James Connolly: ‘a full life’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 14

James Connolly: ‘a full life’
Donal Nevin
(Gill and Macmillan,  ?29.99)
ISBN 0717139115
Posterity has been oddly kind, even condescending, to James Connolly. While the motives and performance of many of his rebel contemporaries and successors have been subjected to ever more pitiless scrutiny, Connolly has never lost the aura of a romantic revolutionary. He is admired not only by all claimants to the legacy of 1916 and whatever remains of ‘the Left’ but also by Ireland’s decidedly unrevolutionary Labour movement, along with intellectuals and historians of most religious and political shades. Why?
Like all the executed rebels, he was posthumously venerated for his reckless courage and personal sacrifice, in a drama heightened by his eleventh-hour return to Catholicism and the degrading circumstances of his execution (slumped in a chair, his festering wounds concealed by pyjamas). Being dead, he could not be held accountable for the political failures, compromises, cruelties or injustices perpetrated by those saddled with the job of implementing, rather than merely advocating, the lofty principles enunciated in the republican proclamation.
His life, though dogged by personal and political frustration, was a triumph of intellect and mother wit over poverty and deprivation. Unlike most ‘advanced nationalists’ of his generation, he was down-to-earth, logically consistent, well versed in Irish history and international affairs, lethal in debate, yet capable of humour and irony. Admittedly, his peculiar amalgam of Marxism, syndicalism and Irish nationalism seems as dated today as Pearse’s exaggerated dramatisation of Gaelic virtue and Saxon depravity. Yet Connolly’s didacticism, unlike that of many revolutionary nationalists, was grounded upon authentic compassion for the ‘bottom dog’ and practical experience rather than theoretical analysis of oppression and exploitation. Even the siblings Dudley Edwards, so playfully corrosive of the reputations of Pearse and de Valera, could not resist the allure of this proletarian intellectual who was also, however ineffectually, a man of action.
These attractive qualities have generally outweighed the many negative aspects of Connolly’s personality and achievement. He could be evasive, deceitful, unscrupulous in argument, manipulative, intolerant, petty and downright vicious with comrades as well as antagonists. His powers of human understanding and historical imagination did not extend to the class enemy (‘capitalists’, businessmen, ‘Orange aristocrats’, British imperialists), towards whom he expressed nothing but crude and visceral hatred. Despite his powers of analysis and rhetoric, he (like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia) had a remarkable capacity to ignore inconvenient realities such as the irrelevance of Marxist models of class struggle in a society dominated by peasant proprietors.
Connolly had none of Larkin’s charisma as an orator, no great popular following or fame, and little success as an organiser even within the tiny socialist parties and marginal industrial factions in Ireland, Scotland and America to which he devoted most of his passion and ingenuity. In Belfast, his aggressive nationalism and contempt for working-class Orangemen did nothing to encourage joint struggle by Protestant and Catholic workers in Ireland’s industrial capital. His only serious contribution to the overthrow of capitalism through industrial action, as Larkin’s associate and substitute in the Dublin strikes of 1913–14, ended in catastrophic failure for their union and a damaging breach with its admittedly lukewarm allies in the British Labour movement. His impulsive involvement in a republican uprising without any plausible prospect of military success and without popular support, especially among the poor, was the very negation of his lifelong struggle. Yet Connolly’s flaws, failures and contradictions only served to enhance his retrospective reputation by supplying a fittingly theatrical prelude to the thrilling irrationality and absurdity of 1916.
Donal Nevin’s perhaps excessively full account of ‘a full life’ is not a critical reappraisal but a densely documented tribute to his venerated predecessor as a union organiser and historian of labour. It is replete with commendations of Connolly from historians and contemporaries, often arranged in panels, which proceed, follow and intersperse the text. These, like the lengthy extracts from Connolly’s writings and correspondence which contribute so many of Nevin’s 300,000 words, are left to speak for themselves with minimal intrusion by the biographer. At times, indeed, Nevin’s reluctance to offer explicit interpretation and his extensive reliance on the Saothar school of Irish labour history suggest an interim compilation of research notes rather than a biography. This impression is consistent with the promised publication, under the editorship of Nevin and four ‘SIPTU colleagues’ and Saothar contributors, of several volumes of Connolly’s annotated letters and articles. As a trailer for the collected works, a much slimmer biography with less quotation and more analysis might have been more effective.
Meanwhile, most readers will find most of what they might reasonably want to know about Connolly buried somewhere in this cumbrous volume. Detailed accounts, mainly from Connolly’s viewpoint, are provided of innumerable widely forgotten disputes, organisations and publications through which Connolly expressed his simple but powerful analysis of class and nationality. Connolly’s crusades in Scotland and America receive the same minute and methodical treatment as his more familiar Irish career, which might easily have terminated in 1903 but for his growing frustration with Daniel de Leon and the various factions of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’) in America. Though his remarkable consistency as a rhetorician, in both style and precept, becomes wearisome as example follows example, the cumulative effect is to confirm Connolly’s intellectual vigour and, within limits, rigour. Like a good committeeman, Nevin follows a logical but rather tortuous agenda, devoting separate chapters to each major organisation or episode to the detriment of narrative straightforwardness. Many names and topics are repeatedly mentioned in passing before their turn comes for a cameo biography or snippet of historical background. Uninitiated readers may find themselves muttering ‘What lockout? What rising? Who is this fellow Larkin?’, but their patience will usually be rewarded. Nevin is curiously incurious about Connolly’s personality and personal life. Only piecemeal—through asides, quotations and appendices—do we gain a sense of the fierce, secretive and defensive spirit that generated so many ringing words (uttered in a Scottish accent: p. 636) and elaborate if futile plans for proletarian revolution. It is left to a policeman to describe Connolly’s dour dress and also his shortness (5’4″: p. 96), presumably a disadvantage when tussling with ‘Big Jim’ Larkin or trying to engage the attention of a crowd when shouting from a brake or soapbox. Gradually, we begin to picture a Chaplinesque figure complete with neat moustache, piercing eyes, and a sharp sense of the ridiculous often shading into rancour. Nevin offers no clear epitome of Connolly as a human being, beyond noting his sardonic humour and volatile temperament. Yet he is balanced enough to give prominence to Louie Bennett’s unflattering assessment, just before the Rising, that Connolly was ‘utterly lacking in geniality’, ‘crafty in expression’, ‘through and through embittered’, but above all ‘a man of power’ (p. 691). While usually accepting Connolly’s claims at face value, even when they seem implausible or contrived, Nevin occasionally detects signs of disingenuousness, dishonesty, wild exaggeration or ‘well-authenticated insensitivity’ (pp 471, 508, 628).
Yet he leaves it to the reader to speculate about the darker recesses of Connolly’s mind, most evident in his evasions. Was it guilt or prudence that led to his suppression of seven years’ service in the British army, that ‘body of hired assassins’ who deserved to be erased ‘from the family roll’ (p. 134)? Why did he repeatedly deny his Edinburgh origins, even to the point of claiming Monaghan as his birthplace for the benefit of the census commissioners in 1901 (p. 168)? Was his deathbed affirmation of Catholicism, and injunction to his Protestant wife to follow suit, an expression of faith or a declaration of allegiance to a Catholic nation? How should it be reconciled with his cynical admission in 1908 that ‘tho’ I have usually posed as a Catholic I have not gone to my duty for 15 years, and have not the slightest tincture of faith left’ (p. 679)? The problems raised by his ‘mixed’ marriage in 1890, though implicit in the rather stilted letters to his fiancée reproduced as an appendix, are not explored through any discussion of the rearing of their children. Nevin observes, in another appendix, that Connolly was absent from his family home for extended spells amounting to more than four years between 1900 and 1916 (p. 726), yet he does not so much as raise the possibility of infidelity or marital alienation.
Nevin’s careful and rather awkwardly constructed biography cannot match the pace and narrative skill of C. Desmond Greaves or Ruth Dudley Edwards, and it is typically votive rather than revisionist in tone. Yet, amidst the abundant evidence and testimony so lovingly and scrupulously assembled, future interpreters may find material for more searching and less credulous assessments of this brilliant but perplexing misfit in Irish history. It is a tribute to Nevin’s fair-mindedness that, in building a documentary monument to James Connolly, he has assembled missiles for both sides of the debate.                      David Fitzpatrick

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