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Irish Democrat The Road to James Connolly: The challenges of early socialism in Ireland

To popular memory, James Connolly and Jim Larkin are not only the two pillars of Irish socialism, they have become its founders.

While both had a transformative effect on the political landscape, they did not invent the wheel of Irish socialism, but rather made very significant contributions towards the form it would take in the early 20th century. The history of socialist thought and organising in Ireland before Connolly’s arrival warrants study, as an examination of it reveals the transformative effect of Connolly’s thought, and his vision that understood the national and social questions to be deeply intertwined and inseparable.

Before there were significant socialist organisations in Ireland, condemnation of socialist agitation on the European continent defined such politics as something fundamentally un-Irish. When the barricades of the Paris Commune were raised in 1871, the Freeman’s Journal condemned the manner in which “ the women of Paris have been prominent in the streets, with a red flag, demanding arms…and conducting themselves like ugly fiendish sisters of the witches in Macbeth.” 

The Nation, a nationalist newspaper that had been established by the Young Irelanders of the 1840s, went as far as to state that the aims of the Commune “are such as are utterly repugnant to the genius of the Irish race. Religion and Patriotism, the two most holy and glorious principles known to human nature, have ever been the guiding lights of the Irish people, the motive power of all their actions.”

The shadow of the Paris Commune loomed large over some of the earliest advocates of socialism in Ireland, primarily owing to the popular belief that the Catholic Church had suffered at the hands of the revolutionary forces.  When a meeting of a “section of the Dublin branch” of the Socialist International took place in a small room above a shop on the northside of Dublin in April 1872, a contemporary newspaper report noted that the speaker was interrupted and informed that “the Internationalists had shot the archbishop and priests of Paris, and great uproar ensued.” To compound the misery of those present, it was reported that the landlord of the house “burst into the room in an excited state, and called those present a set of ruffians and blackguards. He said he had been led to let the room on the pretence that the meeting was to be for a discussion of the labour and wages question, and that he would sooner burn the house over his head than hire it for the nefarious purposes of Internationalism.”

Early pioneers of socialism in Ireland included Adolphus Shields, father of 1916 rebel and actor Arthur Shields, something which led James Connolly to tell Arthur in the GPO that “I hope you will prove as good a man as your father.”  Charles Sauren, a friend of Arthur who would enlist in the Irish Volunteers with him in 1914, remembered that Adolphus was a “pioneer in the cause of Irish labour.”

 The late 19th century was a time of enormous change in trade unionism in these islands, as the emergence of a “New Unionism” in Britain saw the organisation of unskilled and general labourers en masse, something that would be replicated in Ireland, most notably later by Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. As labour historian Donal Nevin noted, the emergence of new mass trade union movements, as opposed to the “craft unions” of old, “had its effects on the trade union movement in Dublin, notably in the setting up of a branch of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland in March 1889. Adolphus Shields became the union’s district secretary.”

Shields was central to early labour demonstrations in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, including the first May Day rally in the capital. Significant labour demonstrations attracted crowds of anything between ten and twenty thousand workers, and Shields and other speakers did not refrain from challenging the consensus views of Home Rule MPs, with Shields telling one gathering that “they talked a lot about the farmer, but they did not consider the interest of the men in the cities at all.”  

Eleanor Marx addressed one such demonstration, reporting to the International Congress of 1891 that “To-day the workers of Ireland, North and South, are holding out their hands to each other, and to their English, Scotch and Welsh brethren. All this has been the work of less than two years.”

Did Ireland offer a particularly unfruitful terrain for socialism? The dominance of Home Rule nationalism, the sectarian tensions present in the north-east and the intense poverty of rural Ireland presented real barriers. Friedrich Engels took a dim view of Irish prospects, writing in September 1888 that “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time. People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land”.

The Fenian movement of the 1860s, with a leadership greatly influenced by continental social radicalism, had proclaimed itself to stand for “the national soil, the abolition of salaries  and the Republican form based on universal suffrage” in the words of Colonel Thomas J Kelly, an active participant in the 1867 rebellion and the likely author of its revolutionary proclamation, yet by the 1880s the social radicalism of the Fenians had been lost, and a more conservative and weakened organisation existed in its place, greatly hampered by the popularity of a Home Rule politics that spoke of the unity of classes behind the Parnellite flag.

 In addition to native  voices like Shields, pioneering figures in British radicalism, like Keir Hardie, sought to gain a foothold in Ireland. Hardie succeeded in establishing branches of the Independent Labour Party in Ireland, but by 1896 its Dublin branch had essentially folded, re-emerging as the Dublin Socialist Society.

This small body, which historian David Lynch has noted “was a very loose organisation that allowed socialists of various types to join and did not stick to any strict international structure,” employed James Connolly as its organiser in response to an advertisement in Justice, the newspaper of the British Social Democratic Federation.

Folded in a Dublin pub on 29 May 1896, the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) was the phoenix that emerged from the Dublin Socialist Society. The ISRP’s founding document is rooted in the pillars of Connolly’s political thought, proclaiming that it opposed not only the “private ownership, by a class, of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange”, but the “subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown”.  This fusion of national liberation and class consciousness is the singularly most important dimension of Connolly’s political ideology.

While republican and socialist thought had co-existed and collaborated before, the emergence of an explicitly republican socialism heralded something refreshingly new. With the arrival of The Workers’ Republic newspaper, Connolly sought no common ground with middle class nationalism, but instead poured scorn on how “Irish political history… has represented our middle-class Home Rulers and their journalistic allies as the high-minded apostles of a distressed people; future history will more correctly stigmatise them as the most unscrupulous political charlatans who ever imposed upon a confiding race.”

Donal Fallon is a historian and author from Dublin, with a particular interest in the social history of the Irish working class. He is author of 16 Lives:John MacBride (O'Brien, 2014) and The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar (New Island, 2015).


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