The Communist Party of Ireland 1921–2011: Vol. 1: 1921–1969

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

Matt Treacy
(Brocaire Books, €20)
ISBN 9781291093186

The Communist Party of IrelandOperating under various names over the decades—the Socialist Party of Ireland, the Communist Party of Ireland, the Irish Workers’ League, the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, the Communist Party of Ireland (again), the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, the Irish Workers’ League (again), the Irish Workers’ Party (again) and the Communist Party of Ireland (for the third time)—communist parties in Ireland have never been numerically significant in terms of members or supporters and have made only rare appearances in electoral politics, where a result in the medium three figures was, for the party, a respectable result.

For the most part, as Emmet O’Connor has noted:

‘. . . historians have not been kind to Ireland’s communists. General histories measure their parties . . . by their numerical strength, and dismiss them summarily. All eight references to ‘communism’ in Lee’s acclaimed Ireland: 1912–1985 actually deal with anti-communism.’

Indeed, for a long time it was anti-communists who devoted the most attention to the movement in pamphlets and books such as James Hogan’s Could Ireland become Communist? (Dublin, 1935). Notwithstanding the Communist Party of Ireland’s official Outline history (1975), the first full-length history of the orthodox communist parties was published in 1984, Communism in modern Ireland: the pursuit of the workers’ republic since 1916 by the journalist Mike Milotte. Writing from a left perspective, but not an orthodox communist one, Milotte’s work was based largely on the movement’s own publications, supplemented with interviews with senior members and former members.

Since then, there have been several studies that have looked at the role played by communists in specific issues such as the Spanish Civil War or anti-imperialism, and at the relationship between the communist movement and Irish republicanism. These have tended to focus on the 1930s (notably works by Richard English, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Brian Hanley) and the 1960s (Henry Patterson, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, and in the memoirs of Roy Johnston). The opening up of Comintern files to researchers enabled the first thorough scholarly study of the communist movement in Ireland in Emmet O’Connor’s landmark book Reds and the Green. Ireland: Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919–43 (UCD Press, 2004). These files were also used to good effect by Charlie McGuire in Roddy Connolly and the struggle for socialism in Ireland (Cork University Press, 2008). What researchers had been waiting for, however, were the archives of the Communist Parties themselves, which were held in the CPI headquarters in Essex Street, Dublin. In a most welcome development, the CPI donated their papers to Dublin City Archives in 2011. There are some gaps in the material and there is almost nothing in the way of private papers, with the exception of diaries kept by the Belfast comrade Betty Sinclair between 1968 and 1981. The papers are a terrific resource for those researching communism, republicanism and the left in twentieth-century Ireland, but while they are most useful in fleshing out what we know of communism in Ireland (and between the Comintern archives in Moscow, the Communist Party of Great Britain files in Manchester and surveillance by sundry official and unofficial sources we know quite a lot), they do not change existing narratives or analysis; some blanks may be filled in but nothing has actually changed.

Matt Treacy’s is the first book to exploit these papers to the fullest degree. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘Communist Party of Ireland, 1921–1969’ is a misnomer, this is a book in need of a subtitle. The study is less an examination of the communist parties in their own right than of their relationships with the republican movement—or, more accurately, their efforts over the years to infiltrate or influence it. Treacy’s previous book, The IRA 1956–69: rethinking the Republic, dealt with similar themes; not surprisingly, the book is strongest when it deals with the period following the end of the border campaign in 1962, when, with some success, the London-based communist C. Desmond Greaves led an effort to shift the republican movement leftward and ultimately saw it cleave into its Provisional and Official wings. But while tracking these efforts, Treacy is critical of what he calls

‘. . . that condescending attitude towards republicans and the claim that Communists were responsible for introducing “ideas” to them was based on an ignorance of republican ideas. The received wisdom is that the Communists introduced theory and politics into a milieu inhabited by people who were either too stupid to understand political ideas; who were simply and perhaps deviantly devoted to guns and blowing things up; or who, if they were in any sense political, then were likely to be some variety of fascists or under the influence of Catholic clericalism’ (p. 295).

Treacy’s interest seems to lie less in examining the communist movement in Ireland than in asserting that it had nothing to teach republicans. That may well have been the case, but the book’s title suggests a lot more. It is not an easy read, made more difficult by its polemical style, which includes constant references to ‘Stalinists’ that are out of place in an ostensibly scholarly text. Although it fails to engage with earlier publications (with the exception of a few snappy asides), while ignoring other important sources altogether, the author has clearly undertaken a deal of primary research for this study, and there is undoubtedly interesting material from the CPI files, and previously unused intelligence files from UK security forces, which shines some light on the communist movement in Ireland. This makes it a real shame that it has been self-published in its current form. A copy-editor would have improved the text immeasurably, the referencing is wholly inadequate and the lack of proofing is simply not acceptable. This is a pity, because this is an important subject with interesting sources. One hopes that the second volume will be subject to greater care. Nevertheless, those with a keen interest in Irish communism and the republican movement will find much in this book to interest and provoke. HI

Niamh Puirséil is the author of The Irish Labour Party 1922–73


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