Of all the wraiths that looked on at the astonishing election result in the Republic of Ireland, none can have had a broader smile than James Connolly’s. An advocate of a free Ireland, a socialist of world renown and leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin against British rule, Connolly would have seen in the poll triumph of Sinn Féin a last step in the emancipation of the country he loved and for which he gave his life.
Sinn Féin, the Irish republican political party, took 24.5% of first preference votes in the election on 8 February, eclipsing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two parties that have swapped and shared political power in Eire for decades. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald this week began trying to put together a left-wing coalition to govern the country.
To describe the election result as a political tsunami or cultural earthquake would not be to overstate its significance. Ireland has moved from tightly embracing two conservative parties to supporting a party that proposed increasing tax on the rich, more public housing, capping rents, providing more hospital beds and treating the people of Ireland with dignity rather than as cyphers.
That Sinn Féin is led by a woman would further have delighted Connolly, who famously noted: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.”
Connolly was a man of protean abilities and interests, who packed several lifetimes into his just under 48 years (5 June 1868 – 12 May 1916). A member of the Industrial Workers of the World – from which comes, among many others, the enduring slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” – he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and The Socialist newspaper, and was one of the founders of the Socialist Labour Party.
His sense of fair play – and, arguably, a certain disaffection with the native tongue of the English occupiers of Ireland – led him to study and promote the use of Esperanto, which was touted then and later as a neutral international language. In that cause, he penned The Language Movement (1898), an attempt to advocate socialism to the more narrowly nationalist revolutionaries at the heart of the Gaelic Revival, with its focus on indigenous language, heritage and practices.
Man of action
The other side to the man of thought and words was the man of action. Connolly countered the bitter industrial dispute that was the Dublin lock-out, which saw about 300 employers face off against 20 000 workers from August 1913 to January 1914. In a typical alliance between capital and the state, the Dublin police frequently attacked workers and strikers. Connolly co-founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), arming and training workers to protect their fellows from the police.
Two years later, the ICA agreed to act with the Irish Republican Brotherhood against the British. This took the form of the Easter Rising of 24 April 1916, during which Connolly commanded the Dublin Brigade.
The Irish free forces were defeated and those of its leaders who had drawn up and signed the proclamation of an Irish republic suffered savage revenge, all being executed. Among the proclamation’s ringing sentences is this: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”
Connolly was mortally wounded in the Rising, with doctors declaring that he had only days to live. Brutal and unrelenting, the English insisted on executing him by firing squad. So badly injured that he could neither stand nor walk, Connolly was strapped to a chair and shot.
Though dead, he lived and lives on. He breathes in the now-rarefied air that is the Ireland of Sinn Féin and Mary Lou McDonald. He breathes across the Atlantic, in the socialist democrat Bernie Sanders.
He breathes most of all in his own words, as in these:
“Under a socialist system every nation will be the supreme arbiter of its own destinies, national and international; will be forced into no alliance against its will, but will have its independence guaranteed and its freedom respected by the enlightened self-interest of the socialist democracy of the world.”
The inspiration for this column comes from a good friend who worked in a Maoist bookshop during her time at the University of Oxford and provided postal services to “our local guy who insisted he was Sinn Féin not IRA and that his name was Seamus. Neither of which I believed.”