An Irishman’s Diary on James Connolly, not your typical newspaper editor

Ink and rebellion

For Connolly, newspapers were always a means to spread the revolutionary socialist gospel rather than an end in themselves and, by 1915, he was a driven man set on armed insurrection.

For Connolly, newspapers were always a means to spread the revolutionary socialist gospel rather than an end in themselves and, by 1915, he was a driven man set on armed insurrection.

 

On May 29th, 1915, a new weekly paper made its appearance on the streets of Dublin. The Workers’ Republic came out every Saturday until April 22nd, 1916, the day before the Easter Rising was due to take place. Fortunately its editor, James Connolly, resisted the temptation to scoop his rivals by announcing the imminence of an insurrection in the city. The only clue was that the last edition only ran to four pages, instead of the customary eight.

The front page on April 22nd, 1916, featured Connolly himself in a stand-off with the Dublin Metropolitan Police. They had arrived at Liberty Hall earlier in the week to seize copies of seditious literature on sale in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union shop. On being warned of the raid by the redoubtable Rosie Hackett, who worked behind the counter, Connolly arrived armed with an automatic pistol and told the constable who had picked up a pile of offending publications to “Drop those papers, or I’ll drop you”. The constable dropped the papers.

Readers will have gathered that Connolly was not a typical newspaper editor. He had developed a deep love of journalism from his brief stint as a printer’s devil at the age of 10 in his native Edinburgh. But for Connolly newspapers were always a means to spread the revolutionary socialist gospel rather than an end in themselves and, by 1915, he was a driven man set on armed insurrection. The choice of title, the Workers’ Republic, was a sign of intent replacing as it did Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker. Larkin left on a speaking tour of America in late 1914 and would not return for nine years. Under Connolly the emphasis in both publications would be as much nationalist as it was socialist.

The Workers’ Republic was, in a sense, Connolly’s first and last newspaper, for he brought out the original series, in a different format, in Dublin between 1898 and 1903. By 1914 he was acting general secretary of the ITGWU as well as editor of the Irish Worker. Not surprisingly, the Worker was suppressed by the censor after Connolly advised readers on the outbreak of war that, “Should a German army land in Ireland tomorrow we should be perfectly justified in joining it if by doing so we could rid this country once and for all from its connection with the Brigand Empire that drags us unwillingly into this war”. The Workers’ Republic was even more explicit in its opposition to the conflict and Connolly, having called in vain for the Socialist International to stop the rush to war, realigned with militant nationalists to fight the traditional enemy in his own backyard. While this put him out of step with the mainstream British labour movement, many socialists working among oppressed nationalities in central and eastern Europe took a similar stand, identifying Moscow or Vienna as the main enemy, just as Connolly did London. The results could sometimes appear bizarre, not to say grotesque, as occurred when Connolly contrasted the evils of prostitution born of Britain’s neglect of poverty at home with Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania. “Prostitution does not stagger humanity”, he wrote in the Workers’ Republic on May 29th, 1915, “yet is it worse to drown a woman than to pay her to be a harlot, the first cause of disease and death to generations yet unborn?”

The paper may have portrayed a rather rose-tinted view of Germany’s “progressive” imperialism as opposed to the British “Brigand” version, but it was also relentless in exposing the conditions of workers ranging from farm labourers in Kerry earning 10 shillings a week, to the health risks faced by female munitions workers on 12-hour night shifts and the tactics of the Dublin Gas Company, where the new manager sacked a large number of employees and refused to recognise unions. The Workers’ Republic did not omit to mention he was English.

There are reports of sterling work by Labour Party members of Dublin City Council such as Richard O’Carroll and William Partridge, who both died as a result of their involvement in the Easter Rising, and advertisements urged readers to patronise shops of patriots such as JJ Walsh, “a victim of British militarism”, all of which throw light on the intimate world of revolutionary Dublin. Ironically Walsh, who claimed he had been dismissed from the postal service because he was a republican, would be involved seven years later as the Free State’s first minister for posts and telegraphs in a vicious dispute to smash the post office unions.

Siptu has produced a facsimile edition of the Workers’ Republic. It is available from Siptu Communications Department, Liberty Hall, Dublin 1. Price €50 (hardback) and €30 (paperback), including post and packaging.