James Connolly


Harp Strings


The Harp, January 1908.
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.
The notes, which are © 1997 Pluto Press, have not been included.
HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is the Harp.

I am one of the favored few privileged to play upon the strings of the Harp.

Sometimes my notes will be gay, sometimes they will be sad; sometimes they will be lively, sometimes severe. As in Ireland the sun shines through the heaviest rainstorms, and the Irishman in the midst of his deepest woe will broaden out in a smile at a good joke, so the writer of these first columns of our paper will ever attune the strings of his harp to the music of the worldwide struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.

And that struggle has its humorous aspects as well as its tragic. A grave demeanor does not always betoken a serious purpose, and a man offering up his life in martyrdom for a principle may yet march to the scaffold with a joke upon his lips.

Sir Thomas More, scholar and philosopher, executed by Henry VIII of England for refusing to admit the supremacy of that libertine king in religious matters, as he laid his head upon the headsman’s block asked leave to brush his long-flowing beard out of the way of the executioner’s axe. “For,” he said, “my beard at least has committed no treason.”

Yes, we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully constructed, as the near-sighted old gentleman said when he gazed at the skeleton of a donkey in the anatomical museum. Therefore let us laugh while we may, though there be bitterness in our laughter; let us laugh while we may, for capitalism has tears enough in store for all of us.

Fearfully constructed, indeed, and perhaps no race on earth more so, or has absorbed more heterogeneous elements into itself and at the same time given out more of the best of its blood to the upbuilding of foreign and alien races than the Irish.

All races are mixed more or less; a pure race does not exist. In all the world there cannot be found a territory of any size still inhabited exclusively by the autochthonous or original inhabitants, a territory whose records do not tell of a conquest and a settlement by alien invading hosts.

In Europe it is generally accepted that the Basques and the Finns are the only people of whose advent into their present location neither history nor tradition has aught to record, who are therefore possibly an autochthonous people.

But the Irish, to whom our capitalist politicians are forever preaching an aggressive insularity (as if a man could not love his own without hating his neighbor), can count as cousins and blood brothers practically all the nations of Europe. We have received and we have given the best and the worst.

The modern Irish race is a composite blending – on the original Celtic stock have been grafted shoots from all the adventurous races of the continent.

Let us glance for a moment at the tally of the races that have mingled and merged upon our island.

First in order we have the Celts, or Scots, or Milesians. Coming as invaders, they found a people of whose coming or origin no record exists. Settling in Ireland, the Celts colonized Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. Between those places and Ireland for hundreds of years there continued the closest friendly intercourse, commercial and social, marriage and intermarriage. And down to our day the migration of the inhabitants of these places continues almost uninterruptedly, the sole distinction being that now it is the migrations of individuals as such and not of clans or communities.

Next we had the Danish, or, more properly speaking, the Scandinavian, invasion. For hundreds of years Norway, Sweden and Denmark poured their best fighting men into Ireland, established cities and towns all around our coast – Dublin being their chief settlement – took our women and gave their own in marriage.

All around Dublin and the eastern coast the fair-haired Irish you meet are lineal descendants of the Vikings of the north who settled and married in Ireland, just as the dark-haired Scandinavians we often see in America are without a doubt the sons or daughters of the Irish maidens whom the northern pirates brought home from Ireland as the prizes of war to their homes in Scandinavia.

Then we had the Norman invasion – the fruitful source of all our evils to the present day. It also brought its mixture of foreign elements. Half Norsemen, half French, each in a generation or two becoming imbued with the spirit of the island.

All during the centuries of struggle against England there have been continual eruptions into Ireland on one side or the other in the conflict of foreign soldiery, some of whom found their graves, some of whom found wives, most of whom settled in one way or another.

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France, Ireland was the refuge ground of thousands of French Protestant families, who established trades, founded new quarters of the cities and in a generation or two supplied the most determined recruits to the Irish struggle for liberty against the oppression of England.

In the Williamite war after the deposition of King James in England, King William invaded Ireland at the head of an army composed of the adventurers of Europe, most of whom settled in the country when the war was over. Some became proprietors of the lands they had stolen from the Irish; most became tenants on the lands their swords had won for their leaders.

The common soldiers had helped to make serfs of the Irish, and in the course of only one generation their own descendants found the yoke of social and political serfdom upon their necks also.

Add to this record of the immigrations into Ireland, the fact that for hundreds of years the genial English Saxon had turned an honest penny by selling his womankind into slavery in Ireland – an old Gaelic writer calls them “tall, fair-haired Saxon slaves, fit to weave wool in the mansions of a king” – and the further fact that hundreds of English Quakers at a more recent date fled from persecution in England to take refuge in Ireland, where their descendants multiplied exceedingly and waxed fat and prosperous, and you have a picture of a race dominated indeed by the Celtic, but as composite and varied in its make-up as any nation upon earth.

That is one side of the picture – the inflow upon our Irish shore, the record of the successive hosts of foreigners who came amongst us and, finding Ireland a green and pleasant land, chose to abide there and become bone of our bone and blood of our blood.

But there is another side, viz, the going forth of the Irish. Study the history of Ireland and you will find that, whether the compelling cause was love of adventure or stern necessity, this going forth of the Gael has been ever an abiding characteristic of the race.

“The chiefs of the Gael,” wails an old Gaelic poet, “always went forth, but they never returned.”

Examine our earliest chronicles and you read of Irish settlements in Scotland, Man and Mona, and all the British Isles. When Scandinavian hosts first conquered Iceland they found Irish books and evidence of Irish learning and Irish settlement; as the power of Rome declined Irish fleets and armies harried her legions retreating from the western seaboard, and an Irish king led a marauding army through France and Switzerland (Gaul and Helvetia) until at the head of his forces he was killed by an avalanche in the passes of the Alps.

When on the field of Bannockburn Robert the Bruce of Scotland overthrew the power of England, one of his chief supports was an Irish auxiliary legion of the O’Neills. The district of Kincardine O’Neill, in Aberdeenshire, granted as a reward for their services, still perpetuates in its name the memory of the exploit.

Irish exiles served as soldiers in the armies of every sovereign in Europe for hundreds of years, lived and loved and married and left children speaking all the tongues of Europe. These soldiers, generally the best and bravest of their generation, left to Ireland nothing but their memory; to other countries they left the fruit of their loins and the heirs of their spirit and manhood.

In another column you will find some authentic figures of one Irish dispersion – the Cromwellian. Here you find that in one generation alone no less than 34,000 soldiers in the prime of life went from Ireland to foreign countries. Irish soldiers, or Irishmen as a whole, have never been famous as celibates or as averse to the joys of matrimony, and there is no reason to believe that those in question were any exception to the rule. In all probability the greater number married in the countries to which they went, as the leisurely wars of the period gave them plenty of time to do, and left a numerous progeny behind them.

Consider, oh, my compatriots, what this implies! That Polack, whose advent into the workshop you are taught to view with such disfavor, if you could trace his ancestry back a few hundreds of years perhaps you would find for him an Irish ancestor who charged by the side of Hugh O’Neill on that fateful day when the English flag went down in disaster at the Yellow Ford. That Dago, whose excited gestures win your disapproval so much; perhaps he has an Irish ancestor whose arms defended the colors of Queen Gráinne O’Malley when her ships swept the English pirates from our western coasts. And those Frenchmen – heavens, how many scores of thousands of the best of our race have gone to build up and recruit the armies and population of France!

But, you ask me, why this thusness? What has all this to do with Socialism? My dear friend, this is a lecture on Internationalism. Didn’t you notice it before? It is a lecture written in characters of blood and fire in Irish history; a lecture on the mingling and merging and therefore on the oneness and unity of all the races of mankind.

Let no Irishman throw a stone at the foreigner; he may hit his own clansman. Let no foreigner revile the Irish; he may be vilifying his own stock.

Talking of France. What do you think of the comments upon the recent proceedings of the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, especially upon the militarist resolution? I mean the resolution of the French delegate, Hervé, calling upon the soldiers to mutiny or desert in case of war in order to prevent the capitalist class from again uselessly shedding the blood of the workers in murderous wars.

The comments of some American Socialists upon it have been, to say the least, more interesting than instructive. I read the other day where one leading American Socialist said that the militarist question was one of those which we considered settled in America, and could not come up for discussion in our locals though it was a live question still in Europe, the inference being that we were so much ahead of Europe on that question. But are we?

Almost all the speakers and writers of the same party as he whom I have quoted agree with the Hervé resolution, or think they do. I think they only think they do. For I do not recall that when the United States and Spain went to war that any organized body of Socialists in America called upon the United States soldiers to mutiny or desert. The most they did was to pass academic resolutions on the causes of the war; resolutions such as the most reformist body of Socialists in Europe would have passed without a dissenting voice.

And I am quite sure that if the United States and Japan were to go to war next year there would not be the smallest possibility of getting the National Conventions of either the SP or SLP to pass a resolution in favor of an active campaign to induce the United States soldiers to mutiny or desert.

Why, then, talk of this as a settled question in America, and inferentially condemn those who objected to the wording of the Hervé resolution? If that resolution was put not as a general proposition, but as a concrete one in the sense I have just spoken of (a war between the United States and Japan), we would soon find out whether it was or not a settled question.

The conflict between the French delegate and the Germans was not a conflict between revolution and reaction. The Germans, all criticisms to the contrary notwithstanding, are not reactionary. It was a conflict between the French method of doing things and the German method.

The German is cool, cautious, patient, given to analyze all the results of his words before uttering them, is determined and never recedes from a vantage ground once gained. And the German Socialist is the incarnation of the German spirit. He does not shrink from the idea of a fight, but he is resolved to fight in his own manner and, above all, in his own time. Hence he will adopt no resolution that might allow his enemies to fix the time and condition of the final struggle.

The French, on the other hand, are ardent, enthusiastic, optimistic, ready to sacrifice their all for a principle, recking little of consequences when a truth is at stake, and willing at all times to face a world in arms for a righteous cause.

As the Irish poet finely says:

Like the tigress of the Deluge as she heard the waters seethe,
And sprang onto the topmost peak, her cubs between her teeth;
So stood Red France, so stands Red France, her head bared to the sleet,
With Paris girdled to her heart and Freedom at her feet.

I consider that both French and German are earnestly and determinedly revolutionary. But they do things different ways. And one is needed as a check upon the other.

And American Socialists do not help the matter by adopting the Pharasaical attitude of thanking God we are not as these people.



Last updated on 11.8.2003