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The Real Revolutionary

Leo Keohane

James Connolly, by Lorcan Collins, O’Brien Press, 368 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1847171603

“Meticulously researched yet written in an accessible fashion” is the seemingly innocuous phrase that editors Lorcan Collins and Ruán O’Donnell employ to describe the 16 LIVES biographies in this series from O’Brien Press. Yet many biographers can be found ruefully scratching their chin after an effort worthily accomplished on one side or the other of what seems to be the almost unbridgeable divide between the authoritative and the approachable. The problem, I believe, is the tyranny imposed by the notion that one is going to tell this story exactly as it happened, without speculation, theory or extrapolation. This approach rapidly descends into a “one damn thing after another” narrative that drains away the lifeblood of interest and dramatic tension that produces readability, leaving a worthy but pedestrian result that is finally read only by the reviewer and perhaps the writer’s mother.

To my delight this is emphatically not the case with Lorcan Collins’s James Connolly. This is a story that relates the quotidian Connolly, his loves, his worries, his financial problems and his ambitions, while not shirking the task of detailing the various political strategies and movements. It is told in such a style that one willingly tangles with the welter of acronyms ‑ ISP, ISRP, SDF ‑ and the various formations and re-formations of socialist and republican organisations.

The book is also interspersed with incidental insights into aspects of daily life in Connolly’s era. How many people know that hailing a tram, like a taxi today, was what one did? Apparently the tram drivers were even encouraged to stop and ask did one require a lift. Voting had its price in those days: the need to provide one’s address to register meant that the rapacious debt collectors had a ready list of the locations of recalcitrant debtors. How did the GAA and its ban come to terms with the fact that Connolly was an ardent fan of Hibernian (Hibs), the Edinburgh football team? There are many interesting asides raised ‑ how would history have been shaped if Connolly’s ambition to emigrate to Chile around 1895 had succeeded?

There is an immediacy to this account that leaves one keenly aware of Connolly as a person. His fate and role in the pantheon of tragic heroes can obscure the living breathing being, but here we have the common man. To such an extent that one can marvel at, for example his extraordinary physical courage; not at Easter 1916 when he was propelled into mythology, but in the confrontations readily entered into in the various protests and clashes he was involved in earlier in his life. He had the intelligence to realise what his kind of opposition was going to result in. (Max Weber saw the state as the legitimation of physical violence against its recalcitrant subjects.) Yet he continually stood up and spoke out in defiance of the consequences.

Connolly founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1896 and from then on, in various organisations, protested, fought against authority and most importantly wrote and dissected the operations of authority, and primarily capitalism. He had a beautiful, articulate, clear and cogent style –it is surprising that more comparisons have not been made with Orwell. His perspicacity is beguiling; he saw home rule as “simply a mockery of Irish National aspirations” (national, not nationalism, mind you). The first of his newspapers, The Workers’ Republic, provided a continual analysis of the operations of power (when it was printed, that is). He described the hijacking of the 1798 centennial celebrations by, irony of ironies, William Martin Murphy among others. Collins heads one of his chapters with Connolly’s idea of “ruling by fooling”, which is a cleverly succinct summary of Gramsci’s notions on power –the belief that oppression was far more effectively accomplished by seduction than coercion. Later it was Foucault who, in describing the polymorphous techniques of power, said “Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.”

All Connolly’s political and propaganda activities were carried on in the most distressing of conditions: whether it was the openly vindictive policies of the Dublin Metropolitan Police smashing his handprinting press or onslaughts from those one might imagine would have had some sympathy for his policies, there was a continuing psychological assault on both his outlook and his person. This was coupled with what cannot be merely described as penury: it was a desperate fingernailed scrabbling for existence: going hungry even on Christmas Day with his family; tying flimsy slippers to his feet, hoping the length of his trousers would hide the string he used, so that he could work as a labourer and even then finding himself generally unemployable because of his ill health.

Yet there is an irrepressible spirit that breaks. There is the wit at a meeting where solemn minutes are recorded discussing whether it would be inappropriate to place the heater in the hall on the right. There is the extraordinary platform he spoke from which had removable legs to act as cudgels. There is at least one report of Connolly initiating the attack himself when no other means of quelling the hecklers was effective.

Collins recounts the human moments, their passions and their poignancy: Connolly’s letter to his wife in America despairing at the lack of money and his inability to provide for his family; his concern about having lost the little social momentum he had gained and possibly having to move back to the slums. There is an affecting account of the death of his oldest daughter. One might be tempted to describe Collins’s biography as a rattling good read (which it is), but that might plant the suspicion that erudition was sacrificed.

Was Connolly a Catholic and a nationalist? Collins quotes his letter to his close friend and confidante JC Matheson: “For myself tho’ I have usually posed as a Catholic I have not gone to my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left.” The book also, however, goes into some detail about Connolly’s last confession – an undeniable event. One could, however, say that religion did not play an important part in Connolly’s philosophy. Continuing the iconoclastic mode, Connolly is quoted about his plans for the new journal The Harp. “It is our desire to make the paper thoroughly interesting to the Irish Working Class here and as an antidote to the Home Rule and Sinn Féin drivel.”

These are, of course, just two quotations, but it can be argued that Connolly was in fact neither nationalist nor Catholic, or to be more tentative, these grand narratives did not play a very large part in his outlook. He certainly was not going to set himself against either of these: it would have been folly to have opposed Catholicism among the very people who strongly supported it, while nationalism, at the least, provided a coherence to the rallying of communal resentiment among the lumpenproletariat and he would have seen it as, at the least, as a flag of convenience.

It is possible to go further indeed and argue that he was not a socialist, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. He was a syndicalist. That is how he is described in the newspapers of that time (and Larkin too for that matter. Where the crux lies is in the continuing and ubiquitous error of regarding syndicalism as just another form of the political philosophy of socialism. Syndicalism, in brief, is the belief that society should be run, not by a central authority, but by a loose federation of syndicates or communes. That is, syndicalism is quite simply anti-statist; socialism, by contrast, believes that a state, that is a central authority in some form, is required to regulate the various interests in society. The Canadian libertarian socialist George Woodcock described it thus:

Being governed from below and untainted by the ideas or institutions of authority, the syndicate represents more truly than any other type of organisation the will of the workers and the good of society. Its lack of centralization and bureaucracy, of any kind of privilege or vested interest in the present order of society, give it a flexibility of action and a real solidarity.

Socialism is generally used as a catch-all term to describe left wing views, ranging from Marxism to a mild Fabianism. Syndicalism derives more from the ideas of the anarchist Bakunin, who rejected Marx’s notion that a state would be required temporarily until the inequities of society were resolved. Bakunin believed that any new state would eventually lead back to the old order of repression and injustice. A political idea of this type is radically beyond any of the revolutionary concepts associated with 1916 and would require someone to implement it who had a vision and resolve far and away outside the ordinary. I believe Lorcan Collins’s book portrays such a man, someone who believed in and attempted to put in place a genuine revolution, involving not just a socialist state, not just equality for women but the overthrow of the entire socio-economic structure.

The question to be answered is – did Connolly genuinely support such a philosophy or was he closer to being a conventional socialist? Did he not have an Irish version of syndicalism? It can be argued that Connolly’s extraordinary book Labour in Irish History is fundamentally a syndicalist tract, a historical justification for this political outlook. David Lloyd makes the point that Connolly was confronting the old idea of tradition inhibiting modernity by demonstrating an alternative tradition that could hold its place in the modern world. What he does is to take examples of the old tuatha (communes possibly), which existed up to the Tudor period and employing them as a direct example of the loose federation of syndicates.

The famous academic question posed by Gayatri Spivak – “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is answered emphatically by Connolly. This is a narrative of class struggle that takes one away from the old binary of coloniser and indigenous –Anglo-Saxon invader and noble Celt. In a wonderfully polemical phrase he sets out his position: “The hireling scribes of the propertied classes have written history.” Heavily influenced by Alice Stopford Green, he maintained “that the Gaelic culture of the Irish chieftainry was rudely broken off in the seventeenth century” and believed that, as a result, “the feudal-capitalist system of which England was the exponent” was embraced by the now foreign-educated returning Irish, who “knew nothing of the lore of ancient Erin and [had] no sympathy with the spirit of the Brehon code”. This resulted in the subsequent dispossession of the small land and property holders and their continuing exploitation by both the coloniser and the returned Irish gentry; all later disputes were between factions supporting one or the other side in a struggle for the “private ownership of lands stolen from the Irish people” rather than an ideological or even political battle. It is worth quoting him in more detail for his perspective on Irish history of the last three hundred years:

The so-called Patriot Parliament was in reality, like every other Parliament that ever sat in Dublin, merely a collection of land thieves and their lackeys; their patriotism consisted in an effort to retain for themselves the spoils of native peasantry … Sarsfield and his followers did not become Irish patriots because of their fight against King William’s government … The forces which battled beneath the walls of Derry or Limerick were not the forces of England and Ireland, but were the forces of two English political parties … The Wild Geese on the battlefields of Europe were not shedding their blood because of their fidelity to Ireland.

He even attacks O’Connell, describing him as “the most bitter and unscrupulous enemy of trade unionism Ireland has yet produced, signalling (sic) the trades unions of Dublin out always for his most venomous attack”. Of course it is often forgotten that the much vaunted 1827 Catholic Emancipation resulted (as part of the deal) in the disenfranchisement of the “Forty Shilling freeholders”, numbering about 160,000. Like the later Irish Parliamentary Party, Connolly saw a fundamental indifference to the lot of the disadvantaged in these much admired movements.

Connolly writes about the co-operative movements, among them Thompson’s from West Cork and the Ralahine experiment, all based on mutuellisme concepts taken up by the French philosopher George Sorel, who had a considerable input into syndicalist thinking. Sorel’s “Reflections on Violence” expressed his belief in violent action and a class war that would invigorate society; he saw syndicalism as essentially a “war on capitalism”. Interestingly, when Connolly finally took complete charge of the Citizen Army he employed them to reinforce a picket line in 1915 against the Dublin Steampacket Company who had behaved abominably, even by the standards of the time. It is the only example in Europe, and possibly the world, where a uniformed, trained working class army took on the representatives of capitalism in, admittedly a peaceful, protest

Robert Young, the American postcolonial theorist and promoter of Connolly as a deservedly international figure argues that he had moved closer to Sorel’s belief that working class violence possessed an “extraordinary efficacy”. This would go a long way to explaining his participation in the rising and answering the accusation of apostasy of socialism and an embrace of Cathleen Ní Houlihan (as Seán O’Casey would have it). But neither O’Casey nor other contemporaries fully appreciated Connolly’s depth of thinking or his extraordinary vision.

There was one who did – Captain Jack White DSO, putative founder of the ICA and another much underappreciated thinker. He was primarily a Tolstoyan pacifist, but his association with Connolly over a brief period in 1913 and 1914 made him also a lifelong supporter of syndicalism and a fervent admirer of Connolly ‑ so much so that during the Spanish Civil War, he greeted the Catalans with the “voice of revolutionary Ireland, smothered awhile”. As White saw it, the 1916 “rising is now thought of as purely a national one, of which the aims went no further than the national independence of Ireland”. The true nature of this revolution, he wrote, was “conveniently forgotten” and he tried to restore it when maintaining that Connolly, the international socialist, had only “made common cause with the Republican separatists [because they were united] against the common Imperial enemy”.


Leo Keohane lectures in critical theory at the Centre for Irish Studies, NUIG and is the author of Captain Jack White, Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army, published by Merrion Press.