By Liam McNulty

Merlin Press. 403 pages. £25. ISBN 978-0-85036-783-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I think it’s true to say that for most people outside the Irish Republic the name of James Connolly will only be known because of his being one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin who were executed by the British Government. An added factor with regard to Connolly was that he had been badly wounded during the fighting and had to be carried out on a stretcher and strapped to a chair so that the firing squad could shoot him.

Who was James Connolly and how did he arrive at a point in his life where he took part in what was a doomed attempt to oust the British from Ireland? Born in 1868 to Irish parents living in Glasgow he left school when he was eleven. In 1882. At the age of fourteen he joined the British Army and was stationed for several years in Ireland where he met his future wife. He left the army in 1889 (why and how are unclear) and moved back to Scotland. He appears to have become radicalised by this time and joined the Socialist League (SL) an organisation founded by William Morris, Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, and Ernest Belfort Bax. It was one of a variety of left-wing groups that Connolly would pass through at one time or another in the following twenty-five or so years.

Connolly had joined the SL at a moment In the history of British labour activism when the so-called “New Unionism” was in full swing. Workers in previously unorganised industries such as the docks and gas works were starting to form unions under the leadership of Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, and Will Thorne. It was a period when the Bryant and May match girls attracted sympathetic attention to their struggle for better pay and working conditions. Other countries were similarly affected, and ideas about syndicalism and industrial unionism were taking shape in Spain, France, and the United States. Were they one and the same thing? Industrial unionism didn’t necessarily go beyond organising all the workers in the same industry into the same union regardless of their skills, thereby extending their bargaining power, whereas syndicalism implied transferring the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution to workers’ unions. I realise these are quick definitions, and may be open to debate, but they should indicate the general principles involved..

It was a fact, however, that there were limitations to what unions could achieve, and many people called for political involvements in terms of representation in Parliament. Socialist parties were being formed in Germany, France, and elsewhere, and Connolly joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), though always retaining his interest in syndicalism. He was sacked from his job with Edinburgh Corporation because of his political activities, and moved to Dublin in 1896 with his wife and daughters. He had been offered employment as organiser for the Dublin Socialist Society. Ireland was predominantly a rural country with only a small industrial working class, though Belfast was an exception. Its shipyards and supporting industries did provide employment for skilled and semi-skilled workers though, as Connolly soon found out, any attempts to organise in the northern counties were bedevilled by sectarian differences. The Protestant working-classes were suspicious of anything with links to Catholicism, socialism and the south, and of ideas that seemed to lean towards a break with Britain.

Connolly, who had proved adept at writing – he had published poems and short-stories – was quickly turning out articles for the left-wing press. He joined the newly-founded Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). It was a time of both political and cultural ferment in Dublin. The Gaelic Revival was well under way, with W.B. Yeats prominent and a vibrant theatre sector alive and productive. There was a rise in a form of “new cultural nationalism” which was a challenge, in Liam McNulty’s words, to the “then seemingly moribund Home Rule movement”. This isn’t the place to discuss the merits or otherwise of Home Rule for Ireland, but suffice to say that it divided the country, both north and south, and among those who favoured an independent Ireland as opposed to those who were prepared to accept the fact of an Irish parliament within the framework of the British Empire.  It might give an idea of where someone like Connolly stood in terms of loyalty to the Empire if it’s noted that, when the Second Boer War started in 1899, he came out firmly on the side of the Boers. The war, he said, was launched by “a government of financiers on a nation of farmers”. This didn’t make him popular in official circles in London, nor among pro-British Irishmen.

In 1902 Connolly embarked on a speaking tour of the United States. He had established links with Daniel De Leon and the American Socialist Labour Party (SLP) whose political programme had similarities to that of the ISRP. The SLP practised “a distinctive blend of electoralism and industrial unionism” and seems to have had an influence on Connolly’s thinking in terms of a practical way forward. But he broke with the ISRP when he returned to Dublin and discovered that money he had earned in America and sent to Ireland to support the organisation had been used to set up a bar at its headquarters.

He went back to Edinburgh and joined the Scottish Socialist Labour Party but in 1903, “tired and disillusioned by the faction fighting in the British labour movement”, decided to move to America, where he stayed until 1910. He was in at the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which for a short time seemed to capture the imaginations of many writers and intellectuals with its hard-fought strikes and flamboyant free speech fights. Its difficulties in maintaining efficient branches once they’d been established, coupled with employer-hostility and government repression when America entered the war in 1917, eventually led to its collapse into relative insignificance.  

I have to say at this stage that a reader not well-versed in the ins and outs of labour and left-wing politics in the early twentieth century might well find it hard going keeping up with all the different groups and personalities. McNulty does a good job in establishing who they were and what they stood for, though this in itself can occasionally lead to the main character in the book – James Connolly – appearing to disappear from its pages. A little more about him as a man might have been useful. And, though he’s referred to as a Marxist, I did wonder just what he had read in that line? There wasn’t a great deal available in English in the 1890s. McNulty does mention a translation of Marx’s Wage-Labour and Capital as having a “wide impact”. This was, presumably, something that Connolly would have come across? More material may have been available by the early-1900s.

Connolly’s experiences working with the IWW certainly influenced his later activities when he was back in Dublin. In 1909 Jim Larkin had formed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), designed to recruit to its ranks workers ignored by craft unions: dockers, transport employees of various kinds, labourers, essentially all those usually classified as unskilled. It was a militant organisation, with syndicalism at its heart, at least among activists. There’s a point here about syndicalism that’s worth noting. Did it have much of an appeal to many union members? In my experience (including a stint as a British TGWU workplace representative) most people join unions for matters relating to pay and conditions. Theories of syndicalism or industrial unionism pass them by. I’m reminded of a militant shop steward I knew many years ago. He was a skilled electrician, proud of his craft, and active in his union. He also voted Conservative in both local and national elections.

Connolly worked with Larkin as matters moved towards what became known as the Dublin Lockout of 1913/14. This wasn’t an isolated event, and there had been a wave of strikes in 1911 in ports, in the mines, on the railways, and elsewhere, across Britain. Armed police and troops had been called out more than once, and in an incident, enshrined in labour history, two railwaymen had been shot dead in Llanelli in Wales. Two men also died in Liverpool when troops fired on rioters. In Dublin Larkin and the ITGWU were looked on as a potential threat by employers and the city authorities.  Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the union, was seen as the centre of resistance by the police who were notoriously brutal in their treatment of strikers and demonstrators. McNulty refers to fighting between strikers and police when two men were clubbed to death by police batons. It isn’t mentioned in McNulty’s book but James Plunkett’s fine novel, Strumpet City, published in 1969 is a classic fictional account of events in Dublin in the period concerned. The strike had turned into a lockout when employers began to dismiss workers, with the result that levels of deprivation and poverty, already high at the best of times in Dublin, noticeably worsened.

It was to counter police aggression that Connolly established the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) as a defence force to protect union pickets and demonstrators. The lockout terminated early in 1914 when a drift back to work began. Workers were re-employed after signing agreements that they would not belong to the ITGWU. Known activists were not rehired. The events of 1913/14 need a book in themselves and I’ve given only a sketchy account of what happened. Connolly had been a leading figure operating out of Liberty Hall and when Larkin, disillusioned by the failure of the strike and the lack of support from the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), left for America, Connolly took over. Circumstances were soon to push him into the final phase of his life.

The outbreak of war in 1914 put paid to expectations of Home Rule for Ireland. Not that it had been assured, anyway. The Northern Protestant establishment had formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a well-armed paramilitary organisation determined to oppose, by force if necessary, any attempt to submit them to rule from Dublin. A similar outfit, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF), came into being in the South in expectation of conflict between the two parts of Ireland. The war put the dispute on hold. John Redmond, leader of the IVF, encouraged his followers to support Britain, though not all of them agreed with him. And conscription, even when introduced in Britain in 1916, did not initially apply to Ireland, though an attempt was made in 1918 to extend it there. It was met with fierce opposition from various quarters, including the Catholic Church, so nothing came of it. But numerous individual Irishmen, both Protestant and Catholic had voluntarily enlisted in the British Army.

 However, not all Irishmen supported Britain. Connolly was outspoken in his hopes for a German victory, seeing in it an opportunity to launch a campaign for an independent Ireland. He even talked of welcoming an invasion by German troops which, he thought, might provide a situation where the link to the British Empire would be broken. Did he really think that was likely to happen? Like some others he did perceive British preoccupation with war on the Continent as constituting a situation where a rising in Ireland might succeed. It’s difficult to know how certain he was that such a scheme could be put into operation. He had his small Irish Citizens Army at his disposal and could count on some elements of the IVF for support. There were also members of the militant Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) willing to join in an armed insurrection.

When it started on Easter Monday, 1916 it was obvious that it was doomed to failure. Nothing had gone right. An arms shipment from Germany had been intercepted by the Royal Navy. Orders for IVF members to turn out had been countermanded. It’s calculated that around 1,500 rebels were involved in the Rising in Dublin. Connolly led his small army into the Post Office in Dublin where they, and others, held out until forced to surrender by superior British forces. All this and more has been documented in books, films, and TV documentaries.  And what happened next, when the British took the decision to court martial and execute the leaders of the rising including Connolly, did eventually contribute to the struggle for Irish independence. Many citizens of Dublin had thought the rising ill-advised, but the killings appalled them. The circumstances of Connolly’s execution, when doctors said he was not expected to live for more than a day or two anyway, were seen as particularly repulsive. The picture of a wounded and dying man being tied to a chair (some accounts say a crate) so he could be shot by a firing squad was not a pleasant one.

It’s interesting to speculate on what went through Connolly’s mind before he took his men into the Dublin GPO. He’s reputed to have told William O’Brien, a founder with Connolly and Jim Larkin of the Irish Labour Party in 1912, “We are going out to be slaughtered”, and when asked if there any chance of success replied, “None whatsoever”. He was not inclined like the romantic idealist Patrick Pearse to write about “blood sacrifices” and that “the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields”. To statements such as that, Connolly said: “No! We do not believe that war is glorious, inspiring, or regenerating”. His reasons for involving himself in the Rising may have been complex.

He had been badly disillusioned when the workers of the world went off to kill each other in 1914. He had placed his faith in the notion that they would come together, oppose the war, and overthrow those who promoted it.  Was he naïve to believe this? I’m perhaps wrong, but he does sometimes seem to have persuaded himself that because he saw the logic in a grand scheme others would too. It does occur to me to suggest that, because of the manner in which Connolly had envisaged an armed insurrection, he had to take part in one no matter how mistimed and badly planned it was. Had he failed to come forward his reputation as a revolutionary, and an Irish nationalist, would have suffered a serious blow. His fate was sealed by the wider situation he found himself involved in.

Politically, he failed to understand why the Protestant working-class in Ireland were wary of Home Rule or any situation where they would be in a minority and governed by a Catholic majority. Likewise, he surely must have realised that not every working-class union member was a potential revolutionary. They were not likely to go on the barricades simply because he thought they ought to. I can’t help thinking that he reminds me of people I’ve known who have lives largely divorced from the routines of factories, offices, and everyday living and are consequently out-of-touch with how ordinary workers think and what makes them act in certain ways. Most people concern themselves with practicalities and not with theories.

James Connolly: Socialist, Nationalist & Internationalist is a stimulating book on several levels, though not without some drawbacks. Not much of Connolly as a person comes through and, as a consequence, we sometimes have the impression that he had little life beyond the wheelings and dealings of all those groups (many of which I haven’t had the time to mention), he joined and left. He wrote pamphlets and books, some of which were, in their day, widely read, at least among those of a similar frame of mind to himself. His Socialism Made Easy was popular, and Labour in Irish History made its mark. There are reprints of his publications easily available. I don’t know if much of the poetry and fiction he produced had staying power.

There isn’t a bibliography, but there are numerous notes which provide a reading list. I spotted a scattering of typos (Ernest Belfort Bax becomes Ernest Belford Bax at one point, for example) but they’re minor enough not to be intrusive.