Where is our James Connolly?
Where oh where is our James Connolly ?
Where oh where is that gallant man ?
He is gone to organise the Union
That working men they may yet be free.
(Patrick Galvin) *
It was ninety years ago, at Easter 1916. The First World War was rageing. From Flanders mud to Middle Eastern desert sand, freezing in Russian snows, sweltering in African jungles, in the air and at sea, men were slaughtering and being slaughtered, with bayonet, shell, and gas.
For civilisation. For glory.
For the rights of small nations - but only those oppressed by the other side. Not for empire, conquest, profit, and secret treaties - who would dare think, let alone say such a thing?
One small nation in western Europe had sent more than its share of young men to serve the King of whose Empire they formed but a subject part.
Some joined up from poverty.
Some to fight and show their courage for a flag and cause mistaken for their own.
Some heard the Church speak up for brave little Belgium (itself the master of colonial slaves in Africa though now its people resisted the Kaiser's military boot).
Some heard Redmond's promise that for helping England now, Ireland would yet get its reward.
But in Dublin, James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army, formed in workers' struggles against capitalist greed and brutal police, had drilled before Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, beneath the banner saying "We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland"
Born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, Connolly was an oustanding socialist and a great Irish patriot, with none of the narrow prejudice and chauvinism that have tainted the British Left, or accompanied the selfish "patriotism" of bourgeois nationalists, Stalinist bureaucrats and Labour lieutenants of capitalism.
It was James Connolly who, responding to an attack on American socialist Daniel DeLeon, denounced the antisemitism of Britain's Old Etonian "Marxist" leader H.M.Hyndman, of the Social Democratic Federation, and his paper Justice, in its treatment of the Boer war:
"Justice, instead of grasping at the opportunity to demonstrate the unscrupulous and bloodthirsty methods of the capitalist class, strove to divert the wrath of the advanced workers from the capitalists to the Jews; how its readers were nauseated by denunciations of ‘Jewish millionaires’, ‘Jewish plots’, ‘Jew-controlled newspapers’, ‘German Jews’, ‘Israelitish schemes’, and all the stock phrases of the lowest anti-Semitic papers, until the paper became positively unreadable to any fair-minded man who recognised the truth, viz, that the war was the child of capitalist greed, and inspired by men with whom race or religion were matters of no moment".
Hyndman had called de Leon a "German-Venezuelan Jew", to appeal to racial and religious prejudice, Connolly observed, rather than sincerely argue with his opponent's ideas. (De Leon was actually a Sefardi from Curacao, though he had lived in Venezuela before going to the United States).
"Now, comrade de Leon is a Venezuelan, and the descendant of an old family, famous alike in the history of Spain and the New World, but if he were all that the Justice phrase has him, what of it? Suppose he were a German-Venezuelan-Jew, or a Cockney-Irish-Scotsman, or even, horror of horrors, an Anglo-Saxon, what is it to us or to Socialists generally?"
The Socialist, June 1903.Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997
In 1902 Connolly, a member of the Dublin Trades and Labour Council, had been asked by fellow-trades unionists to stand as a candidate in the municipal elections. Standing as a Irish Socialist Republican, in the Wood Quay ward, where Jewish immigrants from Russia had settled, he went to the Jewish garment workers union for support, and became the only political candidate in Ireland ever to issue an election leaflet in Yiddish. This was at a time when British labour leaders (and some established Jewish leaders) regarded the immigrants (and their alien tongue) as a problem to be curbed. Standing on an uncompromising socialist policy, Connolly faced bitter hostility from Church and press. Immigrant support was not enough to win Wood Quay, but it is credited with helping him come a respectable second to Redmond's Nationalists.
Regarding the First World War as a conflict between rival imperialists, Connolly felt bitterly the hypocrisy of Ireland's historic oppressor in proclaiming the right of small nations; and the irony that not only were Irishmen enlisting for an Empire which despised them, but men from the Dublin slums were dying in Flanders, where it had been said the conditions in the trenches were better than they knew at home.
Together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Connolly's Citizen Army, though only mustering some 250 fighters, launched a bold uprising. On Easter Monday, April 23, 1916, the IRB Volunteers and Citizen Army seized key buildings in Dublin. On the steps of the General Post Office in O'Connel Street, Padraic Pearse read out the statement he, Connolly and other leaders had signed, proclaiming the Irish Republic, in the name of past and future genrations:
"We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State. And we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish woman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, ..."
This was a modern rising. Across the city, guarding the southern approaches, Connolly's fellow-socialist Constance, Countess Markiewicz, nee Gore-Booth, shared command behind the barricades at St.Stephens Green. Later she would be the first woman elected to parliament.
Hoping the Dublin rising might awaken nationwide support and take an empire at war by suprise, Connolly overestimated those ready to rally to the rebels' side, and underestimated the British state's determination to crush them. Yet it is said he admitted "The chances against us are a thousand to one," and on the morning of the rising when one of his men asked what hope they had, replied cheerfully "None whatever!"
The seizure of Roger Casement with a consignment of German guns two days before had alerted the authorities, and been Irish Volunteers' commander Hector McNeil's cue to send messages around the country cancelling the Rising.
Fighting alone and without mass support, the Dublin rebels held out for a week, against vastly superior forces. Contrary to Connolly's predictions that the capitalists would fear for their property, the British brought up artillery to destroy buildings, and the gunship Helga shelled the ITGW headquarters. Streets were in flames, and many civilians killed.
Eventually driven from the blazing GPO building, and after the last battle at King's Street where 5,000 British troops with armoured cars took 28 hours to defeat 200 rebels, Pearse and Connolly surrendered. On orders from the Cabinet in London the leaders were tried by court martial in secret, and on May 11 their deaths were announced. Only Eamonn De Valera was spared by claiming American citizenship. James Connolly, already wounded and dying, was taken from a hospital bed and propped up in a chair to be shot. Revulsion at such cruelty turned many Irish people from rejection of the rebels to hatred for British rule.
The rising had been a military failure, yet politically it forced the British government to realise its rule in Ireland could not continue as before, and historically it marked the bloody rebirth of an Irish nation. In time to come James Connolly would be honoured in songs and postage stamps, even a fine statue and a railway station in Dublin today. We may recall sometimes the saying "It is the fate of all great champions of the oppressed that after their death they are canonised as ikons, the better to delude the masses, by those who hated everything they stood for when alive."
All manner of people, some genuine, some less so, have claimed James Connolly's name. Just lately though, those hacks for whom any kind of rebellion against Empire is out of fashion have returned to the cowardly denunciation of the Easter rebels which was common in 1916, particularly from those "socialists" who cheered millions off to war.
The year before he went to his death, James Connolly paid warm tribute to another socialist who had died, the Scottish miner and Labour pioneer James Keir Hardy, who had opposed the First World War. Not only the Irish people, but the working class internationally lost a great hero in May 1916, perhaps the finest socialist the British Isles ever produced and one of the best in Europe, in James Connolly.
* Song Where Oh Where is Our James Connolly
and here is a ditty James Connolly himself penned in 1907:-
We only want the earth!
Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our programme to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.
“Be moderate,” the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
“You ask too much and people fly,
From you aghast in wonder.”
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.
Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls!
But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.
The “labour fakir” full of guile,
Base doctrine ever preaches,
And whilst he bleeds the rank and file
Tame moderation teaches.
Yet, in despite, we’ll see the day
When, with sword in its girth,
Labour shall march in war array
To realize its own, the earth.
For labour long, with sighs and tears,
To its oppressors knelt.
But never yet, to aught save fears,
Did the heart of tyrant melt.
We need not kneel, our cause no dearth
Of loyal soldiers’ needs
And our victorious rallying cry
Shall be we want the earth!