James Connolly and Trade Unionism
By C. Desmond Greaves
This is the text of a lecture delivered to a seminar organised by the Youth Committee of the Dublin No.2 Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union on Saturday, 7 May 1977. It was published as a pamphlet by the union in September of the following year, with an Introduction by Roddy Connolly, James Connolly’s son, and a Preface by Michael Mullen, General Secretary of the ITGWU at the time. The texts of the Introduction and Preface are given below following the text of the lecture.
James Connolly’s contribution to labour and republican thought is so well known and recognised that sometimes we forget that he was a trade unionist all his working life. He held membership in three countries and was elected to many official positions. He took part in many controversies in the formative years of modern Trade Unionism. And at the end, when the imperialists took their revenge on him, he was the Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
Now he was born and bred in the slums of Edinburgh. But it was not a degraded slum. It was an exiles’ ghetto, called by the locals “little Ireland”. It need not be doubted that both Donegal and Monaghan Gaelic would be heard there, for it was from these two counties that most of its inhabitants came. He attended St. Patrick’s school, but his formal education ended at the age of ten. But he was a person of immense practical intellect. He learned several languages. Confronted in later life with the need to communicate with Italian workers, he simply set to and learned their language and was soon making speeches to them. At a time when many workers could neither read nor write, his father was the possessor of a good firm hand. He was at least literate, and maybe in James’s positive attitude to learning, we can trace the tradition of the hedge schoolmaster.
It was when he went to Dundee in 1889 that James Connolly became an active Trade Unionist. He was immediately involved in a strike of builders’ labourers. At that time the early socialists were busy extending the scope of Trade Union organisation beyond the traditional confines of the apprentice trades. Elsewhere the so-called “unskilled” were pouring into the Unions by the thousand. We must remember of course that those we speak of as “old socialists” were at this time mostly very young people. They had a revivalist fervour. They had a great sense of embarking on a new adventure. They were demanding rights for people who had never been allowed even privileges. The Labour movement will never recapture that springtime mood. But of course they did not know what was ahead of them. We do.
James Connolly was brought into this exciting movement by his elder brother John, and by his friend John Leslie. It has been said that Leslie was Connolly’s uncle. But they were of similar age and old socialists in Edinburgh told me that it was just as likely that Connolly influenced Leslie’s views on the Irish question as that Leslie influenced Connolly. Indeed of course they were both influenced by events, supreme among which were the rise and fall of Parnell. There was no relationship, and Leslie’s Irish connections were said to have been with Waterford.
Back in Edinburgh, where the brothers were carters for the Corporation, the three were active propagandists for the Scottish Socialist Federation. There is little record of Trade Union activities at this time. Casual labour was the rule. But both got themselves victimised, John for speaking at a Labour meeting, and James for fighting a municipal election as a socialist.
Victimisation was a serious matter in those days. It was the total withdrawal of the daily bread ticket. It was moreover not long before Connolly appreciated that he was not going to get work in Edinburgh. He opened a small cobbler’s shop in Buccleuch Street. It was not unusual for working people in those days to mend their own shoes. The materials and implements of the trade were not hard come by. Had his background been a trifle more genteel perhaps Connolly would have adopted the usual recourse of the victimised man and become an insurance agent. He did this later in life. And indeed this is what Leslie did. I was told of Leslie that when he grew old he tired of climbing the interminable tenement stairs. He provided himself with a trumpet. When he gave a few toots on it in the close, his clients came tumbling down to him with their money.
Connolly’s business was not a success, and we can guess why. Anna Munro, the grand old suffragette, gave me a picture of it. She and her sister were schoolgirls and used to listen to Connolly’s speeches in the East Meadows. They were full of enthusiasm for Connolly’s new world where, as she described it with a chuckle in her throat, there would be “no more trouble”. Her father was a professor in the University, and in that house, unlike some others, there were plenty of boots and shoes. She sorted out every one for which they could be made an excuse for mending and took them to Connolly. None of them was ever worn again. So one day Connolly walked out of the shop and locked it behind him. “I’m going to buy myself a mirror”, he said, “to watch myself starve to death.”
For a period Connolly worked as an underpaid, more often unpaid, full-time organiser for the Edinburgh Socialists. He organised enormous meetings by the standards of those days and became acquainted with the leading figures of the movement who came as visiting speakers. But his appointment could not survive a hard winter and a trade recession. Leslie wrote a glowing tribute to him in the columns of “Justice”, and to his delight Connolly was invited to come to Dublin as paid secretary of the Dublin Socialist Club.
Irish socialism is of course of venerable antiquity. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century the same names crop up in different organisations over the years. There were Irish organisations parallel to those of the English Chartists. Indeed it is on record that Daniel O’Connell’s supporters objected so strongly to one of these that was being started in Drogheda, that they smashed up its premises and drove out its leader, Hoey, who emigrated to Barnsley. According to William O’Brien, when Jim Connell, author of the Red Flag, came back to Dublin in 1909, he told members of the Socialist Party of Ireland that socialist gatherings in Dublin in the seventies were much bigger than that which he saw before him.
William O’Brien permitted himself the luxury of a doubt. But he did not dispute the fact of the old organisation. One of its most remarkable figures was a man called Landye whose name often appears, but no more than the name. He was a signalman who was blamed for an accident. Yet instead of dismissing him the company immediately installed him on the office staff. He was once present at a meeting when the speaker failed to turn up. He immediately gave an hour’s lecture on the history of clocks in Ireland. The father of Fred Ryan – a member of the SPI who later acted as editor of Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s anti- imperialist magazine “Egypt” – was a contemporary of Landye in the socialist movement.
But apart from this old-established indigenous stream, there were continuous intrusions from across the channel. Sometimes these acted as fertilisers, sometimes as diversions. It was a matter of prestige for a “national” organisation to have a branch in Dublin. These were the days when any self-respecting English organisation called herself the this, that or the other of Great Britain and Ireland. The Dublin Socialist Club was indeed amalgamated from a combination of conflicting trends. Connolly had to sort this out. He proposed a simple solution. Socialists in Ireland, whatever their person national origin, should proclaim unequivocally their support for Irish Independence.
Of course this was only common sense. But how common is common sense? Clearly whether the Irish people wanted socialism or not was a matter for themselves and nobody else. But it was certain that they could want away, as hard as they liked, but they would not get it until they had a government of their own responsive to what they wanted. Implicit in this approach is the notion that Irish workers would in principle also be best served by trade unions of their own. But of course a principle is not a fetish.
Connolly’s job did not prove a paying proposition. And he had arrived at an unfortunate time, in the middle of a stoppage in the building trade. However ultimately he got work. Years later he used to say he went to Trinity College – carrying sacks of cement for what is still I think called the “new building”.
He joined the United Builders Labourers’ Union. After a while he was offered the secretaryship, but declined. More than once he hesitated about becoming an official. His heart was in socialist propaganda and he was of course an outstanding public orator. His standing in the Union remained high. He had its support when he fought municipal elections and received financial sponsorship in his first visit to the United States. This was the more remarkable since the UBL was a distributing Union. The dues were collected for one year at a time, and any balance left at the end of the year was divided up and given back to the members.
Back to America
Economic necessity compelled Connolly to go to America a second time, this time as an emigrant. Before leaving he decided to equip himself with a trade and availed of a Government scheme to learn linotype operation. He probably hoped to work on De Leon’s paper, the “Weekly People”, for he was aware of the shortage of men who could set English. But in this he ran foul of the craft Unions. The Americans would not work with him because, though qualified as a typesetter, he had not served an apprenticeship. This was a severe disappointment, and he was compelled to go selling insurance in the textile town of Troy. Here a prolonged strike dried up his business. He passed himself off as an engineer. After organising the Singer factory in New Jersey, he found himself footloose again.
During Connolly’s stay in the United States American Socialism was in the throes of a controversy regarding “wages, marriage and the church”. It was really a revival of an old controversy, or set of controversies, to which Connolly knew the answers. But there was a strong dogmatic, even doctrinaire, streak in American socialists. Many of them were refugees living in closed national communities, where the artificialities of exile politics flourished unchecked by contact with realities. The great theoretical master of ceremonies was Daniel De Leon. He revived some forgotten theories of Proudhon and made “principles” of them. One was that Trade Unions were wasting their time looking for wage increases, because every wage increase automatically brought about a price increase that exactly nullified it. De Leon advised his members not to join the AFL unions, for they were of no avail. Instead, he founded a socialist Trade Union Centre, based on an industrial form of organisation. Its purpose was not however to defend wages and conditions, but to prepare within capitalism the structure of socialist society. The whole thing was of course fanciful.
Connolly’s practical horse-sense told him that the tradesman would not be jealously guarding their Trade Unions if they were no good to them. And he put his finger on De Leon’s weak spot. It was simply not true that wage increases were automatically nullified by price changes. On the contrary the result of Trade Unionism was to bring about a steady overall improvement in the standard of living. De Leon did not like to be corrected and regarded Connolly with considerable aversion.
Marriage and the Church
Marriage and the Church need not long detain us. But it is perhaps interesting to know what the argument was about. Connolly had objected to the tendency of socialists to include in their propaganda every cranky proposition that seemed contrary to the established order of things. One such was “free love”, that is to say the abolition of the institution of marriage. Connolly was a lifelong supporter of equality between the sexes. But he appreciated that this proposal was less likely to enfranchise women than to enslave them. As regards the Church, De Leon’s supporters tried to revive the old dead proposition that socialists must be atheists. Connolly asked why. Why should people who were seeking social changes in this world thereby commit themselves to particular propositions about the next? Socialism was neither Catholic nor Protestant nor atheist. It was simply human.
De Leon’s fury knew no bounds when Connolly started gathering the Irish workers into his Irish Socialist Federation. He denounced him as a nationalist, and as if this was not enough, proceeded by means of a “chain of evidence” to indict him as an “ultramontane” agent of the Catholic church.
Connolly could make little headway against all this childishness, and it was not long before he broke with dogmatic socialism as represented by De Leon and joined the Socialist Party of America. “Less theorising,” he said, “but more fighting.” He recognised that it is only possible to work on the world as it is with the means at one’s disposal; you cannot afford to wait for perfect instruments.
Connolly is only now beginning to be recognised in America for his great stand against doctrinaire sterility. I recently had a letter from Carl Reeve, the son of “Mother Bloor”, a man in his seventies, who told me of his conviction that Connolly’s stand for sanity is bearing fruit today. He was writing a book about its influence on the American Labour Movement. Incidentally, I mentioned in passing that Connolly is at last being studied on the European continent, there as the world’s classic theoretician of the liberation of small nations. A young Breton as just sent me his book on the subject.
These were the great days of syndicalism in America. And Connolly became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. This organisation taught industrial Unionism as opposed to organisation by trade or occupation. Connolly retained his belief in this principle. But it should be said that the IWW regarded it as a medicine that would cure everything. Connolly supported them for their militancy and smiled benignly at some of their extravagances. His comment on a resolution against political action by the workers was that it would not stop them taking it. For a time he was an organiser for the IWW; his last job in the USA was that of a national organiser for the Socialist Party. This took him away on long tours, one of which lasted nearly eleven months.
Connolly learned much in the United States. There the class struggle was stark and violent, and provided a thing could be thought of, somebody would be bound to do it. But he wanted to be back in Ireland, and repeatedly returned to the subject in his correspondence with William O’Brien. It was the advent of Larkin that made this possible. The industrial upheavals in which the ITGWU had its birth led to a revived interest in socialism. The newly formed Socialist Party of Ireland was something of an umbrella organisation. It contained such diverse elements as William O’Brien, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, O’Brien Hishon and for a time Bulmer Hobson. Connolly was invited home for a lecture tour, and once here he was retained as national organiser. He joined the ITGWU shortly after his arrival, and indeed Larkin was anxious to have him on the staff. It was only when the SPI fell temporally on hard times that he accepted the post of Belfast organiser of the union.
It is customary to talk about the greed and obstinacy of the Dublin employers of those days. But they had nothing on the Belfast ones. It was incidentally not in Dublin but in Belfast that the employers first had the notion of ganging together against the Unions and starving their members out. Connolly found men shovelling forty tons of iron for 3/4d. If they kept it up for six days they could earn a pound a week. Others had to move 100 tons of grain for five shillings. The fastest shovelling I ever saw was in the Co. Leitrim just after the war. I happened to be present when a couple of men who ran a forge drove up to a coal mine for a few tons of slack. It must have been something of a twilight operation for the weighbridge was out of action. “I’ll give you as much as you can load in ten minutes,” said the custodian. It was then that the shovels flew. But these men were working against time. The Belfast dockers were working against starvation.
Connolly organised them and brought them out for higher wages, shorter hours and abolition of speed-up. The Union had no reserves. Connolly decided on IWW tactics, street collections for the strike fund. But in Belfast nothing can be done without music. He must have a band. But then arose the problem of which side of the mouth they blew with. Connolly secured players from the two sides and the combination later became known as the “Non-sectarian Labour band”. The stoppage was prolonged and Connolly began to fear he was facing defeat. The employers indeed threatened a general lock-out. But unexpectedly they came forward first with a compromise offer. Connolly seized it with both hands. The wage-increase was fairly modest, but it was an instalment of more that could be won.
As well as a clear grasp of principle Connolly possessed great common sense and flexibility. If a line of action was getting nowhere, he would look for an alternative. The outcome of every struggle approximates to the relative strengths of the contestants. To get more than your bargaining warrants is to expect the other man to be a fool. To get less makes you a fool yourself. Connolly had this realistic approach to conflicts of interest. It is of course a fallacy that workers and employers have absolutely no interests in common. Obviously both want the drains to work and the place to be free of epidemics. In actually existing society both get their livings out of industry and both want the wheels to turn. They confront each other as buyers and sellers, each interested in the sales taking place. So the object of every strike is the settlement. I think we could say that Connolly was remarkable not so much for his strikes as for his settlements.
He was approached by a number of mill girls whose employers had introduced a speed-up. The year 1911 was one of trade revival, and production was at a premium. The employer had been smitten with a consciousness of all the time that was lost in talking, singing or laughing or “adjusting the hair during working hours”. He put up notices announcing fines for those who indulged in these nefarious practises. Connolly brought them out on strike, but, tactician that he was, slapped in a wage demand. It might be successful, and in any case it was something in hand to bargain with. However the employer obdurately refused to bargain. There was nothing to do but to go back. Connolly sent the girls back with instructions that if one were checked for talking, all must talk, if one were checked for singing, all must sing. This was done. So victory appeared in the guise of defeat. The system of fines was heard no more. Was it necessary to bring them out for this? It was. For through the strike that won nothing, the girls gained that sense of corporate identity which enabled them to impose their own conditions when they were back on the job.
It was Connolly who settled the Wexford strike after it had been proceeding for months. After the organisation of the quays, the Union organiser P.T. Daly turned his attention to the foundries. The employers flatly refused to negotiate with Larkin’s Union. Needless to say the British authorities gave the employers every facility, and Connolly was sent to Wexford after Daly had been lodged in Waterford jail. His ingenuity was the product of his vast experience. He opened negotiations through an intermediary and said he would withdraw the Union’s demand for recognition of the ITGWU. Instead, he proposed to establish a new Union which the employers agreed to negotiate with. They raised no objection when the new Union affiliated to the ITGWU. Face was saved on both sides and collective bargaining could begin.
This was early in 1912. During this period there was a widespread expectation of Home Rule and Connolly and his colleagues were anxious that there should be Labour representation in the Parliament that was to be established. It was on his motion that the Irish Trade Union Congress at its Clonmel meeting in August constituted itself the Irish Labour Party, an arrangement which lasted until 1929. Of course, it was already becoming clear what forces of backwardness and intolerance were being marshalled in the northeast and brought to bear against Home Rule. Connolly used to hold public meetings at Library Street in Belfast. His favourite topic was “Civil and religious Liberty”. Connolly believed that a man must suffer no penalty for what he was not responsible for, for age, sex, race, nationality or religion. But let us not forget that he was ably supported by a group of Protestant stalwarts which included Tom Johnson, D.R. Campbell and William McMullen, still happily with us. He organised a Labour demonstration under the ITGWU, “the only union that allows no bigotry in its ranks”. It was a fine claim, and a brave one too.
The 1913 lockout
When the great lockout began in Dublin, in August 1913, Connolly was brought to Dublin. William Martin Murphy, owner of the “Independent”, the Imperial Hotel, the Dublin trams, the Ramsgate trams, the Buenos Aires trams, and heaven knows what else, had demanded from his employees that they should sign an undertaking not to become or remain members of the ITGWU. Larkin was arrested on a charge of seditious conspiracy soon after the lock-out began but was out on bail when Connolly arrived. He was holding a great meeting outside Liberty Hall. A demonstration called for the following Sunday had been proclaimed, and Larkin set about publicly burning the proclamation. Connolly noted that the proclamation applied to a meeting in “Sackville Street”, and coyly suggested that those present might go to O’Connell Street, if only to see if there was a meeting there. For this piece of sedition he was arrested next day, and in the resulting confusion not many people turned up. It was well they did not. For those who did felt the weight of the world’s most famous baton charge when, in defiance of authority, Larkin appeared on the balcony of Martin Murphy’s own hotel and thundered his challenge. Two workers lost their lives as a result of police brutality. They were James Nolan and James Byrne.
Both Larkin and Connolly were now in jail, and all credit must go to the other leaders that they did not weaken. Larkin was soon out on bail, but Connolly was convicted and sentenced. On September 9th, about ten days after his arrest, he went on hunger strike. A week later he was released after a deputation had waited on the Lord Lieutenant. During the first few days of the lock-out there had been sympathetic action in England. But this petered out during the period of confusion. As soon as he could, therefore, Larkin sped across the channel with the intention of reviving it.
It should be noted that Irish railwaymen and others had taken sympathetic action to assist English unions at times when their own interests were not involved, and many workers in England thought they should reciprocate. Their leaders discouraged such sentiments and concentrated on sending food ships, the first of which arrived on September 27. While this was helpful, it was not the help that was vitally needed, and which could have seen the employers isolated and defeated.
Larkin was finally convicted and imprisoned on October 21st. It is therefore a historical fact that the main decisions on the workers’ side were made by Connolly. He used every available weapon and availed of opportunities with consummate skill. He publicly declined the good offices of emissaries from England who proposed to settle the dispute at the expense of Larkin. He replied to the importation of blacklegs with mass picketing, to the army of scabs by the arming of the workers, the origin of the Irish Citizen Army. He sent delegates to constituencies where the Government was involved in by-elections and helped to bring about their defeat. Finally, notwithstanding the agreements with the shipping companies, for the purpose of securing Larkin’s release he closed the port of Dublin “as tight as a drum”. Larkin was released within hours.
By this time almost the entire working class of Dublin was either on strike or locked out. Ranged against them was the common front of four hundred and four employers. No wonder that George Russell described the employers as “blind Samsons” pulling down the pillars of their own capitalistic society. For the result was a deadlock that went on for months. The strike was never settled. But a slow process of disengagement took place. In the end Murphy got his pledge. The red hand buttons came down. But when shortly afterwards they started going up again, Murphy could do nothing about it. He could not enforce his terms when he got them.
Again we ask, was it necessary to go through so much for so little?
Murphy must surely have been impressed with his own folly. His colleagues must have rubbed it in to him, even if little was made public. But it must be remembered that when such struggles begin the strengths of the parties are not known. There is no doubt that Murphy seriously underestimated the strength and determination of the Dublin workers. He could never take them on a second time. And moreover, despite their reduction to temporary penury, they had undergone a psychological transformation. They knew themselves and they knew their power. Martin Murphy might well exclaim with the Greek general, “Another such victory and we are ruined.” It was because he became the symbol of this psychological transformation that the Dublin workers revered Larkin to his dying day, long after they had ceased to be advised by him and gave him one of the greatest funerals Dublin has ever seen. And Connolly, who understood all this, pronounced the verdict, “It was a drawn battle.” And he was modest.
Things had scarcely reverted to normal when the First World War broke out. To Connolly’s deep satisfaction the Irish Labour Party and TUC condemned it as a war for imperial robbery. The only other national Labour movements not to disgrace themselves were the Russian, the Serbian and the United States socialist parties, though there were doubtless red faces in England and Germany. International congresses had pledged the socialists of the world, if they could not prevent a world war, to use the crisis occasioned by it to bring about a socialist revolution. In accordance with his understanding that Ireland could not choose socialism when she had no freedom of choice, Connolly resolved that during the war he would support a bid for national independence.
Larkin in America
Larkin left for the United States on October 24. Connolly became Acting General Secretary of the Union. He had a difficult task. He must restore its shattered finances. He must secure wage-increases commensurate with a sharply rising cost of living. No doubt he had visions of a Rising in which the Union would paralyse communications while Irish forces took over the organs of State. But the members were not in an adventurous mood after 1913-14. They needed to get their political breath back and earn a few shillings when they could. The Citizen Army, reorganised, had to go it alone with a section of the Volunteers. The Rising, like the lock-out, was a technical defeat which nevertheless transformed the entire balance of power. Up to a week before Easter 1916 Connolly was busily engaged in his Trade Union duties on the industrial front.
It may be useful now to attempt to summarise James Connolly’s approach to Trade Unionism, and here are some of the points that I have listed:
- It was throughout informed by his socialist and republican convictions.
- Connolly believed that the working class had a special and decisive part to play in the re-shaping of society, and was at constant pains to strengthen its unity, its organisation and its knowledge.
- He took up a separatist position in relation to the United Kingdom, believing that the democratic principle must function nationally before it could function internationally.
- He repudiated discrimination against workers on the grounds of religion, sex or nationality, as causing disunity in the ranks of the working class.
- He saw individual industrial struggles as part of a general struggle that would ultimately bring the working class to power.
- While he never went into an industrial struggle without the intention of winning it, he appreciated that the precise outcome cannot always be foreseen, and that in the course of industrial history there are likely to be retreats as well as advances. Like a good general, his purpose in making a retreat was always to preserve his forces for future battle and he studied how to gain something, even in retreat.
- He believed the Trade Union movement was an essential force both in national and social liberation.
- He believed that the political and industrial struggles of the working class were indissolubly linked and advocated a strong independent party of Labour linked to the Trade Union movement.
- Finally, he held that the workers through their organisations should press for legislative action, even by capitalistic governments, that would create better conditions for working class development.
In conclusion may I say how strongly I am convinced that in bringing together young Trade Unionists to discuss Trade Union affairs, you are carrying on the work of Connolly. I am told that forty percent of the population of Ireland are under twenty-five and indeed I can see the population explosion walking about the streets. Nobody knows what new demands will be made on this generation. They can however be no better starting point than the study of the ideas of James Connolly, and in particular his later writings. Armed with these you can start where Connolly left off.
C. Desmond Greaves.
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Introduction to the above lecture by Roddy Connolly
I have attended scores of lectures on all aspects of socialism and heard dozens of treatments of the various aspects of James Connolly’s teachings. To listen to Desmond Greaves give his lecture in Liberty Hall proved a new enlivening and engrossing experience. Intellectually, it was thrilling and stimulating. Moreover it was a surprise that, delivered as part of a symposium, it could arouse such enthusiasm and develop such interest in our young Trade Unionists.
It struck me immediately after the lecture that the contents should be given more permanent form, for instance as a pamphlet. I knew that the best hope of getting this done was to urge in the best quarters that it be produced in printed form by the Union. Forthwith I forwarded my suggestion to the General Secretary, Michael Mullen. It is with the greatest pleasure that I find now that the thoughts and theories and activities of my famous father on Trade Union matters are available to all in handy printed form through the good offices of the Union.
The printed word is still the mightiest form of propaganda. No better writer on this important subject of “James Connolly and Trade Unionism” could be found than the author of this new study.
While it will prove a valuable introduction to this aspect of James Connolly’s teachings, there are three other aspects which almost compel similar treatment if only because James Connolly was such an all-round thinker and brilliant activist. I submit that the four parts of the whole treatment of our subject would be: (1) James Connolly and Trade Unionism – covered by this present publication; (2) James Connolly and Politics; (3) James Connolly and Nationalism; and (4) James Connolly and Working-class Revolution.
That these various streams of thought merge into a mighty flood of socialist theory was the lesson James Connolly taught. Armed with his ideas as outlined in such a series of pamphlets, every member of a progressive Trade Union or a political party based on the Labour movement should be properly and well equipped to assist in the struggle of the Irish working class to win national and social independence and perhaps to be one of the foremost leaders in James Connolly’s footsteps.
Let us remember that the one dominating principle permeating his lifework was loyalty. The fundamental inspiration of the Irish working class in the days of Connolly and Larkin was loyalty to one another, particularly in time of stress and strain, and loyalty to the democratic union of which they were members, loyalty to the democratically elected leadership of the Union.
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Preface by ITGWU General Secretary Michael Mullen to the published lecture, September 1978
More than sixty years after his death James Connolly continues to excite our interest and to be a cause of deep study. For many historical figures this is simply because they featured prominently in the events of their own time, but in the case of Connolly it is also true because he is so much of relevance to ours. No greater tribute can be given a man than an enduring regard for his actions and teaching as providing reasons for our present-day involvement.
Connolly was a life-long trade unionist and, as Desmond Greaves reminds us at the outset, was Acting General Secretary of the ITGWU when, badly injured, he was propped up in a chair and shot by Crown Security Forces in 1916. Yet his work on the industrial side of the labour movement is often lost sight of in the popular awareness of Connolly. Therefore, I believe that this pamphlet by Desmond Greaves, which the ITGWU has pleasure in publishing, will prove a useful reminder of the rounded contribution of James Connolly to the working- class struggle.
In the pages which follow a concise account is given of Connolly’s tireless endeavours to promote better wages, working conditions, and trade union organisation for workers. Indeed, these activities occupied Connolly’s attention up to the very eve of the Easter Rising.
Connolly was convinced, however, that radical and long-term progress in advancing the interests of workers could only be achieved if fundamental political changes were brought about, foremost among which was establishing the sovereignty and independence of Ireland. The stand of Connolly for national freedom was thus an integral part of his commitment to the emancipation of the working class.
In recalling how much Connolly was a trade unionist we are restating his day-to-day human concern with the living experience of working people; we are illustrating his immediate practical socialism. From this grew, naturally, his Republicanism, for which he was made pay the ultimate price by “the Guardian of the Free”.
Connolly has not been forgotten. But neither has he been properly remembered. For some he is a nationalist whose socialism has been overlooked; for others a socialist who tried to graft nationalism onto working-class politics. But, if his life and death are fully understood, it will be seen that he was merely a man of principle who was not afraid to carry things to their logical conclusion.
Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.