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James T. Farrell

A Portrait of James Connolly

IV. The Politics of Connolly’s Catholicism

New International, Vol.14 No.3, March 1948

The historic experiences of Ireland as a subject and exploited nation can be described as the other and non-progressive side of the rise of English capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

If we look at England, without in any way minimizing the horrors of the new industrialism, we can see the advances made with the rise of capitalism. There was an enormous economic development and, in addition, there were real political gains of a democratic character. England became one of the most democratic countries in the world.

But if we look at Ireland, it is much harder to see these advances. Here was a nation invaded and despoiled by foreigners. Its industry was smashed. Its people were driven off the land and out of the country. Its clan system was broken up. The faith of its fathers was ruthlessly abused by the despoiling invaders who were also the professors of an antagonistic religious creed.

Consider these facts—which are but roughly and hastily generalized here but which were vivid, concrete and intimate to generations of the Irish—and it should not be difficult to understand how and why Catholic Irishmen would not see the progressive side of the Reformation. That liberty of conscience which has historically been so influenced by the rise of Protestantism had to be defended and fought for by Catholics. In their own country, Irish Catholics lost their citizenship. They were exiles in their own country, and in fact it can be said that here are the historic roots of that melancholy sense of alienation which is to be found, even to this day, in so many Irish and even in Irish-Americans who are far removed in space and time from remote and oppressed Catholic Irish ancestors.

Sean O’Faolain, in his biography of Daniel O’Connell, King of the Beggars, writes of Catholic relief bills prior to the rise of O’Connell as a political leader: “After 1771 an Irishman might lease a bog for a brief period, if it was a mile from a town ... and if the lessee guaranteed to reclaim at least half of his bogland within twenty-one years.” And after 1782, as O’Faolain also wrote:

“A Catholic, i.e., one of the people was suddenly acknowledged as a species of citizen, if a very inferior species of citizen; so inferior that our historians of Dublin under the Georges have been unable to find a single detail about the people, and all we can gather about them is to be inferred from the contemporary theatre in which they begin to appear as the faithful, if rather foolish, servant ... every office was closed to the native—unless he apostatized—the army, the law, and the civil service—though he could become a doctor in private practice, or open an apothecary’s shop. Not until 1793 ... could a native Irishman enter the army ... But he could take neither hand, act, nor part in the government of his country ... He walked with the word Pariah branded on his forehead.” [1]

One could add many details concerning the persecution of Catholics, including the clergy, and the ways in which religious persecution was linked with national and social oppression. Connolly himself, in Labour in Irish History, wrote:

“War, religion, race, language, political reform, patriotism—apart from whatever intrinsic merits they may possess—all serve in the hands of the possessing class as counter-irritants, whose function is to avert the catastrophe of social revolution by engendering heat in such parts of the body politic as are farthest removed from the seat of economic inquiry.” [2]

England is noted in the history books for having perfected the technique of divide-and-rule in modern times. The policy of ruling an oppressed nation or race by dividing it was worked out, as it were, in the terrible empirical-historical situation of Britain’s seven-century rule of Ireland.

The Irish were, then, beggared and oppressed for a long period. The horrible conditions of life in Ireland in the eighteenth century were revealed in Swift’s masterpiece of irony and sarcasm, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland from Becoming a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public. This began:

“It is a melancholy Object to those, who walk through this great Town [Dublin], or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-Doors, crowded with Beggars of the female Sex, followed by three, four or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in Strolling, to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants, who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or else sell themselves to the Barbadoes.” [3]

Swift proposed to find “a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the commonwealth.” And he found a way whereby these children could be used to “contribute to the Feeding and partly to the Clothing of many Thousands.” Calculating that there were about 120,000 children of the poor born annually, Dean Swift pointed out that this number could not all support themselves by agricultural and handicraft work or by thievery. Thus the children, when they reach the age of one, would become “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled, and ... it will equally serve in a Fricassie, or a Ragoust ...” One hundred thousand of these children could be so disposed of, and since as food they would be dear, they would be “very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the children.” [4]

This enterprise would be profitable all around, it would even give the mothers a profit, and Swift also suggested that “Those who are most thrifty ... may flay the Carcass; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen.” Swift, with his melancholy and savage genius, revealed the essential features of the Irish problem. Ireland was despoiled as a cognate part of the capitalist advance of England. Swift’s sarcasm draws this out with a genius that has been, to my mind, unmatched in centuries.

At the same time that we consider this long historic oppression, it is necessary to remember that even in national oppression there were class differences. Connolly pointed this out. He noted that the poor Protestants as well as the poor Catholics were oppressed and exploited in Ireland, and he declared, in Labour in Irish History, that the Penal Laws against the Irish

“did indeed make the life of propertied Catholics more insecure than would otherwise have been the case; but to the vast mass of the population the misery and hardship entailed by the working out of economic laws were fraught with infinitely more suffering than it was at any time within the power of the Penal Laws to inflict. As a matter of fact, the effect of the latter code in impoverishing wealthy Catholics has been much overrated. The class interests which at all times unite the propertied section of the community operated, to a large extent, to render impossible the application of the power of persecution to its full legal limits. Rich Catholics were quietly tolerated, and generally received from the rich Protestants an amount of respect and forbearance which the latter would not at any time extend to their Protestant tenantry or workpeople.” [5]

In 1763, a bill was even introduced “to give greater facilities to Protestants wishing to borrow money from” Catholic money lenders. Though this bill was defeated, Connolly suggested that its mere “introduction serves to show how little the Penal Laws (against Catholics) had operated to prevent the accumulation of wealth by the Catholic propertied classes.”

Connolly’s historical thesis was, as R.M. Fox has indicated, “that England was the exponent of the feudal-capitalist system in Ireland.” The peculiarities in Irish history are not to be found only in the modern period. They are to be found in Ireland’s long history, and most especially during these seven centuries of English oppression. Let me repeat, then, that Ireland under English rule reveals the cost, the other side of progress. [6]

In this context, Connolly observed that one of the “Slave birthmarks” in Ireland was “a belief in the capitalist system of society: the Irishman frees himself from such a mark of slavery when he realizes that truth that the capitalist system is the most foreign thing in Ireland.” [7]

In Ireland, then, the role of the Church was different from that which it played on the continent. There it was bound up with the feudal system and was a rich landowner in its own right. Involved in the bourgeoisie’s attack on the feudal aristocracy was its attack on the Church. The ideology of feudalism is penetrated through and through with that of Catholic thinkers. Not only on the planes of politics and economics, but also on that of ideology, the Church was attacked. In France the desire of the peasantry for land and for freedom from many remaining feudal restrictions over-weighed (in many parts of the country) their loyalty to the Church.

Briefly, the Church was not bound up with the system of oppression in Ireland as it was in feudal Europe. Even though Connolly did observe that propertied Catholics in the eighteenth century did not suffer as did the poor, it does remain true that they were discriminated against. In addition, the alleviation of the operation of the Penal Laws, in the case of the rich Catholics, was not a matter of law. The Irish were penalized by the foreign invader and ruler because of their religion. Catholicism and nationalism became bound together in the minds of many Irishmen. The consciousness of individual Irishmen was not divisible into compartments so that Catholicism would be fitted into one compartment while hatred of an oppressor and desires for freedom would be placed in another. To be Irish and to be Catholic were, in effect, synonymous.

For an Irishman under these conditions to be free meant to escape from penalization because of his religion as well as his nationality. The logic of this attitude runs through the entire O’Connell movement in the nineteenth century. In fact, Daniel O’Connell is often referred to as the Great Emancipator. The victory of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and 1830 was a signal step forward in the Irish struggle; and yet, as Connolly observed and as is well known, it was achieved at a time of marked miseries and destitution. Connolly, in fact, described the period between 1830 and 1848 in Ireland as “A Chapter of Horrors.” And he wrote about the tithes imposed on the peasantry by the clergy of the Episcopal and Catholic Churches as follows:

“The fact that this was in conformity with the practice of the Catholic Church in countries where it was dominant did not, of course, make this more palatable to the Catholic peasantry of Ireland, who continually saw a part of their crops seized upon and sold to maintain a clergy whose ministrations they never attended and whose religion they detested.” [8]

When the discontent of the peasants flared in rebellion, “The Episcopalian clergymen called on the aid of the law, and, escorted by police and military, seized the produce of the poor tenants and carried them off to be sold at auction.” And what aid did the peasants get during the period of rebellious struggles which were carried on under the leadership of secret societies? Connolly’s answer to this question reads as follows:

“The politicians gave neither help nor countenance to the fight, and save for the advocacy of one small Dublin newspaper, conducted by a small but brilliant band of young Protestant writers, no journal in all Ireland championed their cause. For the Catholic clergy it is enough to say that while this tithe war was being waged they were almost universally silent about that ‘grievous sin of secret conspiracy’ upon which they are usually so eloquent. We would not dare say that they recognized that as the secret societies were doing their work against a rival priesthood, it was better to be sparing in their denunciations for the time being; perhaps this is not the explanation, but at all events it is noteworthy that as soon as the tithe war was won all the old stock invectives against every kind of extra-constitutional action were immediately renewed.” [9]

With Emancipation, the ground was cut from under O’Connell’s feet. As O’Faolain, his biographer, says, he “could not form a solid block of Irish votes, an Irish Party, immediately after Emancipation, as Parnell did later.” The Emancipation Act was, in reality, only a partial emancipation. And it only tended to open up some eyes more clearly to the social question. The Young Irelanders of ’48 and James Fintan Lalor opposed O’Connell and O’Connellism. Connolly, in Labour in Irish History, justifies their criticism of and opposition to O’Connell. They, and Connolly later, moved in the direction of social emancipation. They—and Connolly after them—were advocates of extra-constitutional action, of rebellion.

The foregoing should reveal that Catholicism is not a separate question in Ireland. In fact, religion is never a separate question, divorced from all of the political questions and struggles of a period.

O’Faolain quotes Balzac’s remark about Daniel O’Connell: “he incarnated a whole people.” And then O’Faolain also pointed out how O’Connell, a Tory, frightened by the French Revolution, became a “Radical.” He goes on to say that O’Connell

“toppled on the brink of Atheism. He recovered as a Deist. He ended not quite as a Catholic, but as an Irish Catholic, which among Irish intellectuals is so often little more than two words for one. I doubt if there were more than one or two Irish patriots who did not run a similar course in relation to religion—Tone, Emmet, Lord Edward, Davis, Mitchel, Parnell, Stephens and most of the Fenians, Collins, Clarke, Connolly, almost all wavering in a typically ambiguous way barely stopping short on the edge of complete revolt from orthodoxy.” [10]

Rebellion in Ireland was not rebellion against orthodoxy. It was national rebellion. In some instances it was purely national, in others it was both national and social. In the case of James Connolly, he was both nationalist and socialist.

Leftists have criticized him as a nationalist whose socialism was either impure or else abandoned in his last days. Sean O’Casey’s first writing was a pamphlet, The Irish Citizen Army, in which he declared that Connolly died not for socialism but for nationalism. To discuss Connolly in such terms is to become formal, abstract; it results in the posing of formal questions which can only lead us away from insight. The foregoing parts of this work have offered more than sufficient evidence on the character of Connolly’s socialist views. Abstract purists usually see the politics of a man as though they were completely separated from that man just as they fail to see Connolly’s nationalism as bound up with his socialism, so do they see his socialism as in flagrant contradiction with his belief in Catholicism. But his works, and the accounts of his life with which I am familiar, would reveal no such glaring contradictions. Connolly as much as O’Connell, or as much as any other Irish patriot or rebel, can be called the incarnation of a people—to the degree that any one man can be so characterized. His writings show to what degree the Irish tradition was fused in his ideas. He studied this tradition and evaluated it, made distinctions, and consciously made choices. At the same time his emotions, his consciousness was molded out of the life of Ireland. His personal religious beliefs were deeply felt and genuine. To assume that he pretended to a belief he didn’t hold is really to slander the memory of a great and honest man.

Part 5
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1. Sean O’Faolain, King of the Beggars (London: Thomas Nelson, 1938), pp.54-55.

2. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, pp.5-6.

3. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels and Selected Writings, ed. John Hayward (New York: Random House, 1934), p.512.

4. Farrell’s Note: Swift also argued that this reform plan would have the added advantage of “lessening the Number of Papists among us.”

5. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, pp.20-21.

6. Farrell’s Note: In Capital, vol. 1, Marx has many illuminating observations on Ireland and these tend to give substantiation to this generalization of mine. Cf. Capital, 1: 767-83. The Correspondence of Marx and Engels also contains interesting comments and observations about Ireland.

7. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, pp.xxxiv.

8. Ibid., p.146.

9. Ibid., p.146.

10. O’Faolain, King of the Beggars, pp.40, 74-75.

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