
James Connolly
The James Connolly Reader

Andrew Lynch

Marking 150 years since his birth, this book of his writings reveals the anger behind the firebrand.

James Connolly always placed great value on the written word. As the wounded Easter Rising leader lay waiting for his trial in Dublin Castle, he told his distraught wife Lillie that she should raise some money by publishing a book of his song lyrics.

He also nominated Francis Sheehy-Skeffington as his literary executor, only to be told that the eccentric pacifist had actually been executed in Portobello Barracks a few days earlier.

Long before he took up arms against British rule in Ireland, Connolly understood that the pen was at least as mighty as the sword. He had a terrible squint, the result of reading voraciously by firelight during his impoverished Edinburgh childhood.

He went on to expound his socialist philosophy in a torrent of books, pamphlets and articles for newspapers, some of which he ran himself.

When a policeman raided his printing press at Liberty Hall shortly before the Rising, Connolly produced a pistol and said: "Drop those papers or I'll drop you."

Connolly's works have already been republished in several anthologies, but this one edited by Shaun Harkin (timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth) claims to be the most comprehensive.

A former election candidate for People Before Profit in Derry, Harkin begins with an 83-page summary of Connolly's life and ideas that is effectively a book in itself.

It is admirably researched but somewhat starry-eyed in tone.

"Today's Ireland, north and south, shares none of the goals that Connolly spent his life fighting for," Harkin laments. "Many in the establishment claim to stand in his tradition, but he stood for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing capitalist order and its replacement with socialism, not for piecemeal reform and accommodation to the status quo."

As dramatic as that sounds, it is nothing compared to the sheer ferocity of Connolly's own prose. The 53 pieces collected here are full of employers putting boots on throats, workers breaking chains and aristocratic systems being burned to the ground.

Almost every page contains a venomous insult, with the British army (which he once joined) condemned as "a veritable moral cesspool" and the city of his birth reported to be "largely composed of snobs, flunkeys, mashers, lawyers, students, middle-class pensioners and dividend hunters".

In many ways, Connolly was undeniably ahead of his time. The Irish Socialist Republican Party manifesto that he drafted in 1896 demands universal suffrage, a minimum wage and old-age pensions, all of which are accepted by virtually everyone in Leinster House today.

He also had unusually progressive views on women's rights, declaring: "The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave," - a sentiment that later inspired John Lennon to pen his feminist anthem 'Woman is the N****r of the World'.

Above all, Connolly passionately argued that socialism and nationalism had to go hand in hand. He was fundamentally a class warrior who despised wealthy Home Rule leaders such as John Redmond but also distrusted the bourgeois element within Sinn Féin. Even during the Rising, he hinted at a future civil war by telling his Irish Citizen Army comrades: "In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles."

As early as 1897, Connolly had warned: "If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic, your efforts would be in vain.

"England would still rule you... through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs."

Not many people today think of Connolly as one of Ireland's great songwriters. Even so, he did compose several political ballads and the lyrics quoted here give a further insight into his thinking.

One striking example is the sarcastically titled 'Be Moderate', which sees him laughing at lily-livered left-wingers who are happy with small reforms and announcing that his own goals are rather more ambitious: "We only want the Earth."

Moderation was never one of Connolly's vices and his violent mood swings are also reflected in these political commentaries. Calling out the "grovelling, dirt-eating capitalists" who welcomed King George V to Ireland in 1911, he seemed convinced that a glorious revolution was just around the corner.

When the Dublin Lockout was defeated two years later, however, his despair made for painful reading: "And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal."

Towards the end, it is possible to detect Connolly's thoughts moving in a more violent direction. True, he initially dubbed Patrick Pearse "a blithering idiot" for welcoming World War I.

He still realised that the conflict could be a historic opportunity for Irish republicans and in August 1914 predicted: "Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bone and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord."

Connolly's writings are obviously of great historical importance. They are also grimly monotonous in style, however, and as a policy platform it is hard to see their relevance to 21st century Ireland.

In his defence, he lived at a time before Marxist theories had actually been put into practice and cost millions of lives around the world.

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