James Connolly: My Search for the Man, the Myth and His Legacy by Sean O’Callaghan, Century, 336pp, £18.99 (hardback)
Sean O’Callaghan has written a thought-provoking book which is hard to classify. The key word, from the sub-title, is ‘search’. This is far more than a simple biography. Our author is trying to engage with James Connolly, Ireland, terrorism – and with himself. The result is stimulating complexity.
‘That is no country for big men’; had Connolly lived to see Eire established, that would have been clear about him, as it was of Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins, Yeats and Conor Cruise O’Brien. By 1914, Connolly had become one of the more important Marxists in Europe. Then followed confusion, paradox, despair and martyrdom.
Born in Edinburgh – though of Irish parents – and with little formal education, Connolly had served as a private in the British army. In civilian life, he had known privation, struggling to bring up six children on a tiny income. ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart’. Connolly’s years of domestic hardship resulted in a certain harshness of demeanour. But there was always the hope of deferred gratification. He was making these sacrifices in the service of socialism. Then came 1914.
The working classes refused to stick to the script. Far from rising up against the established order, they rose up and flocked to its recruiting offices. In Britain and Ireland, instead of finding a short way to the new Jerusalem, they sang ‘it’s a long way to Tipperary’. Bereft, incomprehending, Connolly saw his life’s struggles mocked. His political compass no longer worked, so he found a new one.
In other circumstances, Padraig Pearse might have been a provincial schoolmaster, active – in a slightly tiresome fashion – in any local literary endeavour and a constant enthusiast for every new cultural fad: a bit like Professor Welch in ‘Lucky Jim’. But there was nothing normal about Ireland at the beginning of the First World War. A Home Rule Bill had passed, and was then suspended for the duration of hostilities. In response, Protestant Ulster threatened civil war. By the middle of the war, it had become clear that the likely outcome would be partition, at least as an interim measure: ce n’est que le provisoire qui dure. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the Nationalist dream of an Ireland united and independent could never have been realised. Pearse concluded that if such inevitability were to be confounded, a blood sacrifice would be needed: his blood.
The Easter 1916 uprising itself was a desperate undertaking which of course ended in failure and derision. Connolly’s Marxism led him into an absurd miscalculation. He assumed that the capitalists would not allow the military to destroy private property: further evidence of the extent to which his mental processes had been disrupted by the working class’s desertion. There was more of that to come, for a brief period. The Dublin crowd jeered the captured rebels on their way to captivity and, apparently, igno- miny. ‘The people whom we have tried to emancipate have demonstrated nothing but hatred and contempt for us’ said one senior rebel. But that was not the final verdict. Other verdicts transformed the outcome and ensured that a terrible beauty would be born.
It is easy to understand the British response. During a great war for survival, such a rising was a stab in the back. Over a hundred soldiers were killed, one-fifth of them Irish, as well as sixteen policemen, all Irish. Al- though ninety death sentences were passed, only fifteen executions were carried out, less than the average number of fatalities every two minutes on the first day of the Somme. But Irish opinion rejected any such actuarial detachment. John Dillon, a moderate Nationalist, told the government that ‘you are washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood’.
Yet it is hard to see how the government could have acted differently. It may have helped if there had been normal criminal trials rather than courts-martial; the verdicts would have been the same, but it might have looked better. Also, that could have given Connolly a chance to recover his mobility. Badly wounded, he had to be shot while sitting in a chair.
When Connolly joined his fortunes with those of Pearse and his friends, he made another surrender. In earlier years, he had been an atheist. But as his final days approached, he reconciled himself to the Church and died shriven. Could this have been sincere? The imminence of death can be a powerful antidote to atheism, so it may be that, his mind concentrated, Connolly decided to make a Pascalian wager. It might also be that once he had decided to shed his blood for Irish nationalism, he determined on an entire cultural surrender. It certainly helped to ease his entry into the Pan- theon of Irish martyrs.
There is a fascinating counter-factual, first discussed by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his Marxisant phase during the mid-Sixties. Suppose the Easter Rising had been postponed for a year. By 1917, the French army had suf- fered the Calvary of Verdun: the British, of the Somme: the Italians, in the Alps. While it would be foolish to underestimate the resilience of Prussian militarism, the Germans were to crack in the end. The exuberance of August 1914 had drained away in mud and blood and snow. Everyone was a long way from Tipperary – and the Russians had risen in revolution. Might it have been that a spark in Dublin could have ignited a conflagration? Perhaps it is just as well that Connolly embraced his doom when he did.
As it was, he helped to create a new Ireland which he would have hated. Under the long rule of Eamon De Valera, the drama and the glory subsided, into theocracy, peasant proprietorship, cultural lassitude and economic backwardness. Safely dead, much of his life censored from the official narrative, Connolly could be regarded as a patron saint: what would they say, did their Connolly pass that way?
Our author is aware of the potency of myth in Ireland and of its propensity to inspire terrorism. He knows whereof he speaks. From a republican background, he was seduced by mythology into terrorism. ‘I was living in a world of true believers who would kill and die for a holy cause that had been sanctified by the blood of our martyrs in a glorious struggle for freedom’. Joining the IRA, he was involved in two murders. Then, overcome by guilt, he searched for atonement: a life-long struggle which continues.
He began by becoming an informer, a most dangerous vocation. Had the IRA realised what he was up to, death would have followed and it would not have been a quick death. He helped to sabotage a number of IRA missions, including an attempt on the life of Prince Charles and the then Princess of Wales. Later on, when he had aroused suspicion and could not continue as an informer, he turned himself into the police, confessed to the murders and served eight years in prison: a wholly justifiable leniency.
Everyone has forgiven him, including the family of one of his victims. But Mr O’Callaghan cannot forgive himself. He has huge, haunted eyes in an etched face. like a man in an endless and futile quest for absolution. There is no Athena to save him from the Furies. Those who want to understand terrorism or Ireland should read this book where they will also encounter two extraordinary characters: James Connolly, who embraced tragedy, and Sean O’Callaghan, who walks with tragedy. These are powerful pages.
By Bruce Anderson