Republicanism and socialism in Ireland: from Wolfe Tone to James Connolly

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Connolly Books
ISBN 9780993578502

Reviewed by: Emmet O’Connor

Republicanism and socialism in Ireland is based on Priscilla Metscher’s Ph.D dissertation, completed at Bremen University in 1984. Even in 1984 it was an old-fashioned study, treading a path worn by W.P. Ryan, T.A. Jackson, Emil Strauss, Peter Beresford Ellis and others of the ‘traditional Marxist’ school of Irish history rather than engaging with the new labour history that had been emerging in Ireland since the 1970s. Metscher has made a few revisions to this edition, but curiously they are confined to noticing more recent publications on James Connolly, his life and writings. It’s odd, and downright un-Marxist, that a Marxist historiography of Ireland developed before substantial research was carried out on the material factors that made the labour movement. No one would think of writing a history of Soviet communism from the biographies and letters of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. Yet, like others before her, Metscher tells the story of socialist republicanism in terms of the writings of a handful of political leaders.

It is true that Metcher’s stated aim is not to produce a history of the two ideologies but to ‘show the interaction of republicanism and socialism in Ireland, indicating how and why socialism in this country has a republican basis’. Her concern is to defend Connolly’s republicanism, a concern that leads her to read history backwards and see the evolution of republicanism as the seedbed of Connolly’s anti-imperialism. At the same time she argues that ‘Class consciousness primarily takes shape in … social movements’, and seeks to ground the ideas discussed within a socio-economic context. And it is here that the book is weakest. The study is divided into three sections. The first deals with the United Irishmen and the Young Irelanders, the second with the Fenians and the third (accounting for half the text) with Connolly.

The approach is tendentious and selective throughout, and simply presents evidence of the overlap of republicanism and radicalism or socialism. There is, of course, plenty of evidence, and the general thrust of Metcher’s argument is not disputed here. But it’s a well-tilled field, and one has to ask whether the journey is necessary. The review of the United Irishmen and the Young Irelanders is so potted and familiar as to be pointless. More serious, from a socialist perspective, is the neglect of working-class organisations, which played an important part in the politics of the Confederates in 1847–8. Their presence is occasionally acknowledged, but often disposed of in a sentence or two. Part 2, on the Fenians and the Land War, is more detailed and more original, and offers an interesting essay on Michael Davitt and his politics. As elsewhere in the book, the focus is almost entirely on republicanism. Davitt’s contention that the best way that trade unions could advance their agenda was through a strategic alliance with the Irish Parliamentary Party is of no concern to Metscher, even as an explanation of Connolly’s antipathy to Davitt.

Trade unions become a little more prominent in the final section, which looks at Connolly’s politics in Ireland and the United States from 1896 to Easter Week. Indeed, this section claims to deal ‘primarily with the Irish working class as an organized class’. In reality, trade unionism is dealt with intermittently and dismissively. Remarkably, Connolly did something similar in Labour in Irish history, concluding the booklet with the emergence of trade unions in the 1830s, which neatly excused him from explaining why trade unions supported successive nationalist movements, be they republican or constitutional, and demanded tariff walls. Inevitably the marginalisation of labour organisation distorts the historical picture. The importance of Jim Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in giving socialist republicanism a material basis is overlooked, and Metscher confirms the old misreading of socialist republicanism as Connolly and friends rather than the real force that Larkin made it in the labour movement. That in turn makes it impossible to assess Connolly’s importance to the contemporary left, or the great question of why Connolly joined the Easter Rising and whether it was the best option for a socialist. Not surprisingly, Metscher presents Connolly’s decision as logical for a socialist republican. But there is evidence, too, that Connolly joined the Rising primarily because he was a nationalist. And, equally, one could defend his decision on purely socialist grounds. It all depends on how selective one wants to be, just as the compatibility or otherwise of socialism and republicanism depends on how one defines ‘republican’. The only way to resolve that conundrum is by replacing the subjectivities of theory with the objectivity of practice.

Metscher ends her book abruptly with 1916, and without a conclusion. It may not have been her intention to endorse the old reading of labour history as inconsequential after the lockout and Easter Week, but that is the implication. What kind of understanding of socialist republicanism is it that fails to see its application in the Labour politics of 1917–21?

Metscher’s treatment is achingly old-fashioned and un-Marxist. It’s not entirely hagiographical or without objectivity in its own terms. She has succeeded in writing a very readable and lucid account of the theme, spiced with choice, chunky quotes. It’s a selective reading, however, and those who want something more challenging than an update of Connolly’s Labour in Irish history will be disappointed.

Emmet O’Connor is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, History and Politics at the University of Ulster, Magee College.


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