Atlanta remembers James Connolly and the legacy of Irish socialist republicanism

A public meeting and film screening was held in Atlanta on May 19 at which attendees discussed the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland. The event resembled  the informal and collaborative character of what the Guyanese Marxist Walter Rodney called a “grounding session.”

Participants were encouraged to delve into the history of  British imperialism and Irish resistance, starting with the driving off of the Indigenous population of Ulster and their land — known as the Plantation of Ulster — being redistributed to English and Scottish colonists. This led to the current struggle against the colonial and neocolonial states of the occupied northeastern six counties (Northern Ireland) and the 26-county Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland). The event paid special attention to the essential role of the Marxist James Connolly in forging the guiding vision of a workers’ republic.

Connolly was born in 1868 in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh, Scotland.  His parents were John Connolly and Mary McGinn, Irish immigrants who fled mass starvation at the hands of the British and their colonial lackeys. James Connolly grew up in a slum known as Little Ireland. Due to severe poverty, he enlisted in the British Army at the age of 14.   This brought him to the Irish capital of Dublin where he was exposed to the grim reality of British imperialism.

A life dedicated to world’s workers

Just as important was Connolly’s military training, which would prove to be instrumental in the intertwined struggles of workers and Irish self-determination.There is no shortage of poetic justice here. While Connolly’s entire life is well worth exploring, his involvement in two monumental events in the modern Irish struggle are particularly illuminating for Irish and non-Irish socialists alike: the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Dublin Lockout was an industrial dispute between the workers and employers of that city. At the time, Dublin’s urban and rural working-class experienced extremely poor working and living conditions.  Its inner city was one of the most destitute in all of Europe.

This widespread destitution drove many workers  to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and to strike for the right to unionize and for better conditions.  Employers demanded that workers renounce the ITGWU. Rather than intimidating the workers, the bosses’ actions led to increasingly militant strikes. To quell the rising tide, employers locked out workers, thereby increasing the situation’s severity.

As tensions rose, strikers faced violent repression at the hands of police and scabs. Hundreds of workers were injured.  At least three workers were killed. Police murdered John Byrne and James Nolan; a strikebreaker killed Alice Brady. Connolly, the union’s founder Jim Larkin, and Jack White organized the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to defend the workers.

Working class empowered

Composed of rank-and file ITGWU members, the ICA developed from a defensive organization into a well-organized and disciplined working-class army. Although desperation ended the general strike in 1914 and led many workers to sign pledges not to join the ITGWU, the right to unionize gained more recognition, and the working class was empowered by the ICA’s formation.

These events left an indelible impact on the struggle for Irish national liberation. Connecting social and political revolution, Connolly and the ICA became instrumental in the 1916 Easter Rising,  which proclaimed the Republic of Ireland. Along with other groups, such as the Irish Volunteers, militants took control of Dublin by occupying buildings throughout the city. Connolly’s role in uniting the ICA with other republican organizations and leading the combined forces in Dublin made him one of Ireland’s greatest warriors. His execution by British forces on May 12, 1916, made him one of its greatest martyrs as well.

Although the uprising lasted only six days and was predominantly kept within Dublin, it signaled a momentous leap forward by declaring an independent and egalitarian republic for which generations of Irish men, women and children would fight and die.

While the government of 26 counties claims to be the republic that was proclaimed in 1916, it is a republic  in name only. In reality, it is little more than a concession given by the British empire to maintain its control when the Free State and “Northern Ireland” were established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty that partitioned the island in 1921.

Society is still organized in the fundamentally oppressive manner that the British forced upon the Irish people for centuries. For socialist republicans, such as members of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, the struggle continues to attain an anti-sectarian republic in which the Irish people own their land and all its wealth-producing properties. This entails the workers taking control of the means of production, exchange and distribution in the common interest of the Irish people.

James Connolly’s famous words say it best: “The Irish people will only be free, when they own everything from the plough to the stars.”

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