1916 – Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition, by Kieran Allen: Shadow of a gunman
An eloquent study argues that Ireland should grasp this moment to revisit ‘Connolly’s way’
James Connolly. Courtesy NLI
1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition.
Towards the conclusion of 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition, Kieran Allen speculates on the future of “Connolly’s way” a century after the tumult of Easter 1916. The present anti-austerity argument is, for Allen, just one element in a broader critique of Irish politics and economics, the systemic weaknesses of which remain in spite of the financial catastrophe of recent years. Allen argues that this is a crucial moment, one at which the ideas and vision of James Connolly have attained a greater relevance than ever.
Connolly shadows every page of this fluent, indignant book. Allen is keen to set the leader of the Irish Citizen Army apart from the 1916 throng. Connolly’s class-based analysis was perfectly clear: capitalism was at the root of the ills plaguing Ireland’s working people, and “he never pretended that the betterment of the working class would in any way be helpful to the business elite”.
Yet Allen is also keen to emphasise the ideas that connected Connolly to Patrick Pearse. The former “lived and breathed revolutionary socialism and Marxist politics”; the cultural nationalist Pearse did not, yet for all his ambiguities he was fervently anti-imperialist and determined to break the empire. For Allen there was a meeting of minds between these two emblematic men, even if the philosophical gaps in other ways yawned wide.
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None of this is new per se, but Allen frames his argument with straightforward energy, slicing through much of the fog that has sometimes obscured the air in this decade of commemoration.
The book focuses much of its anger on those perceived to have led an ongoing conservative counter-revolution. It scourges generations of a political elite, “revisionist intellectuals” and the “upper strata of Catholic professionals” who “suppressed all revolutionary aspiration”.
Nobody can readily argue against the manifold failures of Irish society in the 20th century, yet this book’s broad brushstrokes inevitably obscure the plurality and critical energy that have persisted and even at times thrived in the century since the Rising.
The irony is that Allen himself is keen to revision his Irish 20th century and to underline this very plurality. One of the great legacies of our present commemorations will surely prove to be the wealth of excellent history and scholarship now appearing. As with Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces and Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom, so Allen is keen to revivify and reclaim other stories of Ireland by focusing on the human voices and human narratives – in his case the stories of organised labour and working-class Ireland in, for example, the revolt that led to Irish independence – that have been bypassed or otherwise silenced by official discourse.
This is a short book, clipping through a century of history, and its pace appears at times breathless. But Allen is to be applauded, too: he encapsulates a richness of historical detail, teases out the subtleties and tortured relationships of political Ireland, and presents the lines of broader international parallels in illuminating, useful ways.
And even as he castigates the leaders of modern Ireland, from bankers to politicians to union officials, and presents a portrait of a society in thrall to the forces of faceless neoliberalism, even in such unpromising surroundings, Allen manages to conclude on a note of optimism, albeit of an unlikely kind. For he returns once more to Connolly’s vision of a profoundly democratic workers’ republic, operating in a context of justice and fairness, and, surveying the chassis of modern Ireland, contends that the conditions are in place to bring such a vision to life – and so complete the work of the Rising itself.
Neil Hegarty’s novel The Inch Levels is due to be published by Head of Zeus