James Connolly: Home Rule and the Gaelic Revival

Submitted by Matthew on 11 May, 2016 - 3:15 Author: Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson continues a series on the life and politics of James Connolly.


Connolly's period in Dublin coincided with the period of the Gaelic Revival, and the rediscovery (and re-invention) of Ireland's historical, literary and cultural past. It also led to a deepening of Connolly's understanding of Irish history and the Irish national question, establishing some themes which, in various form, would be present throughout his political life.

The Gaelic Revival was in full-swing when Connolly moved to Dublin in 1896, as sections of the Irish middle class, many of them Protestant, were looking to create an elite national culture appropriate for a future independent Ireland.

The Gaelic League was gathering a huge following after its foundation by Douglas Hyde in 1893 to promote the use of the Irish language. The previous year, Hyde had given a lecture entitled The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland calling for the Irish people to discover their language, names, literature and history. The Gaelic Athletic Association had been formed earlier, in 1884, to promote interest in Irish sports such as hurling in order to counter the influence of British soccer, cricket and rugby. At the same time, the young poet William Butler Yeats fuelled an Irish literary revival geared at creating Irish forms of verse, stories and history.

In 1892, Yeats founded the National Literary Society in Dublin and along with Hyde and the poet Katherine Tynan, he hoped for a school of Irish poetry founded on Irish myth and history a neo-romantic movement which was steeped in Celtic mythology, then-fashionable Victorian medievalism and echoes of the earlier pre-Raphaelite movement. As with many nations in the throes of modernisation, the revival movement was often romantic and backward-looking, appealing to a mythical and idealised national past.

Their Ireland was, in Liz Curtis's words, an ideal Ireland as imagined by a member of the Protestant ascendancy caste, influenced by Victorian romanticism in which an idealised aristocracy ruled benevolently over the peasantry. This romantic vision displaced the modern-day reality of Ireland, with exploitative landlords, rural unrest, growing sectarian division and the growth of urban life. Yet at the same time, the new culture nationalism had a virile quality lacking in the then seemingly moribund Home Rule movement.

While warning that you cannot teach a starving man Gaelic, Connolly recognised the movement's hostility to colonialism and its potential receptivity to socialist ideas. Some of Connolly's earliest articles in Ireland would be published by Alice Milligan, a young Protestant from Omagh in County Tyrone, and editor of the republican Shan Van Vocht newspaper. In these years, Connolly was involved in practical co-operation with the radical nationalists because, on certain questions, he reckoned, there was scope to work together against the bourgeois Home Rulers and the British Empire. One such issue was Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in 1897.

On 3 April, Connolly joined with the English-born Irish nationalist and women's suffrage activist Maud Gonne to organise a counter-demonstration to the jingoistic celebrations planned for Dublin. On a huge screen in a Parnell Square window-front, they displayed pictures of evictions along with pictures of the activists who had been executed or died in prison during Victoria's reign.

The Daily Mail recorded that a large crowd assembled carrying a black flag bearing a statement in silver-coloured letters to the effect that during the Record Reign over 1,500,000 people have been starved in Ireland, over 300,000 were alleged to have been evicted, and more than 4,000,000 compelled to emigrate.

The day after, the ISRP marched in a procession with a black coffin bearing the words British Empire on it, while a workers brass band played a funeral dirge on rickety instruments. Following a police attack on the demonstration, Connolly called for the coffin to be thrown into the River Liffey, while the crowd proclaimed: Here goes the coffin of the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire. Later that night, a police baton-charge on the crowd fatally injured an elderly woman, causing a riot during which shop windows displaying jubilee decorations were smashed up. For the ISRP the day's events were a propaganda success: so much for loyal Dublin.

The following year was the centenary of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, the revolutionary bourgeois movement inspired by the French Revolution. So successful were the republican-inspired commemoration committees that the constitutional nationalists felt the need to attempt a hostile takeover. Even the millionaire capitalist and royalist William Martin Murphy got involved, much to the anger of the republicans and the ISRP, who formed their own rank-and-file committees to give a radical interpretation of the uprising.

1899 saw the Boer War break out between Britain and the Dutch-descendent Boers in southern Africa. Instinctively, many Irish backed the Boers against Britain, who wanted to seize the Boer-controlled Transvaal in order to open its diamond mines up to even more ruthless capitalist exploitation. Arch-imperialist and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes quipped that he would annex the planets if [he] could. The first protest against English policy in the Transvaal came from the ISRP on 27 August 1899, and from October the movement against the war saw the Irish Transvaal Committee founded, with the involvement of Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith.

On 17 December, a protest meeting was organised against the visit of Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain who had been awarded an honorary degree at Trinity College Dublin. The venue was occupied by the police, so Connolly, Maud Gonne and Griffith rode into a nearby square in a horse-drawn carriage. When the police hauled the driver away, Connolly took the reins, driving through the police lines to what the United Irishman newspaper described as the enthusiastic cheers of the people, who immediately fell in behind the brake [carriage] and formed an impromptu procession around Dublin city centre. In retaliation, the police smashed the press of the Workers Republic.

Such antics drew the ire of moderate Fabians, such as Bruce Glasier, who wrote of Connolly in Robert Blatchford's Clarion of March 1900: How I envied him his self-indulgence and irresponsibility. Connolly took a dim view of both men, denouncing Blatchford's support for Britain in the Boer War as unqualifiedly chauvinist, and referring to Glasier when he was chosen by the Fabians for their Dublin lecture tour as the man most fitted to succeed in inducing the Irish working class to confine themselves to the work of municipalising, and to fritter away their energies and break their hearts on the petty squabbles of local administration, to the entire neglect of the essential work of capturing the political power necessary for social reconstruction.

Underlying this practical co-operation with the revolutionary nationalists was Connolly's increasingly developed thinking about the Irish national question in these years. During spells of unemployment, Connolly could be found in the National Library, reading and republishing extracts from the writings of James Fintan Lalor, the Irish revolutionary from the 1840s, who fought for tenants rights and land reform. Lalor's work had been resurrected by John Leslie in the 1890s, who hailed him as the man who first pointed out the class nature of the Irish movement. This view was adopted by Connolly, and was a source of some of the insights in and also the problems with Connolly's early writings on the national question, and the relationship between nationalism and socialism.

Writing in the 1840s, after the classical Jacobin-inspired bourgeois revolutionaries of the 1798 rebellion who wanted an independent capitalist Ireland but before the development of an Irish working-class movement, Lalor did indeed recognise a class basis to the national question, but the class in question for him was the Irish peasantry. The national question was redefined by Lalor as a question between a people and a class between a people of eight million and a class of 8,000. The people, for Lalor, meant the Irish peasantry, and its enemy, English landlords and their system. In his schema, the peasantry would rise up and replace landlordism with a utopian system of peasant proprietorship. Like the pre-Marxist Populist movement in Russia, Lalor hoped that this would allow Ireland to bypass capitalism completely.

As the Irish Workers Group's Connolly: A Marxist Analysis has argued, if the peasantry acted in according to Lalor's schema, at best they would have hastened the end of quasi-feudal landlordism in Ireland in a revolutionary-democratic way. In the end, it would have paved the way for a class of capitalist farmers, as market forces took grip, just as market forces dissolved the Russian peasant communes and created a working-class.

In his work The Irish Question in 1894 Leslie employed Lalor's social-revolutionary approach to the national question. He was using Lalor as an analogy for his own criticisms of the Home Rulers of his day, whose aim was purely for more legislative autonomy within which to develop an Irish capitalism. In an ingenious and seductive analysis, Leslie replaced the peasantry in his scheme with the urban and rural workers but the structure of the argument is unchanged. As in Lalor, the national question is collapsed into the question of land ownership, the right of ownership of the soil. For Lalor this meant peasant proprietorship; for Leslie, the nationalisation of land. On this basis, Leslie argues, the national and social questions are fused, and Ireland can industrialise on a socialist basis without experiencing the horrors of industrial capitalism.

Connolly would adopt and develop Leslie's position in his pamphlet Erin's Hope, published in 1897. This will be the subject of my next article.