Connolly Omnibus Review

Books Ireland, December 1986

The Connolly phenomenon / Roy Johnston

A Lost Left. David Howell. Manchester UP, UK£29.95/UK£8.95 Pb.
Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland. Priscilla Metscher, Verlag Peter Lang. SFr 85.
The Words of James Connolly. Ed James Connolly Heron. Mercier. £5.95 Pb.
The Gralton Affair. Pat Feeley. Coolock Free Press (3 Claremont Villas, Glenageary, Co. Dublin). NPG.

I am again reminded of how badly the Irish nation is served by its academic establishment, when I reflect on the content and origins of the four books under review.

Howell's opening remark: '... passengers from London to Manchester do not depart from the Engels Station ...' shows that his curiosity has been aroused by the Connolly phenomenon enough to stimulate him to write a book about socialism and nationalism in Ireland and Scotland (the central figure in the latter case being John Maclean). Yet no Irish academic has addressed the problem of getting out a definitive edition of Connolly's writings, so that we are left with a vacuum, partially filled by publications of edited extracts from time to time, the most recent being this contribution by Heron. There were earlier compendia by Derry Kelleher and Proinnsias Mac Aonghusa, which in their time filled the needs of radical political educators, the earlier 4-volume ITGWU collection being out of print since the early 60s.

What Irish academics can do, if given the chance and the motivation, is beautifully demonstrated by Priscilla Metscher; this masterpiece of revolutionary critical scholarship has however been produced in Oldenberg University, in Germany. The author, a Belfast woman, has responded with great creativity to the stimulus of emigration. James O'Hara in Hamburg similarly is helping to fill the vacuum left by the Irish academic system in the history of science and technology, Larry Roche in Bangor tries from afar to get recognition for the national significance of forestry as a resource, Eoin McKiernan in Minnesota, applied linguistics, music, you name it, I could go on and on; the intellectuals who could contribute to developing an all-round vibrant national culture seldom get the chance to do so on their own home ground. Indeed, in the present political wilderness, voices are again beginning to be raised promoting explicitly the idea that emigration of our best and brightest is a good thing and to be encouraged, so that those who remain can serve their time untroubled by criticism that might threaten their pension rights; Crotty's 'fat-cat society'. Pat Feeley is not an emigrant, but merely an outsider, forced to do a self-publishing job with his amateur though scholarly study of the Gralton affair, an episode so discreditable of the Irish establishment that even now no professional academic scholar or publishing house will touch it.

Why should I have to waste your good review space with diatribes on the theme of national cultural policy? Ask the Minister for Culture, who is directly responsible for the policy vacuum. Yes, I know, there isn't one; this is presumably why no-one has bothered to re-appoint an Irish representaive to the UNESCO Commission. Is there anyone up there, governing? Is there an Irish nation, with a nationality conscious government looking after its interests? Or are we dominated by what Niall Greene has called the 'gobshite factor', or O h-Eithir's begrudgers ?

Priscilla Metscher has given us a 475-page (with 140 pages of notes) 'bible of national democracy'; a critical analysis of the writings of every significant Irish revolutionary leader from the United Irishmen to 1916, with background studies of their lives and times. If this type of material had been available to fuel the mass politicisation of the 60s, there would have been less heat, and more light; also perhaps even a united movement with achievable vision, fit to sweep aside the begrudgers.

This is actually Volume II of a series, the first volume being on 'literature and ideology'; I wish I had seen it. I hope to be able to write in greater depth on this in Saothar 1987; also on the Howell production, which is of interest to Irish readers as an illustration of the slow dawning on analysis of the British labour movement that Britain is a multi-national State. Regrettably Howell fails to pursue this as his central theme, ignoring completely the Welsh dimension. He picks as his third biography, along with Connolly and Maclean, one John Wheatley, of whom I must admit I had never previously heard. With roots in the Catholic Socialist Society, on the fringe of Glaswegian Irish politics, he made it to Ramsay Mac Donald's cabinet, ending up with MacDonald's ILP critics in 1930. If there is any lesson here, it is in the sterility of attempting to develop socialist politics within a unionist imperial framework.

For Irish readers, for whom most of the Connolly material will probably be 'old hat', the John Maclean biography is what makes the book worth buying. How many Irish are familiar with Ruaraidh Erskine's Scottish National Committee, and the case it made to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919? Maclean supported this, while holding out for 'the Socialist Republic in which alone we will have real Home Rule'; he also supported the Highland Land League and the Gaelic language. Also in 1919 he supported the First Dail, and gave retrospective support to 1916, once he was released from jail. Maclean was an important seminal figure, up to now dismissed too easily.

More should have been made of the juxtaposition of these three figures, if we are to be persuaded to buy them in the one book. For more on Howell see my Saothar review.

To return to Metscher: among the many interesting insights is the contrast between the Nation (the Young Ireland paper) and the Irish People (started by O'Leary as a Fenian mouthpiece). The former, being a commercial paper based on a broad open national organisation, thrived, while the latter had to struggle to create its market, being the organ of an organisation which was supposed to be secret. Also, on Pearse, she gives due recognition to his educational writings, attributing a deserved vanguard European status to his thinking, which was enriched by knowledge of Froebel, Montessori, Salomon and others, also Dewey in the US (cf O Buachalla). This goes some way to rescue Pearse from the depredations of the current wave of anti-national revisionists with which academia is currently so richly endowed (remember the episode of the Terence MacSweeney Memorial Lectures in London, and the disgraceful attitude of the UCD historians?).

I myself remember hearing the essentials of the Gralton story from his cousin Packy Gralton, by the light of an oil lamp in a Leitrim farmhouse in or about 1947, which was some 15 years after the deportation took place. His crime was that he organised a co-operative hall, which was used for educational purposes, in Gowel, Co. Leitrim. Though a native of those parts, he had become an American citizen; he had returned to help with the War of Independence, having had military experience in the British Army in India. He was therefore technically an 'alien'; Church and State united to get rid of this threat; the hall was burned by a mob incited by the local priest.

Pat Feeley has put together a competent and well-informed account of Jim Gralton's life and times, as a contribution to the celebration of the centenary of his birth, which was commemorated locally this year.

James Connolly Heron in his introduction reminds us that '. . . Connolly was well aware of the danger of allowing the national question to remain outside the Socialist debate ...': essential reading for those in the Labour Party who seek to develop and reinforce an independent political position.

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