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James Connolly: Socialist and Soldier October 28, 2015

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.

Many thanks to Brian Hanley for letting us post this, from his address at the Panel discussion Irish Labour History Society conference, 10 October 2015

Thank the ILHS for the invitation to address their conference (especially as it is two years in a row now, talking about Connolly).

Last year the Casa Rebalde shop in Temple Bar (now unfortunately closed) produced an excellent T-Shirt- ‘Working Class Hero’ depicting Connolly as a football casual (there’s also an earlier Larkin version). Now I think that even if its true that Connolly was a supporter of Hibernian FC it is unlikely he would ever have been to be able to afford the early 20th century version of a Stone Island jacket; but it is good image nonetheless. During the marriage equality referendum earlier this year, another image of Connolly, this time on a rainbow poster, featuring these lines from the Proclamation was widely shared online. Both images I think, are suggestive of Connolly’s enduring popularity and indeed the assumptions we make about him. There may well be plans for Joseph Mary Plunkett ‘upper middle-class hero’ t-shirts and there might have been posters urging a ‘Yes’ vote that featured Seán MacDiarmada, but it is unlikely.

On the left Connolly is omnipresent: his image adorns ‘Neither King nor Kaiser’ stickers on lampposts and activists assert that there was ‘no doubt where Connolly would have stood today’ on issues such as Irish neutrality (without wishing to repeat last year’s discussion, I do wish sometimes that people who think they know exactly what Connolly would have stood for today would take the time to find out what he was saying in 1915); at the huge anti-water charges rally last December leaflets from both People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance referenced him; it is fair to say that he will feature prominently in any commemorations of the Rising by the Workers Party, Éirigi, the Communist Party, the IRSP and Sinn Féin, among others. But it is not only among republicans and the far left that Connolly remains iconic. He was Joe Duffy’s choice as ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ a few years ago; he was quoted by Joan Burton in support of Labour’s marriage equality campaign and so on.

And it is fair to say that not only is Connolly the most popular of the 1916 leaders, of the entire revolutionary generation probably only Michael Collins is the more iconic today. In 2011 RTE’s The Week in Politics published a guide to the New Dáil. TD’s were asked to name their historical heroes. The most popular was Collins with 18 votes (17 of them Fine Gael and one from Sinn Féin), only one TD chose Padraig Pearse. Nobody at all picked de Valera (not one) but nine TDs, (four Sinn Féin, two Labour, three independents) chose Connolly. I think in a popular vote his support would be much higher, (though Collins would still be No. 1). And on the left and among most republicans, as I’ve said, there is no contest.

If until the 1960s Padraig Pearse was the central figure in nationalist imagination he has certainly been eclipsed now. Whatever about the relative merits and the contributions made by the other signatories of the Proclamation, let alone the other executed leaders, none come close to Connolly’s popularity. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some of them good, some of them simply the result of historical or political fashion.

Since the 1960s Pearse’s ideas and life have come under sustained critique: indeed as Gerry Adams would note during 1991 in a general defence of the Easter Rising ‘some of Pearse’s language about blood sacrifice is inappropriate now.’ Whether this does justice to Pearse or not is not the point. Connolly is much more attractive for a whole range of reasons. And apart from Pearse, there is really no one of Connolly’s stature. Of course all of the seven signatories are interesting in themselves, both intellectually and as examples of the revolutionary generation. Eamonn Ceannt, possibly the least well known, was a trade unionist in the Dublin Municipal Officers Association and a supporter of the workers in 1913 (despite being a member of Griffith’s Sinn Féin), Thomas McDonagh was a founder of the ASTI as well as an intellectual, Plunkett certainly had a fascinating life, while MacDiarmada is very emblematic of a particular type of IRB man, though he a carries whiff of Hibernianism and ruthlessness and is possibly less attractive now then some of the others. Perhaps only Tom Clarke, the veteran Fenian, with his 15 years hard time in British jails, comes close to Connolly’s life experience. And that experience is crucial. ‘Authenticity’ is a current buzzword and Connolly had that in spades. The fact that as historian Joe Lee has argued …‘nobody has overcome so many material obstacles to write so illuminatingly about Irish history’ clearly matters. Connolly was almost alone in the ranks of European socialist intellectuals in coming from the working class and not simply the working class but the unskilled, immigrant poor of Edinburgh’s Cowgate. No one else in the Rising’s leadership (and not really a majority of the rank and file either, but that is another day’s discussion) had this background. And it clearly still matters in politics, especially if you are a socialist. When things got nasty in the Dublin South West by-election last year, Sinn Féin’s fallback position was that Paul Murphy was not fit to represent the working class of Tallaght by virtue of his background. But playing this card carries its own dangers, as Joan Burton’s snide references to Mary Lou McDonald’s education shows. The rights and wrongs of this are not the point: the fact is Connolly could never be accused of being a dilettante. Not only did he come from the working class but spent his life in it, scraping a living in variety of jobs, while trying to write and build socialist and labour organizations.

Connolly’s support for women’s suffrage, his appeal in Yiddish to Dublin’s Jewish workers in 1910, all contribute to making him eminently referencible for any number of contemporary campaigns. He also of course just seems likeable. His evident love for Lillie: ‘My dear wife, partner of all my struggles and the inspirer of all my achievements.’ The tragedy of the death of his daughter Mona, on the eve of his families journey to join him in America and the impact it clearly had on him. His final words: ‘Hasn’t it been a full life, Lillie and isn’t this a good end?’

Again of course there is a flexibility there. If you are uneasy about Connolly’s immersion into the Rising then you can always console yourself that he said ‘In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.’ If you are a nationalist and unhappy about Connolly’s Marxism then you can content yourself that he warned that ‘The socialists were never understand why I am here. They will all forget I am an Irishman.’ Connolly is one of those historical figures that are constantly referenced to settle arguments. What would Connolly have done? In some senses it doesn’t matter; people will believe what they want and take what they want from Connolly.

And of course while there have been academic critiques of Connolly and particularly of his role in 1916, nobody really questions his importance as a socialist:

As I mentioned previously, Professor Joe Lee has asserted that Connolly was ‘’probably the most remarkable thinker produced in 20th century Ireland… The quality of his insights obliges one to continue to wrestle with him…he asked big questions, which remain of enduring relevance.’

Eric Hobsbawm contended that ‘James Connolly and William Morris provided the only really interesting and original contributions to Marxism in these islands.’ And so on…John A. Murphy, Ruth Dudley Edwards are among those who might be expected to criticize Connolly but who endorsed him as a genuine socialist.

Meanwhile Brian Barton, author of several studies of 1916 asserts that Connolly was ‘the most effective rebel leader in the Easter Rising…a field commander of exceptional quality.’

And this is what I want to talk about now. I personally believe that Connolly entered into the alliance that led to the Rising in a mood of despair and frustration. I don’t believe Connolly abandoned his socialism but it was not a priority for him in 1916. Doing something, anything, was…the defeat of the Lockout and especially the Great War and the collapse of European socialism profoundly affected him.

In early 1916 Connolly stated in an article entitled ‘The Ties That Bind’ that ‘we have said that the Working Class was the only class to whom the word “Empire’, and the things of which it was the symbol did not appeal … it is with shame and sorrow we say it, but the evil influence upon large sections of the Irish Working Class of the bribes and promises of the enemy cannot be denied….For the sake of a few shillings per week thousands of Irish workers have sold their country in the hour of their country’s greatest need…for the sake of a few paltry shillings Separation Allowance thousands of Irish women have made life miserable for their husbands with entreaties to join the British Army. For the sake of a few paltry shillings Separation Allowance thousands of young Irish girls have rushed into matrimony with young Irish traitors who in full knowledge of the hopes of Nationalist Ireland have enlisted in the Army that England keeps here to slaughter Irish patriots…deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of degradation wrought upon its people…so deep and humiliating that no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect, or re-establish its national dignity in the face of a world horrified and scandalised by what must seem to them our national apostasy. Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility and awe we recognise that of us as of mankind before Calvary it may truly be said: ‘Without the Shedding of Blood there is no Redemption.’

Is this strange coming from a former soldier? After all Connolly knew that ‘a few paltry shillings’ meant quite a lot to the relatives of working class soldiers. The fact was that Connolly didn’t like the British Army very much (to put it mildly). In the Workers Republic of 15 July 1899 he wrote that ‘The standing army is any country is a tool in the hands of the oppressors of the people and is a generator of prostitution; the British Army is in this particular the most odious on the face of the earth.’

Later that year he argued that armies existed because of ‘the desire of the governing and oppressing classes to possess ready for use a body of highly disciplined men who on the first sign of the oppressed to get rid of their oppressors could be relied upon to proceed to destroying every man so aspiring to freedom…The Army is, in plain matter of fact language, what the socialists so blatantly describe it to be, viz. a body of hired assassins…

But not only that. The army was also ‘a veritable moral cesspool of corruption corrupting all within its bounds…

The language of soldiers was the ‘most bestial conceivable’, the culture of the barrack room was of the ‘most revolting character’ Irish mothers should not allow their sons to become ‘hireling soldiery.’

Now Irish nationalists often attributed these characteristics to the British Army. But Connolly of course had been a soldier himself from at least 1882-1888, in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (like his brother John). He served in Ireland in the 1880s, probably in Cork, Castlebar, the Curragh and in Dublin. He may have been based at the Linenhall barracks, in Ship Street and Beggar’s Bush. He was in Ireland during the Land War, when troops were regularly called out to support police during evictions. Some suggest his regiment was on duty during the 1886 Home Rule riots in Belfast. Others claim that he was part of the guard for the farm labourer Myles Joyce in Cork, who was executed after being falsely accused of murder.

But Connolly was very reticent about his army career. He joined under a false name, under age and deserted. Whether it was through fear of legal retribution or embarrassment at having been a British soldier he rarely if ever mentioned it. During 1913 the anti-union paper The Toiler described Connolly as a deserter and he may have thought his army record would be used to undermine him. But of course there were no shortage of ex-British soldiers in Ireland, including many in the Citizens Army and the wider separatist movement (and plenty of soldier’s sons, Tom Clarke and Liam Mellows to name just two). But unlike Michael Mallin, who reflected on his military service in articles for the Workers Republic and showed indeed some empathy with officers and men, Connolly does not mention having been a soldier in his writings on warfare. There is a suggestive comment by Ian S. Wood on attitudes towards the Army among skilled workers in Scotland in the 1880s that ‘the red tunic that soldiers had to wear at all times was something which was akin to the mark of Cain and enlistment a near disgrace.’ Perhaps this influenced Connolly’s reticence.

Or perhaps Connolly simply despised what the Army did and what it made soldiers do; because there is no way of discussing Connolly without reference to Empire.

The British Empire had violence in its DNA and the British Army was at the sharp end of this violence. Connolly served in an Ireland which was only 40 years removed from the Famine. In 1874 Benjamin Disraeli, no less, had claimed that this country was ‘governed by laws of laws of coercion and stringent severity that do not exist in any other quarter of the globe.’ There were over 100 coercion acts passed during 19th century and suspension of civil liberties in Ireland was almost permanent. Perhaps his hatred of the culture of the barracks and the army’s social role was due to his first hand experience? Nationalists exaggerated aspects of the army’s culture but they did not invent them. And Connolly served in an Ireland where most nationalists from moderate Home Rulers to the most radical Fenians all shared the belief that British rule was illegitimate. Ultimately the British Army was here to maintain the Empire and when Connolly rejected that he rejected all sympathy with the army as well.

But Connolly was more than an ex-soldier. By 1915 he was Commandant of his own army and regarded as an expert on military affairs by the broader revolutionary movement. During the spring of 1916 he was giving lectures to the Irish Volunteers on street-fighting. A year earlier he had written a series of articles on the subject in the Workers Republic.

There Connolly had argued that ‘a defile is a narrow pass through which troops can only move by narrowing their front, and therefore making themselves a good target for the enemy…‘a street is a defile in a city… ‘a city is a huge maze of passes or glens formed by streets and lanes’ and that ‘a street barricade placed in a position where artillery cannot operate from a distance is impregnable to attack.’

In his series he examined the lessons of the Moscow insurrection of 1905, rebellion in the Tyrol during 1809, revolution in Belgium during 1830, the Defense of the Alamo in Texas in 1836, the 1830 revolt in Paris, the Battle of Lexington during the American Revolution and the June 1848 revolution in Paris.

In writing on the Moscow insurrection Connolly argued that ‘a regular bombardment of the city would only have been possible if the whole loyalist population had been withdrawn outside the insurgent lines, and apart from the social reasons against such an abandonment of their business and property, the moral effect of such a destruction would have been of immense military value in strengthening the hands of the insurgents.’ (Perhaps where the idea that he did not believe the British would shell Dublin city comes from; because he certainly never wrote that anywhere).

About the Alamo he stated ‘the defence of the Alamo was one of those defeats which are often more valuable to a cause than loudly trumpeted victories.’

Summing up his part of the series on 24 July 1915 Connolly asserted that

‘Defence is of almost overwhelming importance in such warfare as a popular force like the Citizen Army might be called upon to participate in. Not a mere defence of a position valueless in itself, but the active defence of a position whose location threaten the supremacy the supremacy or existence of the enemy. The genius of the Commander must find such a position, the skill of his subordinates must prepare and fortify it, the courage of all must defend it. Out of this combination of genius, skill and courage alone can grow the flower of military success. The Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers are open to all who wish to qualify for the exercise of these qualities.’

What is notable about these articles is that Connolly makes no distinction between an insurrection and a popular revolt, or with a mass uprising or people rising in support of a rebellion. In Dublin in Easter 1916 much of the city’s working class simply observed the Rising and could do little else, while a section took advantage of the Rising to loot and some of the city’s workers verbally and physically opposed the rebels; there was some crossover in these categories of course. Some workers were sympathetic and some would later join the republican movement but it was not a working class rising. Indeed Dublin’s huge unskilled population, those among Connolly had worked in the ITGWU, were underrepresented in the revolutionary movement.

The Rising was not a continuation of the Lockout by other means (despite the lyrics of the song ‘Dublin city in 1913’) and mass struggle is not the same as the insurrection that was carried out. Connolly’s experience in the British Army led him to despise the Empire, but it did not necessarily make him a military strategist. He was, I think, a better socialist than he was a soldier.


O’Donovan Rossa funeral,

‘The Irish Citizen Army in its constitution pledges its members to fight for a Republican Freedom for Ireland. Its members are, therefore, of the number who believe that at the call of duty they may have to lay down their lives for Ireland, and have so trained themselves that at the worst the laying down of their lives shall constitute the starting point of another glorious tradition-the tradition that will keep alive the soul of the nation.’

Criticizing the republicans not for not being socialists but for not being republican enough- when they convinced him they were serious, he joined them.

Denis McCullough on Ulster: pointed out difficulty of plan in taking Volunteers across to Tyrone and then to Galway. ‘I pointed out the length of the journey we had to take, the type of country and population we had to pass through and how sparsely armed my men were for such an undertaking. I suggested that we would have to attack an R.I.C. barracks on our way through, to secure the arms we required. Connolly got quite cross at this suggestion and almost shouted at me “You will fire no shot in Ulster: you will proceed with all possible speed to join Mellows in Connaught, “and” he added, “if we win through, we will then deal with Ulster.”

Brady: Countess Markievicz arriving armed during the production of the Proclamation, demanding to see James Connolly. When she gained access to the machine room she exclaimed that she would ‘shoot Eoin MacNeill.’ Connolly replied ‘You are not to hurt a hair on MacNeill’s head. If anything happens to MacNeill than I will hold you responsible.’

‘Remember how they treated you in 1913’ (Frank Robbins)

For Professor John A. Murphy, Connolly is ‘the most admirable man in modern Irish revolutionary history.’

Professor Owen Dudley Edwards describes him as ‘the greatest and most original left-wing thinker these islands have produced since Frederick Engels’


Ruth Dudley Edwards meanwhile described Connolly’s Labour in Irish History as ‘by any standards a remarkable achievement…challenging the historians at their own game…his survey of Irish history in detail from the late seventeenth century to his own time showed evidence of wide reading and mature reflection.’

Defeat in 1913, defeat in 1914, partition accepted, war accepted, the sight of ITGWU and ICA members in British army uniforms all led him to the GPO:

As he lamented in August 1914 ‘war is upon us…and we are helpless! What then becomes of all our protests of fraternization; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully-built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury, signifying nothing?’

I suspect we will hear Connolly’s response to Pearse’s article in The Spark of December 1915 a lot over the next while. Pearse wrote that while war was ‘a terrible thing’ nevertheless ‘The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.’ Connolly’s response, in the Workers Republic was to assert that ‘No, we do not think the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think anyone who does is a blithering idiot. We are sick of such teaching, and the world is sick of such teaching.’


1. Kevin Bean - October 28, 2015

Excellent analysis and summary.The points that Brian makes deserve a wide circulation, especially given some of the arguments and (mis)appropriations of Connolly that we are likely to hear next year!


2. CL - October 28, 2015

“there is no way of discussing Connolly without reference to Empire.”


3. Admin - October 29, 2015

I think Connolly had a coherent strategy for rebellion and pursued it in a well-organised and sustained way: https://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/connolly-markievicz-the-republicans-and-the-debate-over-1916/

The part about the Connolly strategy starts about a third of the way down.



4. Philip Ferguson - October 29, 2015

Oops, I am not – of course – an Admin person on The Cedar Lounge. I was logged into wordpress as admin on another site (where I am admin) and when I posted a comment here it posted it as Admin, a frustrating little thing wordpress does!


5. “Industrial anarchist of the most pronounced type” – 1916 newspaper report on the death of James Connolly. | Come here to me! - November 23, 2015

[…] lots of food for thought in a recent contribution by Brian Hanley to a panel discussion of the Irish Labour History Society on the theme on Connolly, […]


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