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.