Labour in Irish History

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On 12 May 1916, the Irish socialist James Connolly was strapped to a chair because of his wounds, acquired during the defeated 1916 Easter rising, and executed by a British firing squad. The news of his death was greeted with cheers in the House of Commons, cheers in which Labour MPs joined.

So ended the life of a working class militant and socialist activist who had fought against the capitalist class in Britain, in the United States and in Ireland since the late 1880s. Connolly was not a great theoretician, but he was a tremendous propagandist for the socialist cause, writing with passion and insight for a working class audience on the great issues that confronted the movement at his time: trade unionism, religion, the national struggle and the way forward in the struggle for socialism.

Just about everything Connolly wrote is still of interest (many of his writings can be found in the Marxist Internet Archive) and still repay reading, but arguably most important is his 1910 pamphlet, Labour in Irish History.

He worked on this powerful revision of Irish history for over a decade before it finally appeared in pamphlet form. It is a remarkable achievement by any standard, all the more so when one takes into account the struggles that Connolly was involved in and the hardships that he encountered over these years.

As he insisted, "Irish history has ever been written by the master class - in the interests of the master class". In this bourgeois history the worker was invariably treated "with contempt when he remained passive and with derision, hatred and misrepresentation whenever he dares evince a desire to throw off the yoke of political and social servitude".

Connolly set out to remedy this situation, not as part of an academic debate, but as part of the preparation of the working class for the struggle for power. The pamphlet was written for working class activists, throwing down a challenge to respectable nationalism and placing the working class and its interests centre stage.

The "Irish question", Connolly insisted, was "a social question" that, "in the last analysis", was all about "a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production". This was what the struggles of the past were all about. This was the key to understanding the past and determining the future. "Without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of 'great men', Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks...With this key all things become understandable."

He wrote of the great famine of the 1740s and of the peasant resistance it occasioned. As Connolly pointed out, in these grim days, "the poor of all religions and politics were equally sufferers" while "the rich of all religions and politics were equally exempt". Resistance was put down by "hanging, shooting, transporting without mercy". Both north and south, peasant resistance met with "the vengeance of the dominant classes".

The Great Hunger, a hundred years later, Connolly argued, had to be looked at from a class perspective. The terrible suffering of the poor "brought to a head the class antagonism in Ireland...and again revealed the question of property as the test by which the public record is regulated". This was true, he went on, even of many of those men who at the time assumed "the garb of revolution". Property rights had to be respected even while thousands starved.

But there were those, John Mitchel, James Fintan Lalor and Thomas Devin Reilly, who "openly advocated, as the first duty of the people, the refusal to pay rents, the retention of their crops to feed their own families and the breaking-up of bridges and the tearing-up of railway lines to prevent the removal of food from the country". He celebrated Lalor, in particular, for his recommendation of a guerrilla war against the British, a war that, he insisted, could have been won. This was not to be.

Connolly did not only place the working class centre stage, however. One of his most crucial insights was that he also internationalised the Irish national struggle.

He insisted that the great rebellion of 1798 "was an Irish expression of the tendencies embodied in the first French Revolution", that the revolutionary movement of 1848 "throbbed in sympathy with the democratic and social upheavals on the Continent and in England" and that Fenianism in the 1860s was "a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International Working Men's Association". As he pointed out, branches of the association "flourished in Dublin and Cork".

At the end of Labour in Irish History, Connolly looked forward to the day when "the North and South will again clasp hands", to the time when it would be "demonstrated, as in '98, that the pressure of a common exploitation" could make out of Protestants and Catholics "a united Social Democracy".

Labour in Irish History by James Connolly, is available from Bookmarks, the Socialist bookshop.