Tag Archives: James Connolly

The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Filed under British History, Irish History, Labour History, Literature, Social History, Socialism, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

Version: Music and History

Back when I was doing my undergraduate, for my final year dissertation class I was in a group looking at aspects of Irish Diaspora history. My own project was on the impact of Irish emigration on American folk music. In particular, I was concerned with pre-Great Famine migration from Ireland to the United States – by and large this meant Ulster Protestant migration to the Appalachian region. The links between English, Scottish and Irish ballad traditions and those of the Appalachian regions are well-established, although at the time it was revelatory for my historical knowledge – the transformation of music across time and landscape was truly incredible. Ever since then, in the tutorials I give to first year students of twentieth century Irish history, I ask them in one class to examine two separate political traditions in Ireland by examining the texts of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic; As well as that  I get them to consider representations of these opposing political viewpoints via song.

I should state by the way, that for me at least, using songs to teach history is no cheap trick, no attempt to pander. Song is a powerful historical actor in its own right (witness the national anthem for instance). For many, song might be the only means of expression afforded to them – its orality means it transcended (and transcends) a need for literacy, an important thing for many of those in society who have no means of otherwise expressing themselves. Of course, it can also reinforce existing attitudes, contemporaneously or later on, as is the case with the songs I use in my tutorials. Usually I get them to consider the lyrics of The Foggy Dew (below is just one version  of the song, with others performed with slight lyrical variations by  The Clancy Brothers among other groups):

And then, the song used to broadly, if a little crudely, represent the opposing political tradition of unionism was The Sash My Father Wore:

In general, the point is to show to them that through musical culture, whether through ballads or otherwise (compare the image of the Lambeg drum so associated with the Orange Order to the Fife and Drum combinations so popular in Irish nationalist bands) people express their differing experiences of the world, even though there is often shared themes (loyalty, a sense of tradition, heroism etc).¹

As a tool generally, songs can be a good entry point for students to grasp what can sometimes be difficult, not to say subtle, variations in expressed opinion. Of course, balladry is a naturally biased artform and only one side tends to be given any credence by the author or the performer of the piece. As another Irish example, consider the two varying means of remembering James Connolly below. The first is perhaps a more typical one, as a great nationalist hero:

While this next one, sung here by Cork writer Patrick Galvin, emphasises Connolly’s socialism far and above his nationalism – though in both instances he is a lamented figure:

You could even take the songs by Dominic Behan, Brendan Behan or Ewan MacColl as exemplars of ‘new’ traditional ballads in the twentieth century that present counter-narratives to dominant ones of pro-treaty nationalism and capitalism (anti-treatyite in the case of the brothers Behan or anti-capitalist in MacColl’s case); This isn’t a peculiarly Irish phenomenon of contested meaning through song. In the United States, goes the case of famed railway-man Casey Jones. In one (and it must be said the best known) song sung about Casey he embodies a particular American spirit of never-saying-never. This song was published in 1902, and was a huge vaudeville hit. In this version, he is a brave man who selflessly gave his life for others:

There’s even a Disney cartoon about him. But this isn’t the only lens through which Jones is viewed. In this instance, in a version of the story written by Joe Hill and sung here by Pete Seeger he is very much the villain of the piece – a mere scab, whose only reward is “wooden medal”:

What makes these interesting is that musically both songs are more or less identical – it is in their lyrical content only which they differ. In fact, Pete Seeger recorded both versions of the Casey story. Another remarkable example of song as history is one made famous by The Dubliners, The Monto. Written in 1958 by Irish Times music critic George Desmond Hodnett, the song appears to take place around 1900 (based on references to Queen Victoria and the Boer War). Here’s a version of it performed by The Dubliners on Irish television programme The Talk Show in 1970:

Utterly authentic in its historicity, it is nevertheless an anachronism, written almost 60 years after the fact. One could be easily fooled that this was the real deal, a turn of the century broadside style ballad – but it’s nothing of the sort. So, the ballad can be a space of contested control of the past, just like history books can be. We can get multiple versions of our past from any one place, from any single tradition, but a good historian will welcome the contradictions, seek to make sense of them, and whistle to their own tune.

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¹ Seek out Fintan Vallely’s Tuned Out: Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland, Cork: Cork University Press, 2008 for more on music in the Northern Irish context.

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Filed under Historiography, Irish History, Social History