Rediscovering the reconquest

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined a new edition of James Connolly’s The Re-Conquest of Ireland in Issue 61 (September 2015).

John Callow, James Connolly & The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Evans Mitchell Books / GMB / RMT,)

James Connolly’s pamphlet The Re-Conquest of Ireland was first published in early 1915, selling for sixpence. In 2008 Adam’s auctioneers, apparent experts at monetising our history, sold a copy of that edition for €650. Now we have a lavishly produced edition of the work, in the dimensions of a coffee table book but containing the clearest breakthrough in Connolly scholarship for a long time. Its de luxe presentation comes at an affordable price, thanks to generous sponsorship from two unions based in Britain but conscious of their debt to Connolly. In a preface, the late Bob Crow makes amends for what he openly calls the “treachery” of the RMT’s predecessors against Dublin’s locked-out workers a century ago (p 19), while stressing that the rank and file acted more honourably. The Jim Connell Society and London’s Marx Memorial Library also contrib­uted to the book’s production.

John Callow, director of archives at that library, has rediscovered a cache of papers deposited there in 1969 by Bert Edwards, husband of Connolly’s youngest daughter Fiona. They contain papers relating to the Connolly family, including Fiona’s childhood memoir, letters written to her by Constance Markievicz, and documents relative to the political activities of Connolly’s children after his death—activities more extensive than is sometimes assumed. The jewel, however, is the manuscript of the last book Connolly published, The Re-Conquest of Ireland.

The story of these papers in itself forms another interesting chapter in the history of Connolly’s Nachlass. After their acquisition was announced in the Library’s bulletin, they were ignored and even neglected. Callow speculates that the tangled politics of British Communism had an influence in Connolly’s work being downgraded in the eyes of the library, but it is clear that straightforward lack of funds, personnel and care played a large part. It seems that Fiona Connolly herself had no hand in the donation, having separated from Edwards some time before. An inquiry from Connolly’s grandson Ross in 1984 was rebuffed, and what cataloguing was done confirms little understanding of what the library had in its possession. When Callow got his hands on the collection in 2005, gaps showed that some material had gone astray or simply been stolen.

Much of the collection touches on ground which has been well covered elsewhere, and the discussion of it here is sometimes lengthier than is warranted. But there are pointers which should serve to reorient our approach to Connolly. It is significant that Fiona kept a 1910 article by Peadar Ó Maicín welcoming Connolly’s return from the US. Given that she was a three-year-old in New York at the time of its publication, it seems safe to assume that it was her father who cut it out of the Irish Nation. While it is extremely refreshing to find a labour historian willing to utilise a source in Irish, it is unfortunate that he has had the article translated by someone whose Irish just isn’t up to the job. Anyone of middling fluency could have told him that “Togha Gaedheal” doesn’t mean “one of our best speakers”, that “leabhraíní” doesn’t mean “writers”, or that “beatha lucht saothair” doesn’t mean “who will feed labour” (p 56).1

While The Re-Conquest of Ireland didn’t finally appear until 1915, its genesis goes back a good bit before that—in fact, a deal longer than Callow notes. Connolly first employed the title and central concept of the pamphlet in 1899. He welcomed moves to bring public works under the control of the new county councils as the worker using “one weapon of his emancipation—the ballot box… to transfer himself from the employment of an irresponsible master to the service of a public board”, with implications for national liberation too:

The subjection of Ireland which is represented to-day as a mere political question is instead an economic, a social question.… The conquest of Ireland is founded upon the dispossession of her people from all right to the soil, and from all right to life except upon terms dictated by the possessing class… in exact proportion as the workers take the control of the work of the country from the hands of private individuals and vest it in the charge of public bodies representing the Irish people, in the same proportion does Ireland strike from off her limbs the shackles of slavery.

Class-conscious workers could “vote to take every industry from the hands of the master class and vest it in the hands of associations of workers”. When “this socialization of society, this gradual re-conquest of Ireland” would inevitably be opposed by British imperialism, “the fight for national independence will be taken up by the working class already in possession of the internal government of the country”.2 The same concept, referred back to the same period, would reappear in the opening chapter of The Re-Conquest. As the first germ of its central idea, it would have been useful to reproduce that article in this book.3

A series of articles by Connolly on ‘Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland’ commenced in the Irish Worker of 4 May 1912. Its first sentence placed the series in the context of the home rule bill which had just passed its first reading. Connolly was “prepared to accept it as a working measure of reform, by means of which we may secure a foothold to enable us to still further extend our grip in the future over our country, and thus over our own lives. But a final settlement it is not.” He condemned the Redmondites’ exclusion of women from home rule, and their marginalisation of workers, as evidenced in the refusal to allow Ireland school meals or the medical benefits of the National Insurance Act. Connolly’s series would focus on the results of misgovernment in Ireland, with a lofty aim in mind:

The goal which the Labour Movement of Ireland sets before the Irish worker is nothing less than the complete reconquest of Ireland.… This is the Irish expression of that world-wide struggle of the workers for the mastery of the earth.

The sixth article (although numbered ‘V’) appeared on 15 June. Connolly hoped that the Labour Party—whose formation he had successfully proposed to the ITUC the month before—would prioritise the plight of those injured at work. He returned to conditions in the north, “glancing briefly, from the working-class standpoint, at the causes responsible for the nurture and progress of that religious bigotry which has earned for this quarter its unenviable notoriety… no good purpose could be served by seeking to ignore it as, in fact, it will not and cannot be ignored”. He traced the economic development of Ulster after the Williamite war, the scarcity of land causing tensions “which the aristocracy carefully manipulated into a religious feud”. This continued with the industrial growth of Belfast, “the employers skilfully playing the one section off against the other”. Such sectarianism perpetuated the employers’ economic dominance to the detriment of all workers: “It is due to the capitalist-landlord system that we have seen in the North of Ireland Catholic worker pitted against Protestant worker”.

Two more articles were to follow. Jim Larkin had suggested that the series be published in pamphlet form by the Labour Party, but when he failed to respond to Connolly’s enquiries on its publication, they didn’t appear. Larkin’s coolness towards the Labour Party did a lot to ensure the organisation failed to take shape, and The Re-Conquest of Ireland was amongst the collateral damage. There is something to Callow’s suggestion that Larkin may have been un­comfortable that the pamphlet “might also have confirmed Connolly as the party’s leading theorist”. He is right to regret the fact that the work didn’t appear as originally intended, “forcing a hiatus in the writing and editing… that had a significant impact upon its eventual form and focus” (p 146).

A year later, Connolly was clear that the Labour Party wasn’t about to materialise any time soon. “Last year they passed a proposal to establish an Irish Labour Party”, he told the 1913 ITUC, “but up to the present it had not been carried out.”4 He set about reorganising, rewriting and expanding The Re-Conquest for publication elsewhere. Here, this process is located during “the Christmas and New Year of 1913-14” (p 146), following other authors.5 However, Connolly was still up to his ears with a certain industrial dispute in Dublin at that time, discussing its details from his sick bed and spending the new year away from his family.6 As Callow relates, he was sending the work to an agent on 26 January 1914, after it had already been considered and rejected by a publisher. The timing doesn’t really fit, and an earlier period in 1913 seems more likely. The articles which form the core of Chapter II were published in July and September that year in the Glasgow Forward.7 A reference to the present time is followed with “(1913)”, a handwritten addition (p 204) unlikely to have been made on the cusp of 1914.

The result is reproduced photographically here. It is a collection of manuscript pages and newspaper cuttings, often cut and re-ordered, interspersed with additions, corrections and emendations. The whole is transcribed, including chapters absent from the manu­script. In all, it provides a priceless opportunity to witness Connolly at work, writing and rewriting, honing his message.

Connolly prefaces the work with a ‘Foreword’, before dropping the first article of the Irish Worker series. The prospect of home rule had receded with the growth of unionist resistance and establishment collaboration with it, and this may have influenced Connolly to broaden the context of his work beyond that. The title became just The Re-Conquest of Ireland, as the existence of a formal labour party looked increasingly doubtful. The second article in that series became the opening chapter, reordered and spliced with a section from an article of Connolly’s in Forward. The next chapter, ‘Ulster and the Conquest’, added extra material before and after a Forward article (including extracts from another article in the same paper). The next consisted of the third Irish Worker article (word for word, not “heavily reworked and edited” as claimed on p 141), plus the end of another Forward article—although only the latter cutting survives with the manuscript. ‘Belfast and its Problems’ combined articles III and IV from the Irish Worker series, with two cuts and a passage moved. The final article from the original series was dropped. Chapters on women and on education are in manuscript form. They may well have been the next two chapters intended for the Irish Worker in 1912, but must have been written later, as one refers to a schools inspection report published in the summer of 1913. A concluding chapter entitled ‘Re-Conquest’ is also in Connolly’s hand, with its final paragraph taken from article III of the original series.

The manuscript is transcribed here, but not as well as it could have been. Most pages have something which is questionable or plain wrong. Much of this concerns paragraph breaks, punctuation and capital letters being added or removed, but—while the transcription would have gained by sticking more closely to the original—there are more significant issues. Text is occasionally omitted or copied wrongly even from newspaper cuttings, and bigger problems arise from misreading Connolly’s writing. His handwriting was notorious and takes some skill to decipher (easiest done by those of us similarly afflicted), but just a little more effort would have made sense of it.

The opening sentence of Connolly’s pamphlet is well known: “The underlying idea of this work is that the Labour Movement of Ireland must set itself the Re-Conquest of Ireland as its final aim, that that re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its powers of wealth-production, and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.” While the original printers read it properly,8 its style and substance suffers here, with “final” misread as “primal”, “that re-conquest” as “the re-conquest”, “powers” as “processes”, and “natural” as “national” (p 166). In other instances, “Conquest” is rendered as “Continent” (p 224), whole clauses are left out (p 215, 224, 233), and “244 pupils” are reduced to “144 pupils” (p 229).9

Discrepancies between Connolly’s manuscript and the printed pamphlet often go unnoticed. Some obviously arise from the thankless task of the printers having to understand what Connolly had some­times scrawled in haste. Such differences should at least have been noted, and where significant, used to correct errors in previous editions. It was right that a poem misquoted from memory (p 218) was corrected in 1915.10 It was presumably Connolly himself who chose to replace “proletariat” (p 221) with the less foreign “army of Labour”. But other divergences from the manuscript must be printer’s errors. The system of “clerically controlled education” (p 236) became “despotically controlled education”—although it could be argued that the distinction is a fine one! The division of trade unions in face of “a united enemy” (p 244) became “the mutual enemy”. Connolly’s manuscript envisaged political power emerging from the industrial arena “as the expression” of the workers’ economic power, before changing it to “as one expression” (p 245), but the correction doesn’t appear in the pamphlet. Support for the working class from rural co-operators, Irish speakers and patriots was described as a “happy synchronising of ideals” (p 251), but the printers performed the feat of turning “ideals” into “facts”.11

Two whole chapters from the final version are absent from the manuscript. One was taken from an article Connolly contributed to The Irish Review during the lockout, although there is no recognition of that fact here.12 The other, on the co-operative movement, was obviously written after the lockout, as was the concluding chapter. The first two pages of the chapter ‘Woman’ are missing from the manuscript, and that section, with its reference to “The recent dispute in Dublin”,13 must have been added in 1914. The opening of the chapter on ‘Schools and Scholars in Erin’ also seems to be a later addition.

The Re-Conquest having been rejected by Maunsel, who published his Labour in Irish History in 1910, Connolly sent it to a literary agent in London in January 1914 in the hope of publication there. This book has the merit of quoting from Connolly’s letters to that agent, Conal O’Riordan. Including the longest autobiographical note Connolly ever wrote, they would have been worth publishing in full, as they have never appeared in print.14 Callow follows the frustrating trail as O’Riordan displayed little understanding or enthusiasm for Connolly’s politics, and “the cultural and class divide” between the two men (p 150) began to rankle.

Callow writes that the book “grew out of street corner meetings held in the spring of 1912 in Library Street, Belfast” (p 139). While he is following other biographers here,15 the evidence shows that those lectures were given in 1914, after publication of the original series. In the Irish Worker Cathal O’Shannon announced “a series of lectures on Ulster History” by Connolly, beginning with ‘Religious Persecution’.16 Other Connolly speeches occupied his notes for the next two weeks, until a report on “the third of his series of lectures” describes a clear reprise of the discussion of post-plantation Ulster from 1912.17 A week later his notes extolled “the educative value of the series of lectures”, which inspired one opponent to hurl a bolt at Connolly’s head. Including these reports, along with the ‘Labour and the Re-Conquest of Ireland’ articles not included in the final pamphlet, would have rounded out the background to the work more fully.18 The lectures in Belfast may even have coincided with a final polishing of the text.

When all else failed, Connolly had The Re-Conquest of Ireland printed by the ITGWU: “Connolly wasted little time, after being installed as Acting General Secretary on 29 October 1914, in getting his work published” (p 287). However, while Liberty Hall is given as place of publication, neither the union or anyone else is mentioned as publisher. It was extensively advertised when the new Workers’ Republic appeared: “Should Be In Every Home… indispensable to all who wish to understand the many forces making for a regenerated Ireland… alike to the Social Reformer and the true Patriot”. Favour­able reviews were quoted, Forward calling it “brilliantly written”, and the suffragette Daily Citizen “an exceedingly valuable contribution to contemporary Irish thought”. Less expected were the Catholic Times’s decision to “heartily commend” it, while the Irish Times cautiously detected “food for thought which, revolving in the minds of practical men, may result in some desirable reforms”.19

So the claim here that the book received a “critical mauling” (p 137) doesn’t stand up, but it has fared poorly enough in later generations. While some biographers merely summarise it, those who engaged with it have often taken a negative view. Their criticisms do have some justification, but only apply to parts of the book. As Callow says, there is a “sense of unevenness” which “stems from the manner in which The Re-Conquest was written” (p 138). Other Connolly works, like Labour in Irish History and Socialism Made Easy, were written over more than a decade in two continents,20 but between start and finish of this one, “the political landscape had changed beyond all recognition and the immediate agenda… had evaporated” (p 153). When he first put pen to paper in 1912, Connolly was hopeful that a labour party, based on a growing union movement, could gather real political force in a post-home rule Ireland. By the time the pamphlet appeared, home rule was on the long finger and poisoned by the threat of partition. The labour movement had been devastated by the defeat of the lockout, international socialism had all but ceased to exist at the outbreak of world war, and the war itself rolled out a radically changed political terrain. The past to which the book belonged was a foreign country, and they did things differently there.

Publishing it in 1915 was, to a large extent, a tying of loose ends, bringing out a very worthwhile pamphlet whose time had passed, but better late than never. Its vision of the working class “quietly invading …every position of political power”, using the ballot box “to give expression to the soul of the race”,21 came from a very different place to the Liberty Hall of 1915 where its author was organising the Citizen Army to assault political power through insurrection. It can in no sense “be read as his last political testament” (p 154). Connolly was by then “operating in entirely unexpected and unfamiliar terrain with… only his own resources, instincts and naked eye to provide a guide” (p 271). When he was reacting to what he himself called “exceptional times”,22 it is too much to expect anything like an overarching summation of his political credo. From 19 February 1916 on, he even stopped advertising the pamphlet in the Workers’ Republic.

The electoral emphasis of The Re-Conquest of Ireland does now come across as its weakest aspect. Living in the aftermath of Enda Kenny’s vaunted “democratic revolution” at the ballot box confirms the belief that our destinies are shaped far more by anonymous financial markets than by the politicians we elect. But this only strengthens Connolly’s contention that collective popular control of the economy is key to a real democratic future. This overall goal is an essential feature of any labour movement worthy of the name, and the way Connolly articulates it as a logical progression from even the smallest details of local reform is exemplary. Past, present and future are linked in a creative and convincing manner. His eagerness to summon new forces such as the women’s and co-operative move­ments to labour’s banner, and to confront the specific problems of Irish and especially northern society, points towards a broader and deeper kind of revolution.

The fact that the manuscript has now appeared a century later is intriguing, and John Callow has left us all in his debt by rescuing and bringing it to public attention. It leaves us to wonder what other Connolly manuscripts might lay unutilised. A note here says that the manuscript of Labour in Irish History went astray after Nora Connolly lent it to Co. Galway VEC (p 138), and if so, it could turn up yet. Such documents have a crucial role to play in producing rigorous critical editions of Connolly’s writings. A thinker and fighter of his stature deserves that, and we deserve the greater insights it would shed on his work and the challenges we face ourselves.

An abridged version of this review appears in Saothar 39.


  1. Translating Ó Maicín’s use of “Cumannacht” as “communist” leads Callow to see “a brave departure” (p 58) where, in reality, he was only using the current Irish term for socialism (“sóisialachas” not appearing for another couple of years). Likewise, “Cumannacht na hÉireann” was the Irish name for the Socialist Party of Ireland rather than a reference to “Irish communism”. Ó Maicín’s article was among a selection of his re­published as ‘Caithfidh cumannacht a bheith ar bun’ in Red Banner, December 2007.
  2. ‘The Re-Conquest of Ireland’, The Workers’ Republic, September 2 1899.
  3. It is available in James Connolly, The Lost Writings, ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh (London: Pluto 1997), p 32-5, but the version in James Connolly, Political Writings 1893-1916, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: SIPTU 2011), p 135-7, omits a third of it.
  4. Irish Worker, May 17 1913.
  5. See especially C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1961), p 270.
  6. See his letters to Lillie Connolly, 1 January 1914, and to O’Brien, 15 January 1914, reprinted in James Connolly, Between Comrades: Letters and Correspondence 1889-1916, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2007), p 505-6.
  7. ‘July the 12th’ and ‘A Forgotten Chapter of Irish History’, reprinted in James Connolly, Selected Political Writings, ed. Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom (London: Jonathan Cape 1973), p 143-58.
  8. James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: 1915), p 1.
  9. This last particular mistake has a long and persistent pedigree, first appearing in James Connolly, Labour in Ireland (Dublin: Three Candles, no date, p 233) (and reprinted in James Connolly, Collected Works, I, Dublin 1987: New Books, p 249), carried over into later editions of The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin: New Books 1968, p 53; and 1983, p 57), and latterly in James Connolly, Collected Works, ed. Dónal Nevin (Dublin: SIPTU 2011, p 324).
  10. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 40. Connolly had form here, having mis­quoted the same poem in the same way in ‘Harp Strings’, The Harp, February 1908.
  11. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 41, 48, 55, 56, 58.
  12. James Connolly, ‘Labour in Dublin’, The Irish Review, October 1913. Reprinted in Political Writings, p 504-8. Similarly, a cutting from Forward is mistaken for the Irish Worker (p 170).
  13. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 37.
  14. While O’Riordan’s replies are included in Between Comrades, p 506-9, 513, Connolly’s side of the correspondence is not.
  15. See primarily Greaves, p 226, 231.
  16. Crobh Dearg, ‘Northern Notes’, The Irish Worker, April 25 1914.
  17. Crobh Dearg, ‘Northern Notes’, The Irish Worker, May 9 1914.
  18. They were republished in Red Banner, December 2007, March 2008, June 2008.
  19. Workers’ Republic, May 29 1915 and passim. On October 9 1915 the paper reprinted a favourable review from New Ireland, having given an extract from a review in the London Herald on July 31.
  20. See Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh, ‘James Connolly and the writing of Labour in Irish History’, Saothar 27 (2002).
  21. The Re-Conquest of Ireland, p 8, 17.
  22. ‘Notes on the Front’, Workers’ Republic, December 4 1915. This article is reprinted in James Connolly, Collected Works, II (Dublin: New Books 1988), p 114-18, but the version in Political Writings, p 585-6, silently omits several sections.

How did Trotsky lose?

In Issue 60 (June 2015), seventy five years after Leon Trotsky’s assassination, Joe Conroy tackled the enigma of his defeat at the hands of Stalin.

The personal fate of Leon Trotsky has often come to personify the destiny of the Russian revolution, and not without reason. His precipitous ascent to the heights of revolutionary glory was followed by abrupt consignment to the political margins, exile, and finally death 75 years ago. It is a rise and fall that mirrors in many ways the flowering and withering of the revolution itself, and examining how someone who had it all ended up with nothing can help us understand that wider failure.

It’s not that far-fetched to imagine Trotsky as Russia’s Michael Collins. He was, after all, the man who won the war. This is not to say that he fought every battle and fired every bullet, no more than Collins did, but that no one played a greater role in organising the military resistance. This won Trotsky immense prestige among socialist veterans of the civil war, and fierce loyalty from those who had personally fought alongside him. The comparison extends to the superficial but not insignificant matter of Trotsky’s looks. He was a handsome figure who took care over his appearance and invariably cut a dash on the historical stage. While history knows far more weighty factors, this kind of thing does count for something when people decide who to support or not. Throughout his life Trotsky remained an eminently self-confident person who exercised an attraction for those around him, on various levels. Stalin, on the other hand, his prime opponent in post-revolutionary controversy, was always a bland uninviting personality with a face only a mother could love—some­thing Trotsky liked to remark upon in his less charitable moments.

Just as such considerations played a part in Trotsky’s rise, so the jealousy they sparked played a part in his fall. It will take more than one revolution to slay the green-eyed monster, and it is still far from unknown for the bitter tensions of left-wing politics to be spiced with a little envy, personal grudges blurring with political disagreement. Trotsky often had to face the enmity of lesser men, and sometimes pointing up their inferiority was his weapon of choice in reply. The polemical put-downs often silenced his protagonist, but deposited a layer of resentment which would later get its chance to seep through.

Trotsky was, of course, a latecomer to the Bolshevik party. His disagreement with the Bolsheviks was very bitter and occasionally petty to begin with, smoothed over a little through the practicalities of revolution in 1905, but trenchant throughout. Its effectiveness lay in the fact that he was pinpointing where Bolshevism was not revolution­ary enough, its notion that Russia’s working class could come to power but then somehow leave it without attacking the roots of capitalism. Insisting that workers in power would have no real option but to fight for their own social and economic liberation as well as ending the Tsarist dictatorship, he charted a course for permanent revolution which Bolsheviks dismissed with bad consciences.

But history came to meet Trotsky in 1917, a year whose events seemed to fall into his predictions far better than the Bolsheviks’. Among Lenin’s greatest achievements was to realise this and act accordingly. One of his means of turning the Bolshevik party around was to bring Trotsky and his fellow-thinkers in. While Trotsky balked at swallowing the word Bolshevism, his group did come into the Bolshevik fold, taking seats on its central committee and roles among its most prominent activists. This neo-Bolshevik party shed much of its pre-revolutionary skin, and an influx of new 1917 revolutionaries helped to swamp its lingering conservatism.

While the doubts of lingering conservatives justifiably get forgotten in the rush of revolution, Trotsky’s appearance at the summit of their party must have rankled with a good few old Bolsheviks. For years they had repeated Lenin’s condemnations of Trotsky’s ultra-left idiocy, but now they were expected to pursue it as a policy and even applaud its author. After loyally carrying out a hundred thankless tasks for the party, undergoing sacrifices big and small, now they had to sit back and watch an arrogant Johnny-come-lately leapfrog over them into instant leadership. They wouldn’t have been human if seeds of antipathy weren’t sprouting luxuriantly within them.

His pre-eminent military role was a double-edged sword here. Sweeping from front to front to direct and inspire the defence of the revolution annoyed his rivals, not so much by its flamboyance as its success. His largely improvised sense of strategy had a knack of getting results where others didn’t. The fact that he promoted good soldiers over loyal Communists made him many enemies in the party who welcomed the opportunity to get their own back.

Trotsky was an intensely unpragmatic person. He wasn’t one to do something just because it seemed the right thing to do: instead he had to reconcile it with his principles, understand it within a wider global and historical context. This is one of his great strengths, and an asset to us looking back at his life’s work. But it ill fitted him to take up a place within a system of administration, where every day decisions have to be taken that happen to be right for their time and place, and perhaps not for other times and places.

The Russian revolution often restricted the liberties of its opponents, for instance. It’s highly unlikely that any revolution will find itself in the happy position of not requiring such restrictions, and the best of them will strain to minimise them and direct them at real opponents. However, Trotsky quickly got into the habit of defending such restrictions in and of themselves, even glorifying in them as examples of positive rational politics rather than enforced temporary departures from the norm. Making a virtue out of cruel necessity tended to normalise the shutting down of dissent, to anaesthetise public opinion to it—and that would come back to bite him later on.

Lenin having brought Trotsky into the leadership, Trotsky’s marginalisation coincided with Lenin’s illness and death. His comments from his sickbed characterise Trotsky as “the most capable man” in the party leadership, with “outstanding ability”. But his accusation of “excessive self-assurance” doesn’t just reflect the old Bolshevik scepticism towards the newcomer, and “excessive pre­occupation with the purely administrative side of the work” is actually a mild description of Trotsky’s outrageous plan to enforce military discipline on workers who didn’t work hard enough.

This same ‘testament’ of Lenin contained an explicit recommend­ation that Stalin be removed from the party leadership, and the fact Stalin survived this still remains surprising. Trotsky was constrained from seizing the opportunity provided by the testament, because Lenin’s opinion of Trotsky himself was ambiguous. Launching a campaign against Stalin on the basis of Lenin’s wishes would have entailed taking himself down a peg or two as well. He went along with a leadership decision to sweep Lenin’s advice under the carpet, even denying its very existence.

Besides, Trotsky had no stomach for a squabble over a dead man’s clothes. He felt that to argue over Lenin’s succession was beneath his dignity, and often saw internal party politics generally in the same light. He had a habit of withdrawing from the fray at the height of party crises, sometimes to write a brilliant book. While being denounced from a height at central committee meetings, he sat there reading a French novel. There is something admirable about his conscientious objection to fighting such a war of frogs and mice, but at a time when Russian politics was being largely shaped by inside machinations, his retreat to the grand sweep of historical perspective left him at a disadvantage.

He was famously misinformed of the timing of Lenin’s funeral, giving the impression that he was a less than enthusiastic devotee of the cult soon woven around the dead leader. In fact, Trotsky moved quickly to become Leninicis ipsis Leniniores, more Leninist than Lenin. This meant downplaying or ignoring the real controversies that had raged between the two of them, especially where Lenin had been in the wrong, and consequently became an act of self-effacement for Trotsky. Like the Waterboys, he now only claimed to have seen the crescent while Lenin saw the whole of the moon. Whereas Lenin’s halo was made to shed reflected glory on lesser figures, it could only put Trotsky in the shade.

One of the articles of faith of posthumous Leninism was the over­riding power of the party, outside which there could be no salvation. Trotsky’s biggest error was to bow down low before this altar:

Comrades, none of us wants to be or can be right against the party. In the last analysis, the party is always right… I know that no one can be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the party and through it…

History supplies few examples of more capable hands being hog-tied so comprehensively, and by themselves. Ruling out in advance the very possibility of organising outside the framework of the Communist Party, staking everything on that party’s internal evolution, he placed himself at the mercy of an organisation gearing up to sideline him. The way seemingly indomitable Bolsheviks prostrated them­selves in the show trials of the 1930s owed much to this same logic.

Trotsky could hardly bring himself to credit that the man who would take the lead in trampling on the revolution was Stalin. He regarded him as such a non-entity that even working up contempt for him required some effort on his part. It is true that intellectually Stalin counts for next to nothing, but this is precisely what suited him for power when the revolutionary tide had gone out. At a time when Bolshevik ambitions for world revolution grew more distant, a theoretical sense was needed to envisage its potential return. Hum­drum practicality became the watchword of those determined to hold on to the power they had without any more risky political adventures, and Stalin was just the man for that job.

Trotsky repeatedly refused to countenance the idea that socialists had to break cleanly with the state developing on the ruins of the Russian revolution. Any breaks he did make were reluctantly forced upon him, hesitant, partial and usually too late. He insisted that his supporters stay in the Communist Party, with all the restrictions upon their activity that involved, long after it had become a glorified rubber stamp for the bureaucracy. It wasn’t until Hitler marched into power that he realised the Communist International was no place for socialists. While laying bare the injustices of the Stalinist system, he stubbornly maintained that it had a lot of good points worth defending, leaving him in the impossible position of simultaneously punching and embracing his opponent.

Much of this is clearer in hindsight, whose benefit we should of course take advantage of, but wasn’t available to Trotsky. Some of it was clear at the time, however. Among those who similarly stood out against the degeneration of the revolution were people who said the Communist Party and its puppets were a rotten corpse, that socialists had to openly organise outside them, that Stalinism contained nothing worth hanging on to, was a system which needed overthrowing in an all-out revolution. Trotsky dismissed such ideas vehemently, though sometimes was eventually dragged into going some of the way. For someone as centrally involved as he had been in establishing a system, it must have been immensely difficult to face the bitter truth that it was beyond salvage, that a new revolution would have to start from scratch.

Like us all, Trotsky had the defects of his virtues. His role as a living symbol of 1917, someone internationally recognised for his role in the revolution, was a great boon for the movement trying to keep its ideals alive against the odds. But his pre-eminence in that movement, the fact that it was built almost exclusively around him, had its drawbacks. It left that movement merely defending the Russian revolution without critically assessing it, unwilling to admit the errors which had been committed long before Stalin climbed to power. It is understandable for Trotsky to be protective of actions he was personally or collectively responsible for, but not that a socialist movement would have no room for other comrades to dissent from that.

A clear example arose in Trotsky’s last years when some anti-Stalinist socialists raised the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921. This was and remains an issue of prime relevance to socialists, both in understanding how Russia’s revolution was lost and how socialist revolutions in general deal with opposition. Trotsky, how­ever, responded with defensive aggression, calumniating the revolt and justifying every measure taken to repress it. Someone whose closet contained skeletons of its own was not the best placed to weigh the issues.

Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism, even as the assassin’s icepick bore down upon him, lacks nothing in heroism and commitment. Its greatest tragedy is that his personal resistance was no longer part of a collective resistance. There was a weak Trotskyist opposition made up of loyal followers of the Old Man, anxious to uphold his legacy above all else, not a movement of socialists benefitting from Trotsky’s insights while always prepared to question them. In the absence of such a movement, the weaknesses of Trotsky’s personality assumed a disproportionate weight.

The same could be said for Trotsky’s post-1917 defeat in general. He didn’t lose because Stalin was cleverer, stronger, or better: on any of these counts, Trotsky with a blindfold on would win hands down. He lost because any dedication to socialism can only prosper when socialism becomes the active faith of masses of workers. Without the working class thinking and fighting, the movement to emancipate the working class is nothing, and those who dedicate their lives to it find themselves on history’s losing team. But that is the honourable place to be when the other team is made up of chancers, traitors and worse—and if we learn well from our defeats, the result can be different whenever the ball comes our way again.

Army dreamers

Noel McDermott reviewed two books on the Irish Citizen Army in Issue 59 (March 2015).

Ann Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army (Mercier)
Leo Keohane, Captain Jack White: Imperialism, anarchism & the Irish Citizen Army (Merrion Press)

The Irish Citizen Army deserves all the attention it gets in labour historiography, and probably more. After all, it’s not every day of the week that a workers’ militia comes along to defend strikers against police brutality and then play a central role in an anti-imperialist insurrection. Who exactly it was, what it did and how, are questions we should all want fuller answers to.

But that’s not to say we have none of the answers at the moment. Ann Matthews makes much of papers left by Citizen Army man John Hanratty, asserting that, only for her use of them, “the story of the ICA would still languish in much speculation and hearsay” (p 9). This is both incredibly dismissive of all previous histories of the army, and makes an unsustainable claim for her own. R M Fox’s History of the Irish Citizen Army (1943) drew heavily on contemporary documents as well as the close collaboration of ICA veterans, not least Hanratty. Even Seán O’Casey’s Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919) has a fairly solid documentary basis to complement recollections of its author’s close involvement in the army’s first year.

Matthews is far too concerned with announcing original discoveries ignored by everyone else, scoops which owe more to the publicist than the historian. She tells us that the army’s first drill sergeant had been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for fighting in the British army in the Boer war (p 23-4): “In all of the literature relating to the founding of the Citizen Army this information is generally omitted. This blind spot… would have been a sensitive point.” Well, Fox not only mentions Jack White’s military decoration from South Africa, but adds his attendance at Sandhurst for good measure. O’Casey introduces White as an “aristocrat and gentleman”, later appending DSO to his name.

She is entitled to an exclusive on her contention that Tom Clarke rather than Pádraic Pearse read the proclamation on Easter Monday 1916, a claim which migrates from being “probable” on page 86 to definite fact on page 171. But it rests on dismissing the entire mountain of evidence for Pearse being the proclaimer, and sub­stituting a single newspaper report, factually dubious and hostile to the rebels, which describes “a small man in plain clothes” reading the proclamation at 1.30. Dragging a positive identification of Clarke from this hazy account is a considerable leap of faith, but even if it were wholly true, all it shows is that, about an hour after Pearse read the proclamation, someone else came out of the GPO to read it again. Even so, Tom Clarke is an unlikely candidate, unaccustomed as he was to public speaking (and ironically, the man who had first recognised the value to the republican cause of Pearse’s oratorical skills).

A far more interesting claim is that Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grennan, quite prominent women in the events of Easter week, were members of the Citizen Army (p 86, 213), something never claimed by the women themselves or anyone else in the army. No evidence for it is cited here, nor is much made of it beyond the passing reference. The assertion remains unproven, at best, most likely a mistaken extrapolation from their membership of Inghinidhe na hÉireann which had drawn close to the ICA. A clear case of a Citizen Army woman playing an outright military role is Margaret Skinnider, wounded near-fatally in an attack during the Easter rising, but Matthews refuses to credit this. Without quoting Skinnider’s own book on the rising, she says her involvement is “unclear”, based on the fact that Skinnider’s name is absent from one other participant’s account (p 102)

The rush for novelty leads Matthews to omit elements of the story which have been told before but remain absolutely necessary to a rounded telling of it. She doesn’t mention Larkin’s speech on the first night of the 1913 tram strike, saying that Dublin workers should arm like Carson’s unionists were. She has nothing on the Civic League’s role in making that happen by formally proposing the drilling of locked-out Dubliners. Even the account of the Citizen Army’s occupation of Stephen’s Green is scanty, especially after the evac­uation to the College of Surgeons.

Similarly, official British sources are often used in preference to rebel accounts. Such sources have been little utilised, but there are sometimes good reasons for that. The way a handful of ICA men used Davy’s pub in Portobello to hold back British soldiers from the nearby barracks before withdrawing is a masterly illustration of good guerrilla warfare, and has been described well in Frank Robbins’s Under the Starry Plough (1978). But Matthews prefers the official version where, naturally, brave Tommy’s triumph over the mutinous natives is never in doubt: “after a short and sharp fight the public house was captured by the military” (p 107).

Quite a number of factual errors appear in the book. Larkin didn’t appeal his jailing in 1913 (p 22), but was released by official order. The Irish Worker was not printed in Yarnhall Street (p 49) but in Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street). Michael Mallin’s service in the British army took him to India, not “throughout the British colonies” (p 50). The 1934 convention of the IRA is one of the best documented events in republican history, but this must be the first time anyone has imagined the chief of staff Moss Twomey supporting Michael Price’s resolution for a workers’ republic, still less Seán Russell (p 178).

Matthews’s insistence that, for the most part, women in the Citizen Army played an auxiliary rather than a military role is a useful corrective to occasional rose-tinted portrayals of perfect gender equality in its ranks. But her statement that in August 1914 “membership was still open only to men” (p 45) is contradicted by the presence of Constance Markievicz on its army council for the preceding five months. Matthews’s other works give the impression that she has a dartboard up somewhere with Markievicz’s face on it, and her bête noire comes in for more of the same treatment here.

Markievicz’s battlefield promotion to second-in-command of the Stephen’s Green garrison isn’t mentioned here until the surrender, when it features only as a personal claim on her part (p 132). There is room for legitimate historical debate on this subject, but you won’t find any of that here. The fact that Markievicz acted in that capacity, and was recognised as such by her comrades then and subsequently, should be enough to countersign her appointment. The lowest blow is Matthews’s decision to swallow without question a hoary misogynistic slander that Markievicz broke down at her court martial and pleaded for mercy (p 143). If this happened, it is extremely strange that such a plea for mitigation wouldn’t be entered in the official record of the court martial. Its absence confirms that the tale is fictional, which is presumably why Matthews makes the unusual choice of ignoring that record altogether. Clearly, what she sees as “the myth of the aristocrat giving up her life of leisure and luxury for Ireland” (p 149) grates with her, but the myths she wants to put in its place have far less foundation.

Jack White is someone who could do with a little mythbusting, and Leo Keohane’s book goes some of the way. When White under­took to train a citizen army in the middle of the Dublin lockout, he was far from advocating that the working class free itself by force of arms. As a newspaper quoted him, “it was not quite true to say that he was on the side of the men” as he hadn’t studied the situation fully (p 118). From the platform of a workers’ meeting, he dissociated himself from condemnation of the DMP (p 128): “The police had a perfect right to carry out their instructions, and they were not, one and all, the brutes they were stated to be.” He saw a citizen army as a way of disciplining the workers, who were incapable of finding the right way without the leadership of their betters. Besides that, by his own account, “I just enjoyed the fun and excitement of the whole thing” (p 122).

But he knew his onions from the military point of view, and his involvement must have helped convey the impression that the Citizen Army was a serious force. Photographs here show him drilling women members of the ICA—further proof, if it were needed, that they were welcome to join—and if anything, his military sense trumped the shortcomings of his political sense. Keohane perceptibly notes that Connolly would have regarded White “as a fortuitous arrival in the strikers’ camp” (p 101), and Connolly had a talent for bringing sympathetic forces to the workers’ side.

After his previous career in the British army, White had led “what can only be described as a sybaritic existence” (p 38). The chapters of his biography Misfit (1930) dealing with those years are strangely dull, describing the empty moral and philosophical dilemmas of a man with too much time and money on his hands. He candidly admits beating his wife—something which inexplicably gets no more than a passing footnote reference here (p 262). His opposition to unionist attempts to prevent home rule gave him a political cause to fight for, and the Dublin lockout deepened that, giving him some insight into social injustice.

But his involvement with the ICA lasted less than six months before he decamped to the Irish Volunteers. At the outbreak of the world war he seriously proposed that the Volunteers should become a home guard trained by the British, a suggestion rejected from both sides, and then led a British ambulance corps in Belgium. After the Easter rising he went to Wales in an attempt to bring miners out on strike against the threatened execution of Connolly. He was sentenced to three months in jail for his pains, but how he thought his influence would bring off such a strike is a mystery.

Keohane’s subtitle mentions three areas of White’s life, but in truth, all are as ships that passed in the night through his conscious­ness, short-lived fascinations that went as soon as they came. It is to his credit that he rejected imperialism at the height of his fame in its service. Anarchism in an active sense—as opposed to a vague unease at received authority—only featured for a couple of years in the 1930s under the influence of the Spanish revolution (where he was involved as a medical volunteer). His support for the idea of workers’ councils during Ireland’s war of independence was strong but transient. His habit of prefixing his various political affiliations with the word “Christian” points to a tedious belief that religion was both the problem and the solution in Ireland, a belief which renders it far too much.

The same could be said for his biographer’s habit of wrapping White’s musings in academic terminology. Many times in his life White was politically confused, but baptising that confusion “post­structuralist questioning of constructs” or “avoidance of intran­sigence” (p 99, 171) only mystifies it further. A White article makes the point that power rests in part on social acceptance of its rules, and Keohane writes (p 138): “I would suggest it is as perceptive as anything Gramsci, the Italian radical philosopher, wrote about the concept of hegemony.” But that suggests, to say the least of it, that he sees an awful lot in White which isn’t there and misses an awful lot in Gramsci which is.

White could never be accused of modesty. If things had been just a little different, “I believe I could have brought off a revolution on the Russian model almost on my own”, he wrote in his auto­biography, or at least with a goodly troop: “give me twenty thousand men and I will remodel Ireland”. His biographer concedes that White’s head was swelling here, but maintains nevertheless that “this was not an unrealistic assessment… he was probably close to having a radical influence on events” (p 136-7). He bases this to a large extent on White’s frequent appearances in press reports, but that arose more from his prominence as a second-generation war hero than from the intrinsic merit of what he was saying and doing. White seems not to have stayed in the one spot long enough to leave lasting achievements, always on the hunt for another Troy to burn before he had got the fire going under the last one.

All the same, even if it needed much guidance by others, his was one of the hands that brought the Citizen Army into being. The path it followed from there on remains a high point in the history of our class, a necessary reference point as we examine our past and try to influence our future.

Níl leigheas ar an chrá ach pósadh

In Eagrán 58 (Nollaig 2014) phléigh Sinéad Nic Íomhair cuid de na ceisteanna a bhain leis an reifreann ar chomhionannas pósta a bhí geallta.

Ba rud mór ag na Gaeil le fada é pósadh cothrom a dhéanamh. Beidh reifreann ar siúl go gairid a chuirfeas ar ár gcumas pósadh cothrom a chur ar bun fá dheireadh, pósadh a bheas ar fáil d’aon bheirt a bhfuil fonn orthu a bheith in éineacht. Céim eile a bheas ann i dtreo saol nach gcuirfidh cos ar bholg daoine i ngeall ar a gcuid collaíochta.

Níl call dáiríre le reifreann, ar ndóigh. Áit ar bith a luaitear an pósadh i mbunreacht na sé chondae fichead, níl dada ag rá gur fear agus bean amháin atá i gceist leis. I ndlí an stáit atá an t‑idirdhealú sin le fáil, san Acht um Chlárú Sibhialta 2004. Ba leor Alt 2(2)(e) den acht sin a aisghairm, seacht bhfocailín a bhaint as, le cead a thabhairt do dhaoine atá ar aon inscne pósadh. Ach tá Teach Laighean lán go béal le liobrálaithe gan chnámh droma, polaiteoirí ar dual dóibh fadhbanna a chur ar an mhéar fhada—ach amháin fadhbanna atá ag cur as do dhaoine saibhre, a réitítear thar oíche le reachtaíocht éigeandála más gá. Scór bliain i ndiaidh Cás X a thóg sé orthu dlí ginmhillte a thabhairt isteach, agus an uair sin féin níor leigheas ar bith é ag na mílte ban a chaithfeas a ghabháil thar lear le haghaidh rud ba chóir a bheith ar fáil daofa anseo. Faichill a dtóna féin is bun lena reifreann, iad ag gabháil i bhfolach ón chás a réiteach iad féin.

Ach bíodh acu: tá reifreann chugainn, agus níl fáth ar bith nach mbuafadh muid go réidh é. De réir sraith pobalbhreitheanna, tá trí cheathrú den phobal sásta an pósadh cothrom a thabhairt isteach. Is annamh a chastar an hómafóibe ghlan ort ar na saolta seo, duine a déarfadh amach nach cóir comhchearta a bheith ag daoine hómaighnéasacha.

Go deimhin, bíonn na hómafóbaigh féin ag séanadh na hómafóibe anois. Tá sparán mór ag cuid acu, agus é méadaithe ag meatacháin shuaracha in RTÉ nach raibh iontu an fód a sheasamh ar son saoirse díospóireachta. Ná baintear a ainm den bhairneach, áfach: hómafóibe is bun leis na hargóintí in éadan cead pósta a bheith ag daoine aeracha. Nuair a deir siad nár cheart sainmhíniú an phósta a athrú, tá siad ag rá nár cheart na hómaighnéasaigh a ligean isteach ann. Nuair a deir siad go mba cheart don phósadh a bheith ina institiúid speisialta, tá siad ag rá go dtruailleofaí é dá mbeadh sé ar fáil do hómaighnéasaigh. Nuair a deir siad nach é leas na bpáistí é, tá siad ag maíomh gur dochar do pháiste a bheith in aice le hómaighnéasach.

Domlas mailíseach atá á chur amach acu, agus is é an chuid is measa den scéal go dtabharfaidh an reifreann ardán eile daofa lena gcuid nimhe a spré. Cé go bhfuil titim an-mhór ar a gcuid tacaíochta, tá neart airgid sa bhanc agus cairde sa chúirt acu fós. Caithfear an deis seo is achan deis eile a thapú le buille eile fós a bhualadh orthu. Is hómafóibe é comhchearta a cheilt ar dhaoine de bharr a gcollaíochta, agus ní mór an scéal sin a chur abhaile.

Ar ndóigh, tá sainmhíniú an phósta athraithe go minic. Bhí lá ann agus ní thiocfadh leat pósadh gan bliain is fiche a bheith sáraithe agat. Ba chiallmhaire go mór an argóint go bhfuil 18 mbliana ró-óg le pósadh ná aon argóint in éadan pósadh aerach. Go dtí le deireanas, ba ionann pósadh agus a ghabháil fá chuing bhuan, ach anois is féidir pósadh a scaoileadh—más le stró rómhór é, stró a chuireann leis an bhuairt a leanann de chliseadh caidrimh go minic. Ba mhó go mór d’athrú iad laghdú na haoise agus teacht an cholscartha ná an leasú atá i gceist anois, an leasú a chuireann olc mór orthu siúd atá ag impí go mbeadh a dteastas pósta ina chruthúnas heitrighnéasachais.

Is cleas eile acu a rá nach bhfuil aon chall leis an phósadh aon inscne, tharla go bhfuil an pháirtnéireacht shibhialta ar fáil. Na daoine céanna a chuir a mbundúin Chríostaí amach le cinntiú nach mbeadh an pháirtnéaracht shibhialta ar fáil agus an dlí sin á thabhairt isteach, tá siad ag gabháil ar a scáth anois leis an phósadh cothrom a chosc. Ach ní hionann iad ar chor ar bith. Tá na scórtha difríochtaí aimsithe ag lucht dlí, cearta bunúsacha atá ag daoine pósta nach bhfuil ag páirtnéirí sibhialta. Agus is minic a admhaíonn naimhde an chomh­ionannais gurb éard atá uathu, nach mbeadh ainm an phósta ar chaidreamh hómaighnéasach. Ba chuma lena lán acu cad é a thabharfaí air nó cé na cearta a ghabhfadh leis, a fhad is nach n‑ionannaítear leis an phósadh é. Sin é go díreach an fáth nach mór an t‑éitheach a thabhairt dóibh: le daoine aeracha a thabhairt ar comhchéim go hiomlán le daoine heitrighnéasacha, leis an rian is lú de stádas níos ísle a bhaint díofa.

Níl aon rud ‘nádúrtha’ fán phósadh: is rud é a tháinig ar an saol, atá ag athrú in imeacht na staire, agus a ghlacfas cruthanna eile amach anseo mura n‑imíonn sé as uilig. Ní grá ná rómánsaíocht is foinse dó, ach sealúchas. Nuair a bhí talamh nó saibhreas príobháideach á chruinniú, theastaigh ó lucht a chruinnithe a bheith cinnte gur ag a gclann féin amháin a d’fhágfaidís é. Nuair a cuireadh an monagamas i bhfeidhm ar na mná chuige seo, leag an pósadh buanchruth dlí ar an nós sóisialta, agus séala níos daingne ar an sealúchas príobháideach.

Is gné de dhul chun cinn na staire é go bhfuil an pósadh á chlaonadh ó chonradh sealúchais go dtí compánachas daonna le deireanas. Níos mó ná mar a bhíodh, thig le daoine pósadh nó gan pósadh mar is toil leofa, clann a bheith acu gan pósadh, socrú síos le daoine agus scaradh leofa mar is fearr leofa féin é. Níl an t‑aistear sin críochnaithe ná baol air. Tá cuid mhór daoine nach ligeann faitíos fá chúrsaí airgid, tithíochta agus eile daofa éirí as pósadh cliste, mar shampla. Ach beidh an pósadh aerach ina chéim mhór eile ar an bhóthar. Dearbhóidh sé tuilleadh nach ionann pósadh agus giniúint, gur féidir an dá rud sin a dhealú óna chéile, agus a shocrú de réir breith na ndaoine féin a bhíonn i gceist, gan an stát a bheith ag bualadh múnla fá leith anuas orthu.

Tá daoine a deir nár chóir don eite chlé bacadh le ceist mar seo. Tá ár ndóthain ar ár n‑aire, dar leo, ag cur in aghaidh ciorruithe, táillí agus a leithéid, gan am is fuinneamh a chaitheamh le ceist mar seo nach mbaineann le bunfhadhbanna an aicme oibre. Ach ba dhiachta don dream seo níos lú den cheart a bheith acu.

Nuair a labhrann muid fá dhaoine aeracha, is cuid den aicme seo againne atá i gceist, cuid a bhfuil ualach breise leatroim le n‑iompar acu i dteannta na héagóra is dán d’oibrithe i gcoitinne. Agus cuireann an leatrom breise seo leis na fadhbanna a bhíonn rompu mar oibrithe. Mura dtig leat, cuir i gcás, post múinteora a fháil nó a bhuanú mar gheall ar chráifeachas hómafóbach bhainisteoirí na scoile, aireoidh tú sin i do phóca agus i do shaol trí chéile. Nó má choisceann an hómafóbachas céanna agus a thionchar ar dhaltaí páirt iomlán a ghlacadh i saol na scoile, féadfaidh a thoradh sin dochar a dhéanamh dá gcuid oideachais agus dá mbeatha.

Nuair a thugtar leadradh do dhaoine ag siúl i ngreim láimhe de bhrí gur d’aon inscne iad, tá an oiread dualgais orainn troid ina éadan sin agus atá orainn troid in aghaidh an Gharda a thugann leadradh do stailceoir ar líne picéid. Is cuma sa mhí-ádh mór cén aicme lena mbaineann siad, mar is cúrsa oinigh don aicme oibre é seasamh gualainn ar ghualainn le achan dream atá fá chois. Is fíor fós do Leinin nach ceardchumannaí cúng ach curadh an phobail atá sa sóisialaí, duine a thugann dúshlán gach leatrom mar chuid de choimhlint leathan in éadan an chaipitleachais. Is fánach dúinn a bheith ag caint ar shaol sóisialach mura saol é a chuirfeas deireadh le gach cineál daoirse in éineacht le bundaoirse an oibrí féin.

Agus beidh saol mar sin de dhíth chun deireadh a chur leis an daoirse. Is suarach an beart é ag go leor den ghluaiseacht aerach glacadh le nead bheag taobh istigh den chaipitleachas. Is nead é atá bunaithe ar gheilleagar aerach, lucht gnótha ag cnuasach bonn bán­dearg ina gcuid scipéad. Dar leis an ghrúpa feachtais MarriagEquality, bheadh sé “good for foreign investment” dá gceadófaí póstaí aeracha in Éirinn: “It leads to better productivity… The ‘business case’ for civil marriage equality is well recognised by major US and inter­national companies.” Luann siad liosta díofa, go fiú: Amazon, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, Microsoft, Google… cad chuige a mbeadh beann ar bith againn ar a ndearcadh siúd? Nár chóra an cháin ar fad atá seachanta acu a lorg uathu sula lorgfaí a mbarúil ar an cheist seo? Is é an mallacht atá orainn go bhfuil ár saol á rialú de réir mar a fheileann do bhrabach na n‑ollchomhlachtaí seo: ní argóint ar bith ar son pósadh cothrom é go bhfuil sé ag teacht lena mianta siadsan.

Ná ní haon argóint é seo acu:

marriage is good for people… it keeps couples together and families together. It is accepted by the majority of people as good for society e.g. the family unit looks after itself, takes on a caring role for the members of that family and therefore is less dependent on the State for support.

Tá an pósadh go maith do dhaoine pósta atá ag iarraidh a bheith pósta. Leofa féin amháin a bhaineann sé, agus níor cheart d’aon ‘sochaí’ a ladar a chur isteach ar son nó in éadan an phósta. Ní maith ar chor ar bith an teaghlach a bheith ina aonad iata fá leith, rud a chaitheann ualach rómhór ar thuistí is cúramóirí. Ba cheart go mbeadh muid ar fad ag baint taca as an phobal, ag roinnt na hoibre mar fhreagracht shóisialta. Deir MarriagEquality go dtugann an bun­reacht cosaint ar leith don teaghlach atá bunaithe ar phósadh: “This means that other families… do not have this special, elevated and protected status in Irish law.” Sea, ach ba cheart é sin a athrú agus an chosaint chéanna a thabhairt do chách, pósta nó neamhphósta, seachas an chosaint chlaonta a leathnú amach de bheagán.

Cuid acu siúd ag cur ar son ceart pósta do dhaoine aeracha, is aisteach an cás atá siad a dhéanamh. Le fada an lá in Éirinn, tá cineál amháin teaghlaigh á chur chun cinn mar mhúnla, agus teir ar dhaoine nach bhfuil san áireamh seo, daoine nach gcloíonn leis an bharr­shamhail oifigiúil. Seachas é sin a athrú, táthar ag glacadh leis an bharrshamhail sin ach ag rá nach ndéanfaidh sé aon dochar daoine aeracha a ghlacann léi a ligean isteach sa chlub.

Ach sin é an buille: caithfear an scothchlub seo a leagan, in áit a chuid rialacha a dhéanamh níos liobrálaí. Bíodh cead pósta ag daoine a bhfuil sé uathu, ach ná cuirtear an saol pósta ar chéim is airde ná aon chaidreamh eile. Ba cheart ligean do dhaoine a dtoil féin a dhéanamh le chéile, cibé bealach is áil leofa féin nach gcuireann isteach ar dhaoine eile. Níor chóir aon chreat a leagan síos, aon fhábhar sóisialta ná pribhléid dlí a thabhairt do dhaoine a mhaireann dá réir. Bheadh muid níos sona mar phobal agus an pobal bunaithe ar shonas gach duine de. Aisling inteacht mar sin a spreag na glúnta daoine aeracha a throid go calma ar son cearta agus fuascailte. Más múchta atá sí faoi láthair, tá ag an sóisialachas an aisling sin a choinneáil in airde le linn an reifrinn seo chugainn agus na gcathanna go léir a thiocfas ina dhiaidh.

Marx and the new International

In September 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the International Working Men’s Association, in Issue 57 Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined Marx’s involvement.

The 1950s have a bad press and deservedly so, but the 1850s make them look a positively progressive decade. Across Europe the revolutions of 1848 were defeated, their protagonists keeping their heads down, with their enemies in virtually uncontested power. The young movement of the working class shared the bitter cup, with basic trade union organisation hanging on in places, but talk of socialism largely confined to small disheartened coteries. Capitalism seemed triumphant, and knew it. The 1860s saw a thaw set in, however, with some items of good news to hear. In America, the north was forced to forcibly uproot the institution of slavery in the southern states. In Italy, the democratic movement was bringing scattered feudal statelets together into a unified state. In Poland, a new uprising took on Russian imperial rule as well as the privileges of the nobility.

All of these developments were welcomed by the working class movement, which embraced the cause of democracy as its own. While the trade unions of Victorian Britain are often chastised as narrowly pursuing economic interest, they were in fact usually to be found enthusiastically supporting movements for greater democracy and national liberation at home and abroad. And fights for freedom in general fed in to a revival of the workers’ movement as such. Successful strikes led to improvements in conditions and organisation, with city-wide trades councils in Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London being formed, prefiguring the Trades Union Congress itself. Links were forged with unions on the continent, especially France, to prevent scabbing and express solidarity with international democratic movements.

So the meeting organised for 28 September 1864 in St Martin’s Hall in London was not that unusual. A delegation of French trade unionists were in town to meet their English counterparts, as had happened earlier that year, and the meeting was to welcome them and proclaim the international fraternity growing amongst organised workers. The London trades council was central to it, and made a special effort to attract a broad range of nationalities. The city had a good few left-wing exiles to choose from, and one of the organisers —Victor le Lubez, a Frenchman raised in England—knocked on the door of a certain German by the name of Karl Marx.

The 1850s hadn’t treated him too kindly, either. Driven from Germany after the failure of the revolution there, and then from France too, he had moved to London in 1850. He had no intention of staying long, but soon realised that the revolutionary tide had gone out for the foreseeable future. So he settled down to a tough existence, getting to grips with his economic research whenever he wasn’t writing newspaper columns to pay the rent. Still, the rent and other bills often got paid by Friedrich Engels, his comrade who happened to work in a family business up in Manchester.

As he later wrote to Engels1 Marx had a “standing rule, to decline any such invitations”, but he made an exception because “this time real ‘powers’ were involved”, the leading trade unionists of London and Paris. He suggested a German trade unionist—Georg Eccarius, an old comrade of his—to speak on 28 September, and put in an appearance himself “as a mute figure on the platform”. The meeting was “full to suffocation (as there is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place)”, and it was decided to form a Working Men’s International Association.2 A committee representing the various nationalities was elected to get it off the ground. Marx was elected for the Germans, but was far from prominent: his name comes last in the newspaper reports.

He attended the inaugural meeting of this committee on 5 October, playing an unspectacular role at an unspectacular meeting. He left before the end, but was elected to a subcommittee “to draw up a platform of principles”.3 It seems they neglected to inform him of this, and because he was too ill to attend meetings of the general committee (those notorious carbuncles at him again) he only found out when Eccarius wrote to him about some less than fortunate goings-on. John Weston, a follower of utopian socialist Robert Owen, had submitted a text which, according to Eccarius, was more of “a sentimental declamatory editorial” than a concrete programme, long-winded and full of “the hackneyed phrase, truth and justice”.4 Luigi Wolff, representing Italian workers in London, submitted a translation of their own rules. Marx was sent notice of the next subcommittee meeting, but it reached him a day too late.

Ill or not, he made sure to be at the next meeting of the central council (as it now became known). His discomfort was only added to when he heard what the subcommittee had come up with, “a horrible, wordy, badly written and completely raw preamble, pretending to be a declaration of principles” which envisaged “a sort of central government of the European working classes”.5 One council member, William Worley, objected to “the statement that the capitalist was opposed to the labourer” and wanted a statement about wealth being “in the hands of the few” struck out, but was voted down with only Weston supporting him.6 Marx offered only “mild opposition” to the subcommittee’s text,7 and even seconded the resolution accepting it. But while the substance was adopted, the subcommittee was to put a shape on it, so Marx could still have an input.

The fact that Weston’s draft hasn’t survived makes it difficult to fathom what exactly Marx objected to. Robert Owen’s work has many strands, but Weston seems to have belonged to the more conservative end of Owenism, which saw its new society as such a rational proposition that everyone, including the ruling classes, should be amenable to it. His support for Worley suggests that he had no time for the class struggle. Weston was a carpenter who had set up a successful business of his own, so may well have seen such enmity as needless and outdated. While truth and justice are un­doubtedly good things, in the absence of practical ideas on what is to be done, and who it is to be done to, they become meaningless generalisations. Marx regarded Weston himself as “a very kindly and upright man”,8 regardless of his politics.

The Italian programme was a bit different. While Weston was only an individual member of the International, Wolff represented hundreds of Italian workers in London, with a strong movement in Italy at their back, which was very popular with English trade unionists. Marx was right to detect the strong influence of Giuseppe Mazzini, a middle-class republican. The objections are clear from a pamphlet on the International’s early years written with Marx’s assistance, if not under his direction:

He [Mazzini] thundered against the class struggle. His rules were couched in the strong centralised manner suitable for secret political societies, but which would wipe out from the word go the conditions of existence of an international workers’ association, which had not to create a movement, but only to unite and bind together the already existing, scattered class movement in the various countries.9

The next meeting of the drafting subcommittee was held in Marx’s house, where he first had sight of the actual draft that had been drawn up. He was determined that as far as possible “not one single line” of it should get through.10 Part of the problem was that as many as forty rules were proposed, and by one o’clock in the morning only Rule 1 had been dealt with. Happily for Marx, an adjournment was suggested and the draft was left to him to look at.

Over the next week he started the whole thing from scratch, reducing the rules to ten, and prefacing them with an address outlining the political basis of the new association. But this was no easy matter:

It was very difficult to keep the thing in such a way that our outlook appears in a form which made it acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement.… It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old audacity of speech. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [strongly in deed, softly in manner] is necessary.11

The address is a remarkable piece of work. It resembles the Communist Manifesto in that Marx presents his point of view in a popular manner without in the least watering down his politics. It is a fine example of drafting a text on behalf of a group, with all the concessions to collective opinions which that entails, but it remains a recognisably Marxist document, one which expresses and clarifies key points of socialist theory.

The address maintains that the working class were worse off in 1864 than twenty years earlier. In Marxological literature this gets categorised as the ‘immiseration of the workers’ thesis, usually to be followed by wages statistics supposed to refute it. But what gets forgotten is that Marx was talking about the relative position of the working class, where they stand in society, in comparison with other classes, the proportion of what they produce which gets taken off them as well as that they are allowed to keep. So he writes that “the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth”, but this was taking place “at the same rate, at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale”. The capitalist system doesn’t necessarily decrease wages all the time, but it does widen the class gap: “on the present false base, every fresh develop­ment of the productive powers of labour must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms”.

While the 1850s had seen the workers of Europe united only in “a solidarity of defeat”, legislation to limit the working day had been a real achievement. The employers had insisted on their right and duty to exploit workers as long as possible, but the workers thought otherwise: “it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class”. (The remnants of the aristocracy in England meant that capitalists still went by the name ‘middle class’.) There is a clear notion here of the working class having an economics of its own, based on its social needs as against the accumulation of profit: not finding a fairer way of running capitalism, but opposing the imperatives of humanity to it.

Marx praises England’s co-operative movement, especially co-ops set up by workers themselves, as proving that capitalists are superfluous, that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”. This does sound a bit arcadian, but there are few better descriptions of what work in a socialist society should be like, and how important liberated labour would be to it. Co-operation will always come up against the rich, however, using their political privileges to maintain their economic privileges. “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”

Working class movements had seen “simultaneous revivals” across Europe, with great numbers involved, “but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge”. Workers needed to show international solidarity “in all their struggles for emancipation”. Marx wound up as he did in the Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The rules Marx drew up for the International open with the affirmation “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. He goes on to say that “The economical subjection of the man of labour… lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms” and so had to be the object of their endeavours. This was an international question, and solidarity was needed to prevent “the present revival of the working classes” falling into old errors. The Working Men’s International Association was therefore being formed to unite workers’ organisations for “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes”.

The subcommittee liked what they read, only adding to the rules that members would act with “truth, justice and morality” towards each other, and that there were “No rights without duties, no duties without rights”. Hollow enough in themselves, Marx had no problem with these phrases, especially as they were “placed in such a way that it can do no harm”.12 At the central council, one member asked for an explanatory footnote to Marx’s explanation of carbon and nitrogen in the working-class diet, which he duly added. The redoubtable Worley entered the fray again to object to the word “profitmongers”, but this time carried the day, having it struck out by 11 votes to 10. The address and rules were then unanimously carried.13

It is a myth to see Marx and Engels as if they were conjoined twins, two minds with but a single thought: they were the closest of comrades, but thought for themselves and sometimes differed. Interestingly, Marx’s work in the initial weeks of the International was perhaps the only political project for twenty years which he undertook independently of Engels altogether. Engels spent most of September and the first half of October 1864 on holiday. Even when he returned to Manchester, a business crisis kept him from writing to Marx, leaving an atypical gap of nearly two months in their correspondence. Marx sent him a brief note on 2 November expressing concern at his silence, especially as “I have all kinds of important stuff to share with you”. Engels wrote the same day, with news from his travels, and Marx replied with news of the new International in a letter we have quoted from already. Even then, that news was preceded by a mixture of gossip and politics on affairs in Germany.14

Engels’s reply, three days later, is a little reserved. Without having seen the address and rules, he congratulates Marx for negotiating the antagonistic points of view. He writes that “it is good that we can again associate with people who at least represent their class: that is the main thing at the end of the day”. He can’t help thinking that it will never last, though: “this new association will soon split into the theoretically bourgeois and the theoretically proletarian elements as soon as the issues become somewhat defined”.

Marx replied that differences of opinion weren’t that hard to settle when there was agreement on the practical aim: “The thing was not quite as difficult as you reckon, when one is dealing all the time with ‘workers’.”15 He emphasised the same point in modestly telling his uncle that the International was “not without importance”: it was formed by “the real workers’ leaders of London, with 1 or 2 exceptions workers themselves”.16 It is important to remember that trade union leaders a century and a half ago were not what they have since become. While there were of course right-wing leaders and even outright traitors, the movement had not yet reached the stage where a layer of officials could cut themselves off from their rank-and-file members with interests of their own. When Marx sat round the committee table with them, the connection with the actual movement of the working class was a close one. There­fore, as he told a comrade, “The influence on the English proletariat is direct and of the highest importance.”17

Marx noted the healthy political instincts coming through in the International. Having drawn up an address of support for Abraham Lincoln in the US civil war, the traditional method of getting a member of parliament to deliver it was “strongly opposed by many members who said working men should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid”.18 Marx convinced the central council not to co-opt someone about to stand in an election as “our society must absolutely avoid the appearance to serve the interests of any Parliamentary ambition”.19 In fact, they accepted Marx’s proposal “that nobody (apart from workers’ societies) should be invited, and that no one can be an honorary member”.20 The International was still prepared to co-operate with middle-class liberals, but as equals and from an independent position, as seen in a strong campaign to extend the right to vote. All the while more unions were signing up to the International, “so that by and by we are becoming a power”.21

Engels remained a bit sceptical, though. He told Marx that he could only get rid of “c. half a dozen” membership cards in Manchester, and didn’t respond to a suggestion that his partner should join.22 His statement to a correspondent that “The Inter­national Association in London is getting on famously”23 manages to praise it while simultaneously locating its influence a clear 200 miles to his south. He did set up a branch in the end, but as he only interested two friends,24 it can’t have amounted to much.

However, the strength of the International did lay in the capital at this stage, and it would take time to spread north. Engels’s position as an ostensibly respectable pillar of the business community also precluded any real involvement in its affairs. After giving up business and moving to London in 1870 he became heavily involved in the association. He was also concerned that Marx’s involvement might cause him to neglect the writing of Capital, the book he had been working on for years. Some of Marx’s comments about the International may have fed this fear: “I am in fact head of the business. And what time it takes up!”25 By the end of 1865 he was admitting that the International “weighs down on me like an incubus, and I would be glad if it could be got rid of”, before immediately insisting that he couldn’t leave because “the bourgeois element, which looks at us (Foreign infidels) with dis­pleasure from the wings, would have the upper hand”.26

But strange as it might seem, instead of interfering with Capital, the IWMA gave Marx an impetus to finally get it written, his contact with the practical movement spurring on his theoretical work. He was extremely busy, but with theory and practice together: “Besides my work on the book, the International Association takes up a fairly big amount of time”.27 Engels’s doubts were there from the very start, however. His lack of personal involvement may have lessened his interest or confidence in the initiative, but the whole idea seems to have aroused his suspicions. When Marx reported a fairly minor spat on the central council, Engels was almost in ‘I told you so’ mode: “I thought that the naive fraternité in the International Association wouldn’t last long.”28 Naive or no, the fraternity of those first six months had another good six years in it yet, in which it would blaze a trail across the political landscape.

It is a trail worth exploring again 150 years on, with even the first markers on the route pointing to an interesting path.

First of all, the International was born of a tangible revival in the workers’ movement. It emerged on a rising tide, when the move­ment was winning and growing and feeling the need for solidarity. This meant it was bringing together and strengthening what was already existing, not trying to conjure up a movement of its own in a period of retreat. Developed socialist thinkers like Marx were naturally in a minority, with recognised representatives of workers, close to the rank and file, to the fore.

It was also an intensely practical organisation. Even the job of drawing up a programme was very businesslike, and organising modest but real work on the ground was its keynote. The insistence that the only members were active members—no politicians, celebrities, or prominent leaders ‘lending their names’ for show—placed the emphasis firmly on practice.

Even someone with the political cop-on of Engels looked on suspiciously from the outside, doubting that revolutionary politics could fit in to such a practical movement without an explicit socialist perspective. But Marx, with his conviction that “our outlook” could be presented in a manner “acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement”, got it right. He didn’t water down his politics at all, but argued for them in a persuasive and rational way, so that it made sense as a logical development of what the movement was already doing anyway. To people who had campaigned to limit the working day, it made sense to see this as a challenge to the imperatives of capital. To people organising co-operatives, it made sense to see them prefiguring a new way of working. To people who had been frustrated in these efforts at every turn by the political power of the bosses, it made sense that such power had to be taken from them. To people fighting to maintain and improve the condition of their class, it made sense to see the liberation of their class as part and parcel of it. Marx started from where the movement was at, instead of weaving dreams of where it should be. But this was a starting point for an uninterrupted journey which, if followed to the full, led to socialism: “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes” were not separate struggles or stages, but part of a single unfolding process.

No one could set the workers free but the workers themselves. This principle is right at the heart of Marxism, but often proves beyond the grasp of many who claim to follow it. To assign another class as the agency of revolution, or even an organisation acting on behalf of the working class and claiming to embody its best interests, is to set a course for something other than the emancipation of the working class. But it proved easy enough to understand for workers setting up an independent association of their own class.

They also understood the need for political theory. Shelley and life had told them that they were many while their rulers were few, and they knew that they needed to get together, but they were also aware that they would have to think about things. They didn’t need telling twice that workers should be “united by combination and led by knowledge”—not by intellectuals but by intellect, and their respect for the contribution of intellectuals like Marx only under­lined the centrality of workers in their own organisation.

This contribution of Marx’s was profound and original. He had no organisation to lean on, let alone a party, only the comradeship of Engels, who was away for the crucial period and sceptical on his return. He had the support of a handful of comrades like Eccarius, but for the most part relied on the persuasive powers of his arguments alone. Presented skilfully, and given a fair hearing from workers alive to the basic interests of their class and humanity, he was confident that they would ring true. For all the distance between his time and ours, a real understanding of his ideas and actions can help socialists make a difference whenever similar opportunities confront them.


  1. On 4 November.
  2. The name later turned into the International Working Men’s Assoc­iation, commonly the International. Marx and the other members went along with the sexism of the English language at the time, which was reluctant to afford full human status to women. It is often called the First International, but this is anachronous at best, anticipating later Internationals which were all more or less different kettles of fish.
  3. Minutes of the 5 October meeting.
  4. Letter to Marx, 12 October.
  5. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  6. Minutes, 19 October meeting.
  7. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Wilhelm Eichhoff, Die Internationale Arbeiterassociation: Ihre Grundung, Organisation, politisch-socziale Thätigkeit und Ausbreitung (Berlin 1868), p 4. Having asked for Marx’s help, the author received a mass of documents from him, as well as some original writing which Eichhoff told him he would use word for word.
  10. Letter to Engels, 4 November. Marx wrote this phrase in English.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Minutes, 1 November meeting.
  14. And it was followed by news of a meeting with Mikhail Bakunin: “I really liked him”, as unlike many others, he had “moved forwards instead of backwards” since 1848. As Marx and Bakunin were to cross swords in the International subsequently, this reference shows that Marx certainly had no premeditated antagonism towards him.
  15. Letter to Engels, 14 November.
  16. Letter to Lion Phillips, 29 November.
  17. Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 29 November.
  18. Minutes of central council meeting, 29 November.
  19. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865. The words “to serve” onwards were written in English, which explains the slightly clumsy grammar in the transition.
  20. Letter to Engels, 10 December 1864.
  21. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865.
  22. Letter to Marx, 27 January 1865. Marx’s statement, writing to Engels two days before, that “Ladies are admitted” anticipated the unanimous decision of the central council on 25 April “that females be admitted as members”, but there never seems to have been any suggestion of excluding them.
  23. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 10 March 1865.
  24. Letter to Marx, 12 May 1865.
  25. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  26. Letter to Engels, 26 December 1865.
  27. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  28. Letter to Marx, 12 April 1865.

Cutting both ways

Maeve Connaughton reviewed an attempt to understand and oppose the austerity agenda in Issue 56 (June 2014).

Kieran Allen with Brian O’Boyle, Austerity Ireland: The Failure of Irish Capitalism (Pluto Press)

Socialists are notorious for taking a keen interest in the process of production, and the same should go for the books we read. When two authors appear on a cover, one of them writing “with” the other, the usual assumption is that the second has been ghostwriting for the first. Or at least, that the latter has been assembling facts and statistics to fill the holes in the former’s argument. A possible division of labour is suggested by the difference between the reference-heavy Chapters 1-7 of this book and the rest, which is noticeably lighter in that regard. The fact that only one author is mentioned in the back cover blurb tells us that the other’s billing was added at the last moment, but the phrase “Copyright © Kieran Allen” in amongst the front matter shows who was boss.

How and ever, the result is a book which marshals a welter of facts on what the recession has done to us. It is useful to bring together even familiar stories in one place, and every reader is likely to encounter interesting things for the first time here. Plenty of raw material for getting our heads around our present predicament is to be found within these covers.

How big capital in Ireland gets out of paying tax is expounded, as well as official facilitation of it, and (p 100-1)

it begs the question why does the Irish state connive in allowing a gigantic multinational to avoid its already low corporate tax rate?… Why, it must surely be asked, must its own population suffer so much in order to show immense tax generosity to global corporations?

It surely must, and the same could be asked of the entire range of state actions which serve the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else. A socialist answer would go some way to explaining that the state doesn’t in fact belong to us, that it is ultimately an instrument of that capitalist class, that its nature is to advance their interests, for much the same reason that cats chase mice. The authors’ answers fall a good bit short of that mark, however. They tell us that an “attitude of deference to the corporate elite runs deep in official Ireland”, detect a “policy bias of the Irish state towards neo­liberalism”, and go so far as to claim that “the political elite were intimately linked to the big corporations” (p 4, 30, 5). An attitude, a bias, even an intimate link don’t come close to the sheer class essence of what we are up against politically.

This reluctance to brand the state leads to confusion around its involvement in the economy. “Nationalisation is often thought of as a left-wing policy”, Allen and/or O’Boyle write, but when Irish banks were nationalised it “was about taking control of debt—not assets… There was no talk of sharing the profits with society” (p 7). So presumably, if the banks had a healthier balance sheet, and Brian Lenihan had spread that around a bit, then nationalising them would have been left-wing? The two “radical left” approaches to the question are defined (p 147): “Some favour ownership by the existing state while others link it to a demand for workers control.” So on the one hand the capitalist state can just nationalise something, or then again it might give the workers a say in it: not unlike choosing whether to spread jam or marmalade on your toast. Later they explain that “workers’ control” means “genuine workers’ involvement—and, indeed, self-management” (p 161). Nowhere to be seen in this picture is the idea that the workers need to take over rather than just take part, depriving the capitalists of their economic domination rather than settling for a share in administering it.

“The stark reality behind the Irish story is that austerity is not working”, claims the book’s central argument (p 23). Half a decade of cutting to the bone, tightening belts, and mixing other metaphors has significantly reduced the living standards of most people in Ireland, with nothing to show for it all (p 37): “With investment declining, household consumption reducing and cuts in government spending increasing, it is difficult to see how the Irish economy can fully recover.” Widespread as the argument is, it misses some points which don’t bear missing.

Austerity has never been about generating some mythical rising tide to lift all boats, but about shifting wealth from the working class to capitalists. Recovery in a capitalist economy means no more and no less than a recovery of profit on capital: nothing else matters to such an economy. Allen and O’Boyle recognise that recessions allow some capitalists to swallow the business of their failed competitors, and even that profits in Ireland had got back around pre-recession levels by 2011, but they all but rule out the possibility that this could grow: “there is little evidence to show that” (p 36). They go on to quote figures illustrating a decline in the amount and rate of investment, down to €16 billion and 8 per cent in 2011. However, those figures themselves show the decline starting to slow down, which should have counselled caution. Subsequent figures show just how previous they are: investment was up to €17 billion and 8.8 per cent in 2012, €18 billion and 10 per cent the year after.

A bizarre variety of wishful thinking on the left assumes that the decline of capitalism will take care of itself, that every recession can be confidently hailed as the final countdown. But if capitalism can successfully utilise a recession to extract a greater surplus from the wealth workers create, then they have a chance of getting their show back on the road—even if the revival looks a bit bockety compared to its glory days. Capitalists impose austerity on us for a reason. If we don’t understand that, we can only see them as evil geniuses sadistically getting off on the hardship of others. In the movies, such beautiful wickedness melts upon accidental contact with water, but a much harder rain will have to fall on capitalism before it departs the stage.

The authors point to the loaded dice handed to those who question austerity, forcing them to explain where the money will come from to plug the holes: “they have to give an answer to a problem caused by the system without questioning the nature of the system itself”, and all within the confines of a soundbite (p 30-1). Fortunately, no such constraints hold them back here, as Pluto Press have given them 180-odd pages to question the hell out of the system. They want “to challenge capitalism rather than manage it and this means looking to Marx rather than Keynes” (p 156). But for all the space and the radical boasts, the alternatives they propose don’t challenge the basis of capitalism at all.

They rightly call low corporation tax “the great sacred cow of Irish politics” (p 91), but just can’t bring themselves to slaughter it. When they get round to concrete proposals (p 159) they only call for 12.5 per cent to be the effective rate rather than the headline rate. This would at most double it, leaving workers on the average wage still paying income tax at a higher rate—although they coyly refer to the possibility of unspecified “further increases where necessary”. Other proposals look for employers to pay more, but don’t say how much more. Their demand for “a Robin Hood tax on all financial speculation” doesn’t put a figure on it either, but we can safely assume it would be nothing like the 100 per cent which Robin Hood himself reputedly levied on the rich.

Where they do go into specifics, their prescriptions tend to be alarmingly weak. Rather than let the bondholders go whistle for their payments, Allen and O’Boyle want us to “write down these debts to a pre-crash level” (p 157). However, the return on government bonds is now lower than it was before the 2008 crash, and has been since late 2012, so putting it back to pre-crash levels would actually make bondholders richer.

Likewise, their solution to penal mortgage debt is to “write down house values to 2003 levels for those in financial need” (p 158). The latest figures from the Department of the Environment show a new house costing €231,011 on average and a second-hand house €257,462. At the end of 2003 the new house was €235,688 and the second-hand house €277,818. So turning the clock back to 2003 values would actually leave things a bit worse. In 2003 house prices were at ridiculous levels, forcing thousands of workers to beggar themselves and get saddled with ball-and-chain mortgages on un­suitable houses. Socialists used to wear themselves out pointing out the unfairness of it all back then, but how quickly some people forget! The important thing for socialists must be to argue that housing is a social need which should be provided collectively, not left to the mercy of the market.

Worst of all is their suggestion that people employed on a public works programme be “paid at just over the minimum wage” (p 158). This would represent a severe cut in the going rate for construction and infrastructural work, worse than anything employers have been able to impose in the recession, and on a par with the compulsory labour schemes now being forced on the unemployed. There is something very distasteful about two academics—a breed not noted for material self-denial—expecting other people to spill their sweat at hard physical labour for €9 or €10 an hour.

Lenin had a point when he said that politics is a concentrated form of economics. When people see capitalism as a system too weak to preserve itself, they underestimate the work needed against it. It makes sense for them to try and bring the capitalist state to look after the people’s interests, primarily through taking a bigger role in the economy. It is logical, then, that their political agitation would focus on reforms which “challenge” capitalism into being a fairer version of itself.

The big difference from social democracy in its heyday is that Allen and O’Boyle actually set their sights lower. The accusation they level at Sinn Féin that “Repeatedly in Irish history, Irish republicans have employed a left rhetoric to win a popular base and then used positions won to manage capitalism” (p 146) is fair enough, but they forget that the very same could be said of self-proclaimed socialists, even Marxists. They usually get a bit further up the electoral ladder before quietly leaving aside talk of ending capitalism—but then, many things end up getting cut in a recession.

The book concludes with a call for building “a large and substantial Left in Ireland. The conditions for doing so have never been more opportune” (p 165). Given that at least one of the authors has been whistling that same tune in vain for decades now, it is fair to ask why it should be correct this time round. It is admitted here that “Ireland’s radical left” is “historically insignificant, and its ideas have barely penetrated the workers’ movement in any substantial way” (p 129). It is a refreshingly frank confession of failure, and contains in itself part of the explanation. As long as socialist ideas are held separate to the movements of the working class, something external over here trying to “penetrate” those movements over there, they are destined to remain the precepts of cliques. The first step from that is to realise that socialism is no more than the generalised expression of the working class as it has fought to vindicate its right to a human existence, that socialists have no agenda of their own to insert into the movement, only lessons to draw from the historical and contemporary experience of workers themselves. That experience belies the conventional quest to reconstitute capitalism on a fairer basis, and suggests that an escape from austerity could not hold back from ideas and actions which would necessarily end up pointing to a society beyond capitalism.

Socialist Classics: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, ‘The Rebel Girl’

In Issue 55 (March 2014) Joe Conroy looked at an intriguing Irish-American socialist who confronted both the might of capitalism and personal pressures to conform.

In 1906, as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was winning fame and notoriety as a sixteen-year-old socialist firebrand, a big-shot Broadway producer asked to see her, and offered her a part in an upcoming play on labour strife. “I don’t want to be an actress!” she replied. “I want to speak my own words and not say over and over again what somebody else has written. I’m in the labor movement and I speak my own piece!” I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of ‘The Rebel Girl’ became the title of the memoirs she published in 1955. Before her death in 1964 she asked that future editions be entitled The Rebel Girl. The original title was better, and even though union martyr Joe Hill writing ‘The Rebel Girl’ for her is some claim to fame, it’s not one of his better songs. Under either title, Flynn’s book is a fascinating record of political struggle in the US and the personal contradictions it confronted her with.

When reading a socialist’s biography, the question of how exactly they ended up a socialist is always to the fore. Flynn’s mother offered an uncommon example of a woman not prepared to accept her place. She worked outside the home, read widely, and encouraged her daughters to think for themselves. Her father was self-educated and involved in the socialist movement, later on an election candidate. Neither parent held religious beliefs, and political discussion was always going on:

We were conditioned in our family to accept socialist thinking long before we came into contact with socialism as an organized movement.… Ideas were our meat and drink, sometimes a substitute for both. It is not strange, therefore, that in such a household our minds were fertile fields for socialism, when the seeds finally came.

They often attended socialist meetings as a family. Elizabeth’s first boyfriend was an anarchist who quoted left-wing writers and brought her to meet Emma Goldman.

Her first public activity as a socialist came when, not yet sixteen, she was invited to speak to the Harlem Socialist Club. She chose ‘What Socialism Will Do For Women’ as her topic, and was well received. August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism had fired her imagination, as had Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Having to speak from her own area of interest and expertise, she took on the specific exploitation of women workers and how a new society could end it. This initial impulse to her socialist activity remains a constant feature throughout the book.

Her father was put out that he hadn’t been asked to speak, considering himself quite the expert. “I’m afraid my father would be labelled a ‘male-supremacist’ these days”, writes Flynn, although an overblown idea of his own importance seems to be as much to blame as outright sexism. He spouted from books while his wife cleaned around him, insisting that his daughters stop doing their homework while he explained what was really important. Their mother realised something was amiss when Elizabeth’s seventeenth birthday party was attended exclusively by the father’s middle-aged comrades. Flynn muses on how socialists should bring up their children, and is grateful to her father at least for not wrapping them up in cotton wool against the world’s problems and potential solutions. In her case, healthy rebellion against his authority lay, not in rejecting his socialism, but in making it into a living, active principle.

Another strong influence was her Irish background. In traditional Irish-American style, there are cheesy references to “the Emerald Isle” and “that most distressful country”, as well as a dubious claim that all four great-grandfathers fought in 1798. (When the French landed at Killala, “Young Irishmen for miles around dropped their potato digging”, apparently!) But behind the shamrockery, there is a significant element in Flynn’s political formation. “As children, we drew in a burning hatred of British rule with our mother’s milk”, she writes. Her mother’s background seems intriguing, a nationalist family of non-practising Presbyterians from Loughrea. Her father’s cursing of England was easy to broaden out: “When one understood British imperialism it was an open window to all imperialism.”

New York was home to a good few Irish-American socialists at the time, and Flynn was a founder member of the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907. Her description of James Connolly has often been quoted:

It was a pathetic sight to see him standing, poorly clad, at the door of Cooper Union or some other East Side hall, selling his little paper. None of the prosperous professional Irish, who shouted their admiration for him after his death, lent him a helping hand at that time.… He had no false pride and encouraged others to do these Jimmy Higgins tasks by setting an example.

Some of those prosperous professional Irish are with us still, platonically admiring Connolly while they wouldn’t be seen dead distributing unpopular propaganda cutting across the prejudices of the day. The picture confirms Connolly as someone who expected commitment to unglamorous practical work as an inherent part of a socialist’s job. (Jimmie Higgins, by the way, is a novel by the US socialist Upton Sinclair whose early chapters portray a socialist engaged in similarly mundane work.)

There are asides which reveal interesting aspects of the Irish-American left. Some of the Connolly daughters were less than happy about leaving America in 1910, it seems. The plan to bring Dublin strikers’ children away on holiday in 1913 was inspired by the big textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the year before—but Flynn, who was centrally involved in that strike, says that the precedent came from Europe. Jim Larkin turns up on her mother’s doorstep in 1914 with the words: “James Connolly sent me.” Maybe he only meant that Connolly gave him the address to look up, or maybe Larkin was beginning to weave a tale which would grow wings in subsequent years.

The intersection with other ethnic groups is interesting. Sam Stodel was also present at the founding of the ISF but, tragically, “we excluded him as we feared ridicule if we included a Jew”. This anecdote, of Flynn’s arrest at a demonstration, illuminates a complicated dialectic of oppressor and oppressed:

a very provocative act was committed by the police. A Negro policeman, and there were very few at that time, was thrust forward by the white cops to make the arrest and face the jeers and catcalls of over a thousand workers, predominantly Irish. The contemptible meanness of forcing him to arrest a white woman—and an Irish one at that—was clear to me. I felt the man trembling when he grasped my arm. “Don’t worry, I’ll see that they don’t hurt you!” I assured him.… I was greatly relieved when we reached the local police station, followed by hundreds of workers. I felt I had delivered him safely. Usually I had scant sympathy for a policeman, but from this instance I began to realize that a special persecution of the Negro people extended to all walks of life, and no Negro was exempt, not even a policeman.

Throughout the twenty years of activism covered in the book, “all the work I did was for the movement, sometimes paid for and some­times not”. She spoke and organised for the Industrial Workers of the World, and often found herself specialising in defending workers imprisoned for militant union activity. And such activity could be a matter of life and death, as these pages testify. IWW organiser Frank Little was lynched in 1917, with gravedigger’s measurements pinned to his body as a warning. Another, Fanny Sellins, was shot in the back by police in 1919 when she tried to stop them attacking a striker: “After she fell, they pumped more bullets into her body” and one cop paraded around with her hat on. In the same year, Wesley Everett tried to defend an IWW hall from a right-wing mob, but they got him:

Everest was beaten, a rope put around his neck and he was dragged senseless to the jail. In the night he was taken out, castrated and lynched, his swinging body used as a target for shot after shot. The next day the body was brought back to the jail and thrown in among the prisoners, then taken out and surreptitiously buried in an unknown grave…

It is small comfort that the evidence goes against the claim that Everest was castrated, but revolutionary activists in the US at that time faced dangers akin to those meted out by dictatorships.

Flynn draws lessons from her activity which at times read like a striker’s handbook. “The life of a strike depends upon constant activities”, involving not just all groups and nationalities among the strikers themselves, but their families and communities. Decentralised administration is needed: “When funds came directly to a local strike committee they were bound to participate more actively in raising them.”

However, “Most of us were wonderful agitators but poor union organizers.” Few roots were struck that could grow outside the heady times of struggle and consolidate what had been won. Hundreds of thousands joined the IWW, but precious few stayed. Flynn writes that “the IWW carried ‘rank-and-file-ism’ to excess”, allowing its fear of bureaucracy to stifle effective long-term organisation. Later on, though, she saw it moving “From the extreme of anarchistic de­centralization… to develop a degree of bureaucratic centralism that was equally dangerous”.

Early on Flynn tells of her marriage to an IWW organiser, admitting there was some justice in a comrade’s observation that she was falling for the glamour of a rebel as much as anything else. He wanted her to settle down to life as a wife and mother, but “I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for his.” They separated, and Flynn entered a relationship with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca. This lasted for years, but eventually broke down, Flynn claims, because—on top of Tresca’s infidelities—she was still un­willing to play the subordinate domestic role expected of her.

This is the point where the memoirs end. She had told the story of “My First Life” up to 1926, and planned another volume on “My Second Life”. The break between the two lives is supposed to be around her decision to join the Communist Party of the USA after years of hesitation about committing to party discipline. But this doesn’t ring true. She didn’t actually join the Communists until 1936, supposedly because faction fights in the party prevented her application being processed. Such fights were going on fiercely, but ten years is a long time to let a membership application slide. The preface to The Rebel Girl says that the next book would deal with “my life as an active Communist from 1936 to the present day”. But what about that decade in between?

It must be down to another case of her personal desire for free­dom conflicting with the political imperatives of others. Over those ten years, Flynn lived with Marie Equi, a women’s rights campaigner and IWW supporter who spent three years in jail for opposing the first world war, and is favourably referenced several times in The Rebel Girl. Equi was an out lesbian, but whether her relationship with Flynn was sexual is unclear: she was at the very least a source of compassion as Flynn recovered from exhaustion brought on by constant activity and her split with Tresca. But the question is ultimately irrelevant: the close companionship of two independent women was enough of an offence to received wisdom in itself.

Such things remained scandalous in the 1950s. Gay members of the US Communist Party then were asked to leave, or even expelled. Officially, the party was afraid their sexuality could be used to blackmail them and obtain information. Communists likely felt they had a hard enough job defending their own existence against all the witch-hunts without having to defend gays and lesbians too—not unlike the Irish Socialist Federation’s fear of admitting a Jewish member. But there was also a strong view—found elsewhere on the left, too—that homosexuality was an unfortunate deviation caused by capitalism.

Flynn was imprisoned for two years by McCarthyism, and the book she wrote about that experience paints a negative picture of lesbians on the inside warped for lack of male partnership. There is some evidence that she originally wrote far more sympathetically of her lesbian fellow inmates, only to rewrite the chapter under pressure from the CPUSA who published the book. An FBI report claimed that Flynn had a relationship with another prisoner—but such a source is of course very suspect. A biographer examining the issue was originally denied access by the CP to Flynn’s papers, and when those papers became available, writings on her time with Equi were missing.

“There were no hard and fast lines drawn between one good freedom cause and another and no such fears of reprisal as there are today”, Flynn writes of the 1920s. “People were not afraid they would hurt one cause by identifying themselves with another.” The Rebel Girl testifies to the power of that quest for all-round liberation, to the inspiring movements and struggles it gave rise to. But it speaks also—both in what it says and what it leaves out—of the tragedies that follow when that quest is fettered by what is fancied to be acceptable or popular.

An tIdirnáisiúntán

Aistríodh móramhrán sóisialach Eugène Edme Pottier in Eagrán 20 i Samhain 2004.

Bhí Eugéne Edme Pottier gníomhach i ngluaiseacht shóisialach na Fraince i lár an naoú céad déag. Ghlac sé páirt i gComún Pháras in 1871, nuair a ghabh oibrithe na cathrach ceannas uirthi ar feadh cúpla mí. Nuair a cuireadh an Común faoi chois, daoradh chun báis é, ach d’éirigh leis éalú ón tír. I Meitheamh na bliana sin chum sé ‘L’Internationale’, agus d’fhoilsigh sé an dán i gcnuasach filíochta in 1887, an bhliain a bhásaigh sé. Chuir Pierre Degeyter ceol le dán Pottier an bhliain dár gcionn. Tá sé ina amhrán ag sóisialaithe an tsaoil mhóir ó shin i leith.

Agus é i gcampa géibhinn an Churraigh le linn an dara cogadh domhanda, chuir Máirtín Ó Cadhain Gaeilge ar chuid den amhrán: an chéad rann agus an loinneog. Bhí sé ag obair ó leagan a thug Micheál Ó Ríordáin, ceannaire na bpríosúnach Cumannach, dó. Dealraíonn sé gur meascán den bhunamhrán agus den aistriú Béarla a bhí aige.

Seo é an chéad leagan iomlán Gaeilge den ‘Idirnáisiúntán’. Tá na cúig rann ar fad aistrithe anseo ón bhFraincis, agus cloítear le rannaireacht an bhunamhráin.

Éirigí, a sclábhaithe an domhain!
Éirigí, a ocracháin an tsaoil!
Tuiscint in ard a cinn a labhrann
An focal scoir óna béal.
Cuirimis chun siúil anois an sean-am
Éirigí, a shlua mhóir na ndaor!
Athróimid an saol ó bhonn, a mh’anam
Beidh gach uile shórt faoinár réir!

Tá cath na cinniúna ann
In aon slua linn!
An tIdirnáisiúntán
A chomhaontóidh sinn.
Tá cath na cinniúna ann
In aon slua linn!
An tIdirnáisiúntán
A chomhaontóidh sinn.

Ní thiocfaidh aon ardslánaitheoirí:
Dia, curadh ná rialtóir
Fúinn féin atá sé, a tháirgeoirí!
Leas na ndaoine mar is cóir!
Le ceart a bhaint den ghadaí gránna
Ár meon a scaoileadh saor ó gheis
Gaibhnímis ár gclaíomh go dána
Is tapaímis ár ndeis!


Éagóir an stáit is feall an dlí
Ár bhfuil a thugaimid mar cháin
Níl bacainn ar an rachmasaí
Téann ceart na mbocht le fán.
Cuirimis uainn anois an umhlóid
Tá an chóir ag iarraidh malairt dlí:
“Ní ceart go dualgas” a nua-mhóid,
“Ná dualgas go ceart!” deir sí.


Míofaireacht is ea a bhflaitheas
Ríthe guail, iarainn is cruach
Céard a rinne siad de mhaitheas?
Lucht saothair a dhíol faoina luach.
Faoi ghlas i mbancanna na buíne úd
Tá toradh ár n‑oibre is ár mbeart;
I gcúiteamh ghadaíocht na ndaoine úd
Níl ón bpobal ach a gceart.


Chun lámhaigh brúnn ríthe sinne.
Síocháin eadrainn, cogadh orthu sin!
Stailc na n‑arm ina gcoinne
Amach as na ranga catha linn!
Go stadann siad, na conablaigh seo,
Dár bhfuil a ligean braon ar bhraon
Tuigfidh siad go bhfuil na piléirí seo
Ag díriú ar ár nginearáil féin.


Oibrí is feirmeoir le chéile
Lucht saothair i bpáirtí mór amháin;
Leis an gcine daonna é an saol seo
Níl áit don saibhir ann.
Nach iomaí colainn bhreá a shloig siad!
Ach má imíonn siad amach anseo,
Badhbha is amplacháin mar iad,
Beidh solas na gréine linn go deo!


When entrepreneurs roamed free and the rats got your eyes

On the centenary of the Dublin lockout, Kevin Higgins discussed its classic novel in Issue 54 (December 2013).

James Plunkett, Strumpet City (Gill & Macmillan)

Though many pages have been filled with facts about the events leading up to and away from the 1913 lockout—and there are things to be learned from books such as Pádraig Yeates’s Lockout: Dublin 1913—it is from a book of fiction that most Irish people have gained what factual knowledge they have about the sharpest clash thus far between those who live off profits made by the labour of others (in this case, the Dublin employers led by William Martin Murphy) and those without whose sweat there would be no profits, represented here by characters such as Fitz and Mary whose aspirations are, in many ways, similar enough to those of many contemporary Irish couples whose small dreams have in the last few years been battered apart by what Brendan Howlin calls economic reality. Strumpet City, first published in 1969, was adapted for television by the playwright Hugh Leonard—no socialist—and the resulting series, first screened in 1980, was hugely popular. I was not quite thirteen years old when I first saw Rashers Tierney, the ghastly snob Catholic curate Father O’Connor and Jim Larkin make shapes across our black and white TV.

This new edition includes an introduction by Fintan O’Toole. One effect of this was to make me feel as if I was on my way to a funeral rather than about to again read a great story which holds many lessons for today. Fintan likes working class people a lot. I know that. But whenever some group of the aforementioned actually takes action in defence of their conditions, he tends to be struck dumb. It’s not as if, as one of our leading national definers, he doesn’t have the platforms. I can’t help feeling that Fintan likes the working class characters in Strumpet City all the more because he thinks that what many of them represent—militant trade unionismis safely dead and not about to disrupt either the traffic near the Irish Times offices or the delivery of his next vegetarian salad. I perhaps have this wrong. If so, I look forward to his passionate article in support of the Dublin Bus workers next time they decide to, as the Sunday Indo will no doubt describe it, hold the capital city to ransom.

Strumpet City is a vast sprawl of a novel in the nineteenth century tradition. It has been described as our Doctor Zhivago, but a more apt comparison is with Germinal, Zola’s great novel of 1895 about the tribulations of striking French coalminers and their families a couple of decades before the Dublin lockout. The story spans the turning point years of 1907-14 and is told via the contrasting life stories of a dozen characters. It begins with the visit of King Edward VII which, were they around at the time, would have been an event to provoke an almost sexual excitement from the likes of Kevin Myers and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The way this event is portrayed by James Plunkett calls to mind the nonsense one often heard being spoken in August 1997 on the untimely demise of the former Princess of Wales. It was a time when dissent against the royal love-in was mostly muttered wryly out of the side of the mouth.

The best and worst humanity has to offer comes alive on these pages. When their long-term housekeeper Miss Gilchrist has a stroke, the eminently respectable Bradshaws reward her years of service by depositing her in the workhouse. When neo-liberal economists go to bed at night, this is the sort of thing of which they dream. Mary, who arrives from down the country to take up a job working in service with the Bradshaws, is informed that she is forbidden to date men (and presumably women) while working there because the Bradshaws are people with standards to keep. Being a good girl, Mary takes no notice at all of what they say, though she has to be discreet. She walks out with and eventually marries Fitz, who joins the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and is then one of the more than twenty thousand locked out of their jobs until they meet the employer’s demand: that they immediately resign from Larkin’s rapidly growing union.

Father O’Connor is a priest of the worst sort, the sort who these days turns up with a big silly smile on him at Youth Defence gigs. There is something vaguely perverted about his repulsion from the actualities of flesh. He cannot bring himself to approve of the decision of Fitz and Mary “To sleep in the sweat of one bed and deposit in due time a few more animal faces among the dirt”. Father O’Connor is a dude with issues, and seems just a little too interested in what Mary and Fitz get up to in bed. He goes on to play an heroic role when he joins a righteous mob determined to stop the children of locked out workers boarding boats to England and Wales where the families of British trades unionists had offered to take them in so as to ease the pressure on their parents. It was an important act of solidarity designed to help people many of whom were at this stage near starvation. But we couldn’t have children from decent (or even in­decent) Catholic homes going to stay with English and Welsh Protestants and atheists, now could we? In the unlikely event that such protests were to take place today, Father O’Connor and his ilk would surely be joined by Lucinda Creighton TD waving a picture of an abortion in one paw and a copy of Milton Friedman’s Monetary History of the United States in the other. Dublin port is, after all, partly in her Dublin South East constituency. The other priest who features, Father Giffley, is an altogether more sympathetic character. He is a raging alcoholic which, given the facts of his life, seems as rational a solution as any. He sympathises with the workers and the poor, and loathes his colleague’s tight-arsed snobbery.

We all know how the lockout ended: the workers were defeated in the short term, though things were changed nevertheless. It would never be 1907 again. The world of the Bradshaws and Father O’Connor, with his Sunday afternoon visits to posh friends in Kingstown, was in its twilight. As the book ends, less than a year after the lockout’s end, Fitz is on his way to the trenches of World War I. We can be sure that did not end happily. For all its brutal vibrancy, indeed because of it, capitalism always has some ghastly surprise in store for us. And surprises don’t come much nastier than World War I. I’m sure Father O’Connor blessed the troops as they left. He wouldn’t have minded members of his flock hanging around with Protestants in those circumstances.

The harshest image of the book, and the one that stays with me, is what became of Rashers Tierney. In the RTÉ dramatization he was memorably played by David Kelly. Rashers lives in a derelict base­ment with his dog Rusty. Towards the end of the book he appears to be dying of what might be cancer. He expires alone and in agony, having soiled the only clothes he has. Before Rashers is found, the rats have had his face, his eyes and his hands: a fine example of the free market doing its work. Father O’Connor is called, but feels unable to give the last rights to “carrion”.

Liberal newspaper columnists and the greybeard leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions would have us shed a tear for poor Rashers and then refocus on our far more complex contemporary reality. But in the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Especially when the underlying conflict remains unresolved. Read another way, if there is a book to convince the unconvinced that William Martin Murphy’s successor as owner of Independent Newspapers—the plump-faced tax avoider Denis O’Brien—and all the ultra-Catholic rubbish who’ll be back to haunt us come the same-sex marriage referendum should be put permanent­ly beyond use, Strumpet City is that book.