Connolly ‘was far ahead of his time’

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The following is the text of the speech delivered by the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins at the official opening of Áras Uí Chonghaile, the James Connolly Visitor Centre, on the Falls Road in west Belfast on Friday.

 

A Ard Mheara Hargey, A chathaoirligh Fáilte Feirste Thiar, Muintir Uí Chonghaile, A chairde,

Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas chroíúil a ghabháil libh as ucht an fíorchaoin fáilte a d’fhearadh sibh romham féin agus roimh mo bhean-chéile Saidhbhín.

Is mór an phléisiúr dom a bheith in bhur dteannta anseo i gceathrú Gaeltachta Béal Feirste Thiar agus is mór an onóir dom a bheith libh don ócáid seo. Inniu tá ionad agus achmhainn nua don phobal á oscailt againn. Níos mó ná sin, tá lárionad tógtha anois chun saol, smaointe agus fealsúnacht Sheamais Uí Chonghaile a chéiliúradh agus a chomóradh, agus níos tábhachtái fós, áit a chuirfear ar ár gcumas fís an Chonghaileach a chur i gníomh don ghlún seo agus dóibh siúd a tiocfaibh in ár ndiaidh.

Lord Mayor, Chair of Fáilte Feirste Thiar, Members of the Connolly family, Dear friends,

As I have said just now in Irish, I would like to thank you all for the warm welcome you have given us. Sabina and I are delighted to be here and I deeply appreciate the honour it is to have been asked by Fáilte Feirste Thiar to formally open what is now a centre for all those interested in matters Irish and in the legacy of James Connolly.

It is so fitting that gathered together for this occasion are those who, in their diverse way, share in James Connolly’s vision and subscribe to its conviction and courage. Women and men who have dedicated themselves to pursuing justice and decent conditions for workers and for the unemployed. Those who have sought equality for women and marginalised groups. Those who are working towards a fairer society for all. I am so pleased that we are joined today by so many representatives of the Trade Union movements in Ireland and Britain sharing as they do the international vision that Connolly had - and vision is so necessary; It is within visions of an alternative world that hope is most secure.

I wish to extend a special welcome to Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress in Britain and Owen Reidy, Assistant General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I know from my own experience of the labour movement over the years, just how constructive and important is the engagement between the trade unions, for the necessary solidarity this represents, as Connolly himself recognised, the common cause of workers, not only on both of these islands but across the world, and the value of collaborating closely in shared interests.

It is appropriate too, on an occasion like this, to recognise the courage and principle of all those trade union members, past and present, who have worked to keep sectarianism not only from eroding the necessary solidarity of workers and their families, but from its exploitation of difference, sectorianism’s deadly influence that the trade unions have been to the fore of in opposing.

I would also like to recognise in a very particular way the presence of representatives of Trade Unions from the United States who have come in such impressive numbers, and who, together with Belfast City Council, have directly supported the foundation of this Centre. I look forward to hearing from Terry O’Sullivan from the Laborers’ International Trade Union who will address us shortly.

Mar a dúirt mé níos luaithe, As I said earlier, we are also of course here in West Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter, which is a most vibrant hub for those connecting or re-connecting with our ancient but thoroughly modern Irish language.

By speaking Gaeilge, and in making such a connection, we are not only expressing our Grá don Ghaeilge, our love of Irish, and all that goes with it, we are also communing with the generations who inhabited this place for thousands of years, with those who were compelled to leave these shores and with the men and women, among whom unionists and nationalists; of all religions and of none who recognised the beauty and value of the Irish language.

Molaim sibh as ucht an méid atá bainte amach agaibh chun Gaeltacht agus Pobal na Gaeilge a chothú agus a mhéadú, i mBéal Feirste trí áiseanna den scoth a chur in áit. Tréaslaím libh as bhúr n’iarrachtaí áit don Ghaeilge a chur i lár an aonaigh.

I will give in English a summary of what I have said in Irish:

For Pobal na Gaeilge, for the Irish speaking community, our language is an integral part of our identity and of our everyday lives. It is not unreasonable for us to expect that this reality be respected, accommodated and supported by our public authorities.

Tréaslaím leis an bPobal anseo as ucht an obair ar fad atá faoi bhun acu sa Cheathrú Ghaeltachta seo agus as ucht na hiarrachtaí atá á dhéanamh acu chun go mbeadh an Ghaeilge mar mhean mealltach agus ionchuimsitheach trínar féidir linn scéalta an lae a phlé, ár gceartaí teanga a chleachta agus ár ngrá don Ghaeilge agus d’ár gcultúr a roinnt.

James Connolly himself saw the language shift from Irish to English over the 19th century as the by-product of an oppressive, class-based, capitalist system and, though their starting points were quite different, he found common cause with Irish language and cultural revivalists to press for Ireland’s independence. In so many ways, Connolly saw connections between things. Between labour, class, economics, independence, women’s rights, war and empire. He set about forging alliances between those who were working to challenge the different aspects of a system the complexity of which he did not underestimate and which he wanted so desperately to change.

He understood the connections between na gluaiseachtaí móra the great movements of his age- Labour, Cultural and Language revival, Nationalism and Women’s Rights and he would go on to immerse himself in or forge alliances with each. Your library will provide an opportunity to access his huge range of writings and also the literature it has provided the critical scholarship and the literary world. I’m thinking, for example, of Eugene McCabe’s ‘To Bring Down A Horseman’.

James Connolly was an internationalist at heart and realised that the cause of labour transcended international borders. During the years he lived in the US he never ceased immersing himself in the socialist and trade union movements, developing his thinking and nurturing links that would help him with his work in Ireland. It was while in the US, of course, that Connolly wrote one of his most significant works on Ireland entitled, ‘Labour in Irish History’.

After he returned to Ireland in 1910 Belfast would become his base and No. 1 Glenalina Terrace, less than 200 meters from where we are standing, would become home for himself, his wife Lily and their six children.

James Connolly’s life from child labour to Lily his wife’s ‘Jim Your Beautiful Life’ is one of the greatest sacrifices in our history, engaging all the themes - many neglected - child labour, migration, poverty, prison, execution.

When James Connolly assumed the role of Branch Secretary and Ulster Organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which was a relatively weak organisation in Belfast when Connolly arrived. The British-based National Union of Dock Labourers and the craft unions dominated. Left-wing politics, such as it was, included the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was British-based and opposed to Irish independence. The main political forces in Belfast of the period comprised the unionist ruling class and the Nationalist Party under West Belfast MP Joe Devlin.

Is i gcoinne na fórsaí éagsúla seo a chas sé a aghaidh sna blianta sin, agus sheas se an fód leis na hoibrithe sna duganna, sna muilinn agus sna monarchain ag mealladh cosmhuintir Bhéal Feirste chuig an sóisíalachas agus cúis na neamhspleachais.

James Connolly would find himself in contention with each of these forces over the next five years, stressing, as he would again and again, the inadequacies of their vision as he championed the cause of those exploited workers in the mills, factories and docks, winning recruits for the causes of socialism and Irish independence in the process.

In his first successful strike in Belfast Connolly organised the dockers, who were paid considerably less than their counterparts in Britain. He led Catholic and Protestant workers together in support of the strike and, from the ranks of nationalist and Orange musicians, formed a non-sectarian band which paraded the streets collecting for the strike fund. The strike succeeded in securing increased wages for the dockers.

The poor conditions of the dockers were mirrored in the linen mills of Belfast where women and children worked in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Connolly organised hundreds of them in an all-out strike, which laid the foundations for later actions and improved working conditions.

Leis an ionad nua seo taobh thiar dom, tugtar deis do chuirteoirí saol agus smaointe Séamas Ó Chonghaile a staidéar agus machnamh a dhéanamh ar an méid a bhain sé amach ar son iad siúd a bhí i ngá don saoirse a bhí á lorg aige.

With the opening of this centre today, locals and visitors from far and near alike, will now have a place to learn of, reflect upon and engage with James Connolly’s life and his legacy, in the fullest sense and, uniquely, in the very streets where he himself lived, worked and wrote.

When reflecting on how we might remember him it is essential, I believe, that we avoid relegating the potent ideas and ideals that drove him throughout his life to some dusty closet of a bygone past. We would be doing a great disservice to Connolly if we allowed those generous, subversive, radical, indeed revolutionary, ideas and ideals to become reduced to a benign, tamed version of our distant history.

His writings, his injunctions, his energy and activism - and Owen Dudley Edwards gave the title ‘The Mind Of An Activist’ to his fine work on Connolly - must remain as rallying calls for the vindication of rights; flaming beacons for justice for all, particularly the marginalised and most vulnerable. His life and ideas can continue to guide our present and illuminate our future. His vision, we must remember, is one yet to be fulfilled in so many respects.

Connolly’s concept of labour was never limited to issues of wages alone but in built on a search through mind and heart as to how equality, political freedom, and cultural ideas reproduced in such a society offered a much broader philosophy that encompassed a transformative vision for the whole of society. His dream was not for an Ireland where a foreign system of oppression would simply be replaced with a domestic one. The speech we have just heard is a speech from below – a speech from the mind, for example, of the agricultural worker who stood to face the same exploitation from a native predator grazier as from an absentee landlord, as Matt Harris in the earlier days of The Land League has said.

James Connolly saw an emancipated citizenry joined with others from all over the world as the end point. This defined his difference from, as much as his shared solidarity with, other nationalists. It was what made the Citizen Army different, its collective character.

As one Citizen Army member, Frank Robbins, recalled in his memoir, Under the Starry Plough, published in 1977:

“The hard core of the Irish Citizen Army who remained loyal to Connolly embraced the ideal of Irish independence as expressed in the very definite terms of the ‘Workers’ Republic’.”[2]

The workers republic of James Connolly’s vision may not have come to be, but I firmly believe that Connolly’s thinking, his ethics, courage and strategic reflections can usefully inform today’s efforts to address the interconnected challenges of our time and can provide guidance for the different groups from a variety of backgrounds and traditions that see a common good or what are global as well as regional challenges.

One only need think of modern-day exploitation of workers to understand that much remains to be done in a new age of technological impact to bring about “decent work” – an understanding of labour as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, prosperity in the community and a flourishing of democracy.

We should defend the space of the Utopian tradition in discourse. Such a Defence does not contradict any informed pragmatism.

A most important legacy of James Connolly for us today is the place he carved out for women, particularly among the ranks of the Irish Citizen Army and in his hopes for the Ireland of the future.

It is well known that, during the Rising, Citizen Army officer Dr. Kathleen Lynn was second in command at City Hall, while Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider played important combatant roles at St. Stephen’s Green.

More profoundly, Connolly and figures such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington, pacifist, feminist and utopian thinker, who was a member of the Citizen Army at its outset, saw women’s emancipation as being essential to any genuine social progress. If I may quote the words of James Connolly himself, from The Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915), he asks:

“Of what use… can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish State if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood. As we have shown, the whole spirit and practice of modern Ireland, as it expresses itself through its pastors and masters, bear socially and politically, hardly upon women…

…..In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off...”

Connolly’s injunction to women to “break their chains” and march towards freedom are ones that still resonate powerfully with us, not just in Ireland, but in all those places across the world where the journey towards full equality and dignity for women is still ongoing. Our life together is sullied scarred by each and every act of violence against women, including the frightening and unacceptable level of domestic violence that still prevails.

There is, finally and importantly, James Connolly’s gift of internationalism – of a solidarity that reaches beyond national boundaries – a form of solidarity to which we so urgently need to offer support and breathe new life into, as we seek to respond to the great global challenges of our times. Challenges that can only be tackled together with our brothers and sisters with whom we share this fragile planet.

The world is awash with forces seeking to accumulate, to divide, to erect barriers between peoples, to withdraw behind borders, to undermine and abandon the international architecture so carefully constructed after the devastation of the second world war. What is needed now is not for any of us to be mute. What is needed is for those willing to re-assert the principles of equality, justice, cooperation and solidarity at local, national and international levels to speak with respect of these values.

We need to discover the importance, promise and values of the connections between ethics, the economy and ecology and discover radically new ways of living that deliver social justice, equality, human dignity and global welfare without imperilling our natural world.

Reminding ourselves of Connolly’s vision is a good place to start. In so many ways, Connolly sought to free people from apathy and from the resignation that the world as it was could not be changed radically nor changed fundamentally for the better.

He sought to transcend what he saw as the contrived divisions between the people of this island; to demolish what was perceived as the natural order of difference in rights and capacities between people of different nationalities, or religions or classes. He sought to unite those with common cause, to find a shared understanding of the importance of workers irrespective of their differences, and their right to the fruits of their labour. These thoughts are as important, inspiring and emancipatory today as they were then.

A chairde,

Tá muinín agam go gcuirfidh Áras Uí Chonghaile lenár dtuiscint ar oidhreacht casta, ilghnéitheach Seamas Uí Chonghaile, mar shóisialaí idirnáisiúnta agus mar cheardchumannaí, mar aon lena bpáirt mar phoblachtánach Éireannach. An rud is fiúntach, b’fhéidir, ná an tuiscint a bhí aige ar na ceangail idir gnéithe éagsúil an fíor-saoirse, agus ba duine sainiúil é dá bharr.

[I am confident that Áras Uí Chonghaile can become a valuable resource to bring us on that journey through the complex and multi-dimensional legacy of James Connolly, his life and work as international socialist and as trade unionist just together with his role as an Irish republican. Most instructive, perhaps, is his understanding of the connection between the integrated dimensions of true freedom that gave such a unique character to his life and work].

In that respect, as in many others, Connolly was far ahead of his time. He has much to teach us.

Guím gach rath oraibh leis an ionad nua seo. Ionad a choimeadfaidh fís, cospóirí agus fealsúnacht Seamas Uí Chonghaile beo dúinn uilig.

I wish you every continued success for this innovative and inspirational visitor centre - a public space which is a worthy homage and a rendering for today’s Ireland of James Connolly, a remarkable and enduringly important figure, not only on this island but far beyond.

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