“The Irish Jew Who Had Taken a Pledge Never to Work”: Emma Goldman, the Irish, and the Easter Rising

Irish people feature regularly in the writings of Emma Goldman, the notorious early-twentieth-century anarchist activist and writer. In her autobiography, Goldman talks of encounters with various Irish and Irish-American characters: A policeman with “a luscious Irish brogue” who took a protective stance toward a young Emma Goldman shortly after her arrival in New York; Billy Reedy, the anarchist-sympathising editor of the St. Louis Mirror, who won her over with “his rich Irish humour”; Goldman’s close political ally M. Eleanor Fitzgerald, “Fitzi”, who “charmed people into sympathy and action – not merely by her Irish name and beautiful auburn hair, but by her fine and suave personality. Little did anyone outside of her immediate friends sense the Celtic temperament behind her tranquil manner.” There are also unnamed Irish women to whom Goldman quietly offered advice on birth control and a prison matron with a “good Irish soul” who confessed that she shared Goldman’s anti-war sympathies (“She was Irish, and she had no use for the Allies”).[1]  

 Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Much of this, of course, is due to the simple fact that Emma Goldman’s political activism brought her through the multi-ethnic locales of turn-of-the-century America; her encounters with Irish immigrants parallel her work with German, Russian and Yiddish anarchists and radicals in what remained very much a life and politics in non-English-speaking and immigrant communities.

And yet, there are also distinctly political aspects to Goldman’s interests in the Irish, moving beyond these simple stereotypes of warm and loveable Irish rogues. In her memoirs she recounts her political emotions upon hearing about the 1916 Easter Rising: “My sympathies were naturally on the side of the revolting masses and against British imperialism, which had oppressed Ireland for so many centuries.” Extensive reading of Irish literature had given Goldman an affection for “the Gaelic people” and she saw similarities between Irish peasants and Russian mujiks: “In their naïve simplicity and lack of sophistication, in the motif of their folk-melodies, and in their primitive attitude towards law-breaking, which sees in the offender an unfortunate rather than a criminal, they were brothers.”[2] In other words, she saw something of political importance in the supposedly anarchist strains of Irish peasant culture.

Padraic Colum

Padraic Colum (1881-1972)

Shortly after the Rising, Goldman gave over space to Irish nationalist politics in her Mother Earth journal. As well as an excerpt from Patrick Pearse’s 1916 essay “The Separatist Idea” (here retitled “A Paean of Freedom”), Mother Earth also published an article “On the Death of James Connolly and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington” by the poet Padraic Colum. In this piece, Colum sought to explain Irish politics to a presumably radical-left readership. Focusing on the executions of these two leftist figures, he implied that the Rising was an essentially anti-capitalist act. And Goldman’s editorial for this issue was bold in its pronouncements for where the Rising would lead, with anarchist politics very much to the fore in the predictions:

“The Irish revolution may grow in significance and importance in the near future. The rebels of Dublin may become the advance guard of an international social revolution, which will shake the very foundations of all governments and privileged classes, who have thrown humanity into the hell-fire of this war. The bold spirit of the Irish rebels, their hopes, sufferings and martyrdom will certainly arouse the masses of European and American peoples. It will be realized that they fought and died for more than a mere national issue, that their noble example and sacrifice worked like a trumpet call and storm signal to all the oppressed of the earth.”[3]

The following year, when Goldman began the campaign against American involvement in World War One that would eventually lead to her arrest and deportation, she was joined at one anti-war rally in New York by “the distinguished Irish rebel” Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: “A lover of peace and an eloquent pleader for freedom and justice, she was a sweet and gentle soul. In her was personified the spirit of our gathering, the respect for human life and liberty that was seeking expression that evening.”[4]

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)

A less generous assessment of Irish politics, though, was made in an article on “The Echo from Erin”, written by an associate of Goldman’s, Warren Starr van Valkenburgh, which appeared in the July 1916 issue of Mother Earth. While still taking aim at the “barbarity of the British Empire”, van Walkenburgh stated that anarchists should have “scant sympathy” for “any attempt to change the form of coercion to a home government”.[5] Rather than romantically praising the desire for “freedom” of the Irish rebels, van Walkenburgh argued that they had misunderstood the very nature of freedom as well as the limits of freedom under a conventional capitalist state.

Mother EarthMother Earth, July 1916

There is one other interesting encounter between Emma Goldman and “Irishness”. In one of the later chapters of her memoirs, she recalls the problems that emerged with an odd follower of hers named Herman Mikhailovitch. A long-time subscriber to Mother Earth, Mikhailovitch began to follow Goldman across the United States, popping up at her public lectures in Omaha, Seattle, Spokane and New York. A free spirit as well as a kind of anarchist groupie, Mikhailovitch became known, alternately, as “Herman the Hobo” and “Mickey”. Goldman’s then-partner Ben Reitman, himself something of a wanderer, took “Mickey” under his wing and promoted him as an exemplar of a hobo lifestyle freed from capitalism. The press duly eulogised “Mickey” as “the Irish Jew who had taken a pledge never to work.” (Though it’s not clear if he was actually Irish, or just presumed as such because of his adopted name). The attention apparently enflamed Mickey’s ego, making him even more of a nuisance to Emma Goldman. He soon pledged his love for her and threatened to kill himself if Goldman did not reciprocate. Despairing of this unwanted hanger-on, one of Goldman’s comrades, Bolton Hall, informed “Mickey” that he had reported him to the poorhouse authorities who would look to commit him on account of his indigence and poor mental health. “Mickey” quickly left New York. In a subsequent letter to Hall, “Mickey” declared that not only has he moved to the west coast of the United States, but he is also a surprisingly wealthy man. After this, this obnoxious “Irish Jew” seems to have completely disappeared from the historical record.[6]

[1] Living My Life, Volume I (New York: Dover Publications, 1970) 103, 142, 186, 464; Living My Life, Volume II (New York: Dover Publications, 1970) 629, 635

[2] “Living My Life”, II, 572-573

[3] Mother Earth, Vol. XI No. 3, June 1916

[4] “Living My Life”, II, 604-605

[5] Mother Earth, Vol. XI No. 4, July 1916

[6] Living My Life”, II, 542-545

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Race, History, and Karl Marx’s Jewish Questions

Karl Marx’s writings on Jewish affairs pose something of a conundrum. He was of Jewish origins – he was registered Jewish at birth and had a number of rabbinical ancestors but his father, Heinrich Marx, converted the family to Lutheranism to protect his career as a lawyer in the post-Napoleonic Rhineland – and yet he seemed to display acutely negative views of Jews. Discussions of Marx’s attitudes towards Jews usually take his (in)famous 1843 essay On the Jewish Question [Zur Judenfrage] as their starting point.[1]  Initially published in the only ever issue of the abortive Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher [Franco-German yearbook], On the Jewish Question was an extended review of The Jewish Question and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Chrsiten, frei zu werden’ [The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free], contemporaneous works by Marx’s former mentor Bruno Bauer. It remains an important text for understanding the early development of Marx’s philosophy, notwithstanding its problematic assertions about Jewish “huckstering”.

Bauer’s original work had argued that Jewish emancipation could only come about when Jews abandoned their particularist religion and instead absorbed themselves into the universalism of a secular state. Marx takes issue with this argument for a number of subtly expressed reasons. He argues that Bauer’s vision of Jewish emancipation is merely a variant of a restricted political emancipation. Bauer’s political emancipation, Marx claims, operates “within the framework of the prevailing social order”. Thus the Jewish emancipation offered by Bauer will be frustrated by the broader limitations of the social order; “real, practical emancipation” can only occur via a revolutionary dismantling of that prevailing social order.

Franco German YearbookThe Franco-German Yearbook (1844)

Moving beyond a mere review of Bauer’s work, though, Marx hones in on another aspect of Jewish emancipation: the need to liberate the world from Judentum, a word meaning both Jewishness/Judaism and commerce/capitalism in nineteenth century German. Indeed, Marx makes much of this dual meaning of Judentum and for many readers of On the Jewish Question, herein lies the rub of his antisemitism. His analysis is built on a foundational assumption that Jewishness and capitalism are coterminous concepts. The essay is certainly not innocent of such charges, but it also moves beyond such narrow notions of “Jewish” capitalism.

Marx’s essay places a major emphasis on the notion of historical movement and the static place of particularistic Jews within the dynamic movement of human history:

“He [the Jew] considers it his right to separate himself from the rest of humanity; as a matter of principle he takes no part in the historical movement and looks to a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind as a whole. He regards himself as a member of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people as the chosen people.”

If the “future of mankind” would be socialist, as Marx certainly believed, then it makes sense that Jews, a supposedly capitalist people, see no place for themselves in the socialist future. Jewishness/capitalism is a stage in a grander historical development, a “time” that will be superseded in a linear process of historical development.

Marx advances from this to a series of assertions about individualism, selfishness and egoism: traits he associates with both Jews and capitalists. Private property and the bourgeois social order, for instance, is defined by egoism: “None of the supposed rights of man” offered by bourgeois capitalism, “go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice.” Jewishness is defined in similar terms of private interest, selfishness and egoism: “What is the profane basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jews? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money.”

For Marx, the selfish spirit of capitalism is an essentially Jewish spirit, since he sees both as built on egoism, individualism, and a disdain for universal emancipation. This leads Marx to his notorious claim that “It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew”. In other words, Capitalism is productive of nothing but excrement and ceaselessly produces and reproduces an execrable existence. And so, despite his linear vision of historical development, Marx ultimately resorts to a circular vision of Jewishness as proto-capitalism and Christianity/Europe as the perfected form of capitalism, and thus the fuller expression of the Jewish/capitalist spirit: “Christianity issued from Judaism. It has now been re-absorbed into Judaism.”

Young MarxThe Young Marx

As Marx sees it, capitalism/Judentum has remade the world in its own image: we are all capitalists/Jews now. But he expands on this to say that capitalism is more than just Jewishness: “The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only by acquiring the power of money, but also because money has become, through him and also apart from him, a world power, while the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews.” The Jewish spirit, Marx is here asserting, is a capitalist spirit, but it is capitalism itself that is the perfected form of this spirit. And this “time” of selfish egoism, of capitalism, would not last long. With the projected abolition of Capitalism, Jewishness also would cease to exist. He talks of Jewishness as “a universal antisocial element of the present time”, but one that will “necessarily begin to disintegrate.” In other words, Jews have been active agents in the historical development of capitalism, the bearers of its spirit of selfishness and egoism, but capitalism is now set to “disintegrate” and with it Jews as a people apart will also disintegrate. As Marx concludes his essay: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” Capitalism, Jewish particularism, and indeed religion in general, would all cease to exist in Marx’s perfected future.

Assertions of capitalism as a Jewish social order, and the notion that this said something about time and historical development, surfaced elsewhere in Marx’s writings. The first volume of Capital is replete with such claims. Here, Marx talks of Hebrew as being “the language of commodities” and says that “all commodities” as the capitalist knows, are “in faith and truth” representations of “money” and thus “inwardly circumcised Jews”. He labels Jews an anachronistic trading nation, “ancient social organisms of production”, who continue to exist in “the pores of [backward] Polish society.” In a reference to Jewish mysticism, he dismisses the multitude of names used for different monies as “cabalistic signs” that distract us from money’s real social meaning. English judges whose rulings legitimate capitalism are practicing a “Talmudic sagacity” while political-economists who carry out the same legitimating function are “Pharisees.” Capitalists who seek to evade legislation aimed at ending child labour are engaging in a “Shylock-clinging to the letter of the law”. And summing up the very ideology of capitalism: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”[2] Again and again, in Capital, Marx presents capitalist praxis with a Jewish vocabulary.

For those who are already hostile to Marx or the project of socialism, all this is grist to their Right-leaning mill. The conservative legal pundit Alan Dershowitz, for example, presents Marx’s writings on Jewish affairs as the original sin of the Left: “The hard-left attack against Jewish nationalism began with Karl Marx, who, though himself of Jewish origin, was a classic anti-Semite.” Dershowitz goes on to label Marx a conspiracy theorist and an ideological forebear of Adolf Hitler.[3] Marxists have conversely sought to defend Marx from such frenetic charges of Jew-hatred. In his famous discussion of the Message of the Non-Jewish Jew, the Polish Troskyist Isaac Deutscher sidestepped the question of antisemitism and instead praised Marx’s analysis “in his youthful and famous Zur Judenfrage…. his unreserved rejection of Jewry”:

“I think that Marx went to the very heart of the matter when he said that… Judaism was essentially a theoretical epitome of market relationships and the faith of the merchant; and that Christian Europe, as it developed from feudalism to capitalism, became Jewish in a sense. Marx saw Christ as the “theorizing Jew,” the Jew as a “practical Christian” and, therefore, the “practical” bourgeois Christian as a “Jew.” Since he treated Judaism as the religious reflection of the bourgeois way of thought, he saw bourgeois Europe as becoming assimilated to Jewry.”[4]

Isaac DeutscherIsaac Deutscher (1907-1967)

More recently, David Harvey, whilst admitting that “It is indeed perfectly true that these kinds of [antisemitic] phrases crop up periodically” has pointed out that the historical context in which Marx wrote was one in which anti-Jewish feeling was rife and also suggests that Marx may have had another, far less prejudiced goal: “to take all the opprobrium that was typically cast on Jews and to say that it really should be assigned to the capitalist as a capitalist.”[5] Interpretations swing between condemnation and apologetic explanation.

Two recent works, however, move beyond this view. Jay Geller’s philological examination of Marx’s phraseology seeks to understand how his view of Jewish materiality was linked to his view that social alienation was caused by that materiality. [6] David Nirenberg has similarly shown how Marx’s vision of a world emancipated from Judentum intersected with his vision of a world that has moved beyond private property and egoism and instead embraced a new, selfless form of social relations.[7] In other words, both Geller and Nirenberg are interested less in the moralizing question of whether he was or was not an antisemite and more the intellectual and political work that anti-Jewish rhetoric did for Marx.

The Other Jewish Question

This insight, that Marx’s racialized discourse actually did important intellectual work for him, could be applied to much of his work. Essentialized views of Irish, Scottish and Indian “races”, for example, regularly featured in his discussions of Primitive Accumulation – the systematic privatization of previously communal land and the move from feudalism to capitalism. In all three cases of Ireland, Scotland and India, Marx argued that Primitive Accumulation had destroyed communal property-relations supposedly existing since “time immemorial”. In all three cases, an ancient social form had been rapidly erased by the dynamism of industrial capitalism.

That global industrial capitalism had shown itself capable of destroying ancient social forms reinforced Marx’s arguments about the power of capitalism to remake the world after its own image and the power “with which it batters down all Chinese walls”[8]. There is a discursive strategy at work here. Marx accepts the contemporary racist stereotype that “Asiatic societies” or the Celtic Fringe are defined by their “unchangeableness”[9]. But this unchanging nature is also in striking contrast with the dynamism of capitalism, the one social form that ultimately proved able to destroy these seemingly rigid societies. The stereotype of ancient Asiatic unchangeableness is a counterfoil that sharpens his vision of rapid and revolutionary change under industrial capitalism.  Marx was, after all, making a geographical and historical argument and the diversity of the world is at the heart of this argument. He understands the world in terms of where certain places and people, certain races, fit into the hierarchies of a global capitalist system. And the end point of this global history of primitive accumulation, is an integrated system of global capitalism, assimilating all the races of the world: “the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime… but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”[10] Race (antisemitism included) is therefore not a sidebar of Marx’s analysis, it is actually a category at the heart of his understanding of capitalism as a world-system. How Marx understood the Irish, the Scottish, or the Indians was bound up with how he understood the workings of capitalism. In the same vein, how Marx thought about Jews and Jewishness was of a piece with how he understood long term historical development and a projected future transition of socialism.

[1] ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1843). In Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978) 50. All quotes from On the Jewish Question are from this version.

[2] Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol I: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1954) 59, 83, 103, 264, 280, 273, 440, 558.

[3] The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2008) 99.

[4] Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Also available here:

https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/deutscher01.htm

[5] David Harvey. A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010) 91

[6] The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011) 169-211.

[7] Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013) 430-439.

[8] Marx & Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848/1888) 84.

[9] Marx ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1887) 338-339.

[10] Marx ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1887) 714.

Pádraic Ó Conaire, Sinn Féin, and the Workers of Ireland

There were a number of pamphlets published at the height of the Irish War of Independence that simultaneously point to the marked social strife of this period whilst also promoting a harmonious cross-class vision of an Irish people united in shared pursuit of national liberation. A representative example is the 1921 discussion of The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail [Republican Lecture Group]. Though seeking to present an image of aloofness from petty ideological squabbles, the pamphlet’s clerical author, S. O’Ceileachar, did claim that strikes were the product of unions’ “selfish” demands for higher wages. O’Ceileachar also openly stated that “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system” and “whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”.[1]

Cover

At first glance, the 1919 work Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? might appear to be cut of the same cloth, its title the kind of purely rhetorical question that should be answered with a resounding “Yes”.   In actual fact, it is something far more idiosyncratic. Couched in Orthodox Marxist language, this anonymously written pamphlet trenchantly critiques the politics and class interests of Irish nationalism, and astutely places Irish economic and social development in some broader historical contexts.[2]

The author, a pseudonymous “Charles Russell”, promises to “dissect and lay bare” the “real nature” of Sinn Féin, which lays covered by a “mystical atmosphere”. This is a situation exacerbated by the fact that, in the modern world, “workers are rendered docile and submissive by venal intellectuals and subsidised newspapers.” Thus, because of this miasma, Irish people have failed to see Sinn Féin for what they really are: “The “Sinn Fein” system of society is the most complex, subtle, and contradictory. It is but the new name for developed capitalism in Ireland, using Nationality and the Irish language as a cloak to reach its goal.” While Sinn Féin might baulk at any collaboration with “English capitalism”, “Russell” points out that they are “quite prepared to accept in its stead German and American capitalism.”   He also takes issue with the very idea of freedom espoused by the party. Employing a Marxist base-superstructure argument, “Russell” states that:

“People’s views are, in the main, the product of their particular social environment – they see the world from the point of view of the class into which they are born and with which their interests are bound up. Consequently the members of the small commercial firm (the germ of the large industrial concern) burn with injustice and struggle to break the bonds that interfere with the expansion of their business. They bawl at the tops of their voices for freedom, like their brothers of the 18th century in France, but bye and bye we shall see that the freedom they desire (also like that of their French brethren) is commercial freedom – the liberty to exploit nature and the worker to the fullest extent possible.”

In other words, Sinn Fein’s revolution will be a bourgeois revolution. Instead of supporting this, “We, who are working men, should concern ourselves with the bands that bind us to the wheel of capital – that doom us for ever to the toil and sweat of slavery.” “Russell” sums up his critique of Sinn Féin’s capitalist nationalism thusly: “The continuance of the private property system is the central idea in the movement, and so long as private property remains the miseries that necessarily flow therefrom will remain also and continue to afflict the workers under the Irish Republic” and “So long as private property is the order of the day it matters little to the propertyless Irish worker (the vast mass of the population) who rules Ireland.”

“Russell” couches his critiques of Sinn Féin in standard Marxist terms: workers create wealth socially, but profits are held privately; unemployment is caused by overproduction; rationally organised production exists within a system of market anarchy; capitalist production requires peace but creates war. Sinn Féin are thus doomed to fail because capitalism is doomed to fail, as it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

While the language could be polemical, a common trait in contemporary socialist literature, there was also a clear intelligence at work here. The various problems identified by this pamphlet – the critique of official intellectuals and the role they play in maintaining dominant ideologies, the analysis of nationalism’s universalizing discourse and how that elides the competing social interests in favour of a harmonious vision of cross-class (but in actuality, bourgeois) harmony, the selectively defined notion of freedom that prevails in capitalist societies – all of these are familiar questions in twentieth- and twenty-first century academic writing.

Nonetheless, it also seems that “Russell” recognised how contentious this anti-nationalist critique of Sinn Féin could be in 1919; the author proceeds to claim that, in fact, it is Sinn Féin who are the truly anti-national force. Their proposed system of land tenure is “entirely foreign to Gaelic ideals as well being, from its very nature, opposed to a real virile National life.” It is telling that it as at this point that the pamphlet draws on familiarly national language of virility and the rebuilding of a pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland. He proposes a communal system of land ownership that, “Russell” claims, is the same as that which existed in the clan-system of Gaelic Ireland. Capitalist private property is thus presented as an insidious Anglo-Norman importation: “The whole Island was replanted in the good old English landlord and tenant style. The system was universally established from North to South, from East to West. The land that was communally owned by the Gaelic Clansmen became the fee-simple estate of Protestant, Catholic and Puritan landlord” and “the old Gaelic land system never again made its appearance in Ireland.”

The argument was clearly developed in a careful and judicious manner, making it doubly frustrating that the pamphlet’s pseudonymous author, “Charles Russell”, remains unknown. When the Cork Workers’ Club, a short-lived schism from the British and Irish Communist Organisation, reissued this pamphlet as part of a historical document series in 1977, they could do little but say that “Russell” was a self-described “wage slave of Ireland”[3] – which tells us little other than that this orthodox Marxist saw himself in correctly orthodox terms!

O Ceallaigh Signature 1

O Ceallaigh Signature 2 - From a 1932 Letter

What could be Ó Ceallaigh’s signature on the 1919 pamphlet and what is definitely his signature on a 1932 government memo

A possible clue as to the author’s identity, though, can be found on the front cover of the National Library of Ireland’s copy of this pamphlet. As well as what appears to be the signature of future president Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh, scrawled across the middle of the cover, there is a name and address: “P O Conaire, 56 Mary Street”. It is tempting to think that this is the well-known writer and language activist Pádraic Ó Conaire. The National Library do not keep records of when or how they acquire pamphlets like this, but this would suggest that both Ó Ceallaigh and Ó Conaire owned this specific copy of the pamphlet.

O Conaire Name + Address“P O Conaire 56 Mary St”

Pádraic Ó Conaire lived a famously nomadic life, regularly moving between Galway, Dublin and London, though he does seem to have been in Ireland in 1919, when this pamphlet was published. There is a Mary Street in Galway but no number fifty-six. Dublin does have a 56 Mary Street, on the north side of the Liffey, and according to the 1911 census it was divided into what appear to be a series of flats. Apart from these speculative associations, though, there are also some good textual reasons to think that Pádraic Ó Conaire might actually have been “Charles Russell”.

Padraic-O’Conaire-Statue-with-Eamonn-DeValera-pic_NUIG 1935

Eamon de Valera unveils the famous statue of Ó Conaire, Galway, 1935

Aside from the Irish language prose for which he is usually known today, Ó Conaire was an avowed socialist; that this fact that has been smoothed over in favour of the far less contentious image of a hard-drinking bard, would surely confirm the views of “Charles Russell” (whoever he actually was).

In Cummanachas Céard San Am Ata le Theacht [Trade Unionism in the Future], a 1919 essay later republished by the British and Irish Communist Organisation as a part of a pamphlet on Marxachas-Lenineachas [Marxism-Leninism][4], Ó Conaire not only openly avowed his radical politics but did so in terms remarkably similar to those of “Charles Russell”. Like “Russell”, Ó Conaire’s political analysis was couched in a much longer historical frame: capitalism would eventually fall just as Constantinople once fell to “an Túrcach borb” [the terrible Turk]. Ó Conaire’s predictions were also familiarly Marxist: “go bhfuil lucht oibre an domhain, lucht soláthruighthe gach maoine, ag teacht i réim” [that the working class of the world, the class that produces all wealth, is coming into power].

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s recent biography, Réabhlóid Phádraic Uí Chonaire [Pádraic Ó Conaire’s Revolution] goes a long way to rediscovering this forgotten aspect of his career. And in a companion volume, An tAthrú Mór: Scríbhinní Sósialacha le Pádraic Ó Conaire [The Great Transformation: The Socialist Writings of Pádraic Ó Conaire], Ó Cathasaigh has compiled a extensive amount of Ó Conaire’s political prose, the bulk of which were originally published in well-known newspapers like The Freeman’s Journal or more obscure periodicals like An Branar [The Fertile Land]. Intriguingly, his socialist writings clustered around 1918-19, contemporaneous with Should The Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Féin?, and like “Charles Russell”, Ó Conaire’s short political essays showed a strong interest in developments in continental Europe [see, for example, his April 1919 piece on Drochobair san Ungáir, The Terrible Work in Hungary] and an intriguingly similar sensitivity to broader historical structures.

An tAthrú Mór

In any case, whether or not Ó Conaire was “Charles Russell”, one interesting aspect of his political writings definitely remains: the manner in which his Marxist writings were also an attempt to redefine the Irish language.  JJ Lee once said that “The preoccupation of “Irish-Irelanders” with legitimising their aspirations by invoking alleged precedents from the celtic mists have misled some observers into portraying them as simple reactionaries. In fact, far from prisoners of the past, the modernisers created the past in their image of the future.”[5] The Gaelic Revival should perhaps be more accurately called “The Gaelic Invention”, as Irish language writers sought to recreate modernity within a Gaelic idiom. Ó Conaire also seems to have been working in this mode, as he sought to create a modernised and socialist Irish language. His political prose is peppered with familiar Marxist slogans, albeit in Irish, as if he was trying to fuse Marxism and Gaelic League-ism. He talks of the need for aon chumann mór amhain [one big union] and says that this is one of socialism’s rosgcatha [an archaic term meaning battle-cries, here seemingly re-purposed to mean something akin to slogans]. With one eye on contemporary events in Russia, he spoke of the soon approaching “an t-Athrrach Mór” [the Great Transformation] that would be “an t-Atharrach tionnsgalach agus economic is mó dar thainic ariamh” [“the greatest industrial and economic transformation ever”]. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s edited collection corrects many of these anachronisms and replaces them with standardised spellings. Where Ó Conaire might have spoken of an t-Atharrach economic [The Economic Transformation], for instance, Ó Cathasaigh makes the subtle shift to an t-Athrach eacnamaíoch. Yet, as genuinely helpful as this might be to contemporary Irish language readers, it also means that something of historical interest is lost in the process. We miss out on how Ó Conaire was not just writing in the Irish language, he was perhaps also trying to create an Irish socialist language. What might appear to be anachronisms, could actually be rough-and-ready building blocks.

[1] Military Archives, BMH CD 250/4/16, S. O’Ceileachar, D.D. The Labour Problem (1921)

[2] “Charles Russell”. Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? (Dublin: W.H. West, 1918)

[3] Historical Reprints, No. 11, Sinn Féin & Socialism (Cork: Cork Workers’ Club, 1977).   My thanks to Benjamin Lee Stone, the Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries, for his help in tracking down a copy of this pamphlet.

[4] Marxachas-Lenineachas (Belfast: Cumann Comharsheilbhe na hÉireann, 1968]

[5] J.J. Lee. The Modernisation of Irish Society (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1973) 141.