One-hundred and fifty years after the death of Jim Connell, Liam Smith looks back at the life of the Irishman responsible for penning The Red Flag. While out of with the current leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, the song remains popular amongst ordinary members and with socialists throughout the world.
ON 23 January 1924, Ramsey MacDonald led his Labour Party to a historic victory in the general election of that year, and thus became the first Labour prime minister ever to take office in the United Kingdom.
A short while after that famous victory, delegates and supporters assembled in the Albert Hall for a victory meeting. The highlight of that evening was undoubtedly the closing moments, when the whole assembly rose in chorus, and raised the roof of the mighty building, as together they sang the most fervent of all socialist anthems ever, The Red Flag.
Those famous opening bars:
The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyred dead was to invoke a passion in socialist supporters wherever it was to be sung in every far off corner of the world. The song was to be a lasting memorial to its author, Jim Connell, a gentle giant of a man who hailed from a tiny village in Co. Meath, Ireland.
Jim Connell was born in 1852 in the village of Kilskyre, a poor rural community near the town of Kells. He was one of four sons born to Thomas and Ann Connell. His father was a tenant-farmer, who farmed land of 90 acres. In 1862 the family lost its land when it got into financial difficulties, and moved to Birr, Co.Offaly, where Jim’s father worked as a gamekeeper for the Earl of Rosse.
Jim Connell had only a basic education, educated like the majority of tenant farmers’ children in ‘hedge schools’. His entire education probably amounted to a mere 18 months’ schooling.
The early years of his life were spent in the post-famine period, and he was to witness many hardships as the people of rural Ireland struggled to survive. It was the plight of his nation, and of its working-class, that was to have an effect on him for the rest of his life.
Aged 17, after the death of his father, O’Connell moved to Dublin where he worked as a casual docker. While in Dublin he became actively involved in labour disputes. A failed attempt to unionise the Dublin docks resulted in him being blacklisted from any Dublin dock work.
In 1875 he left Ireland for London, where he acquired work in various spheres. He returned to work again in the docks, and was also a navvy, a railway worker, a draper, and even made a living as a poacher. He also became a journalist, and it was at this that he excelled.
He was a popular figure in Fleet Street. A tall, broad-shouldered, moustached man, and with the black sombrero and red bow-tie which he always wore, he struck a dashing figure as he went about his daily work.
In London he met Catherine Aungier and they married in 1882. They had a daughter, Norah. Unfortunately the marriage was not a success, for Jim and Catherine separated 13 years later.
In his early years in London, Jim Connell became an executive member of the Land League. He frequently travelled to Scotland, where he resided for a time in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was in Glasgow that he met the father of the labour movement, Keir Hardie. They formed a close friendship, and Jim Connell’s skill in journalism helped Hardie in the production of his socialist journal, The Labour Leader.
It was while working for Keir Hardie’s newspaper that some of Connell’s first poems and songs were published. He also helped the Independent Labour Party in its early work. Back in London, as well as his journalistic work, his other occupation at the time was more dear to his heart: he was secretary of the Workers’ Legal Friendly Society, whose offices were situated in Chancery Lane.
This voluntary society played an important role in assisting injured workers to claim compensation against their employers. As the years rolled on, Jim Connell found himself getting more involved with the social cause, and regularly attended meetings of the newly formed Social Democratic Federation.
By 1889, Jim Connell became deeply involved with trade union activities and in the London dock strike of that year regularly addressed meetings. At rallies during that strike, Jim Connell noticed for the first time red banners on poles carried by the strikers. This was to have a profound affect on him.
At a meeting of the Social Democratic Federation Connell heard a speaker say:
Socialism is a religion. These words deeply moved him, so much so that on the train home to New Cross that night he wrote, on a scrap of paper, lines of verse that were to become forever immortalised in socialist history:
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.
Back in his home that night, Connell put the final verses to the song that was to become the most famous of all socialist songs.
It was first published in the 1889 Christmas edition of the Social Democratic paper, Justice. The song immediately became a hit with the working-class and, to theatre queues in all the major cities throughout the land, street singers would sing it with gusto.
It was performed to the tune of the old Scots reel, The White Cockade, until 1895, when the air was changed by Adolph Smith Headingley to that of the German folk hymn Die Tannembaum. Jim Connell disliked the new air, but it stayed that way. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw also objected to the tune likening it to
a funeral dirge to the eels.
After the success of The Red Flag Jim Connell published many other Socialist songs and poems under the title Red Flag Rhymes. He also wrote many publications such as The Truth about Game Laws, Socialism and the Survival of the Fittest, Brothers at Last and Confessions of a Poacher, which sold over 80,000 copies.
Even though the song was popular with the working-classes, it was not popular with Labour Party leader Ramsey MacDonald, and in 1925 the Daily Herald held a competition to find a new Labour anthem. Over 300 entries were submitted but no replacement could be found for Jim Connell’s stirring anthem.
On 8 February 1929, after a short illness, Jim Connell died in Lewisham Hospital at the age of 76. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium six days later. He left an estate of £661 when he died, but with his song he left a deep impression wherever the socialist banner is raised. The final line will forever be a tribute to him:
This song shall be our parting hymn.
In 1989, on the 60th anniversary of Jim Connell’s death, Gordon Brown unveiled a commemorative plaque at Jim Connell’s residence at 22a Stonton Park, Lewisham, south-east London.
On April 26th, 1998, in the village of Kilskyre, Co. Meath, Connell’s birthplace, a splendid memorial was unveiled by Kells Urban District Council, to be a lasting memorial to this champion of socialism and the working-classes, and to the millions of Irish emigrants who fought so passionately for economic and social justice, and helped to build the trade union movement world-wide.
The Red Flag
The people’s flag is deepest red; It shrouded oft our martyred dead, And, ere their limbs grow stiff and cold, Their heart’s blood dyed its every fold.
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.
Look around! the Frenchman loves its blaze, The sturdy German chants its praise, In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung, Chicago swells the surging throng
It waved above our infant might, When all ahead seemed dark as night; It witnessed many a deed and vow, We must not change its colour now.
It well recalls the triumphs past, It gives the hope of peace at last; The banner bright, the symbol plain, Of human right and human pain.
It suits today the weak and base, Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place, To cringe before the rich man’s frown, And haul the sacred emblem down.
With heads uncovered, swear we all, To bear it onwards till we fall, Come dungeon dark or gallows grim, This song shall be our parting hymn.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Liam Smith