Red nationalism of the blood or cultural gesture?

by Liam Ó Ruairc 

The issue of support for Germany indicates some of the divergences between Connolly and Lenin. A major study written by a follower of Greaves was forced to conclude that Connolly “underestimated considerably the role of German imperialism. While understanding the roots of the war to be economic… he nevertheless overlooked the aggressive nature of German imperialism…Undoubtedly much of what Connolly wrote during this period was directly propagandistic…but his arguments concerning the imperialistic nature of the war lack the perspicacity and directness which are evident in Lenin’s articles of the same period” (Metscher, 1986).

Support for Germany aside, another problem indicating a divergence with Lenin is that a careful reading of Connolly’s articles in the Workers’ Republic newspaper reveals quite clearly the extent to which he had been influenced by what could be called a ‘red nationalism of the blood’. Shortly before the Rising, in an article entitled ‘The ties that bind’, Connolly wrote in the 5 February 1916 edition of the Workers’ Republic:

“Deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of the degradation wrought upon its people – our lost brothers and sisters – so deep and humiliating that no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect or re-establish its national dignity in the face of a world horrified and scandalised by what must seem to them our national apostacy. Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility, and awe we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: ‘Without the shedding of Blood, there is no Redemption'” (Yeates, 2015, 319).

Earlier, in the Workers’ Republic of 7 August 1915, Connolly had written an extraordinary article entitled ‘Ireland’s Travail and Ireland’s Resurrection’:

“For twelve months, twelve dreary agonising months we have seen war in Ireland, war upon the soul of Ireland, war upon the traditions, the religious spirit, the centuried hopes of the martyred men and women who had made Ireland famed and respected…Never has a nation suffered such an onslaught. Belgium in its agonies under the invaders nor Poland in its awful travail cannot claim to have suffered as Ireland has suffered since war was declared. Betrayed and deserted by all but a faithful few Ireland was attacked by every poisonous agency ever brought to bear upon the mind and the soul of a people. Her religion, her love of nationality, her strict sexual morality, her natural affection for the weak, her sympathy for suffering and distress – every high and noble instinct implanted in her by ages of suffering was appealed to that her children might deny the past of their country and surrender their hopes of moulding its future… The fighting in Belgium or Poland was for the material possession of town and cities, the fight for Ireland has been one for the soul of the race…Old medieval legends tell us how in the critical moments of the struggle of an army or the travail of a nation, some angel or delivered was sent from above to save those favoured by the Most High. To many people today it seems that the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa came to Ireland in such a moment of national agony” (Ibid, 114).

For John Newsinger, this article “clearly reveals how far removed from any Marxist analysis Connolly’s attitude was at this time. It is inconceivable that Lenin or Trotsky, Luxemburg or Gramsci could have given voice to such sentiments” (Newsinger, 1990).

But in Connolly’s defence, compare that passage with this piece written according to Perry Anderson in “a language that would have been virtually incomprehensible to Marx and Engels” (Anderson, 1976, 89-90): “This is how one pictures the Angel of History. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the Angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress” (Benjamin, 1940). Whatever the language, no one will deny the contributions of Walter Benjamin to historical materialism, and the same can be said of Connolly. In Connolly’s case, this writer thinks that it has to be understood as a cultural gesture.

This brings up the issue of Connolly and Catholicism before his execution. (The wider issue of Connolly’s attitude to religion is set aside here.) The problem is that far from having a detached analytical view of the Catholic messianism that gripped the Easter Week insurgents, Connolly was very much at one with them. According to Desmond Ryan, it was Pearse who persuaded Connolly to receive the last rites before facing the firing squad. (Ryan, 1924, 96).  Perhaps the reconciliation with Catholicism was sincere or perhaps it was as Carl and Ann Reeve suggested merely to avoid offending the religious feelings of his followers whatever his personal feelings. (Reeve and Barton Reeve, 1978, 249).  But it is an established fact that on the night before his execution Connolly asked his wife who was a Protestant to take instruction in the Catholic faith and then be received into the Catholic church. He added that he had not always been an exemplary Catholic but he very much wanted her to do this. She duly underwent instruction and became a devout Catholic, even retrieving some children from a Protestant proselytising agency (Maume, 1994, 30-31). A most interesting comment on this issue comes from the author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield: “Connolly died a ‘convinced’ Catholic, because Catholicism had become the religion of Irish nationalism and because he had no difficulty in reconciling his Socialism to it. Not less did he die for the Workers’ Republic which, in the event, never transpired and is not likely to on this side of Paradise. But I simply do not believe that the old sow devoured him, because it is so obvious to me that he did not die in vain” (Dangerfield, 1986, 21). This suggests a cultural gesture rather than a Catholic dreading the wrath of God.

Connolly was not alone in this. His second-in-command in the Irish Citizen Army, Michael Mallin, wrote to his wife while awaiting execution, urging that his daughter should become a nun and his son a priest,”as a penance for our sins”. He tried to comfort her: “I do not believe our Blood has been shed in vain. I believe Ireland will come out greater and grander but she must not forget that she is Catholic, she must keep the faith.” After the Rising, Constance Markievicz also converted to Catholicism (Newsinger, 1978).  Connolly and his followers’ turn towards Catholicism in 1916 has some similarity to Marxist groups praising radical Islam in Iran in 1979, with the Cliffites and followers of Mandel-Frank praising Allah and the veil as  expressions of resistance to the Shah in the streets of Teheran.

George Dangerfield’s comments on Connolly brings to mind  the passage in Aodh de Blacam’s 1920 pamphlet What Sinn Fein Stands For where he claimed that “never was Ireland more devoutly Catholic than to-day… yet nowhere was the Bolshevik revolution more sympathetically saluted.” This bears some resemblance to Connolly. The affinity between Irish Catholic nationalism and Bolshevism was also stressed by de Blacam in his Towards the Republic: A Study of New Ireland’s Social and Political Aims: “There is really but one cause in the world, the cause of the weak truth against the strong lie. Lenin and Trotsky in Russia battling against lies and force; Labour struggling against its self-appointed tyrants; the Gaelic tongue striving against the foreign jargon; Ireland striving against England – all are but phases of the single war that still rages undecided, though certain in its outcome – the warfare of the Christian State against the Gates of Hell” (de Blacam, 1918, 109-110). Such language would not have been out of place in Connolly’s Workers’ Republic articles.

This article will finish by quoting Terry Eagleton: “It’s a striking fact about Connolly, I think, that he appreciated the importance of culture without overinflating it. A nationalist couldn’t but recognise the centrality of culture, in the broad sense of the term; on the  other hand a Marxist couldn’t but recognise the natural and material forces which give shape to culture…Connolly held these two perspectives in fine balance in his work, and this was merely one of his mighty intellectual achievements” (Eagleton, 2007).


Perry Anderson (1976), Considerations on Western Marxism, London: NLB

Walter Benjamin (1940), Theses on the Philosophy of History, (Thesis IX)

Aodh de Blacam (1918). Towards the Republic: A Study of New Ireland’s Social and Political Aims, Dublin: Thomas Kiersey,

George Dangerfield (1986), James Joyce, James Connolly and Irish Nationalism, Irish University Review, 16:1

Eagleton (2007), Culture, Class, and Connolly, text of an unpublished lecture

Patrick Maume (1994), Lily Connolly’s Conversion: New Evidence on James Connolly’s Last Days, History Ireland, 2: 3

Priscilla Metscher (1986), Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Ideology from the United Irishmen to James Connolly, Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang

John Newsinger (1978) ‘I Bring Not Peace But a Sword’: The Religious Motif in the Irish War of Independence, Journal of Contemporary History, 13:3

John Newsinger (1990), Connolly and his biographers, Irish Political Studies, Issue 5, 4

Carl Reeve and Ann Barton Reeve, James Connolly and the United States: The Road to the 1916 Irish Rebellion, NJ: Humanities Press

Desmond Ryan (1924) James Connolly: His Lifework and Writings, Dublin: Talbot

Padraig Yeates (ed) (2015), The Workers’ Republic: James Connolly and the Road to the Rising, Dublin: SIPTU

Posted on December 14, 2015, in Catholic church/church-state relations, Culture, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish Citizen Army, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Red nationalism of the blood or cultural gesture?.

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