Rogha ban Éireann

Chuir Sinéad Nic Íomhair an cás ar son ceart an ghinmhillte in Eagrán 46 (Nollaig 2011).

Tá rud amháin ann a aontaíonns polaiteoirí na tíre seo ar fad, thuaidh agus theas, ó achan pháirtí. Is é sin gur cheart ceist an ghinmhillte a choinneáil ar an mhéar fhada, ar an mhéar is faide dá bhfuil ann, agus í a bhrú síos níos faide uirthi más féidir. Cibé rud a dhéananns tú, ná dean dada: sin é a mana uilig ar an ábhar seo.

Tá toirmeasc bunreachtúil ar an ghinmhilleadh ó dheas, agus tá sé ionann is dodhéanta ginmhilleadh a fháil ó thuaidh. Ach is cuma caidé an cosc a chuirtear air nó an neamhaird a dhéantar de, ní imeoidh sé. Faigheann na mílte ban Éireannach ginmhilleadh achan bhliain, agus tá sé chomh coitianta ina measc is atá i measc mná aon tíre eile. Is gné choitianta de thaithí saoil mhná na hÉireann é. Is minic a d’éirigh leis an dlí é a dhíbirt chun na gcúlsráideanna, ach níor éirigh le dlí ar bith i dtír ar bith deireadh a chur leis.

Tír a bhfuil seasamh oifigiúil chomh láidir sin in éadan an ghin­mhillte glactha aici, bheadh duine ag súil go ndéanfadh sí a díchealt le déanamh cinnte nach dtarlódh toircheas gan choinne. Bheadh frith­ghiniúint ar fáil saor in aisce, chomh maith le hoideachas cuimsitheach oscailte collaíochta sna scoltacha. Bheadh achan tacaíocht le fáil ag máithreacha go réidh, cúram leanaí is eile. Ach níl, agus nach aisteach gurb iad na daoine is glóraí in éadan an ghinmhillte is mó a chuireanns in éadan a leithéide?

Deir lucht frithghinmhillte go ndéanann ginmhilleadh dochar millteanach do bhean agus go mbíonn aiféala an domhain uirthi ina dhiaidh. Níl aon obráid ann nach mbaineann contúirt inteacht léi, leoga, ach níl fianaise leighis ar bith ann go bhfágann ginmhilleadh máchail sláinte ar bhean. Nuair a dhéantar dochar dá meon, is mó a bhaineanns sin leis an chiapadh uathu siúd a thabharfadh dún­mharfóir uirthi. Ar ndóighe, tá mná a mbíonn aiféala orthu i ndiaidh ginmhillte, ach bíonn aiféala ar a lán ban de bharr páistí a bheith acu —ar an dea-uair, áfach, níl aon duine ag iarraidh é sin a chosc orthu.

Is doiligh an cinneadh é ginmhilleadh a fháil, ach is é an buille gurb í an bhean féin an duine ceart leis an chinneadh sin a dhéanamh. Thig léi comhairle a ghlacadh ó dhuine ar bith, ach ní ceart go ndéanfadh duine ar bith eile an cinneadh di, fear céile, sagart, polaiteoir ná eile. Cosúil le haon chinneadh eile, tá seans ann nach ndéanfaidh sí an rogha cheart, ach is í a rogha sise í ar deireadh.

Níl smacht ag bean ar a corp féin mura dtig léi a roghnú di féin an mbeidh leanbh aici nó cén uair a mbeidh leanbh aici. Caidé an saol atá aici agus bagairt ann go mbeidh uirthi leanbh a thabhairt ar an saol in éadan a tola? Athrú millteanach a dhéananns toircheas ar bhean, ar a corp is a saol uilig, athrú nach cóir a bhrú uirthi dá hainneoin féin. Ní fiú a bheith ag caint ar chomhionannas na mban mura mbíonn an buncheart sin aici, ceannas ar a torthúlacht féin.

Nach bhfuil ceart ag an leanbh sa bhroinn, áfach? Ní duine é ach suth go dtugann an bhean ar an saol é. Tá an suth sin ag brath go huile is go hiomlán uirthise agus uirthise amháin le cothú a fháil. Is cuid di féin é i ndáiríre, agus ní féidir é a chur ar comhcheart leis an bhean gan a daonnacht a bhaint di. Nuair a dhéantar sin, níl inti ach soitheach le leanbh a iompar, broinn ar a cosa, gan aici ach beatha bhitheolaíoch seachas saol daonna.

Tá fimíneacht bhunúsach ag baint leis an chuid is mó den díospóireacht ar cheist an ghinmhillte. Iad siúd a chuireanns cosc ar an ghinmhilleadh in Éirinn, tá áthas an domhain orthu go bhfuil sé ar fáil forleathan go leor i Sasain. Ní miste leo ar scor ar bith go bhfuil na mílte ban Éireannach ag fáil ginmhilleadh, chomh fada is a imíonns siad thar lear lena fháil. An rud nach bhfeiceann a súil, ní ghoilleann sé ar a gcroí, agus is mór an faoiseamh dóbhtha go dtig leofa an fhadhb a easportáil. Thug 5,503 bean seoladh in Éirinn agus ginmhilleadh á fháil acu sa Bhreatain anuraidh, agus níl mná a thug seoladh carad nó gaoil thall san áireamh ansin, ná mná a chuaigh don Ísiltír nó tír inteacht eile.

Is é toradh an heasportála seo go gcuirtear go mór leis an bhuairt a bhíonns ar bhean atá ag iompar in éadan a tola. In áit ginmhilleadh a fháil ina hospidéal áitiúil, bíonn uirthi na céadta a bhailiú ar dhóigh inteacht, aistear thar lear a eagrú, roinnt laethe a ghlacadh saor ón obair, rud deacair a dhéanamh níos deacra fós, leis an ghinmhilleadh céanna a fháil. Dá bhoichte í, is amhlaidh is measa a chuireanns an costas breise isteach uirthi. Fágann sé seo gur ceist don aicme oibre go háirid í ceist an ghinmhillte in Éirinn, mar baineann fáil air go dlúth le stádas aicmeach na mná.

Dá mbeadh naimhde an ghinmhillte ionraic, bheadh siad ag gníomhú in éadan na heasportála seo. Más fíor dóbhtha siúd, is ionann ginmhilleadh agus dúnmharú. Má chreideann siad i ndáiríre go bhfuil cúig mhíle Éireannach á marú ag an chóras sláinte thall achan bhliain, cad chuige nach bhfuil siad ag iarraidh rialtas na Breataine a chúisiú os comhair na Náisiún Aontaithe? Cad chuige nach bhfuil siad ag éiliú ar na Gardaí mná a stopadh ag gach calafort is aerfort go gcruthaítear nach bhfuil siad páirteach sa sléacht seo? An é go bhfuil eagla orthu go dtaispeánfadh gníomhartha mar sin—atá loighciúil óna seasamh siúd—cé chomh héagórach is atá an clár oibre s’acu?

Agus is scanrúil an clár oibre é sin. Dar leofa, tá an suth ina dhuine a luaithe is a theangmhaíonns speirm le hubh, agus an ceart céanna aige is atá ag duine ar bith eile. Is mian leofa achan cheart de chuid na mná a shéanadh ar mhaithe leis an suth sin. Fiú nuair nach bhfuil seans dá laghad ag an suth sin mairstin—i gcás aineinceifealachta, mar shampla—cuireann siad iachall ar an bhean a dhul ar aghaidh leis. Tá dochtúirí ag aimsiú leigheas ar ghalair is gortuithe tromchúiseacha le gaschealla, ach tá ‘lucht cosanta na beatha’ ar a ndíchealt ag iarraidh an léas úr seo ar a saol a choinneáil ó dhaoine, mar is mó leofa ceart na gceall.

Caidé a cheapanns na bunchreidmhigh Chaitliceacha seo fán líon ard toircheas a dtagann deireadh nádúrtha leofa? Cailltear an bhreith go hanaibí i gcuid an-mhór díobhtha, thart ar 40%, meastar. Dar leis an Chríostaí bunchreidmheach, ní timpiste atá anseo nó rud a bhfuil míniú ag lucht leighis air, ach toil Dé. Más é toil Dé é an oiread sin ginte a mhilleadh achan lá, is é Dia an ginmhillteoir is mó da bhfuil ann.

Tá neart Caitliceach ann nach nglacann le teagasc a n‑eaglaise ar an ghinmhilleadh, ar ndóighe, agus tá diagairí Caitliceacha, fiú, a áitíonns go bhfuil an teagasc sin ag teacht salach ar an charthanacht ba chóir a bheith i gcroí a gcreidimh. Ach ní bheadh easpa an ghin­mhillte leath chomh daingean mura mbeadh smacht na heaglaise sin. Tugann scoltacha Caitliceacha ardán do lucht ginmhillte le bolscaireacht bhréagach uafáis a bhrú ar dhaltaí, agus cuireann ‘coistí eitice’ prionsabail reiligiúin chun tosaigh ar phrionsabail leighis i reachtáil ospidéal Caitliceach.

Na daoine a thacaíonn le reifrinn chun cosaint bhunreachtúil a thabhairt don leanbh sa bhroinn, mar a thuganns siad air, bíonn siad glan in éadan aon reifreann chun cosaint bhunreachtúil a thabhairt do leanaí taobh amuigh den bhroinn. A luaithe is a thaganns leanbh ar an saol, ní spéis leofa a thuilleadh é nó í. Agus muid ag cur ar son ceart na mban gan leanaí a bheith acu, ba chóir dúinn a bheith chomh láidir céanna ag cur ar son ceart na mban ar mian leo leanaí a bheith acu.

Bheadh an bheatha á cosaint i gceart againn dá dtiocfadh le mná a bheith ina máithreacha gan a bheith thíos leis, gan dochar ar bith dá slí bheatha, dá dteacht isteach, dá gcuid oideachais. Ba chóir go mbeadh níos mó ná leathbhliain ghortach mar shaoire máithreachais acu, agus ba chóir saoire a bheith ag athracha chomh maith le páirt a ghlacadh i dtógáil an linbh. Ba cheart go mbeadh naíonraí agus cúram leanaí ar fáil ar chostas an stáit. Tá mionrudaí eile, ach rudaí tábhachtacha, de dhíth, cosúil le córas iompair is áiseanna eile a d’fháilteodh roimh pháistí seachas bac a chur rompu. Níl na riachtanais seo ann do mhná a bhfuil páistí acu, agus tá feachtais leis an mhéid seo is tuilleadh a bhaint amach mar chuid den troid le rogha cheart a bheith acu i gcúrsaí máithreachais.

Is seamsán rialta é ‘nach bhfuil duine ar bith ag iarraidh ginmhilleadh in Éirinn’, ach seamsán bréagach. De réir pobalbhreith anuraidh, níl ach 3% den phobal in éadan ginmhilleadh in achan chás. Tá 41% i bhfabhar ginmhilleadh a bheith ar fáil nuair a cheapanns an bhean gur chun a leasa féin nó leas a muintire é. Tá lear mór daoine idir eatarthu sin: 78% i bhfabhar é a bheith ar fáil i gcás éigniú nó drochíde, 79% agus bagairt do shláinte na mná ann, 87% agus a beatha i mbaol.

Tá líon na ndaoine atá ar son rogha na mná i bhfad níos mó ná a chreidtear, agus líon na ndaoine atá glan ina héadan i bhfad níos lú. Daoine a ghlacanns leis an rogha i gcruachásanna áiride, tá siad ag rá i ndáiríre go bhfuil i bhfad níos mó ná beatha fhisiceach amháin ag dul do bhean, go bhfuil saol slán cuimsitheach de cheart aici, agus go dtagann an ceart sin roimh cibé éiliú atá ag an suth. Tá an-chuid daoine ann a bhfuil fadhb acu leis an ghinmhilleadh mar choincheap teibí, ach a aithníonns an gá leis nuair a chuirtear fíorchásanna chucu.

Thig linn an argóint ar son ceart an ghinmhillte a bhuachan má chuireann muid chun tosaigh í ar dhóigh stuama, ag labhairt go neamhbhalbh le daoine agus ag gearradh tríd an fhimíneacht. Tá sé in am againn éirí as an chosc is an cheilt ar an cheist seo. Is í an rogha an réiteach.

Celtic soul brothers

Tara O’Sullivan reviewed a book on traditions of internationalist solidarity across the Irish Sea in Issue 45 (September 2011)

Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire 1879-95 (Intfrobel Publications)

Earlier in the year we witnessed much discussion of relationships between Ireland and Britain. Some was of interest, but the worst of it was that the debate was occasioned by the visit of a certain over-privileged woman with a big house in London, and accompanied by moronic assertion that acquiescing in such a parasitic presence was some sign of maturity. But the histories and destinies of these two islands are linked in plenty of ways infinitely more relevant than the backslapping banqueting of the rich and their retinues.

Allan Armstrong’s book examines such a part of our history, a history of combined efforts to break such power and privilege and end the injustices that working people laboured under. The official take on the period covered here focuses on the Westminster cattle trading between Parnell and Gladstone, the vagaries of the Liberal/Home Rule alliance up to the point where it notoriously ended in tears. Here, however, we see what could have been the makings of a very different kind of alliance, aiming for real political democracy and radical change in social and economic relations.

The book opens as the land war does, a sustained militant move­ment to overthrow landlordism in Ireland, which inevitably fused with the attempt to win greater national independence. As outlined here, Michael Davitt personally had higher ambitions than others in leading positions: he wanted the land nationalised, not just taken from the landlords, and an Irish republic rather than home rule within the British empire. But this point of view was only one minority strand within the movement, and one which was continually subordinated to more moderate aspirations. The author puts his finger on “Davitt’s main political weakness—his overriding concern to maintain public unity” (p 58). Again and again we read of Davitt agreeing to hush up his more radical demands, so as to prevent a common front to the enemy. The unity of the land war was firmly based on this low common denominator. In view of this, the following characterisation of Parnell’s position seems to miss the point (p 42):

A different strategy was already forming in his mind—a slower transition to peasant proprietorship and to Irish Home Rule. He was planning his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’—the ‘revolution’ being “The Fall of Feudalism”, or the breaking of landlord power; the ‘counter-revolution’ being the cementing of bourgeois political, economic and social power in Ireland, with the backing of the larger tenant farmers.

The Land League’s stated aim was to win ownership of the land for tenant farmers instead of landlords, while the Home Rule party had the explicit object of an Irish parliament subordinate to Westminster. Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground, extended the revolution further—and it was their failure to organise openly and independently for that which deserves blame for it not happening, not Parnell doing what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.

A particular quality of the period is well highlighted, drawing a lesson that needs reiterating today, on both sides of the Irish Sea (p 24):

Migrant labour played a key role. The constant changes in the class composition of the ‘lower orders’, leading to the fall or rise of certain categories of labour, initially made working class organisation more difficult, as employers deliberately promoted ethnic or sectarian divisions amongst their workforces. However, migrant labour also brought its ready-made traditions of struggle, imported by workers from other nations and regions. These traditions were drawn upon and modified in the course of struggle. They contributed to the political awareness and fighting capability of a new ethnically mixed working class.

The existence of such a contribution has been noted before, of course. Anyone who ever read a history of trade unions in England knows that if you removed all the Celtic names you would have precious little left. Armstrong doesn’t present this as just a pleasant multi­cultural curiosity, however, but recognises it as a powerful dynamic in the making and renewal of the working class, a dynamic which should be evident in struggles of our own day.

But is it the case that “From the early 1880s an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, of Irish social republicans and Scottish, Welsh and English Radicals, was created” (p 25)? Though a deal of evidence is presented here, it doesn’t back up such a sweeping claim. We read repeatedly of links made from time to time between struggles of working people in those four countries, but nothing that constitutes anything as strong or as lasting as an alliance.

In fact, a strange construction has sometimes to be placed on the material to make it fit this interpretation. In 1886 Davitt addressed Welsh miners and condemned the exploitation they faced. This is portrayed as “further strengthening the link between land and labour” across national boundaries (p 82). But he was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland—hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.

This leads to wondering why—apart from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves—the period 1879-95 is chosen. Sympathies and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain, en­compassing Irish independence and social justice, were evident in earlier periods, after all. Left-wing Chartists and left-wing Young Irelanders stood together in 1848. In the 1860s and 70s radical Fenians and the International Working Men’s Association made common cause. So why 1879-95 specifically?

Armstrong explicitly argues here and elsewhere (see ‘The need for internationalism from below’, Red Banner 33, for instance) for a mutual internationalist alliance of socialists in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, in answer to the concerted efforts of those who rule these countries. While myself and Allan have had a friendly dis­agreement around whether Britain and Ireland should form an especial framework of activity for socialists (see our letters in Red Banner 34 and 36), it is a noble aim which socialists here in the western reaches of Europe can only welcome.

There is something problematic, however, about reading this perspective back into history. The concept of an “internationalism from below” alliance is entirely the author’s own, not one that ever emerged in the actual struggles of the time. Solidarity with Irish struggles was widespread, but more often on an all-British basis than consciously Scottish, Welsh or English. The emergence of these national questions was more prominent in 1879-95 than before—which presumably explains the book’s focus on the period—but Britain, even the United Kingdom, still formed the dominant terms of reference.

This is evident among Marxist thinkers of the time too, who Armstrong either criticises or claims as supporters—but the proof for their support is weak. He presents Friedrich Engels in 1891 being “in support of a federal republic for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales… He now advocated a federal republic for the four nations” (p 131-2). In reality Engels had written (in a well-known critique of a German socialist programme) that such a republic “would be a step forward” compared to the UK, while still advocating a decentralised unitary republic for Britain and elsewhere. Similarly, “Connolly pursued a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’” (p 21). But while of course insisting on Irish independence, Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales, or separate socialist organisations in Britain’s three countries (despite the option of establishing a Scottish Socialist Labour Party being wide open to him around 1903).

Again, the argument is more concerned with the early 21st century than the late nineteenth. The author makes no bones about this, as in his characterisation of many British Marxist responses to the issues (p 17):

They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK.… They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’… take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties…

There is much here that we can regrettably recognise, left-wingers who would prefer if questions of political democracy would con­veniently go away and leave them to the bread and butter they know best. Not alone do such issues refuse to go away, however: we shouldn’t want them to. Demands for political democracy are an integral part of our work, often powerful elements in undermining the system we oppose and developing the desire for an alternative.

But is their demand for less than full Scottish and Welsh independence the problem? Take the case of Wales. The only trouble with demanding an independent Welsh republic is that few of the people living there want one. At the moment, most of Wales wants a certain level of self-government—more than it has at present—without breaking away from England completely. This can change, of course, and any decent socialist will fight for Wales’s right to separate as soon as it wants to. But until such a time, our job is to support the Welsh people’s right to vary, weaken, or sever that link as they see fit, to determine their own national future. Socialists support the right to divorce absolutely, but leave it up to people themselves whether they want to break up or not.

This doesn’t amount to defending the UK or a reformed version of it. The grave of the United Kingdom is one every socialist should want to dance on. This forced union, presided over by acres of feudal mummery, belongs in the museum, with its Union Jack torn up for dishrags. But does it have to be replaced by discrete Scottish, Welsh and English workers’ republics, or could a socialist Britain with full autonomy and the right to separate not do the job? The oppression of Ireland has always been greater, and its partition inherently sectarian and anti-democratic, but there are a host of reasons—geographic, economic, cultural and others—why the nations which inhabit Britain might want to share a workers’ republic which accommodated their diverse needs.

If we look to mainland Europe and further afield, it is hard to find many state boundaries that don’t perpetuate some kind of injustice. The map is dotted with nations, nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups whose existence is denied and marginalised by undemocratic capitalist states. Socialism—both as a future society and as a move­ment aiming for it—will have to come up with various ways to respect their rights, and independent statehood is only one solution among many. Proposing it as the only or primary solution fails to do so, especially in cases where it isn’t wanted by the peoples involved themselves. For instance, a socialist England or Britain should go out of its way to facilitate as autonomous a relationship as Cornwall wants and to support the use of the Cornish language—but proclaiming an independent Cornish republic that hardly any Cornish people want would only be dodging the difficulties involved.

From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today. It is clearly written, not by someone bestowing his private enlightenment upon lesser mortals, but a socialist concerned above all to build a movement of equals that can take capitalism on in these islands and beyond. It deserves to be met in the same spirit.

Culture and the recession

In September 2010 (Issue 41) Kevin Higgins asked how socialists should respond to cutbacks in the arts.

Since the implosion of the international banking system in September 2008 ushered in this era of our great economic unhappiness, the atmosphere of everyday life in Ireland has changed for every­body to an extent that would have been unimaginable just three years ago. Be you nurse, property developer, teacher, banker, person with disabilities, administrator of corrupt FÁS scheme, teenager sitting the Leaving Cert or Fianna Fáil politician in search of votes, nothing is quite as it was during the dear departed era of bigger, better, faster, more. This is not to say that we are all in it together. But whoever you are, the age of less is upon you.

You will be forced to pay for the clean-up, whether or not you got to go to the party during those years when each July the sky right above me was loud with helicopters carrying Seánie and Dunner and Fingers and friends to the Galway Races. The G Hotel out the road used to charge €2,500 per night for its luxury suite during race week. This year no one, with the exception of Ireland’s foremost stand-up comedian Enda Kenny, wants to be seen dead with the fallen gods of the property bubble. Last month one Galway establishment received seven hundred applications for a few badly-paid jobs collecting glasses for the week of the festival. Many people are desperate. Property developers and bankers have now joined paedophile priests at the bottom of most people’s invitation list for any event at which other human beings will be present. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: it’s been a long way down.

Such disturbed economic weather has inevitably had a big effect on the arts, particularly at the grassroots level. I took part in a night of poetry and music at the International Bar in Dublin recently which had something of the atmosphere of the Weimar Republic about it. The capacity crowd was a little on the raucous side, but very friendly with the exception of one inebriated gentlemen of middling years who had to be escorted to the exit because he kept interrupting the performers. He repeatedly muttered, rather disconcertingly, that he had “something to say about Christopher Hitchens”!

For most of the nineties and noughties such an individual would have been seen by many younger audience members as an unshaven throwback to the grim and dirty days of the mid-1980s: one of life’s losers who, though the whole world around him was now winning, was still working hard to continue the losing streak which probably began the day Horslips broke up. He’s the kind of guy who typically likes an economic crisis because it provides him with a background into which he can partly fade. Paradoxically, despite the fact that he was shown the door and I was one of the guest poets, I felt he fitted in with the crowd, many of whom felt sorry for him, at least as much I did. The motto ‘There but for the grace of whoever could go any of us’ is back, which is maybe a first step back towards something like solidarity.  So many people are losing these days, the word ‘loser’ is likely on its way to join ‘property ladder’ and ‘soft landing’ in the dustbin of terms that no longer apply. The ‘Show me the money, fuck you, I want it now’ vibe of pre-2008 is as dead and gone as the Fianna Fáil tent.

The cultural scene is also undergoing big changes, although I can only speak in detail about my own area, literature. As with the economy, it looks very much like the 1930s in slow motion. The big festivals which a couple of years back would pay healthy fees to visiting poets and fiction writers are coming under pressure. This year Mayo County Council’s Arts Office cancelled their popular Force 12 Writers Weekend in Belmullet, apparently for financial reasons. In the summer of 2008, when the word ‘recession’ had just crept back into the lexicon of Irish pub talk but before Lehman Brothers went belly up, a group of us were well paid to read our work and conduct workshops at said festival. It was for many years a great gathering point for writers—both established and new—in the west. Its demise is a great pity, and just one example of how the crisis is making life narrower and duller for many. This is not intended to be any sort of criticism of those who work for Mayo County Council Arts Office. It is easy to mouth empty, left-sounding criticisms of arts ‘bureaucrats’. Such rants are rarely anything like the truth, and taking them at face value will only lead you into the company of some of the worst cranks imaginable. The cranks who loiter on the fringes of the arts are typically even worse than the most ghastly political crank you’ve ever met on the left. Although, in a few cases, they save us time by actually being the same people.

The truth is that those responsible for the arts in every local authority countrywide, and administrators in a wide variety of established arts organisations, have since the onset of the recession been moving heaven and earth and then some to try and ensure that the arts and personal creativity can remain accessible to as many people as possible in all the many forms that might take. This will on occasion mean trying to rustle up the funds to ensure that an opera festival continues or that an exhibition of abstract art can go ahead. Some would say that such elitist minority interests should not receive public money. But the truth is that far more of what the left likes to call ‘ordinary working class people’ attended the Galway Arts Festival this July, for example, than will this year or next year attend all the public meetings of the different Irish far left groups put together. Facts like this should give you pause next time your inner philistine asks why on earth taxpayers should be subsidising such things at a time when tens of thousands of workers are losing their jobs and services such as health and education are being slashed.

The entire budget for both the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, which offers grants to help promote the work of Irish artists to audiences outside Ireland, was €73.23 million this year, about one third of one percent of the twenty odd billion given to bail out Anglo Irish Bank. And much government funding for the arts goes towards projects which are anything but elitist, such as the painting classes for older long-stay patients at Merlin Park Hospital or the popular creative writing classes provided for people with disabilities in Galway by the Brothers of Charity’s Away with Words project. Such projects, and there are many others, bring colour and joy to the lives of those for whom such things are a crying need and no sort of luxury.

It is true that sometimes a cutback in a grant can provide an arts organisation with a necessary jolt; it is undeniable, for example, that the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square is a livelier place now, more engaged with the broad writing community, than it was before its large annual grant was cut to nothing in 2009. But that is something of an exception. Most arts organisations perform miracles in terms of the amount they do with what is, in the grand scheme, very little money. Only the clinically insane get involved in the arts with financial gain in mind. The question for most in the sector has been and remains: how do we protect what we love to do from the ongoing economic carnage? This despite the fact that much of the time our one certain reward, even in the good times, is no security at all.

One of the main lines of argument which has been used by the National Campaign for the Arts and others as they’ve lobbied to try and limit the cutbacks has been that the arts have the potential to play an important role in a hoped-for economic recovery. It has even been said that Ireland’s cultural image—everything from Riverdance to the reality of Ireland’s position as a literary superpower—can play a role in attracting multinational investment. This is a very difficult argument for the left.  But dismissing it out of hand gets us nowhere. It is a reflection of the fact that most Irish artists do not, as things stand, believe that there is any credible alternative to capitalism. Despite Seánie Fitzpatrick et al, the arguments put forward by the parties of the organised far left are seen by most to be only a little more believable than the predictions of mediums at Knock. Artists and poets and the like may have a reputation for not being in touch with what taxi drivers call ‘the real world’. But being an artist of any sort is a difficult, if at times also very rewarding life, and most have learned to be ruthlessly practical in terms of where tomorrow’s lunch is coming from. Promises of socialist castles in the air might appeal to some of the young, newly unemployed now hit with welfare cuts, but despite the van Gogh stereotype most artists are only interested in things that have a chance of actually happening.

The other problem for the left is that this campaign, using what most of the comrades would no doubt see as pro-capitalist arguments, has to date been pretty successful. The most miserable man in Ireland, Colm McCarthy, recommended in his Bord Snip Nua report that both Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board be abolished. Both have to date avoided the axe—although there have been reductions in their budgets, as well as that of the Arts Council, which is by far the most important source of funding for artists and arts organisations of every stripe. The appointment by the govern­ment of Gabriel Byrne as our ‘cultural ambassador’ was an important success for the campaign in that it now makes it much more difficult for said same government to abolish Culture Ireland. If Irish artists aren’t enabled to travel abroad to promote their work, then what precisely would be the point of having the man who once rolled in the hay with Maggie in The Riordans as our cultural ambassador?

The National Campaign for the Arts has fought its corner, using every pragmatic argument available to it. It deserves our support and any constructive suggestions the left might have. There is some concern that arguments about Ireland’s cultural image being advan­tageous when it comes to attracting inward investment commodify the arts and might potentially turn our writers and actors and visual artists into court jesters paid to pleasure visitors from the board­rooms of global capitalism. I have to say that, to date, I have never seen a single instance where a funding agency tried to coax or pressurise an artist into following any sort of pro-business line in his or her work. The day an arts administrator tells me that I can’t say this or that in a poem, I will resist as absolutely as I have already had to do when some of the more jaded hacks of the far left have on occasion tried to bully or jostle me into following their every line. But I don’t think it’s about to happen.

The pragmatism of the National Campaign for the Arts may sound like something from a very different world to the one inhabited by the large crowd who attended the livewire poetry and music event at the International Bar which I mentioned at the outset. And it is. At such events one is witnessing the new culture of post-Tiger Ireland being born, whereas the established arts organisations in most cases represent the cultural life that was during the years of endless honey. The new culture will continue to be driven forward by the whip of the recession. There are very hopeful signs that, come what may, artists will continue to make their art and work with others to find their audience.

In my own field, I was delighted of late to see that a group of young writers have come together to launch a new magazine, The Poetry Bus, despite having received no funding at all. Another young writer recently launched the fine online magazine Wordlegs.com. I was disappointed when the editor dropped her original rule that she would not accept submissions from writers over thirty years of age. It seemed to me a marvellously direct way of saying to the world: Here is the new generation, carving out its own space. The fogeys of yesteryear need not apply. That said, I did send her some poems recently: I refer you to my previous comment about artists having to be ruthlessly practical.

There has also been a significant flowering of new theatre com­panies doing some interesting things. Fledgling theatre companies usually rely on a group of enthusiastic young people with time on their hands. These days there is no shortage of such young people looking for some place to put their talent and enthusiasm. I recently saw an excellent play, The Quare Land, staged as part of Galway Arts Festival by Decadent Theatre Company. It went right for the meat of our current crisis with wit and passion and managed also to be a great afternoon’s entertainment. 

The economic hell into which we have now descended will no doubt result in some arts organisations going under. Those who have got used to relying on large grants will find themselves facing out into a mean looking sea for the foreseeable. But some of the new publications and events I’ve mentioned will grow up to achieve real significance. From these will come the writers whose novels and short stories and poems will tell people fifty or a hundred years from now what it was like to be here today living in a country brought low by the wild gambling of our now fallen Great Gatsbys whose ghosts must surely have wandered the corridors of the G Hotel during this year’s Galway Races.

It would be a very bad thing indeed if a new generation of writers and artists were to end up having to live on the slices of cold toast which were the staple diet of Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien. In the long run, there is nothing pretty about that sort of poverty. It tends, ultimately, to kill creativity. To play its role in making sure such an outcome does not fall on the heads of these writers and artists as yet unknown, it’s important the left supports the National Campaign for the Arts. The arts are just as important in their way as the health service, education or social welfare. Even in these worst of times, there has to be more to life than hospital trolleys, damp school buildings and not enough dole. Any socialist who doesn’t know this and act accordingly is no socialist worth being.

Socialist Classics: James Connolly, ‘Labour in Irish History’

In Issue 40 (June 2010) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh celebrated the centenary of Irish socialism’s most important work.

It doesn’t say much for the Irish left that not nearly enough is being said about the centenary of its most important work. While its earlier chapters were published twelve years before, it was in November 1910 that Labour in Irish History appeared in book form and provided Irish socialism with its most substantial literary asset to date. It ambitiously attempted to uncover a historical basis for its author’s political project of making Ireland into a workers’ republic, to show that aim arising logically from historical development rather than being any kind of ideal imposed from outside the social context in which Ireland’s working people had lived and fought.

While it remains the foundation stone of Irish labour history, Connolly emphasises that “This book does not aspire to be a history of labour in Ireland; it is rather a record of labour in Irish History” (Chapter XVI). He succeeds in rescuing from the enormous condescension of posterity countless movements and activists: the rebellions of tenant farmers and rural labourers, the utopian socialist community at Ralahine, trade union organiser John Doherty, socialist philosopher William Thompson, and many more. He debunks the mythology of nationalist heroes from Patrick Sarsfield to Daniel O’Connell, and insists on the revolutionary international­ism of the United Irishmen and Robert Emmet. The Famine he lays bare, not as a natural disaster or a mere symptom of British misrule, but as a logical consequence of the capitalist system and its laws. He was making “the first attempt to treat Irish History from the standpoint of the Working Class”,1 not just to bring the reality of their past struggles and interests to the fore, but “the lessons to be derived from a study of that position in guiding the movement of the working class to-day” (Chapter I). Connolly is a meticulous and dedicated historian, but refuses to adopt a pose of neutrality between workers and their oppressors.

He is eager to explain his methodology, “the Socialist key to the pages of history”, quoting Marx that “the prevailing method of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, forms the basis upon which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history” (Chapter II).2 Connolly is unabashedly proud of this Marxist view of history and its potential:

Without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of “great men,” Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks, treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders, and purposeless warfare. With this key all things become understandable and traceable to their primary origin; without this key the lost opportunities of Ireland seem such as to bring a blush to the cheek of the Irish worker; with this key Irish history is a lamp to his feet in the stormy paths of to-day.3

Labour in Irish History testifies in every chapter to how fruitful Marxism is in understanding history. Connolly sees what other historians missed because he knows to look in different places and ask different questions about different subjects. His conviction that the struggle of classes is the fundamental characteristic of social life enables him to present events as part of a consistent development with certain trends visible and certain conclusions to be drawn.

But his theoretical descriptions of this Marxist approach are often awkward, or just wrong. He intends to demonstrate how “economic conditions have controlled and dominated our Irish history”, and praises Thompson for expounding “economic determinist philosophy” (Chapters I, X). That “social organisation” following from the economic forces is left out of the picture altogether here, and there is quite a step from explaining political history on the basis of economics to portraying it as “controlled and dominated” by economics. Connolly warns us of “the vital truth that successful revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions” (Chapter I), as if any revolution took place without human beings thinking, realising and arguing that the material opportunity could and should be grasped. The ideology of the capitalist class, which leads it and its representatives to genuine­ly believe that the conditions of its own rule are good for society in general, is explained as the fruit of eternal selfishness (Chapter IV): “The human race has at all times shown a proneness to gloss over its basest actions with a multitude of specious pretences, and to cover even its iniquities with the glamour of a false sentimentality.”

Sometimes this harsh determinism stands side by side with a more accurate insight, though, as in the foreword:

Just as it is true that a stream cannot rise above its source, so it is true that a national literature cannot rise above the moral level of the social conditions of the people from whom it derives its inspiration. If we would understand the national literature of a people we must study their social and political status, keeping in mind the fact that their writers were a product thereof, and that the children of their brains were conceived and brought forth in certain historical conditions.

The first sentence posits a straightforward correlation between social and literary conditions: good circumstances lead to good literature, bad circumstances to bad literature. But even the period discussed in the foreword, the second half of the seventeenth century, gives the lie to this, as a time of bleak existence for most people saw some of Ireland’s greatest literature produced by poets who did “rise above” the wretched social reality to characterise it powerfully. Other grim phases of human history have seen the same, while many periods of general prosperity have been times of bland artistic complacency. Art reflects society, but not directly or simply: artistic imagination and creation mediates the reality it confronts. On the other hand, Connolly’s second sentence here is perfectly correct, very well put and a useful presentation of an important point.

The determinism evident in theoretical formulations is balanced in descriptions of history in action. At one point, Connolly argues that if the commander of a French fleet sent to aid the United Irishmen in 1796 had had the guts to land in stormy weather, “Ireland would almost undoubtedly have been separated from England and become mistress of her own national destinies” (Chapter VII)—clearly an instance where a successful revolution needed brains as well as ripe objective conditions. He ascribes the United Irishmen’s successes to a combination of economic con­ditions, the influence of the French revolution, and “the activity of a revolutionist with statesmanship”, Theobald Wolfe Tone (Chapter VIII). While the book’s theory tends towards a paralysing belief that history is in the lap of the economy, its practice—its constant focus on the hopes, thoughts and movements of working people them­selves—outweighs that in favour of throwing active interventions into the scales of history. While we can follow the latter path in preference to the former, it would be easier if such a contradiction didn’t exist, if Connolly had explicitly resolved it.

Some of the faults consequent on this contradiction can be seen in the book’s close discussion of Grattan’s parliament, the semi-independent assembly of the late eighteenth century abolished by the Act of Union. Nationalist politicians claimed that it brought un­paralleled prosperity to Ireland, but Connolly disagrees: “we must emphatically deny that such prosperity was in any but an infinit­esimal degree produced by Parliament”. The Irish economy was subsequently left behind by Britain, he argues, because it lacked a coal supply to exploit the new manufacturing processes of the industrial revolution. Modern historians would certainly give more credence to this interpretation than the traditional nationalist reading, and of course Connolly is primarily concerned to refute the claim that re-establishing such an assembly would bring the Irish people to economic bliss: “true prosperity cannot be brought to Ireland except by measures somewhat more drastic than that Parliament ever imagined” (Chapter V).

The problem is that he starts from the premise that a Marxist almost has a duty to deny that parliaments and their legislation could possibly play any meaningful role in economic growth: “the Socialist philosophy of history provides the key to the problem—points to the economic development as the true solution” (Chapter V). But seeing economic relations as fundamental to history doesn’t mean that politics are only shaped by them, never influencing them in turn. Otherwise, why would capitalists do their best to ensure that states implement laws and policies favourable to their own interests? Engels put the point well:

Political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic etc. development is based on economic development. But they also all react upon each other and upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic conditions are cause, solely active and every­thing else only their passive effect. Rather, there is reciprocal action on the basis of economic necessity always asserting itself in the last resort. The state, e.g., influences things by protective duties, free trade, good or bad taxation system…4

And the issue of protective duties is where Connolly goes astray. He is right that “the Union placed all Irish manufactures upon an absolutely equal basis legally with the manufactures of England” (Chapter VI), but applying the same law to the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, never creates a truly level playing field. The fact that Irish capital didn’t have the legislative power to restrict British imports and give their own commodities a competitive advantage definitely contributed to its failure.

In fact, later in the same chapter we read: “An Ireland controlled by popular suffrage would undoubtedly have sought to save Irish industry while it was yet time by a stringent system of protection, which would have imposed upon imported goods a tax heavy enough to neutralise the advantages accruing to the foreigner from his coal supply, and such a system might have averted that decline of Irish industry”. So the lack of an Irish parliament did play a significant role in the economic decay after all. Once again, Connolly feels in theory bound to uphold an economic determinism, but overcomes its limitations in practice.

The book’s most unsound historical claim, however, is that “communal or tribal ownership of land” prevailed in Ireland as late as the 1640s (Chapter I). In reality, that original common ownership was gone long before Cromwell arrived, or even the Normans. Although the old forms and legal fictions were often maintained, clan leaders had effectively taken land and cattle into their private ownership. While Connolly puts this privatisation down to English colonialism, he recognises in the same chapter that

Such an event was, of course, inevitable in any case. Communal ownership of land would, undoubtedly, have given way to the privately owned system of capitalist-landlordism, even if Ireland had remained an independent country, but coming as it did in obedience to the pressure of armed force from without, instead of by the operation of economic forces within, the change has been bitterly and justly resented by the vast mass of the Irish people, many of whom still mix with their dreams of liberty longings for a return to the ancient system of land tenure—now organically impossible.

Even if feudalism had been introduced at the point of the English sword, how is that so different from the typical run of history? Economic systems rarely succeed each other through peaceful internal evolution, but usually through external pressure of trade or warfare. Even in England, feudalism was established—at least in its systematic, classic form—by Norman invasion.

Connolly’s intention is to argue that “the capitalist system is the most foreign thing in Ireland”, and therefore the nationalism of “the politicians and anti-Socialists of Ireland” is not genuine but “apostate patriotism” (Foreword, Chapter XIV). Placing opposition to capitalism on a nationalist basis is mistaken on several grounds. Firstly, the historical rationale given for it here is so easy to refute. Secondly, growth of a native capitalist class could soon turn this “foreign” system into a guaranteed Irish product. Thirdly, while Connolly illustrates that the revolutionary socialism he stands for corresponds well to Irish history, it happened to be born abroad in the struggles of French, English and German workers, and not even the most zealous genealogist could get Karl Marx an Irish passport. But principally, instead of challenging nationalism (a commitment to the Irish nation above all) with socialism (a commitment to the world’s working class above all) Connolly is trying to marry the two, to introduce socialism as no more than a logical extension of nationalism.

Again, though, Connolly supplies his own refutation, at least in part. The defeat of the clans, he writes in Chapter VIII, “made it impossible thereafter to localise an insurrectionary effort, or to give it a smaller or more circumscribed aim than that of the Irish Nation… And from that day forward the idea of common property was destined to recede into the background as an avowed principle of action”. So, far from nationalism going hand in hand with common property, the idea of the Irish nation only truly emerged through the final defeat of common property as a principle. And the notion of “the vast mass of the Irish people” resenting the death of communal ownership and longing to bring it back is contradicted by Connolly’s frank acceptance that “to-day the majority of the Irish do not know that their fathers ever knew another system of ownership” (Foreword).

The differing attitudes are occasionally due to the circumstances in which Labour in Irish History was written. The book’s first five chapters were originally published in 1898, with the remaining chapters and foreword only appearing (and probably only written) in 1908-10. Originally Connolly had dismissed left-wing rhetoric from middle-class nationalists, whose only purpose—even when it was “hardly distinguishable from the critical doctrines of Socialism” —was “to arouse the enthusiasm and obtain the support of the propertyless masses”, and was always cancelled out by right-wing statements anyway.5 This was dropped from the book, however, and Chapter XIV especially shows a marked softness towards the militant wing of the Young Ireland movement.

Thomas Devin Reilly is quoted as saying that “Communism destroys the independence and dignity of labour, makes the workingman a State pauper and takes his manhood from him.” Connolly pleads in his defence that “many who are earnest workers for Socialism to-day would, like Devin Reilly, have ‘abhorred’ the crude Communism of 1848”—but we are clearly reading the statement of someone who wants to prevent socialism rather than refine it. John Mitchel’s condemnation of the Parisian workers’ insurrection of that year is likewise explained away: he was “led astray by the garbled reports of English newspapers”. Mitchel did indeed complain that French press reports weren’t available, but he reacted to the insurgents with a bitter hatred of socialism that even the most accurate reportage wouldn’t have shifted: “they were swept away from the streets with grape and canisters—the only way of dealing with such unhappy creatures… Socialists are something worse than wild beasts”.6 James Fintan Lalor’s attempt to win in­dependence through a radical land reform is impressive, but Connolly’s depiction of him as an “apostle of revolutionary Socialism” heavily over-eggs the pudding.

The strongest feature of the book and its most enduring contrib­ution to socialist theory is how it delineates the position of various classes in Irish history. Capitalists were discommoded by British restrictions on their business, but their unhappiness had its limits: “Irish capitalism became discontented and disloyal without, as a whole, the power or courage to be revolutionary” (Chapter VIII). The empire at least provided some protection for their property, whereas a popular insurrection would be an unknown quantity, so “the Irish capitalist class dreaded the people more than they feared the British Government” (Chapter VI). They now “have a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every sentimental or historic attach­ment toward Irish patriotism” (Foreword).

The gap they left was often filled by those immediately below them. “The lower middle class gave to the National cause in the past many unselfish patriots”, but tended always to push the movement along constitutional and reformist lines, “leaving untouched the bases of national and economic subjection” (Chapter I). Connolly’s point was illustrated better still in the years after his execution, when a middle-class movement did the work of an absent capitalist class, characteristically botching the job. Internationally, the phenomenon of bourgeois revolutions being carried out by proxy has recurred with varying results, but the overall failure to win full national or social liberation under middle-class leadership has persisted.

Hence the justly celebrated conclusion that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland” (Foreword). Again and again Connolly points up the folly of a strategy for national independence which doesn’t involve working people getting what’s theirs (Chapters I, IX):

The workers, though furnishing the greatest proportion of recruits to the ranks of the revolutionists, and consequently of victims to the prison and the scaffold, could not be imbued en masse with the revolutionary fire necessary to seriously imperil a dominion rooted for 700 years in the heart of their country. They were all anxious enough for freedom, but realising the enormous odds against them, and being explicitly told by their leaders that they must not expect any change in their condition of social subjection, even if successful, they as a body shrank from the contest, and left only the purest minded and most chivalrous of their class to face the odds… the producing classes could not be expected to rally to the revolution unless given to understand that it meant their freedom from social as well as political bondage.

And again and again, he points up the need for a combined on­slaught on both the oppression of Ireland and the oppression of the workers (Chapters XIII, XIV, XVI):

a social and national revolution, each resting upon the other. …the same insurrectionary upheaval that destroyed and ended the social subjection of the producing classes would end the hateful foreign tyranny reared upon it. …the nationalist aspirations of their race pointed to the same conclusion, called for the same action, as the material interests of their class—viz., the complete overthrow of the capitalist government and the national and social tyranny upon which it rested.

Labour in Irish History is, from first to last, a sustained attack on the idea of national unity, of workers patriotically postponing their demands until the nation as a whole has won its freedom. Instead it is founded upon a strategy of fusing the national and social struggles in the fight of the working class, a permanent revolution that rids Ireland of British imperialism and the capitalist system together.

Connolly would be the last person to claim that his book was free of weaknesses. Indeed he explicitly says he is only clearing the way for “other and abler pens than our own” (Chapter I). It is doubtful if we have had any abler pens or abler minds than James Connolly’s in the century since, but we have a duty to treat him as a comrade rather than a idol, to try and correct the mistakes he couldn’t help but make. Not only will such criticism cast an even stronger light on the inexpressible political debt we still owe him in every aspect of our activity, but it will help bring his practical vision of the workers’ republic closer to realisation.

Notes

  1. As The Workers’ Republic, February 1903 said when publishing the first chapter.
  2. The sentence is actually from Friedrich Engels’s preface to the 1888 English translation of the Communist Manifesto. Like other quotations in Labour in Irish History, it isn’t 100 per cent accurate.
  3. Chapter XVI. This passage first appeared in ‘A Text for a Revolutionary Lecture’, The Harp, August 1908. I have outlined the history of the book’s composition and publication in ‘James Connolly and the writing of Labour in Irish History’, Saothar 27 (2002).
  4. Letter to Heinz Starkenburg, 25 January 1894.
  5. This sentence appeared in all four newspaper publications of the first chapter, from The Workers’ Republic, 17 September 1898 to The Harp, August 1908.
  6. John Mitchel, Jail Journal (University Press of Ireland, 1982), p 78. Connolly doesn’t mention Mitchel’s later support for the slave owners in the American civil war.