James Connolly or The 100th Object in the Irish Times ‘History of Ireland’ series

Wednesday 24 October 2012 09:56

The Irish Times has been running a series of articles called ‘A history of Ireland in 100 Objects’ and they’ve announced that the public will be asked to choose the final object in the series. I would like to propose, as the 100th object and one which encapsulates the entire history of modern Ireland since independence, the miniature figurine of James Connolly on sale in the shop of the National Museum of Ireland. This figurine of the great communist revolutionary is categorised under the ‘Soldiers of Ireland’ list, mainly of people who fought and/or died for Ireland. The list includes The Papal Zouaves who fought so bravely for the Pope against Garibaldi’s red-shirts; General Richard Mulcahy, who signed the order that led to the execution for possession of firearms of 77 former comrades who were imprisoned during the civil war; Dublin Fusiliers who fought so bravely for the British Empire and Churchill’s dream of breaking the Turkish hold of the Dardanelles; and Patrick Pearse leader of the nationalist Irish Volunteers who fought so bravely for a Catholic Irish-speaking Ireland. Along with them is a colourful figure of a captain of the Bank of Ireland Yeomanry. I have no idea if the Bank of Ireland Yeomanry fought for Ireland, but they no doubt played their part in the class war. I’m surprised the Bank of Ireland doesn’t still have a militia, but I suppose it has the police and the politicians and the European Union on its side.

At least Connolly wouldn’t be completely alone in this mass of bourgeois reactionaries and tools of religion: Countess Markievicz was a socialist too, and makes her appearance in Citizen Army uniform as a ‘Solider of Ireland’. As well as being the first woman elected to the British House of Commons she was Connolly’s friend – though our nationalist histories would rather think of her as a hysterical escapee from the madhouse that was Ireland’s gentry. WB Yeats, of course, did his best to propagate that myth.

That woman''s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?

By ‘ignorant good-will’ Yeats means socialism. It’s a view shared by the present and all previous Irish governments, though the Democratic Programme Of The First Dáil (government) would have been more on Connolly’s and Markiewicz’s side (‘[W]e, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.’)

I propose Connolly as the 100th object in the series at a time
when the Irish Labour Party, of which Connolly was a co-founder, is participating in the mass appropriation of the wealth of Ireland by foreign capitalists. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that the little figure of the communist revolutionary and writer should be for sale in a museum. The Labour Party has relegated his dream of a workers’ republic to the dusty back-shelves of history, except insofar as he can be used to sell the occasional little man to a gullible public. It is interesting that the sole significant reference to James Connolly on the ILP page entitled ‘Labour’s Proud History’ makes no mention of his writings, his
communism, his analysis of Ireland’s class structure or his determination that the Irish worker should have control of the means of production in a cooperative system. The Irish Labour Party now stands for ‘jobs, reform, fairness’ – as does Mitt Romney, for one example. Connolly’s politics must be extremely uncomfortable for a party now dedicated to the conversion of an entire population to neoliberal entrepreneurialism (See footnote). Instead, the Labour Party does its best to fit Connolly to the marketable ‘Soldiers of Ireland’ model:

James Connolly, of course, was one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclaimation (sic), participated in the rising along with the Citizen''s Army, and was executed in May 1916
                                    (from ‘Labour’s Proud History’)

How far are we now from the ‘The Programme of Labour’ proposed by Connolly and his

'From the organisation of labour as such we propose to proceed to organise upon the co-operative principle that we may control the commodities we ourselves use and consume.'

The Labour Party has reduced that radical demand to ‘an Ireland that is just and fair’. Needless to say, Connolly didn’t have figurines of himself in mind when he wrote about the ‘commodities we ourselves use and consume’, but I think the ILP would be very happy with that understanding of his words.

Of course Connolly can be safely placed in the pantheon of nationalist martyrs because he died for Ireland - a traditional test. It is not well known, but of all the 1916 leaders, Connolly alone has the distinction of being shot twice for Ireland - once by a sniper and on the second occasion by a firing squad. The only other martyr who comes close is Joseph Mary Plunkett who almost died twice, once of TB and on the second and fatal occasion by firing squad. In the years to come dying for Ireland, at least at the safe remove of a century, will surely be commemorated at all the appropriate monuments and sacred places by parties dedicated to burying the memory of the radicalism and activism that freed us from the British Empire, to domesticating the enemies both home-grown and foreign that perpetuated poverty and immiserated the population. We will surely see, for example, the Royal Irish Constabulary and their auxiliaries The Black and Tans, included in the Easter Week festivities. We will be told that the the British Government never had anything but our best interests at heart. That the revolutionaries were brutal and their actions unnecessary. If the figurine of James Connolly could speak it would remind us that ‘Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland’. In these days when oil companies have free use of our offshore resources, billionaire bondholders the onshore ones, and our jobbing politicians are guardians of our interests, it pays to forget why James Connolly and his comrades marched through Dublin on Easter Monday morning 1916.

Oddly enough for a ‘Soldier of Ireland’, Connolly tended to view soldiering as the activity of capitalist dupes (see this article as an example). In fact Connolly would only see himself as a ‘soldier of Ireland’ in a very limited and specific sense (see ‘1916’ below). Unfortunately for our lords and masters and the general desire to celebrate our national heritage of struggle and martyrdom, Connolly was really dying for the the right of the working class to fight the bourgeoisie. This is an uncomfortable truth not mentioned in the details of the ‘Soldiers of Ireland’ figurine list.

Nor does the Museum figurine of Connolly conjure the kind of image that the late poet and dramatist Patrick Galvin had in mind in his great lament:

  1.        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

We now approach a series of historical anniversaries and commemorations of the events of the second decade of the 20th century. As I write the Irish Times is reporting that it is opposed to naming a new bridge in Dublin after Connolly. Instead it wants it named after the Abbey Theatre - worthy certainly, safe certainly, good for tourism too. The bridge connects the traditionally working class Northside to the centre. Perhaps the Irish Times is nervous of reviving the sense of international solidarity that socialism actively fostered in Connolly and Larkin’s time. Perhaps middle class Ireland fears the revival of the language of class and capital and exploitation. Perhaps it is in indicator of how dangerous the name of Connolly still is. Surely, in these times of neoliberal class war, none of the heroes of our pantheon is as relevant as James Connolly?

Perhaps it might be useful to remind ourselves of exactly how this national hero saw things, and to ask ourselves whether what he said then might still be said now.

1913: The great Lock-out. On the relationship between the media and the working class: ‘[Y]ou find always a sloppy sentiment sloppily expressed in favour of Labour in the editorials, but all through the news columns, and in all its headings and sub-headings, you notice that always undue prominence is given to every item that tells against Labour, the views of its most unimportant enemies are heralded forth with the utmost prolixity, and the views of its most eminent partisans are slurred over and made to read as unintelligibly as possible.’

1914: The First World War: ‘[G]overnments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class. The British capitalist class have planned this colossal crime in order to ensure its uninterrupted domination of the commerce of the world... Yes, this war is the war of a pirate upon the German nation.’

1915: A powerful essay on the barbarism of war: ‘[W]e have at all times combated the idea of war; held that we have no foreign enemies outside of our own ruling class; held that if we are compelled to go to war we had much rather fight that ruling class than any other, and taught in season and out of season that it is the duty of the working class in self-protection to organize its own force to resist the force of the master class. The force available to the working class is two-fold, industrial and political, which latter includes military organization to protect political and industrial rights. “Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword” say the Scriptures, and it may well be that in the progress of events the working class of Ireland may be called upon to face the stern necessity of taking the sword (or rifle) against the class whose rule has brought upon them and upon the world the hellish horror of the present European war. Should that necessity arise it would be well to realize that the talk of ‘humane methods of warfare’, of the ‘rules of civilized warfare’, and all such homage to the finer sentiments of the race are hypocritical and unreal, and only intended for the consumption of stay-at-homes. There are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilized warfare; all warfare is inhuman, all warfare is barbaric; the first blast of the bugles of war ever sounds for the time being the funeral knell of human progress.’

1916: On the reasons why The Citizen Army participated in the 1916 rebellion: ‘We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared... The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland fr
ee should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.’

And in case you’re wondering if things have changed since 1916, read this.


Countess Markiewicz studio portrait from the UCC multitext page

Connolly’s address to the linen workers - image here, text here.

Banner of the Durham Miners Association Connolly top left.

The Irish Citizen Army drilling. Source the UCC Multitext page.

The Workers’ Republic - image from the Labour Party centenary pages

Read the words of  the real James Connolly free at marxists.org

Buy the toy soldier version of James Connolly for a €17.95

The James Connolly Society


Labour Party Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn made the following statement at a conference in the National College of Art And Design (Dublin), proposing that all children should be taught to be entrepreneurs:

  1. In today’s society, entrepreneurial attitudes and skills are needed by everyone: entrepreneurship is the ability to turn ideas into action. Education for entrepreneurship is not necessarily a specific subject or a topic; it is a different way of teaching and learning based on project work and on experiential learning. The teacher becomes thus a facilitator, helping students to take the initiative in their education.

(Ruairi Quinn) EU conference on Teacher Education and Entrepreneurship 2012 NCAD

The link has since been removed, but interestingly the paragraph is copied-and-pasted verbatim and unattributed from this page. Perhaps, Minister Quinn regards plagiarism as an entrepreneurial activity. Or perhaps he doesn’t believe in copyright at all, though I suspect that ICF, ‘a brand of GHK holdings Limited’, might feel differently, especially since the page has the following notice at its base: ‘©Copyright 2012 ICF Consulting Limited. All rights reserved.‘ On the other hand, I’m sure GHK Holdings Ltd., would be pleased to know that an Irish Labour Party minister has quoted their website approvingly.