The Marxist Anti-Hero Ireland Wanted to Forget
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because building a national hero isn’t as easy as it might look.
Many nations have passionate love-hate relationships with their founding fathers. You need look no further than Federalist Papers’ author Alexander Hamilton, who alternatively featured in a hit Broadway musical and had his place on the $10 bill come under threat this past year, to see how our long-dead heroes still struggle with mixed recognition.
But no country knows this quite like Ireland. With the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising approaching, the Emerald Isle is embroiled in something of an identity crisis over how to remember the men and women involved with the short-lived rebellion against British rule that tipped the scales toward Irish independence.
They wanted an independent Ireland, he wanted a global workers’ republic.
Sean O’Callaghan, author
James Connolly is perhaps the best remembered — and most controversial — of the Irish state founders whose reputations have been tarnished by decades of bloody conflict. As one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, he and a band of Irish republicans occupied strategic points in Dublin and elsewhere, fighting local police and British forces. Though they were executed for their crimes, the political shock wave rolled through the next decade, with years of civil war leading to the establishment of an independent Irish state. For many in the country today, Connolly and his colleagues are heroes, but others associate the disrupters with years of violence between Britain and Ireland.
Born in an Irish slum in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1868, Connolly was no ordinary nationalist. He developed a hatred for his country’s occupiers after serving in the British Army as a teenager. But as a young adult, he got political in a surprising way — as a die-hard Marxist. For him, Irish independence wasn’t just about Ireland; it was about pushing back against capitalism around the world. As a traveling activist, Connolly protested the Boer War, supported burgeoning labor movements in the U.S. and even created his own “militia” of trade union workers called the Irish Citizen Army. He refused to compromise on his beliefs — so much so that he insisted his 15-year-old son Roddy fight with him in the Easter Rising, despite his wife’s pleas.
In fact, Connolly thought many of his Rising comrades were too “bourgeois” and not concerned enough with the real enemy: capitalism. His strategic alliance with Irish republicans, by some biographers’ estimation, is where Connolly went wrong. “They wanted an independent Ireland, he wanted a global workers’ republic,” wrote author and former IRA member Sean O’Callaghan. This “created a storm of contradictions” which, O’Callaghan believes, left a ”very rotten legacy that has helped to disfigure Ireland ever since.”
Ireland since Connolly’s day, of course, has been far more preoccupied with Irish nationalism than forming a Marxist utopia. Irish independence had costs and consequences — namely the Troubles, a bloody decades-long struggle over Northern Ireland that officially ended in 1998. So what use does today’s Republic of Ireland have for a Marxist radical killed by a British firing squad in 1916?
Connolly has long since become larger than himself — part of a language of violence and politics still spoken today. His name features in Irish fight songs like the Wolfe Tones’ “James Connolly”; in Scotland you can be arrested for singing about him at soccer games. Recently, a proposed Connolly memorial in Edinburgh came under fire for potentially inciting sectarianism. In Ireland, it’s still unclear how memories of the Easter Rising will shape the political landscape in April this year.
But according to Lorcan Collins, who has spent the past 20 years running Dublin’s 1916 Rising walking tour, we’re about to see a big change. In 1996, Collins says, he had trouble even getting his walk past the Irish tourism office. “I was informed that this was the Ireland we were trying to forget,” he explains. “When I set the tour up, the peace process was still young. I guess some people were afraid to even discuss revolutionary politics in a tourist setting.”
But, Collins says, Ireland is “beginning to rediscover the Rising.” Over the past few months, media coverage, an upcoming Irish TV drama about Connolly called Rebellion and a slew of new biographies of Connolly and his peers have got people talking. And, for the first time in decades, Collins’ tour is attracting a new audience: homegrown visitors who are starting to reclaim and negotiate their own history.
Politics aside, Collins has high hopes for what his visitors will conclude from the lessons of 1916. “Maybe 2016 will see a political change in our small nation,” he says.