Sunday 15 December 2019

Regressive Connolly simply feared the 20th century

He was a Luddite and a critic of mass democracy, and is an incongruous voice today


John-Paul McCarthy

One of the unintended consequences of former Taoiseach John Bruton's ongoing and admirable critique of the Easter Rising is the feeling that 1916 can only be criticised from without. This has the unfortunate effect of masking the fact that the rebels themselves were their own worst enemies. If we interpret the Rising the only way we know how, that is to say, as children of the 21st century who seek its relevance for life as life is lived today, we will see that the rebels hang themselves without any British help.

For many years, we assumed that Pearse was the weakest link in the republican flank. After all, he spent Easter Week fretting over his immortal soul, certain in the belief that he would be held responsible for the immolation of all those slum children. To that extent, his deeply Catholic conception of what was happening around him gave the lie to the Proclamation's formal pluralism.

In many ways, though, James Connolly is a much bigger problem for us today. He stands athwart every one of the major claims that are advanced for the Rising in our time. We have been told repeatedly that we owe our peculiar reverence for popular sovereignty and the rights of 'the People' to the rebels' burnt offering in 1916. But Connolly's writings show clearly that he is much closer to Lenin than the suffragettes in his thinking about mass democracy. He did not believe in the inherent equality of every part of the polity - what we today would call human rights - but rather openly asserted the primacy of one class, "the party of progress".

Connolly is also a problem for those who see the Rising as a textbook example of anti-imperial resistance. He explained at one point that violent insurrection had to jump three hurdles before it made sense. "The party of progress" had firstly to show that its way to freedom was "barred by the stubborn greed of a possessing class".

Secondly, it had to show that it had "indoctrinated the people at large with the new revolutionary conception of society and is therefore representative of the will of a majority of the nation".

And before it pulled the temple down on the slum kids, the party of progress must finally have "exhausted all the peaceful means at its disposal for the purpose of demonstrating to the people and their enemies that the new revolutionary ideas do possess the suffrage of the majority".

So, no shooting allowed in this formulation unless you have a grievance against the merchant princes, and a sense that the people at large feel the same, and a belief that the majority require some big bang to make them realise where their allegiances really lay.

Now, no one at the time believed that the Rising had met all of these criteria, especially the last two. For sure, they cleared the first hurdle on grievance, but then crashed into the other two. Connolly has remained consistently attractive over the years by virtue of the extremity of his youthful poverty, his openness to the wider world and his physical bravery.

But these winning traits jostled with several other unattractive, even deforming features. He probably did more than any Irishman of his generation to demean his fellow Irishmen who found work in the British Army or in the RIC. He could not quite stay off this topic in his journalism, returning again and again to people he dismissed as a "body of hired assassins, creatures in the shape of men". (Among this class, we have to number Sean O Faolain's father, and Tom Crean's brother).

He was also fascinated by the sex lives of Irish-born soldiers in particular, raving repeatedly about their supposed corrupting influence on Irish girls. He was also a fairly vocal Luddite who feared the supposedly calamitous consequences of modern machinery up to and including swanky tramcars. He justified these polemics with reference to technology's impact on unskilled labour, but one senses the presence of a mind that simply feared the coming 20th century, and did not know how to cope with it.

William James used to talk about the "cash value" of ideas, and so we ask today, what can we "buy" with Connolly's corpus? Connolly, the critic of mass democracy, is not much good to a country that cannot seem to do any serious business without a referendum. He is surely a regressive presence in debates about the basic humanity of those Irishmen who found they could live without Lenin or the Fenians. And his is a positively incongruous voice at a time when we have staked our all on multinational capital.

Connolly also suffered from what Freud called "omnipotence of the thought", namely the belief that once you write something down you will get it. How much value should we assign today to the pretty sentiments in his Proclamation knowing, as we do, that he wrote them in a suicide note? Is a man ever on his honour when "going out to be slaughtered?" The case has to be made again for elevating this kind of mind high in the heart of modern Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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