Roddy Connolly: From left to right

This review by Mick O’Reilly in Issue 36 (June 2009) traced the political journey of a leading labour activist.

Charlie McGuire, Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland (Cork University Press)

This is a well-written, well-researched study of the turbulent life and times of Roddy Connolly. The son of one of the executed leaders of the 1916 rebellion, Roddy Connolly was a significant political figure in his own right whose career stretched over a period of more than sixty years. This book charts his involvement with many of the Irish left’s political initiatives throughout the twentieth century. He was born in Dublin in 1901, had a unique political career which spanned the revolutionary period from 1916-23, and ended up in the Labour Party defending its coalition with Fine Gael in the 1970s.

Roddy Connolly participated in the Easter rising of 1916 as a boy of fifteen years of age. He was one of the few Irish politicians who met Lenin, the Soviet leader. He was instrumental in founding Ireland’s first Communist Party. He was involved in the Republican Congress which attempted to challenge the de Valera government in the mid-1930s. He argued as a member of the Labour Party for an alliance with Clann na Poblachta, which in the end yielded nothing radical because of the decision made to enter government with Fine Gael. He was twice elected a Labour TD, and served in the Senate during the Cosgrave/Corish coalition of the 1970s.

I remember Roddy Connolly as chairman of the Labour Party, and though he was a staunch supporter of coalition with Fine Gael you would occasionally see glimpses of his old radicalism. In the early days of the troubles in Northern Ireland when he was chairing a debate on the outbreak of violence in Belfast, he introduced a speaker from the floor, Brendan Scott, who was advocating co-operation between Labour and the republican movement. He reminded the delegates that the last time labour had co-operated with the republican movement was in the GPO in 1916, and anybody who understood his father could never oppose working with repub­licans. The book explores his relationship with his father, and what­ever can be said of Roddy Connolly, he always defended his father’s views and considered him to have been Ireland’s greatest revolu­tionary leader. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the section dealing with the war of independence, in which McGuire describes the attempt by Roddy Connolly to move the IRA to the left and convince them to adopt a social programme.

McGuire also sheds some light on a man called Seán McLaughlin, who at the age of twenty was in the GPO with Pearse and Connolly. After Connolly was wounded and just before the surrender, he gave full authority to McLaughlin to lead the Citizen Army. McLaughlin was a close friend of Roddy Connolly and was active in the first Communist Party. The book contains an amusing account of McLaughlin’s encounter with a British Communist where, in frustration, he tells him that you cannot simply talk to republicans and “turn them” to the left, but must join them and work with them. For the current generation of activists it is easy to see communism as one thing and republicanism as something separate. However, from the perspective of the time, Citizen Army volunteers who had fought with republicans in the GPO had no problem supporting the Bolshevik revolution and simultaneously fighting British imperialism.

One of the characters who is mentioned in this book is a man called Seán (Johnny) Nolan who was involved with Roddy Connolly in the second attempt to build a Communist party which was named the Workers’ Party of Ireland. Nolan was to retain a good personal relationship with Roddy Connolly although they went in different directions politically: Seán remained a loyal member of the Communist movement while Roddy joined the Labour Party. Because of their personal relationship Nolan was sent to see if he could elicit some co-operation from Connolly in relation to certain issues which the Communist Party thought would advance the interests of the working class. While reading this section I was reminded of a story Johnny Nolan told me relating to this request for co-operation. Apparently, when Johnny met with Roddy Connolly in the Dáil he was studying a book on the mechanics of parliamentary procedure. Seán never raised any of the questions that he was supposed to, and when he returned to his comrades he was asked for an explanation. His answer was that those who study books on parliamentary procedure will not co-operate with or help revolution­aries, and you don’t even need to ask. That was a penetrating judgement which was to foresee where Roddy Connolly would end his political career.

But nevertheless, the book illuminates this long story, which begins on 11 February 1901 in Pimlico where Roddy Connolly was born. He was the sixth child in the family, and James Connolly’s only son. We get a brief glimpse of his early years. For this information the author relies to some degree on the evidence of Nora Connolly, Roddy’s sister, who chronicled the Connolly household. “It is clear that there was no shortage of love and affection coming from both of Connolly’s parents, or extending back to them in return from their children.” We also have a clear portrait of James Connolly, who involved all of his children in political discussion from an early age. In a letter from Connolly to his wife in 1913 while serving a brief spell in prison for his involvement in the lockout, he says his youngest child Fiona, then aged six, would not understand why he had been imprisoned, but that the others—including Roddy, then aged twelve—would do so, adding they “should know that many more than I (perhaps thousands) will have to go to prison, and perhaps the scaffold, before our freedom will be won”.

At the age of fifteen Roddy was a participant in the 1916 rising, running messages for Pádraig Pearse and his father. According to McGuire, there was an argument in the Connolly household as to his suitability for involvement at such a young age, with his mother believing him too young to participate in such an event. His father settled the matter by saying that, at fifteen, Roddy was no longer a child, and he took his place alongside him in the GPO. The book deals with his leaving the GPO on the Wednesday under instruc­tions from his father to take vital information in connection with the ITGWU to William O’Brien. He would be arrested the next day and held for several days. When questioned, he gave a false identity and was released.

For a brief period following the rising he lived in Glasgow where he worked in the shipyards as a draughtsman. There he got to know a group who would later become known as the ‘Red Clyde­siders’. Here he was to see the power of the organised working class in actions which led to the shop stewards’ movement in Glasgow achieving substantial improvements in conditions for shipyard and engineering workers during the first world war.

One interesting fact which is explored is Roddy’s meeting with Lenin, which took place in 1919. He was introduced to Lenin in Moscow by the American author John Reed, and this is the only meeting of Lenin with an Irish person to be captured on film. It was to have a profound impact on Roddy. Lenin explained to him that he had read his father’s book Labour in Irish History,and regarded him as being head and shoulders above most of the other labour leaders in Britain and Ireland at the time. Roddy Connolly’s impression of Lenin is described in the book as one of a person who was without pretension and always willing to bend over backwards to find common cause to advance unity within the movement. Such was the impression made by Lenin that as late as 1967, Roddy referred to this meeting in a lecture he delivered to the Irish USSR Society commem­orating the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

The book is particularly useful for students of Irish history who wish to examine the role of the left in the period between 1916 and the early 1940s. Roddy Connolly established two Communist parties, and was the first Irishman to describe the Anglo-Irish Treaty as treachery and Michael Collins as a traitor. He predicted the Irish civil war, and consistently argued throughout this period that the left in Ireland should support the IRA in their struggle for Irish freedom. After the failure of the two Communist parties the Comintern put all their effort behind Jim Larkin as the best possible leader of a left party. However, Larkin’s detestation of O’Brien and his habit of speaking his mind about the nature of other labour leaders made it very difficult for Irish Communists to be fulsome in their support.

Roddy drifted into the Labour Party and was to stay there for the rest of his life. Although a member of the Labour Party, he re­mained a committed communist until the 1950s. This was expressed by his support for the Republican Congress, his stance in support of the Spanish Republic, and his consistent opposition to the Blueshirts and Fine Gael. The book deals with his painful move to the right, which began with his gradual abandonment of the Marxist under­standing of the nature of the state and his apparent isolation within the Labour Party, partly caused by his refusal to join left-wing factions or develop his own grouping.

In fairness to Roddy, the author explores the way in which he began a campaign to support Clann na Poblachta in the late 1940s when, after a period of sixteen years of Fianna Fáil rule, he believed that a combination of Clann na Poblachta and Labour could achieve a majority and form a government. This was not to be, and by using this logic he was to go on to advocate support for a government which contained not only Clann na Poblachta but also Fine Gael. This was painful for Connolly, and this is explored in the book. After that he entered a period of political inactivity, interrupted briefly by his decision to stand as a Labour candidate in Dublin South Central, the constituency of Young Jim Larkin and the strongest Labour constituency in the country. There was mass unemployment, and the Communist Party were behind the decision of the Unemployed Workers’ Action Committee to stand a candidate. This candidate swept the board, and Roddy Connollly suffered as a result.

Worse was to come for Connolly. He was impressed by Labour’s anti-coalition stance in the mid-1960s, and this caused his return to more active politics. During this period he was befriended by Brendan Halligan, Labour’s general secretary. In 1969, however, this period of Labour independence came to an abrupt halt with the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland and the ‘Arms Crisis’ in the Republic. This propelled Labour into a somersault on coalition which divided the party considerably. Connolly used his position not alone to argue for a coalition with Fine Gael but to refuse to challenge the views expressed by Conor Cruise O’Brien, vehemently opposed to all tenets of republican socialism. This was to be the tragedy of Roddy Connolly’s life. It expressed itself most publicly in his support of Fine Gael candidate Tom O’Higgins’s presidential campaign in 1973. O’Higgins had been an active Blueshirt in the 1930s.

This book illuminates an extraordinarily long and complex political life. It fails to answer the question of why Roddy Connolly ended up where he did, but that is no fault of the author, who has unearthed a mass of new material, particularly relating to the 1920s. The book should be read by anybody who seeks to understand the role of the left in twentieth century Ireland.