James Connolly


The Irish Masses in History


From The Harp, September, 1908.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

In its issue of August 8, the Boston Pilot had a very interesting article upon the life of a typical Irish girl of ancient Ireland. The article dealt with the life of the ancient Irish as it has been reconstructed by antiquarians from a study of the gold and silver ornaments found in various bogs in Ireland, and from the allusions to the use of those ornaments made in old Irish manuscripts

All this is interesting, especially to those who desire to have their Irish patriotism or pride of race buttressed up by historical data. And, of course, there are many such.

I, also, was much interested in the article, but for another reason. To me it was especially interesting as illustrative of the curious effect modern property relations have upon the mind of even the most gifted amongst us. The gifted authoress of the article in question took as the imaginary subject of her sketch an ancient Irish princess and reconstructed her life in the most ingenious manner, describing her lying down and uprising, her hunting and riding and chess-playing and sweet-hearting and, in fact, all the incidents in which an Irish princess is revealed or touched upon by the old Irish manuscripts in song or story.

In all of those pursuits she was waited upon by a slave woman, a different slave woman for each separate amusement; in all, there must have been at least a dozen different slave women waiting upon the one princess, and what appeared to my cold Socialistic mind as curious was that the writer wrote and treated of the princess as a typical ‘colleen’ of ancient Ireland, and utterly neglected to recognise in the slave women any right to be regarded as Irish types at all.

Yet when we remember that for every princess living the life of luxury and ease sketched by the Pilot writer there must have been at least a dozen other women attending her and a hundred other Irish women working in the fields attending cattle and weaving and spinning to feed and clothe and house and ornament her, it must be conceded that any one of these hundred useful Irish women had more right to be considered ‘typical Irish colleens’ than the useless drone whose life our authoress has reconstructed with such loving fidelity and care.

By all means tell us about the typical colleens of ancient Erin, shake up for us the dry bones of history and tell us about the wives and mothers and daughters of the producing classes of our native country, but do not ask us to believe that a princess was anything more than a type of the class to which she belonged – a predatory useless class – a class whose predatory proclivities hindered the free development of the nation and prepared the way for its subjection.

What a history that would be which would tell us the history of the real women of Ireland – the women of the people ! What a record of ceaseless suffering, of heroism, of martyrdom! What a recital of patient toil, of uncomplaining self-sacrifice, of unending abnegation! Aye, and what a brilliant tale of things accomplished, of deeds done, of miracles achieved!

Think of all the insurrections against British tyranny in Ireland, and as you honour the men who went out to front the armed force of the oppressors think also of the brave women who kissed them and cried over them ere they went, but bade them go for freedom’s sake.

Think of all the slimy roll of informers in Erin, and wonder when you remember how seldom even tradition places a woman’s name upon the list.

Think of the long and bloody history of the fight against private property in Irish land – against Irish landlordism, and when you remember how the Irish mother, the woman of the house, consented to suffer eviction and ruin rather than let her husband betray the cause of his friends and neighbours, then if you believe in a God thank Him for the spirit and courage and honour of our Irish womanhood.

But then you will not be accepting princesses as the types of Irish life, you will be looking for types of the real womanhood of Ireland where only they can be found, among the producing classes.

Those Irish girds who in the recent dock strike in Belfast joined their fathers and brothers and sweethearts in the streets to battle against the English troops imported in the interests of Irish capitalism are to my mind a thousand times more admirable ‘types of Irish colleens’ than the noblest bean uasal of Gaelic Erin much as I admire the latter.

What would we think of the historian who would picture the life of the daughter of an Irish aristocrat of today, and then tell us that this was a picture of the life of a typical Irish girl of the twentieth century? We would laugh him to scorn. Yet that is the manner in which history is written.


Last updated on 8.8.2003