Sean Matgamna: finding my way to Trotskyism, part 1: the "manacles" of nations and classes

Submitted by Matthew on 17 December, 2009 - 9:30 Author: Sean Matgamna

Sean Matgamna founded the Workers’ Fight group after political battles with and within the bigger Trotskyist groups that existed in the mid-1960s, the SLL and the Militant. How did he come to do that? Or to become a Trotskyist at all?

I’d considered myself a communist from when I was between 15 and 16, early in 1957. In 1959 I became politically active as a would-be revolutionary trade unionist, and I decided to join the Young Communist League.

I was working in a timber yard in Salford where was no union for the labourers. I decided to join the union and see if I could get the others to join.

I took an hour off and went to the TGWU offices at The Crescent in Salford. The official I talked to told me that the union had asked and been refused permission to organise the timber yard. He asked me to take in some leaflets and give them out. I agreed eagerly. I agitated — talked socialism, as I understood it, more than trade unionism — got five or six other young workers to join, and some promises from others that they would join if I wasn’t sacked.

I started organising on the Monday, and I was sacked on the Friday. From the point of view of learning about revolutionary socialist politics and the class struggle, it was a very instructive experience, a very useful beginning to political activity. You might say I was lucky.

About three weeks later I was taken to an interview room in a police station and roughed up by a couple of cops investigating vandalism at the yard. Truck windows had been smashed, and they were checking through people who might have had a motive. The yard owners set them on me.

I’ve had worse, but it was frightening — and instructive and focusing, too. Certainly, it sharpened my will and drive, and worked against any chance there might have been that I would accept the CP dogma about a peaceful revolution in Britain.

What was the background from which I came to the YCL?

I had lived for my first twelve and a half years in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland.

My mother had been 20 when the Irish Civil War ended, my father three years younger. Both of them were story-tellers, good story-tellers, rooted in a rich, entirely oral, culture, and my mother was a story-maker. I continued the story-telling and story-making habit with my son, Thomas Ruah Carlyle; and he, and sometimes I, continue it with his children, Nina and Charlie.

The tales were often political, and to do with what was to me history. I listened throughout my childhood to tales of the 1919-21 War of Independence against the police and military forces of the British state which then occupied Ireland, and of the 1922-3 Civil War which followed the surrender by Britain of 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland.

My mother was from Miltown Malbay, and was in the area when armed police went berserk after Republicans ambushed and killed a group of them at a place called Rineen. She told me about them shooting wildly, looting drink, setting fire to houses, killing “suspects”, and burning the centre of Ennistymon, one of the cluster of small towns in the area. She made me feel the terror she felt then.

My father had been a trade union militant long before I was born. He had been one of 24 men of Ennis charged in court with intimidation and conspiracy during a mass picket by the single-town union, the Ennis United Labourers’ Association.

There were some echoes of that in my childhood, but it was all very unclear and unfocused. The “town labourers” had scattered to jobs in England when World War Two made jobs for them there. My father too, back and forth. There was a militant labour tradition in the town. One of my very earliest memories — aged four or so, I deduce — is of men with placards walking up and down Abbey Street during a dispute, though by then emigration to wartime England had opened escape routes.

My parents voted, both of them, in the Irish proportional-representation system, first Labour and second Fianna Fail.

I grew up as an Irish nationalist in a very conventional sense. The schools in Ennis taught us history as a long struggle for Irish freedom, Catholic freedom.

It was an ethnic-sectarian middle-class version of Irish history where the good guys and girls were the Gaelic people rising again and again for freedom. It was a narrow, separatist, physical-force-revolutionary “construing” of a vastly more complex story.

In fact a number of the “risings” we were taught about could be called real risings only by stretching the truth. But where English kids learned about kings and queens, we learned about armed uprisings, and memorised the dates: 1641; 1690; 1798; 1803; 1848 and 49; 1867; 1916... Uprisings that were again and again defeated, until the bitter triumph in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and in which the heroes were often martyred. Fidelity was all, come what came.

The stories of the martyred of Irish revolts — who included Protestants, but Protestants who had fought for Catholic-Irish freedom — merged easily into the tale of Christ and his death on the cross to save humankind from original sin.

Here too, I was lucky. That history was myth-saturated, but there was also in it profound truth, including the most profound truth about the Irish history it mythified. And it was a twisted approximation to a Marxist account of history as the age-old and continuing struggle of classes, of the oppressed against the oppressors. It was all Hibernicised, and the enemy was England rather than the ruling class — but it was the English ruling class, the English landlord class, the Ascendancy class.

Though the term was not used, it was the story of a “proletarian” nation, the Irish common people, rebelling against an upper class that was also the English garrison class.

It conveyed the idea that social and political conditions were mutable, could be changed and reversed — that things which seemed age-old and fixed could be undone — that oppression should be resisted — that virtue lay in those who fought and never surrendered to inquity.

The “manacles” of nation and class

In 1954, we moved from that world, taking with us the intense class-awareness of the small-town world of the town labouring class — learned and absorbed from a thousand encounters, interactions, slights, exclusions, assumptions, rather than fully consciously — to Manchester, to the radically different world of large-scale-capitalist England, where the working class was vast and the workers’ movement had already created a strong welfare state. That was a great education in itself.

We lived in Cheetham, still very much the Jewish area of Manchester. The left-wing parties, the Communist Party and Labour, and the main industry, clothing, were all populated heavily by Jewish people. That too was an education for a bigoted young Catholic who had never knowingly met a Protestant, let alone a Jew.

I’d read a Catholic popular re-telling of the Bible, and knew a little of ancient Jewish history. I soon learned in some detail about the Hitlerite mass murder. I came to think that Jews were oppressed people too, like the Irish and the victims of colonialism and imperialism.

I was, midway between 12 and 13, old enough, and with enough history (school history and stories, mainly my mother’s, of the War of Independence and the Civil War), to have absorbed an unforgiving Catholic-Irish nationalism. I was slow to re-learn. In my mix of childish naivety and nationalist narrow-mindedness I couldn’t understand why my parents were so appreciative of such things as the National Health Service and regular employment. I didn’t want to understand. I found it nasty and ridiculous that my half-Anglicised cousins should celebrate “Guy Fawkes day” when, unfortunately, Catholic conspirators failed to blow up James I’s Parliament.

Of course, the populist-nationalist outlook took on a radically different meaning in the new circumstances. The Jacobin ideas of Irish Republicanism assumed very different meanings in the social condition of the Manchester working class.

In Manchester I memorised some of Patrick Pearse’s verses from a book I sought and found in the lending library. Pearse’s verse has had great influence in 20th century Ireland — including two memorable pieces called The Fool and The Rebel. They influenced me, and deep in my mind no doubt still do.

In The Rebel he says:

The children with whom I have played,

The men and women with whom I have eaten

Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,

and though gentle, have served churls.

The hands that have touched mine

the dear hands whose touch is familiar to me

Have worn shameful manacles...

In terms of Irish history for the 50 years of English reform-from-above that preceded the 1916 Rising, this is hyperbole. But it is plain fact about class society.

The lash of deprivation, hunger, exclusion from the “good things” of the society, and sometimes the thump of police batons, was and is real for the working class, for my people.

The “churls” were Irish as well as English churls. The robbers and exploiters of the men and women “of no property” (Wolfe Tone’s phrase at the time of the French Revolution) in independent Ireland were Irish. The gentle people ruled by churls were not only Irish, but also English and every other nationality of workers.

When we migrated I found myself confronting “the enemy”, the English, in their lairs. A strong Catholic-Irish nationalist consciousness at first, and for a while, shaped my way of seeing the new world around me.

I had been an altar boy. I took the theology seriously, such as I had of it; and, on the elementary level, I had quite a lot of it. I had worked at it and thought about it, for example about the old Protestant-Catholic disputes.

I tried to explain away to my own satisfaction reasonable Protestant criticism of the Catholic Church, which school had acquainted me with. Had Martin Luther been right to criticise the sale by the Pope of “indulgences” — remissions of time in the fires of Purgatory in the afterlife?

No, I decided, the Church had been wiser and more merciful. Better off people were softer than “we” were and couldn’t do the physically demanding penances that were the alternative to “indulgences”.

I was 14 then, and, evidently, thinking about the world in crude class terms.

When exactly the general ideas of Catholic-Irish oral history — and the attitude to “England” which they demanded — hardened in me into contemporary republicanism, I no longer know. I was “hard” enough at the age of 13, I guess, to refuse to stand up for the British National Anthem at a schools concert by the Halle Orchestra at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.

I suppose the report of IRA activity would have influenced me. For years before the “formal” Border Campaign that began in December 1956 there were arms raids and attacks on barracks and RUC stations that got a lot of coverage.

Simultaneously, I got valuable lessons in comparative history, learning in my English school about the history of England and the British empire from a radically different point of view to that of Irish nationalism. I held on to the Irish “anti-imperialist” view, but I must have had to think about it.

Of course, you’d have to be a nutter to sustain any real hostility to the real people around you — decent, good, thinking and feeling people. And I was inclined to like people, to empathise. I had the strong example of my parents, especially my father, in that. You could say I was an instinctive communist rather than the instinctive chauvinist I’d have had to be to sustain the narrow Catholic-Irish nationalist attitudes.

Soon they began to dissolve. My growing awareness of a British labour movement and of its history was like breaking through from a tree-shaded narrow historical creek into the broad ocean.

Breaking from the Church

My religious convictions began to fall apart too, between the ages of 14 and 15.

In Irish school history you were taught about the Catholic Church and the Irish people as if they were one. The cause of Ireland is the cause of Catholicism, and the cause of Catholicism is the cause of Ireland.

But it’s not true. The invasion of Ireland by the Anglo-Normans in the middle of the 12th century was fomented by the Church and authorised by Pope Adrian IV (as it happens, the only English pope in history). The attitude of the Church to Irish revolutionaries has typically been one of bitter hostility. “Hell is not hot enough, nor eternity long enough, to punish these miscreants”, as one bishop said of the Fenians in the 1860s.

I had, for whatever inner psychological reason, a longing for the past. I was obsessively interested in Irish and English history. I was holding on to and asserting my identity, I suppose. The parallel now with Muslim children of non-militant immigrant parents is obvious.

That spurred me to seek information and to read (and sometimes memorise) the verse of such nationalist “Irish Ireland” writers as Thomas Moore, Thomas Davis, J Clarence Mangan, and others, as well as of Patrick Pearse, the great heroes and exemplars of our school history. To this day I sometimes still find myself thinking and, sometimes, writing in the rhetoric of those poems.

When I came across the facts of real Catholic-Irish history, they shattered my belief. It took a while. It was a long struggle, but I found myself abandoning Catholicism.

(The level of political consciousness is of course only the tip of a psychological iceberg. Underneath it were all sorts of conflicts associated with the great changes that were going on at puberty. But that would not be of interest here).

I finally decided that I knew nothing about God and all the rest of it because all I knew was what the priests had told me, and they and the school teachers were liars because of what they had told us about the history of Catholic Ireland. I gave up on Catholicism, and very soon after that, midway between 15 and 16, I became a communist.

How? It’s hard for me to reconstruct that now. The sequence of events is clear, though. I read the fourth volume of Sean O’Casey’s six-volume memoirs, Inishfallen Fare Thee Well. (Inishfallen is a poetic name for Ireland). I probably chose the book in the library for that reason. I had found and read B Ifor Evans’s Penguin Short History of English Literature and some other similar books, and those may have listed O’Casey as a “communist”. I knew it anyway.

By the time I read Inishfallen Fare Thee Well, I may have effectively ceased to think of myself as a Catholic, or I was close to that. I found in O’Casey a class view of Irish society; an account of the Tan War; criticism of the Catholic Church (which was in fact largely Protestant criticism).

O’Casey’s account — a mix of imagination and fact, I think — of a Black and Tan raid on a tenement block in Dublin lit up my mother’s accounts of such things in Clare. His account of class distinctions and of the difficulties of the very poor, which is very bitter and in its way true, was a mirror for my own and my people’s experience.

His account of such people as Thomas Ash, killed by force-feeding in 1917, and Eamon De Valera took me into things I’d heard of and imagined. I had heard about the death of Thomas Ash from my mother; I’d served masses with De Valera in the Pro-Cathedral, as he was often there, Ennis being the centre of his Dail constituency.

It was the discovery of seams of knowledge I needed to have. It was the “secrets” of the grown-up from my childhood world, “recovered” and expanded.

Re-reading O’Casey’s book a few years ago, I found it a strange hodge-podge. O’Casey was a real fuckwit politically. He became a Stalinist in the 1930s, when he was also still writing friendly letters to Ramsey MacDonald, the Labour prime minister and soon Labour traitor. The book is a very strange confection.

But, by whatever process of reshaping my pre-existing nationalism and small-town proletarian class-consciousness, it convinced me of the general notion of communism.

I didn’t like what I understood of the “communist” societies. Yet, what did I “really” know about them? For sure the horrible homburg-hatted, top-coated, grim-faced, triumphant old men standing on top of the “Lenin” Mausoleum watching soldiers and tanks and rockets parading threateningly held no attraction for me, embodied no ideal. They alienated and repelled, rather than attracted, me.

Communism... and “communism”

But if you thought of yourself as sympathetic to the general idea of communism, there was a tremendous pressure on you to defend the existing “communist” states. You were forced by the hostile pressures and your own inability to distinguish between “communism” and the “communists” (in fact, Stalinist) in power to rationalise from what the “communists” were doing.

Most people dealt with the criticisms of “communism” by simply saying that the capitalist press was lying. That’s a psychological gambit of the left to this day, including now the anti-Stalinist left, to allow people not to take on board what they don’t want to take on board.

This two-millstones pressure from bourgeois public opinion and from rationalising from what you knew of “actually existing” communism exerted a deadly effect on the labour and socialist movements for many decades. It pushed generations of would-be communists into nonsense and political self-betrayal.

For instance, Stalinist shop stewards assimilated and rationalised what was Stalinist rule with their own difficulties in “controlling” and influencing “their own” workers.

I felt that pressure, and I was inclined to distrust and disbelieve all the “authorities” around me, lay as well as clerical, including, of course, the newspapers. But I was also, consciously and from the beginning, aware of the possibility of going from Catholicism to another religion, and perhaps because I felt my own hunger for it, I was determined not to do that. To some extent, of course, I did; but I never went along with the pressure fully, and I went along with Stalinist elitist and substitutionist ideas substantially for not very long, a few months perhaps at the age of 17.

I was politically isolated, entirely isolated, so I wrote things down and argued with myself. In describing my views then, I do not just rely on memory.

The thing that exercised me about my CP and YCL comrades, when I joined them, was their radically uncritical and unreasoning Russian “patriotism” — vicarious, ridiculous, displaced “patriotism”. I was too close to my struggle with my own patriotic chauvinism not to see that, and not to despise it.

O’Casey influenced me greatly, I think fundamentally because of the class viewpoint, which I had inherited with my mother’s milk, and the nationalism, which is also there.

The other book which influenced me decisively was Inside The Left, by Fenner Brockway, written in 1938 and published in 1942. Brockway had been the secretary of the Independent Labour Party in its “revolutionary” phase of the 30s and 40s. He was, though I didn’t know it then, a Labour MP for a while in the 1950s.

He was, if you like, the quintessential centrist, havering between reformist and revolutionary socialism, though he had a good record as a campaigner against colonialism and imperialism. He would wind up in the House of Lords, a defeated MP “ennobled” by Harold Wilson in 1964.

Later, I would see him greeting the CND Aldermaston to London march at Easter 1960 (Aldermaston was in his constituency, Eton and Slough). I was too inhibited to go and talk to him, which I regret.

The book is both a broad survey and a personal account of his experience in the labour movement in the first part of the 20th century.

It introduced me to the British labour movement as a movement, and to British (and not only British) labour movement history, in a way I had not been able to see it properly before. It correlated class, socialist politics with my pervasive “anti-imperialism”. It gave me an overall sense of socialism as not just ideas but a movement, locating it in history for me.

And he was criticising Stalinism from the left. Brockway had been linked to the “right-wing” opposition communists, the Brandlerites. But even the Brandlerites, in their criticism of Stalinism, by the late 1930s criticised it from the left.

As well as a sense of the labour movement, I got the idea from Brockway that there was a privileged bureaucracy in the USSR.

That idea did not translate for me into any lucid conception of Russia for about 18 months, but the seed was planted early, and by Brockway.

Strangely enough, I found that book in the town of Ennis in mid 1958. I went back there and lasted for only about three months. There was a library that was open for a few hours three days a week.

It was an era when there was all sorts of censorship. Many Irish writers, like Frank O’Connor, had some stories and books censored so that they could not be circulated in Ireland. Yet, mysteriously, I found Brockway, the “communist”, there. Part of the reason for that may have been the strong labour tradition in the town, although I didn’t know that at the time. Part also because Brockway gives an account of being in Lincoln jail with De Valera in 1917, and of De Valera’s escape. Brockway as a life-long campaigner against colonialism had a deservedly good reputation, and he must have been persona grata with De Valera and others in Ireland.

That may account for the book being there, but in any case the political censorship was not as rigorous as the censorship about sexuality.

I also went through a long phase in England, before and after my time back in Ennis, where I had no guidance on what to read concerning communism. The well-known writers on “communism” were “anti-communist”, or ex-”communist” (ex-Stalinists, in fact).Thus I read Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Road to Wigan Pier. I read Arthur Koestler.

I didn’t read much Lenin or Marx. I remember the amusement of the second-hand bookshop owner in central Manchester when I asked if he had Das Kapital. I tried to read a collection of quotes from Marx, found in the library, but I couldn’t make sense of it. I remember reading Marx writing that the ancient proletariat lived off society, whereas modern society lives off the proletariat. It is perfectly sensible, but to me as a 16 year old it didn’t make sense, and I blamed myself for being a fool.

I came across something from Lenin in which Lenin was belabouring the liberals. From my point of view then, “liberals” were good people, people who were against repression and for tolerant, liberal attitudes. Of course, Lenin was belabouring a particular political current of the Russian bourgeoisie, but at the time I couldn’t make sense of it.

Two pamphlets, however, did influence me. One was Connolly’s Labour, Nationality, and Religion in Ireland. He wrote it in 1910, a polemic against a Catholic priest who lectured against socialism, from within the assumptions of left-wing Catholicism. I found it understandable, and I learned from it.

I had been a Trotskyist for a couple of years before I got hold of James Connolly’s Labour In Irish History. I stayed up all night reading it through, finding in it a wonderfully “turned-round” version of the Irish middle-class Catholic-sectarian history I’d been taught and had been found in books.

I also came across a little collection of Lenin, called The Teachings of Karl Marx — very instructive, though very hard to follow.

I didn’t get access to any wide range of Marxist literature until I joined the Young Communist League.

Before that. and without any guidance, I depended on library books, and a book market of barrows that existed then in Manchester, in Shude Hill, where you would get lots of the old Left Book Club orange volumes from the 30s and 40s. Symptomatically, you would find left-wing criticism of Stalinism — Victor Serge, or Andrew Smith’s I Was A Soviet Worker — in books put out by the Right Book Club, a feeble riposte to the Left Book Club.

Reading and learning

I was always bookwormish. The fact of being first-generation literate — my father couldn’t read or write; my mother could, but rarely did — brought me some privileges. Is this ridiculous paradox-mongering? No. I had the privilege of having parents who really wanted me to read and learn. My mother, for example, when I was still at school, bought me a book she saw in the window of a junk shop, about the Reformation. My poor mother was soon thereafter convinced that she had put the seed of heresy in me.

Another time — I suppose I was 14 — she came back from some cleaning job with her sister in law Elsie with a wonderful Victorian family Shakespeare — heavily bound, almost tabloid size, and with a full-page colour drawing facing each of the plays.

I read at school. In Ireland then you left school at 14, in England at 15. I was on track to leave at 14, which meant that I was a bit ahead of my peers in England. In my last year I was allowed to spend a lot of time reading at the back of the class, things like Dickens.

I fell between the exam stools. To my great relief I didn’t do the Irish primary exam, and when I arrived in England I was too old for the eleven-plus.

But I was lucky enough to find myself in a small Catholic school, St Peter’s, just over the border into Salford, run by civilised, good-hearted people. De facto there was a policy of no violence against the children, and no threat of it. That was rare at the time. The teachers were very helpful, good people. They were very tolerant of my exhibitions of nationalism.

When I wouldn’t stand for the National Anthem at the school concert at the Free Trade Hall, I didn’t get the heavy-handed response I had expected from my experience in Irish schools. Instead, I met sympathetic attempts to understand and talk about my attitudes from my teacher, a long-domiciled Irish woman, Miss Dignan, and the headmistress, a kind if mildly severe English woman named... Lynch.

I was a timid little fellow, and must have had a struggle to screw myself up to defiance at the concert. The result of their sympathetic attitude was that I felt guilty: would I have dared to do something like that in Ireland? I am morally certain that the teachers did not intended to create that response in me.

I remember being intimidated by the grandeur of the great Central Library in Manchester, a late 1920s copy of the old British Museum library in London, with circular spokes of desks radiating from a centre. It is still there, now somewhat shabby and decrepit. Working-class people often are intimidated by such alien and grand things.

When I was leaving school, the headmistress did what was probably the best thing she could have done for me in the circumstances. She gave me a little pamphlet with hard-cover binding on how to use libraries, the Dewey Decimal system and so on.

I learned how to use libraries. I’d used libraries before. I was a member of the lending library in Ennis. My mother was always very encouraging. I got one of my cousins, Johnny, to join the library in Manchester, and I would go with him and he would take out books for me from the adult library, which as a child I was not allowed to do. Miss Lynch’s little book gave me confidence in using libraries to my own purpose.

The conclusion that I drew from breaking from Catholicism at first was that I knew nothing. Together with my family background, that created a tremendous drive to read, a tremendous hunger for knowledge. With the hunger went the sense of infirmity. Realising when young that on a lot of things you know more than your parents is not as ego-inflating as you might think. If you identify with them strongly — and I did and do — their deficiency is yours, as a sense of inferiority and unappeasable, growing ignorance.

The biggest early shaping influence — I suppose oddly, and maybe it will sound pretentious — was the late 19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant, best known for his short stories. Things by de Maupassant would be published with very salacious pictures, and I was a hungry adolescent, starved of knowledge and other things. I think I got interested in de Maupassant because of the smut factor.

De Maupassant was a very acerbic if implicit critic of society. His stories fitted in very well with my own social observations, and my parents’.

Family culture

My mother, for example, was very sharp on the social relations around her. She was also very sharp on the treatment of children. She had been an orphan. She had experienced, and then as an adult seen, the ill-treatment of children.

She would have been a revolutionary if she had lived in a different world. As it was, her attitude to the treatment of children implied a revolutionary criticism of society that she herself never made. I would make that criticism.

She hated the ill-treatment of children. She hated material differences within families, and children not being given the best possible. She hated violence against children. In theory she was in favour of hitting ill-behaved children, but she probably hit me just twice in my entire childhood, and then it was just a token — notional, you could almost say.

My father had pretty much the same attitude, though without the bitter intensity: his experience was of being the favoured youngest member of a large and close family. The thing to fear from my father was his oral aggression. Fiercely articulate, he could be fearsomely critical and admonitory.

Both my father and my mother were sharp, intelligent people, and — by the time I was born, when my father was 35 and my mother 38 — they had had a lot of experience. Both of them were benevolent, tinged with bleak realism.

She was more astringent, and expected not much good of people, though she was ridiculously appreciative of kindness from others. He combined his hair-trigger oral aggression with comprehensive empathy and easy sympathy. I guess my poor father, with his black wiry hair, darkish complexion and light eyes, and the character I’ve outlined, was a bit of a stage-Irish cliché.

I went through the expected adolescent conflict with him, and learned how fierce his verbal assaults could be. It was good practice for politics!

It was a family culture in which furious rows could flare up and harsh words fly, and be forgotten half an hour later. My father had an uncle, before my time, known as “Patsy the Savage”. Normally a good-natured man, he would suddenly “turn”, verbally tear someone apart, and then be surprised and sorry at the damage he had done.

It took me a long time in politics to understand that harsh words, once spoken or written, are not forgotten in half an hour — or half a decade — as fierce family rows involving my father were.

My parents married when my father was awaiting trial as one of 24 men, members of a single-town union, the Ennis United Labourers’ Association. They were charged with conspiracy and threatening behaviour over a mass picket of a quay near Ennis.

The jury acquitted them, despite something close to an instruction to convict by the judge — who promised the jury that he would not jail them if they were convicted.

Contemporary newspapers testify to a phase of tremendous militancy in the town. Most of the unions’ 500 members would march to mass pickets behind their band, even in small disputes.

Those men had, like my father, scattered to the far corners of England when jobs became available there with the outbreak of war.

There was nothing in my family by way of a sense of glorious class struggle. For that, for their experience in the 30s to be seen like that, they would have had to be part of a proud, continuous, political and trade-union culture, and we were not. My father, working in Salford gas works, was in the GMB, and would grumble that the union did little for the workers. It was an all-suffusing disappointment.

Yet the attitude, in big and little things, of class awareness, was there. I picked up on it, I suppose.

When I left school, I didn’t have any plans. I wanted to be a carpenter, a maker, like the artisan carpenter in Ennis who made furniture; so I was sent by the careers adviser who visited the school to be a trainee wood machinist in a factory that made furniture out of chipboard with veneer.

In the factory they had a system of taking on lots of 15 year olds as “trainees” — basically cheap labour. You were supposedly being trained, but actually you were just cheap labour. Most people didn’t stay long, and me neither. I would run into a couple of the boys from there later when working on the Salford docks.

Then I got a job in the clothing industry, literally by walking down a long street trying at one place after another for work and eventually getting in. I became a trainee cutter.

At 15 I had no plans in the sense of a realistic project that could shape what happened. A large part of what working-class people put up with is that they have no idea how the system works. My parents knew the world they grew up in, but they didn't know the Manchester world. We had no idea of controlling or shaping anything.

As I've said above, I conceived of the notion of going back to Ireland, which on one level was a desire to turn back to childhood. When I was 16 exactly I went to work in a clothing-rags warehouse, because I could get an adult wage there, though a very low one. I got £2.50 in the first job, which you could make up to £3 by working Saturdays. In the warehouse it was £8 or £9.

I saved up £100 and went back to Ireland with a fantastic plan to resettle there. But I was a child. I was 16, probably emotionally immature even for 16, and also immature in my awareness of social reality - which in a sense was a positive thing in that it made me explore things rather than settling into my parents' bleakly realistic acceptance.

In Ennis in mid-1958 I went around calling myself a communist and an atheist. The atheist bit was, you might say, a bit of self-aggrandisement, not fully true. Until, at about 18, I finally sorted it out in my head, I was still a little short of the hard and sweeping conviction that there is no super-nature and no God, nothing at all.

I have sometimes wondered how many other open and self-proclaimed communists and atheists there were in the west of Ireland then, or (again, perhaps self-aggrandisingly) if there were any at all. Except for my relatives of my parents' generation and older, who were not enlightened people or inclined to be tolerant, I found a general tolerance that surprised me. But generally I've found that people are inclined to be decent if they are given the chance.

Tolerance was limited, though. I was still a nationalist, and had not separated out communism from nationalism. (In fact I never have had a sense or belief that I have abandoned the positive things in Irish republicanism and nationalism - freedom from oppression and freedom to develop - only of all that being subsumed in socialism).

So I applied to join the Republican movement in the town, talking to the local secretary of Sinn Fein, a young man named Butler. Oh yes, he'd let me know when the meeting was.

He never did, even when I "chased" him. Maybe, as he said in his own way, the Sinn Fein branch was in disarray. I finally concluded that their quota for 17 year old atheists and communists was filled up for that year, and for that decade too!

I came back to Manchester after a bit and returned to the clothing industry. Then I worked in various factories, a foundry, the docks...

Sean MatgamnaClick here for part 2 of this article.