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James T. Farrell

A Portrait of James Connolly

I. The First Irish Marxist

New International, Vol.13 No.9, December 1947

The Irish national revolution can be viewed as a historical laboratory of the so-called national question. As the Irish rebelled, or threatened to rebel again and again during the nineteenth century, the movement included elements from various classes and groups within the country. To be sure, it is a commonplace to state that a national revolutionary movement comprises elements from more than one social class; nonetheless, this commonplace must be stressed in any study of the Irish national revolution. Just as there has been unity, there has also been disunity. Differences within the Irish movement have often been focused in terms of an opposition between the social question and the political question, interpreting the latter to mean the central aim of achieving national sovereignty or independence.

The Irish movement was energized by the Great French Revolution. The United Irishmen, organized at the end of the eighteenth century, were directly influenced by the men of the Great French Revolution. Wolf[e] Tone, a leader of that period, would serve as but one illustration of this fact. John Mitchel, one of the strongest and bravest figures of 1848, was condemned as a felon and deported to the far Pacific. Even though there was a strong conservatism and aristocratic feeling in his nature, even though he defended the South against the North in the American Civil War, he nevertheless showed a Jacobin streak. One might say that Mitchel suggested both the tory socialist and the Jacobin. Michael Davitt, one of the leaders of Parnell’s party, continued the tradition of these rebels. James Fintan Lalor, the hunchback, who was one of the most fiery and eloquent of all nineteenth-century rebels, based his thinking on the events of the Great French Revolution. And he was also encouraged by the revolutions of 1848 on the continent, as when he wrote:

Mankind will yet be masters of the earth. The right of the people to make the laws—this produced the first great modern earthquake [the great French Revolution] ... The right of people to own the land—this will produce the next. Train your hands, and your sons’ hands, gentlemen of the earth, for you and they will yet have to use them.” [1]

Men such as Lalor and Davitt did not separate the social and the political question. Involved in the thinking of the major Irish rebels was an acceptance of the dignity of the individual which flows out of the traditional ideas of individualism. The Irish rebels were painfully aware of the degradation of the Irish people: they saw and knew the conditions of squalor and misery which were forced upon them. Mitchel saw the corpses of those who starved in the famine; he saw the wretched laden famine ships leaving for other lands. In Ireland, we can clearly see one of the psychological derivations of conditions of oppression and injustice. Poverty and a lack of sovereignty in a poor nation create attitudes of dependency. Except in rare moments of revolutionary momentum, the poorest sections of the masses of the people usually develop dependent attitudes. Robespierre, in one of his great speeches, declared that the Jacobins desired to create a nation in which men would rise “to the full stature of humanity.” The poor usually fail to attain anything approximating that full stature. And the Irish rebels did not need to indulge in psychological theorizing in order to know about facts such as these. They grasped truths like these in their direct contacts with the Irish people. In this way, the notion of attaining manhood was linked with the idea of rebellion. In other words, rebellion offered them the road to manhood, not only for themselves, but also for the Irish people as a whole. On the one hand, they wanted to lead the Irish on the road to freedom; on the other hand, they saw the differences between themselves and the great masses of their fellow Irish. By rebellion, they were finding the way to the fullest possible attainment of their own manhood: feelings such as these served to link their personal experiences with their reading of Irish history. And those who saw most clearly realized that the attainment of their ends required consideration of the social, as well as of the political question.

At the present time, there are endless discussions of the question of personality and politics. Such discussions can often be interpreted as a consequence of the revolutionary defeats and failures of recent decades. A concept of personality was implied in the thinking of some of the outstanding Irish rebels of the nineteenth century. This is seen in the idea of the nation in Irish culture which was held by some of the nineteenth-century Irish rebels. The Young Irelanders saw in culture—in poetry, balladry, literature—a means of whipping, lashing, encouraging the Irish into a feeling of pride and dignity in their own manhood. [2] Such a conception is unmistakable in the writings of Thomas Davis, or in the cultural writings of John Mitchel. A clear illustration is the introduction which Mitchel wrote to the poetry of James Clarence Mangan. Briefly, these men desired a nation of men, men in a qualitative sense of that word. Their desires motivated a trust in the potentialities of their fellow countrymen. And their trust was not confined to their ideas on culture, but was also integral in their political words and deeds. This trust underscored their lack of fear of violence and force. They tried to use all the means at their command to rouse the Irish people. When arrested, Lalor proudly flung the word, “felon” back into the faces of his jailers. After his arrest, and just prior to his deportation, John Mitchel refused to sign a statement urging his followers not to attempt his rescue from jail. The aim of national independence signified a nation of individuals with dignity; it envisaged an Ireland in which Irishmen would attain “the full stature of humanity.” Samuel Johnson once remarked that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” This is often true, yet it is sometimes false. In nineteenth-century Ireland, patriotism was a first step on the road to manhood.

These comments should suggest aspects of the tradition which James Connolly represented in the Ireland of his day. The first Irish Marxist, he was the heir, the continuator and the expositor of this tradition. His real predecessors were those who did not sacrifice the social question for the political question; he fused both aspects of the Irish national tradition in his own works and in his own political life. He was an extraordinary figure during the early years of the twentieth century, not only in the Irish movement, but more broadly in the world movement for workers’ emancipation. The intellectual fruits of his life are to be found in his work Labour in Ireland. This book is not only fundamental for a study of modern Irish history, it is also a contribution to the world library of socialist thought.

James Connolly has been the subject of a recent biography by R.M. Fox, an English socialist. Mr Fox has lived in Ireland for years, and is widely read in the history and the literature of Ireland. Besides this recent book, James Connolly: The Forerunner, Fox has written other books on Ireland. His volume Green Banners is a story of Irish struggles, valuable for its assemblage of facts and material. His work The Irish Citizen Army is valuable for similar reasons, and, also, because it serves as a reminder of the significance of this organization, the first army of the working class in the twentieth century. It was written at the request of the organization of veterans of the Irish Citizen Army. Relatively few Englishmen are capable of writing objectively about Ireland and about the personalities of the Irish movement. Mr Fox, like Raymond Postgate, author of an excellent biography of Robert Emmet, is something of an exception. He brings sympathy, energy, command of the facts, and knowledge of the history of the British and the European socialist movements to his work. At the same time, I feel it necessary to note that he sometimes succumbs to that parochialism which is fairly pervasive in Irish political thinking. (I would add parenthetically that there was no parochialism in Connolly.) His sympathy seems to fall over into an emotional identification with the Irish which, at times, is not devoid of localism and even sentimentality. And with this, his identification is part of the process whereby he establishes Irish nationalism as a criterion of judgment. Unlike Connolly, his biographer has not “fused” his socialist ideas with his adopted Irish nationalism.

However, it seems to me that there is an integral connection between Fox’s virtues and his deficiencies. His writings can help to revive interest in the social side of the Irish tradition. He is retelling the story of the Irish struggle, refreshing memories concerning Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, and emphasizing the best elements in the Irish tradition.

Fox’s lucid account of the life of Connolly is based on the best sources, On the one hand, Fox offers paraphrases of Connolly’s ideas, and gives full quotations from his writings; on the other hand, his recitation of the events in Connolly’s life definitely conveys a sense of the man. Fox writes: “The story of the poor boy who becomes rich and successful has always made a strong appeal. But this is a story of far greater splendor—of a boy who did not become rich and yet his career remains an inspiration to all who strive for social justice.” [3] It is the story of James Connolly. The son of poor parents, he was a self-educated worker. Forced emigration from Ireland was no hearsay tale for him. Both Connolly and his father could find work in England or Scotland, but not in Ireland, where, before their time, the English had seen to it that manufacturing could not exist. His own family story was but part of the general story of forced emigration from Ireland. He was born in a gloomy Irish cabin in 1870. [4] His father was a farm laborer. The family had to leave Ireland for Scotland. There, he became a child laborer. At one time, he was placed on a box in the factory in order that he might appear to be taller than he was when the factory inspector came around. While still a youth, he worked at many jobs. He did work of the type which destroys the health and morale of men and women, let alone boys. He studied history, politics, literature, by candle light in an Irish cabin, or in a city tenement after harsh hours of work. He studied Marx, and his economic views were based on Marx, particularly on Capital. He became a Socialist in Scotland while still in his teens. But in his first period as a Socialist, he was quiet and did not thrust himself forward. He listened, observed, studied, learned what he could from older comrades before he came forth to assert and express his own views. When, in his youth, he did step forward, he became one of the leading Socialists in Glasgow. He married, worked as a Socialist, shared the hard life of the workers. In 1897, Connolly returned to Ireland to organize for Socialism. He lived there as did the exploited workers, and founded the Irish Republican Socialist Congress. As early as 1900, he participated in international socialist congresses, and at these meetings he generally supported the left wing. In Dublin, he played the role of an agitator, an organizer and an editor. He shared in the organization of the famous anti-British demonstrations in the year of the jubilee of Queen Victoria. In 1904, he came to America. Here, he worked at various jobs including that of an insurance agent, and he participated in the activities of the American labor and socialist movements. He was associated with Daniel De Leon, with the Industrial Workers of the World, and later, with the Socialist Party in the time of Eugene V. Debs. He had political disagreements with De Leon and these were exacerbated because he was a practicing Catholic. His experiences in America were of prime importance in his later career. Here, he saw, at first hand, the capitalism in an advanced country. This helped him to see the problems of Ireland more clearly than could many of his contemporaries. Here also his association with the IWW showed lasting influences. His own conceptions of industrial unionism, as well as of strike tactics and agitational methods, were all influenced by the Wobblies.

Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and became an organizer in Belfast for the Irish Transport Workers Union, playing a major role in the organization and the development of the Irish Labor movement in the North of Ireland. He became associated with Jim Larkin, and went to Dublin to participate in the leadership of the Dublin transport strike. He helped to organize the Irish Citizen Army, led it in the Easter Rebellion, was wounded during the fighting, and was one of the leaders who was executed. He was carried to his execution in a chair because of his wounds. When his wife visited him for the last time, he tried to comfort her. Telling her not to cry, he added: “Hasn’t it been a full life? And isn’t this a good end?” On learning that his son had been in jail, his face lit up, and he remarked: “He was in the fight ... He has had a good start in life, hasn’t he?” [5]

In most of the photographs of Connolly, he looks like an ordinary, almost an undistinguished, man. Judging from these pictures, he might be any Irish bar tender, small business man, craftsman. He was a simple, quiet man, careful, precise, thoughtful and determined. Capable in theory although self-taught, he was also highly practical. No Irish contemporary of his could match his qualities, his strategical understanding and his extremely clear sense of tactics. He studied with the most practical of aims: in order to learn how best to carry forward the Irish struggle. And, in turn, he saw the Irish struggle as part of the struggle of the workers all over the world. He studied the revolutions of the past in Ireland and on the continent in order to teach himself, and the Irish, how they might strike their own blows for freedom most effectively. In various articles, he tried to bring the experiences of other countries to the Irish. Democratic, both in theory and practice, he asked every member of the Irish Citizen Army if they wanted to go through with the fight they were going to make in the Easter Rebellion. They did.

A few personal anecdotes and stories about Connolly will perhaps best give a sense of the man. These are taken from Mr. Fox’s book and from other sources. Connolly’s daughter, Nora Connolly O’Brien, wrote a moving personal account of her father, Portrait of a Rebel Father, which well might be read in conjunction with Mr. Fox’s biography. It is personal and intimate, and the emotions motivating it are truly beautiful. In Portrait of a Rebel Father, Nora Connolly O’Brien tells how once at Mass, the priest violently denounced Connolly in a sermon. Although Connolly was not mentioned, it was clear to him and to his daughter, and also to many others present, that he was the object of this attack. The daughter was disturbed and distressed; she wanted to squirm, to do something. But Connolly sat unruffled, listening with no sense of strain or agitation showing on his face. Afterwards, she asked him why he had not done anything, why he had not at least walked out of the church? He answered: “Well, Nora, because they lose their dignity, we don’t have to lose ours.”

In 1915, during the course of a strike on the Dublin quays, the police were harassing the strikers. Clerks had been forced to work as scabs. Connolly, on learning of the continued police treatment of the workers, declared that this would have to stop. He called out a squad of the Irish Citizen Army. They reported for duty wearing their dark green uniforms, and armed with rifles and bayonets. They marched to the picket line in formation; there, they marched along at the side of the pickets, informing the police that they had come to protect their striking class brothers. The pickets were no longer molested; the clerks inside fled. Soon after this incident the strike was settled.

Not long before the Easter Rebellion, the British sent the police out to raid rebel papers, and to confiscate copies of these and the equipment used in printing them. The police arrived at Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Irish Transport Workers, and, also, of the Irish Citizen Army. Connolly asked them if they had a warrant. They had none. He drew his revolver and declared that they would not be allowed to search the hall. When they returned with a warrant in order to search the premises for copies of nationalist papers, Connolly, revolver in hand, stood by the door leading into the room in which was printed the paper that he edited. He told the police that he would shoot the man who entered this room, insisting that the warrant did not apply to it. The police searched the rest of Liberty Hall, found no nationalist papers, and departed. Connolly’s paper was, at that time, not suppressed. Following this raid, Connolly sent out orders for the mobilization of the members of the Irish Citizen Army. Irish workers downed their tools, left wagons in the streets and rushed to Liberty Hall. Some even swam the Liffey to get there. They reported in working clothes, rifles in hand.

Connolly was arrested during the labor battles of 1913. He went on a hunger strike, and was released from prison, weak from want of food. Once when he was lecturing in America, he was interviewed by a reporter. This journalist had questioned other Irishmen, and many had claimed that they were descended from the kings of Ireland. More generally, the journalist had a fixed notion that Irishmen always boasted of the grandeur of their country and of their own ancestry. He asked Connolly a question about his ancestors, and added that he wanted to know if they had owned estates or castles in the old country. Connolly answered: “I have no ancestors. My people were poor and obscure like the workers I am speaking to now.” [6] Recalling his youth and his early readings, he once said: “I always remember the first time I sent ... for a bundle of Penny Readings and how delighted I was when they came ... It was always so difficult for me to get to read as a boy that I thought it wonderful to receive a parcel like this.” [7]

When he led the Irish Citizen Army out for the Easter Rebellion, he told the members that they would be given the post of honor: they would attack. And he also told them to keep their rifles because some of those (the Nationalists) with whom they were joining to fight, would not be willing to go as far as the workers must go: they might need their rifles again.

Connolly was a man of genuine simplicity and of deep humanity. No problem of the Irish workers was too small for him to give it his attention. No sacrifice was too great for him when his ideas were at stake. His writings were clear, simple, direct, and marked by flashes of genuine eloquence. Labour in Irish History and The Re-Conquest of Ireland were written over long periods of time under conditions of great difficulty. He had to work for his own living, and to carry on his practical political activities. He had none of the leisure of the trained scholar or the professional intellectual. The completion of these works was, in fact, a triumph of his own will, a revelation of his persistence and determination. And these books are, as Robert Lynd stated, “of infinite importance to Ireland.” [8] Their importance is not solely to Ireland, but to the whole world.

Part 2
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1. From Lalor’s Faith of a Felon, as quoted in James Connolly, Labour in Ireland (Dublin: Maunsel & Co., 1917), p.188.

2. Farrell’s Note: I am well aware that this statement can raise (all over again) questions concerning literature and propaganda. Inasmuch as I have dealt in detail with these questions in A Note on Literary Criticism and in other writings, I shall not go into them here where the discussion would raise side issues. It might be said, however, that men such as Mitchel and Thomas Davis revealed the best taste of their times. To criticize their taste, ex post facto, is merely to quarrel vainly with history and to raise sterile questions. The concept of the nation in Irish culture has remained to the present day, although this concept has gone through various permutations. But it should be added that taste does not flow directly out of concepts. The fact that Irish rebels such as John Mitchel had a political conception of culture in Ireland does not mean that they were crude in their reading habits.

3. R.M. Fox, James Connolly: The Forerunner (Tralee: Kerryman Press, 1946), p.16.

4. A common misconception at the time, he was actually born in Edinburgh, Scotland.

5. Ibid., pp.215-15.

6. Ibid., p.58.

7. Ibid., p.27.

8. Connolly, Labour in Ireland, p.xxvi.

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