Anthony Coughlan reviews James Connolly: a full life by Donal Nevin, Gill and Macmillan, ISBN 0-7171-3911-5, £24.99/€29.99
THIS 800-page biography of James Connolly, national leader, socialist, secretary of Ireland's biggest trade union, and vice-president of the provisional government of the Irish Republic proclaimed in Dublin in 1916, who was executed by the British government after that event, is essential reading for anyone interested in issues of national independence or socialism, or the Irish national revolution and its seminal event, the Easter Rising.
The book's strength is in letting Connolly speak for himself. The details of Connolly's biography are interspersed with extensive excerpts from his voluminous writings, his letters and what others said about him.
The book is subsidised by SIPTU, the successor union of Connolly's own ITGWU, which explains why the publishers can offer the public such a vast amount of information, much of which will be new to most people, in such a handsome and well-illustrated volume at such a reasonable price.
Donal Nevin, former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and lifelong student of James Connolly, has put generations to come in his debt by writing this remarkable book, which brings the great labour and national leader to life through his own words in a way that no previous biographer has had the opportunity of doing.
This is a powerful contribution to progressive history-writing on the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rising. Rather than give his own assessment of Connolly, Nevin gives the diverse assessments of a wide range of previous writers, not all of whom necessarily shared Connolly's views, but none of whom would deny his significance as a man and political thinker. The author states that one of the pillars of his book has been what he calls "Desmond Greaves's masterly work, The Life and Times of James Connolly, one of the great Irish biographies of the second half of the twentieth century."
Unlike Greaves, Nevin has been able to give extensive excerpts from William O'Brien's collection of Connolly material now in the National Library of Ireland. These include the detailed minutes of Connolly's Irish Socialist Republican Party of 1896-8. O'Brien, who was head of the ITGWU from the 1920s until the 1950s, refused to meet Greaves or give him any help when the latter was working on his Connolly biography.
Since Greaves's book came out in 1961, more new material has also come to light on Connolly's time in America in the first decade of the 20th century. New letters of his have also been found. This new biography quotes in full Connolly's moving love-letters to his wife Lillie Reynolds when he was wooing her as a young man of 21.
What comes through strikingly from Nevin's study is the extraordinarily admirable person James Connolly was, a powerful character and incisive mind, a true exemplar for anyone committed to the national independence or labour movements in whatever country they belong to.
The author's introduction informs us that SIPTU is also sponsoring the publication of Connolly's collected writings, including his letters, and Nevin is himself assisting with this. This will be a multi-volume project, for which this splendid biography is a worthy foundation.
Here is just one quotable quote from the many in this 800-page volume. Writing The Workers' Republic, Connolly summarises his political, national and social views in January 1916, just three months before the Easter Rising:
"We accept the family as the true type of human society. We say that as in the family the resources of the entire household are at the service of each; as in the family the strong does not prey upon and oppress the weak; as in the family the least gifted mentally and the weakest physically share equally the common store of all with the most gifted and the physically strongest; as in the family the true economy consists in utilising and conserving the heritage of all for the good of all, so in like manner the nation should act and be administered. Every man, woman, and child of the nation must be considered as an heir of all the property of the nation, and the entire resources of the nation should stand behind all individuals guaranteeing them against want, and multiplying their individual powers with all the powers of the organised nation.
"To attain that end we seek to organise every person who works for wages, that the workers themselves may determine the conditions of labour. We hold that the sympathetic strike is the affirmation of the Christian principle that we are all members one of another, whilst those who oppose the sympathetic strike and uphold sectionalism in trade union struggles are repeating the question of Cain who, when questioned about the brother he had murdered, asked 'am I my brother's keeper'? We say, 'yes, we are all keepers of our brothers and sisters, and responsible for them'.
"From the organisation of labour as such we propose to proceed to organise upon the co-operative principle that we may control the commodities we ourselves use and consume. Upon such a basis we can build a true demand for Irish made goods from which all elements of sweating have been removed.
"Recognising that the proper utilisation of the nation's energies requires control of political power, we propose to conquer that political power through a working class political party; and recognising that the full development of national powers requires complete political freedom we are frankly and unreservedly prepared for whatever struggle may be necessary to conquer for Ireland her place among the nations of the earth.
"That is the programme of the militant Irish labour movement."
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Anthony Coughlan