Anthony Coughlan reviews James Conolly Re-assessed by Manus O'Riordan, Aubane Historical Society, Millstreet, Co Cork, ISBN 1-903497-26-4, €4
THE THRUST of this pamphlet is that James Connolly's journalism during World War I shows him to have favoured a German victory and that he thereby deviated from the "pure" socialist position of neutrality in respect of the imperialist war which the historian Desmond Greaves supposedly ascribes to him in the latter's well-known biography, The Life and Times of James Connolly.
Manus O'Riordan confesses that whereas in 1976, on the 60th anniversary of the Easter Rising, he himself criticised Connolly for favouring a German victory in the war, he now believes that Connolly was right and that, in effect, it was a pity Germany did not win.
It it interesting to speculate how 20th Century history might have turned out if the central powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, had won the 1914-18 war. There might have been no Russian revolution, no Hitler, no Mussolini. But then there might have been. We can never know.
The stand adopted by the Socialist International in the years before the War was to turn the inter-imperialist war into a civil war. Connolly did this in Ireland. Only the Russians and Serbs did it elsewhere in Europe by taking the opportunity the war afforded to revolt against their own governments. It was wholly logical and unsurprising therefore - something obvious and to be taken for granted - that socialists and internationalists like Connolly would desire that the side fighting their own state would be victorious in the war.
Manus O'Riordan contends that Connolly was just adopting a pose when he hung the banner "We serve either King nor Kaiser but Ireland" from Liberty Hall and used it as masthead of the Irish Worker in 1914; and that when he helped establish the Irish Neutrality League he was not really neutral, but at heart desired a German victory.
As a practical politician these were Connolly's responses to the exigencies of the moment. There was no contradiction in a socialist like him believing that an independent Ireland should be neutral in an inter-imperialist war, while as someone planning an uprising to establish that independence hoping for a German victory.
O'Riordan sees a conflict where there is none. Connolly was bent on an anti-British uprising from the day the war broke out. He sought German aid from 1914 onward, aid which was sent in due time. The 1916 Proclamation which Connolly signed refers after all to "our gallant allies in Europe".
Manus O'Riordan makes heavy weather criticising the late Desmond Greaves for not highlighting Connolly's allegedly fundamental pro-German attitudes during World War I. Greaves was writing a full-length biography that sought to explain Connolly's actions over his lifetime, culminating in his involvement in the Easter Rising. O'Riordan's pamphlet mainly examines Connolly's journalistic treatment of World War I during its first three years and the sympathy it shows for the German side.
Having read and re-read both works, I can see no real contradiction between them. O'Riordan gives the impression of erecting Aunt Sallies here which he then proceeds to knock down to his own satisfaction. They only distract from the interesting points his pamphlet makes about Connolly's attitudes during the first world war.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Anthony Coughlan