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James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland

by Priscilla Metscher

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Preface (Part I)

Please review the Preface and First Chapter of the book here, or get the complete book at:
The Re-Conquest of Ireland

  • Connolly and the Founding of the Irish Socialist Republican Party
  • The Political Writings of James Connolly, 1896–1903
  • The Role of the ISRP in Radical Politics in Ireland, 1896–1903

PART II. CONNOLLY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1903–1910 The Situation in the United States

  • Connolly as Organizer of the IWW and Its Propaganda Leagues
  • Industrial Unionism and Socialist Activity
  • Catherine Clinton
  • Connolly’s Labour in Irish History


  • The Situation in Ireland on Connolly’s Return
  • Belfast and Its Problems
  • Connolly and Religion
  • The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Dublin Strike and Lockout in 1913
  • The “Woman Question” in Ireland


  • Preparing for Revolution
  • A Socialist and War
  • The Easter Rising: A Critical Assessment
  • Pearse and Connolly: Unity toward an Irish Republic
  • Connolly’s Mature Concept of an Irish Socialist Republic
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the reconquest of Ireland must mean the social as well as the political independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland.

James Connolly 1

As socialists we have ever taught that National Freedom could not be won by a population resigned to industrial slavery; and as believers in National Freedom we have ever taught that the real re-conquest of Ireland necessarily implied the redemption of the Irish worker from the slavery of the capitalist system.

James Connolly 2

Most historians who have written on James Connolly would agree that he was one of the outstanding figures of the British/Irish labor movements at the turn of twentieth century. When it comes to assessing his actual contribution to labor history, opinions vary. Connolly’s political career corresponded to the life span of the Second International, and his writings reflect both the strength and weaknesses in the left wing of the International. One controversial issue at the time that still occupies us at the present day was the question of the right of nations to self-determination. Whereas the major European states had resolved their national questions by the beginning of the century, Ireland was still a colony with an unresolved national question. Connolly was aware that any socialist strategy in Ireland must necessarily take into account the status of Ireland as a colony; socialists must realize that “a socialist movement must rest upon and draw its inspiration from the historical and actual conditions of the country in which it functions and not merely lose themselves in an abstract ‘internationalism’ (which has no relation to the real internationalism of the socialist movement).” 3

Concerning this very point of the national question, the mainstream tradition of Irish historical scholarship, as developed since the 1930s, has, under the guise of “value-free” interpretation, sought to “revise” the Irish historical experience. This, as Brendan Bradshaw points out, is nothing more than a negative bias where “a corrosive cynicism is brought to bear in order to minimize or to trivialise the significance of transcendent aspirations or dynamisms.” 4 This “revisionist” approach is particularly apparent in the “iconoclastic assault” upon the “so-called apostolic succession of national heroes,” depicting such figures as Tone, Davis, Pearse, and Connolly “as politically inept and intellectually confused ideologues.” 5

With reference to Connolly, Austen Morgan’s recent book, James Connolly, A Political Biography is an excellent example of this kind of historiographic revisionism. From the outset Morgan poses the question “why a man who lived as a socialist . . . died an Irish nationalist,” his conclusion being that on this account labor in Ireland lost a leader. Morgan works on the assumption that Connolly had feet in two very different movements: “international socialism”’ (being alien to Ireland) and “militant nationalism” (canceling out the idea of internationalism).

Preface Cont...

He bases his thesis on his own interpretation of Connolly’s writings, scarcely providing any original quotations. He judges Connolly from the high chair of academia, or as Bradshaw so aptly puts it, places him in the dock and conducts the case for the prosecution. 6 He judges Connolly as not measuring up to something that he never aspired to be a professional intellectual and theoretician of the labor movement and also takes him to task for failing to write on certain issues. 7

In contrast to this lack of sensitive response to material at hand, Bradshaw pleads for a more imaginative and empathetic approach in dealing with historical subject matter. Concerning socialist historiography, I think this comes close to E. P. Thompson’s “socialist humanist” approach. Empathy is essential the ability to “listen” or to “tune in” to people in the past without imposing a moralizing tone from above. 8

In an attempt to assess Connolly’s contribution to socialism and the national question the difficulty again seems to lie in the point of approach. A significant recent work on Connolly is Helga Woggon’s well-researched book, Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland. It begins with an abstract model, “integrative socialism,” understood as a special form of socialist politics within a situation of national or colonial dependence that derives socialist concepts from national tradition and tries to fuse them with that tradition. 9 Her conclusion that “integrative socialism” in Ireland was bound to fail as it was not a suitable basis for practical political strategy in the labor movement derives from her understanding of socialism and nationalism as traditionally and basically two contradictory forces in Ireland. Together with Eric Hobsbawm, she sees Connolly as making concessions to nationalism at the expense of socialism: “With the aid of ‘hibernicized Marxism’ he wanted to create a social revolutionary movement out of nothing and transform nationalism in a socialist manner.” 10

To my mind, however, it is not a concept of “hibernicized Marxism” that emerges from Connolly’s writings, and that he demonstrated in his political activities in Ireland. The significance of the term socialist republicanism has, I think, often been overlooked, for the emphasis is undoubtedly on the word “republicanism.” Connolly understood socialism in Ireland as carrying on and developing the tradition of republicanism established by the United Irishmen:

Wolfe Tone 11 was abreast of the revolutionary thought of his day, as are the Socialist Republicans of our own day. He saw clearly, as we see, that a dominion as long rooted in any country as British dominion in Ireland can only be dislodged by a revolutionary impulse in line with the development of the entire epoch. 12

The concept of a socialist republic was in keeping with the democratic ideals of past republicans, including United Irishmen, Young Irelanders, and Fenians. 13 Connolly emphasized, “A socialist republic is the application to agriculture and industry; to the farm, the field, the workshop, of the democratic principle of the republican ideal.” 14 Does the nonrealization of the establishment of such a socialist republic under the given historical circumstances in Ireland make the concept any less legitimate? At a time when the national question has once more assumed an important role in Europe and beyond, James Connolly’s stand on the question of socialism and nationalism is indeed relevant.

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1. James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Dublin and Belfast: New Books Publications, 1972), x.

2. James Connolly, ed., Socialism and Nationalism (Dublin, 1948), 209.

3. Ibid., 87. In 1926, in an article in the Communist International, just ten years after the Easter Rising, Schüller points to Connolly as a foremost revolutionary Marxist thinker of his times. To him it was essential to combine the national revolutionary struggle in Ireland with the class struggle of the Irish working class. Connolly, according to Schüller, was not a nationalist in the narrow sense, but, on the contrary, was active both in theory and practice as a Marxist Internationalist (George Schüller, “Jim Connolly and the Irish Rising of 1916,” 88).

4. Brendan Bradshaw, “Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies (Nov. 1989): 343.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “The people of the ‘non-civilized’ world are totally missing in Connolly’s writings, appearing only rhetorically in nationalist references to the British Empire” (Austen Morgan, James Connolly, A Political Biography [Manchester Univ. Press, 1988], 210).

8. See Richard Johnson, “Critique: Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Socialist Humanist History,” History Workshop 6 (autumn 1978), 85.

9. Helga Woggon, Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland (Göttingen/Zürich, 1990), 11.

10. Ibid., 21.

11. Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), one of the founders of the largely Protestant-based Society of United Irishmen, sought to build a democratic republican movement that would embrace both Protestants and Catholics in a united struggle for Irish independence. His goal was an independent democratic Ireland with a secular state free from clerical influences. During the Irish Rising of 1798, he led a French force in an abortive landing in Ireland, was captured by the British, and sentenced to be hanged. He cut his own throat on the morning of the day he was to be hanged, dying several days later on 19 November 1798.

12. Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism, 40–41.

13. See, for example, James Connolly, Labour and Easter Week (Dublin, 1966), 74.

14. James Connolly, The Workers’ Republic (Dublin, 1951), 50–51.

The views and opinions expressed here are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, or position of the publishers.

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