The Blanket

Reading Connolly

Liam O Ruairc • 12/8/2002

Those who would like to read books by and on Connolly will discover that a huge amount of material has been published. This is intended to be a "reading guide", to help readers find the right book among the most important titles.

It is most unfortunate that no complete works of James Connolly exist. Apart from individual works such as Labour in Irish History or Labour, Nationality and Religion and The Reconquest of Ireland, the majority of Connolly's writings consisted of articles published in obscure journals. Over the years, anthologies (often thematically organised) of his articles were published. James Connolly's Collected Works in two volumes (Dublin: New Books, 1988) contain the best known writings of Connolly. Connolly's Selected Writings edited by P. Berresford Ellis (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1973 - and republished by Pluto Press in 1997) is probably the best anthology of Connolly's writings. It is representative of Connolly's thought and has a clear introduction by the editor. Connolly's Selected Political Writings edited by Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971) is far too selective as Connolly's writings on nationalism and socialism (Connolly's main contribution!) tend to be left out by the editors. Connolly's Lost Writings (London: Pluto Press, 1997) edited by Andrias O Cathasaigh hadn't really been "lost": they consist of the original version of some of Connolly's articles, not as they were later edited. There are also more thematic collections issued in a pamphlet form, such as those published by Jim Lane's Cork Workers' Club; like Connolly's writings on partition Ireland upon the Dissecting Table (Cork: Cork Workers' Club, 1975) and The Connolly-Walker Controversy (Cork: Cork Workers' Club) or Connolly's writings on syndicalism. Athol Books in Belfast have published interesting pamphlets on more unusual aspects of Connolly's writings ignored by most commentators like Connolly: the Polish Aspect or Connolly Cut Outs.

Numerous books, pamphlets and articles have been written on Connolly, however little of interest had been written before 1961. Bizarrely, the most extensive study has been written not in English, but in German: Helga Woggon Integrativer Sozialismus und nationale Befreiung: Politik und Wirkungsgeschichte James Connollys in Irland (Goettingen: GHIL Publications). Out of the literature on James Connolly, three books stand out by their importance and quality. The best and most important book ever to have been written on Connolly remains C. Desmond Greaves The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1961). It could be compared to Isaac Deutscher's biography of Trotsky, although Greaves lacks Deutscher's majestic literary style. It is outstanding both in the narrative of Connolly's life and times, and in the analysis of his thought. If you have to read one single book on Connolly, this is the one.

A second book of great importance is C and AB Reeve's James Connolly in the United States: The Road to the 1916 Irish Rebellion (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978). This book is to be recommended for its very perceptive understanding of Connolly's position and for its use of new material on Connolly's period in the USA. And the authors successfully link up the Irish and the American periods of Connolly's life.

More recently, W.K. Anderson's James Connolly and the Irish Left (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995) shows a sophisticated understanding of Connolly's teachings, and how the Irish left later betrayed them. The book shows impressive knowledge of the subject and significant new research. This is a splendid book.

Apart from those three, other books are also of interest. James Connolly's daughter, Nora Connolly-O'Brien wrote A Portrait of a Rebel Father (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1935) which portrays the domestic and private aspects of Connolly's life. Bernard Ransom's Connolly's Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1980) is a well written but difficult book than examines the underlying philosophical problematic of Connolly's thought. Prior knowledge of both Connolly and Marxism are necessary to appreciate that book. Roger Faligot's James Connolly et le mouvement revolutionnaire irlandais (Paris: Francois Maspero, 1978) is the only book on Connolly to have been written from a point of view explicitly sympathetic to the IRSP. It is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Costello and has a foreword by Nora Connolly O'Brien. It is a very good book; but unfortunately it hasn't been translated in English. Priscilla Metscher's Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland (New York: Peter Lang, 1986) is an excellent work that shows a complete understanding and defence of Connolly's politics. Finally, a book on Connolly written in Irish by Aindrias O Cathasaigh is worthwhile reading for those who know the language.

Unsurprisingly, books have been written on Connolly from perspectives that range from fairly critical to explicit hostility. Kieran Allen's The Politics of James Connolly (London: Pluto Press, 1990) is a readable book, summing up well the subject and containing useful criticisms, but suffers from being written from the narrow perspective of the Cliffite International Socialist tendency. Andy Johnson, J. Larraghy and E. McWilliams Connolly: A Marxist Analysis (Dublin: Irish Workers Group, 1990) is a dogmatic and a pedantic critique of Connolly that has all the defaults but none of the qualities of Allen's book. Austen Morgan's James Connolly: A Political Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988) is probably the most hostile book on Connolly that has yet been published. The author is an ex-Marxist once sympathetic to Irish Republicanism, but is now an adviser to David Trimble. The book is written from an explicit "revisionist" point of view, and its main thesis is that Connolly lived as a socialist but died as a nationalist. What makes the book unreadable is not so much its central thesis as the ridiculous assertions that run through the text - for example Morgan tries to turn Connolly into a "racist" and "eurocentric" figure that would have been blind to Apartheid!

There are also a number of more academic works on Connolly. Owen Dudley Edwards' James Connolly: The Mind of an Activist (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1968) is written from the perspective of the historian but does not add anything of interest to our understanding of James Connolly as an activist or to his thought. Ruth Dudley Edwards' James Connolly (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan) simply sums up what others have written on the topic, but given the reputation of the author, it has to be said in her favour that she is quite fair with her subject and hasn't done her usual hatchet job on republicanism. Samuel Levenson's James Connolly: Socialist, Patriot and Martyr (London: Quartet, 1973) is a more interesting work, because the author has had access to the O'Brien papers, something Greaves didn't have. However, the book is flawed by a tendency towards psychological reductionism and has little understanding of Connolly's political practice.

Connolly Books at 43 East Essex Street, Dublin 2 (Temple Bar) sells the Collected Works and the Greaves Book at reduced price






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Index: Current Articles

18 August 2002


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A Tawny Sinew
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Put Spotlight On Republican Aims
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