Jim Connell and The Red Flag

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), News, Volume 9

There are two memorials to Jim Connell, one in County Meath where he was born in 1852 and the other a plaque on a house he once occupied in London. But the greatest memorial to Jim Connell is, of course, The Red Flag which has been sung by socialists all over the world for more than a hundred years. Who, whether socialist or not, has not sometimes hummed the opening lines:

The People’s Flag is deepest red;
It shrouded oft our martyred dead;
And, ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

When the great Labour parliament under Clement Attlee assembled after the 1945 general election 393 Labour MPs rose as one great choir from the government benches and sang The Red Flag from beginning to end:

Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we’ll live and die;
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.

By that time Jim Connell was dead. He died in February 1929 and was cremated at Golder’s Green, the whole company rising, as the coffin carried his mortal remains into oblivion, to sing The Red Flag. Among the mourners were many of Jim Connell’s old socialist comrades. Wiliam O’Brien came from Dublin to represent the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Tom Mann gave the funeral oration.
Jim Connell—originally O’Connell—was the eldest of thirteen. His mother, like many pious Irish Catholic women, hoped that her son would become a priest but she soon realised that he was not in the least inclined to be religious. A younger brother did enter the priesthood and ended his days as Canon O’Connell, parish priest in Scarborough. His father had given up farming to become a groom for the Earl of Ross at Birr, County Offaly and it was there that Jim learned to handle horses. One of his later publications was The Horse and How to Treat Him. He also learned ‘the art of poaching’ and Confessions of a Poacher was serialised in Tit-Bits and then published as a book.
When Wal Hannington was leading the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, between the two world wars, Connell once told him there was no reason why any man or his family should go without food. The estates of the wealthy were well stocked with hares, pheasants, rabbits, trout and salmon, and all sorts of other small game easy either to trap, shoot, or catch with rod and line. He studied the game laws and explained them in a booklet which was published by the Humanitarian League.
Connell once said that he never got more than a few weeks formal education—‘under a hedge’. His daughter Norah Walshe was sure he was exaggerating and imagined he must have attended primary school in Ireland even if his attendance was irregular. But whatever his education it was enough, Connell would say, to enable him to follow a variety of occupations—sheep-farmer, dock labourer, railroad navvy, railwayman, draper, lawyer of sorts, and journalist.
In 1867, another year of rebellion in Ireland, the family moved to Dublin where young Jim got work as a dock labourer and where he was able to borrow and buy all sorts of books. There had been books in Birr but most of them were about either religion or farming. Dublin offered an almost endless variety.
And it was in Dublin that Connell first met people of a socialist outlook and got to know what the Fenians meant by an independent Irish republic. He claimed to have been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). His earliest socialist comrades were led by a man called Landye about whom little is known beyond the fact that he had a small group of young disciples with whom he used to go for long rambles through the Dublin mountains, talking on the way about politics and theories and contemporary affairs.
Connell left Dublin in 1875, aged twenty-three, to seek employment in England. When Michael Davitt set up the Irish National Land League a few years later Jim Connell formed a branch in Poplar and was a member of the National Executive until the league was suppressed. By that time he had left the IRB and in 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). He was nonetheless named in 1888 by the commission that inquired into Parnellism and crime as ‘an advocate of terrorism and violence’.
In 1882 Connell married Catherine Angier who was also, in the  words of Norah Walshe, ‘of the pioneering temperament’. Norah remembered many of the early socialists coming to the house, especially during election campaigns or when there were strikes, or just to sit ‘before a roaring fire’ into the small hours talking politics and planning the reformation of society. As a child Norah often collected money for workers on strike, and lined up on the Embankment, with thousands of other people, for the annual May Day processions.
The Red Flag was published in Justice, weekly paper of the SDF, in December 1889. It was not the first song Connell had written nor even his first socialist song. He had been writing all kinds of songs since he was a youth and once recalled, ‘in the strictest confidence’ as he put it, that he must have written love songs for almost every barmaid in Dublin, though he doubted if any of his sonnets were ever appreciated.
In an article which he wrote at the request of the editor of The Call in May 1920 Connell explained what inspired him to write The Red Flag. The strike of the London dockers in 1889 was his first inspiration. But he was also moved by the Land War in Ireland, the execution of the Chicago Martyrs in 1887, and the persecution of Nihilists and other revolutionaries in Czarist Russia. These are some of the contemporary events commemorated in The Red Flag:

In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung.
Chicago swells the surging throng.
It has been claimed that The Red Flag was written on an overnight train travelling from Glasgow to London, but according to Connell himself the first two stanzas and the chorus were written during a fifteen-minute journey between Charing Cross and New Cross! He wrote the rest of the song when he got home, made a few alterations the next day and sent it off to Harry Quelch, the editor of Justice.
Justice was published on Thursday and by the weekend The Red Flag was being sung at socialist meetings in Glasgow and in Liverpool. Connell had intended that The Red Flag be sung to the tune of The White Cockade which was in its original form an Irish military march but which through time deteriorated into little more than an Irish jig. That is probably why someone somewhere changed the tune to Tannenbaum, or Maryland as it is known in Britain and America.
During the 1890s Connell continued to write songs and pamphlets and to lecture for the Fabian Society. He was nominated by the SDF to contest Finchley in the 1890 general election but got no support from the Irish voters even though he was an Irishman, had worked for the Land League, and was committed to home rule for Ireland. The choice of the Irish voters made sense. The Liberals were also committed to home rule and being a party of government could do something about it. Connell and the SDF could no nothing. Connell’s vigorous defence of socialism and the red flag he flew at all his meetings further enraged the Irish of Finchley. Reporting the election campaign Justice complained that the socialist candidate had been physically assaulted by ‘a gang of blackguards’.
Soon after the break-up of his marriage in 1897 Connell went on a lecture tour to Scotland, wrote a pamphlet about municipal enterprise in Glasgow, got to know the Astronomer Royal in Edinburgh and began to take an interest in astronomy. On his return to London he took up freelance journalism and was appointed secretary of the Workmen’s Legal Friendly Society, set up to advise injured workers in compensation claims under the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897. Connell’s nephew P.J. Fagan came from Ireland to work in the Society and later recalled Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Peter Curran and many other socialists of that generation coming often to see Connell. The conversation was, it seems, mostly personal and good humoured rather than political for by then Connell was not as active in the Labour movement as he had been in earlier years though he still lectured at times for the Fabian Society and he was like most of his socialist contemporaries anti-militarist and anti-war.
Labour leader Ramsey McDonald disliked The Red Flag and thought the party should have a better song. Consequently, George Lansbury, editor of The Daily Herald, announced a prize of £50 for the song that would be judged better. Hugh Roberton, conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and the famous Irish tenor John McCormack accepted Lansbury’s invitation to be judges of the competition. Nearly 300 songs were entered but after the most careful consideration Roberton and McCormack decided that not one of the songs was good enough to replace The Red Flag.
Norah Walshe recalled that while his rivals’ compositions were being considered her father ‘waited with tears in his eyes for the result…it would have broken his heart to see his song replaced’. But when Roberton and McCormack announced their decision Connell received hundreds of letters from all over Britain. The song that had not been entered had won the competition. The Red Flag was still the anthem of the Labour Party. When the final decision was announced and the competition closed the music critic of The Daily Herald observed that ‘There must be virtue in a song that has been popular for generations in at least three countries’.
In 1925, the year of the competition, Jim Connell was seventy-three years of age and had only another four years of life left. Early in February 1929 he suffered a stroke and was found unconscious on the stairway leading to his office in Chancery Lane. He died in hospital a few days later without regaining consciousness. Among his effects there was a medal which Lenin had sent him in 1922. It was bequeathed to Tom Mann.

Andrew Boyd is an author and writer living in Belfast.

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