Republican Congress doco – in review

Nora Connolly - she was right! She should be given her due.

Nora Connolly – she was right! She should be given her due.

by Shan Van Vocht

A few nights ago I finally got around to watching the Republican Congress DVD. The revival of left-republicanism in the wake of the Provisional leaderships’ sell-out is a very welcome development.  Among other things it has sparked renewed interest in important left initiatives in the 15 years following the Treaty between the British ruling class and the southern Irish bourgeoisie.  So this document is a very worthy project.  At the same time I think it has some important weaknesses.

Let’s not beat around the bush.

What is the utterly despicable Ann Matthews doing in it?  Her life these days is devoted to attacking republican women of the early 1900s, especially Markievicz.  She says things about these women that are blatantly untrue (like we only have Markievicz’s word for it that she was second-in-command at Stephen’s Green), she suppresses evidence that doesn’t suit her vilification of Markievicz and others (for instance, she uses Free State unionist judge Willey’s 20-years-after-the-event ‘memory’ of Markievicz breaking down at her court-martial while not telling readers that the official court-martial record shows no such thing), she’s written a viciously anti-Markievicz play and her two books on republican women of the 1900-1940 period are extended diatribes aimed to destroy these women’s reputations.

West Brit audiences and readers no doubt love what she writes.  However, she should be absolutely persona non grata on the left and yet she pops up here and there – in this doco, as speaker at a left meeting in Sligo with Declan Bree in the chair for chrissakes, launching her book on the ICA in the GPO with Eamonn McCann for chrissakes helping her.  And in the Republican Congress DVD she claims the Cumann na mBan women who initially were favourable to Republican Congress backed off as they were “religious conservatives”. Sure, Sheila Humphreys was a right-wing Catholic!!!  She also claims there were no political brains in Cumann na mBan, as if they were all airheads like herself.  Chrissakes, why would the makers of this documentary invite her to spout this ludicrous crap in their documentary?!!!!  (Matthews’ stuff on republican women is so off-the-wall, I started to think a while ago that she might have mental health issues.)

My two other gripes was that they gave a platform to fake-left Shinner Eoin O Broin.  What exactly did he add to the discussion?  His political role in general is essentially to try to give a left cover to the New Sinn Fein project?  Why help him do that?!!!

My third gripe is that there’s way too much CPI input.  The CPI backed O’Donnell and O’Donnell was wrong; Nora Connolly and Mick Price had the absolutely right position – launch a socialist-republican party.  Actually, O’Donnell didn’t do himself any favours because the DVD has some film footage of him speaking – it looks like it’s in the 70s at some Sticky thing – where he says that Nora Connolly and Mick Price wanted to set up a constitutional party which would run in elections and be oriented to Leinster House.  Totally untrue, and he knew it was untrue as well.

I’ve always admired him although I think he was wrong in Republican Congress; but when I saw that, he went down in my opinion.  In relation the CPI, they were stooges of the Stalin regime in Moscow and the last thing they wanted was a serious revolutionary party that would be competition with them (and bigger and with more real roots); that’s why they opposed the Connolly-Price position.  But they get let off the hook.

Thankfully there was a bit of reality injected by Brian Hanley and Adrian Grant.  I enjoyed their contributions and that of Tommy McKearney, although I think Tommy is a bit soft on the CPI and their wretched history in relation to the republican movement (and much else).  And Donal Fallon does a good job of presentation.  He has an earnest yet inviting manner that reminds me of one of my grandsons.

The doco was also somewhat short of women.  Niamh Purceil was fine, but she was the only woman in the doco in terms of understanding of Republican Congress.  I’m not suggesting tokenism or some kind of ahistoric approach.  But, given that one of the key figures in Congress, was Nora Connolly, I think they could have had at least one or two more women – well-informed ones – speaking during the circle discussions that were dominated by men, with Purceil seeming to be the only woman present.

It was fascinating, and depressing, to see the Dublin tenements of the early 1930s.  Tenements which remained in place through the Cumann na nGaedheal period and Fianna Fail, another sign of how painting the postboxes green was not going to change much for the working class.  And revealing the potential for social agitation by left-republicans in the 1920s and 1930s.

I also found it interesting that the Nora Connolly and Mick Price strategy was referred as a kind of triumvirate perspective, with the Congress initiating a socialist-republican party, another leg being militant unions and the other leg being an armed force (a revived Citizen Army).  So much for Peadar O’Donnell’s claim that they favoured an electoral-type party!

I guess it could have been much worse – just a whitewash of O’Donnell/Gilmore and the CPI – and thankfully it wasn’t.  It was also interesting to hear Hanley point out that the famous confrontation at Bodenstown, where the IRA tried to evict Shankill workers who were part of the Republican Congress contingent, probably had more to do with IRA-RC relations than with religious sectarianism on the party of the ‘RA.

Both Saor Eire and Republican Congress were fascinating developments in their time.  They show how republicanism continually generates revolutionary political trends.  And, of course, the same happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  (And, once again, the CPI played a negative role.)  Similar things are happening today, although fortunately the CPI is now a spent force and can’t act as the fly in the ointment.

The documentary  could have been a lot better by having a few other people doing the talking heads bit.  Dump the odious Matthews and the hack O Broin and have a few much better people in their place.  Give Brian Hanley and Adrian Grant a bit more time, as both have written fine books about socialist-republicanism in that period.

Also, more pieces from the Republican Congress newspaper and more film footage from the time would have made it visually a bit more interesting.

Also, we got Peadar O’Donnell’s view of Nora Connolly, Roddy Connolly and Mick Price.  What about Nora Connolly’s views of their position and the role that O’Donnell and Gilmore played at the split congress?

And instead of all the CPI talking heads, how about some current-day socialist-republicans?  Why not have some people from eirigi, the IRSP, RNU and the 32s talking about the relevance of Republican Congress for today instead of a bunch of CPIers.  Even someone from the SWP would have been better than the CPIers whose interests were in legitimising the role their group played at the time, rather than critically reflecting on it.

If the CPI wants to do something useful they should apologise for their decades of sins against the working class and republicans, dissolve and hand over their assets to socialist-republicans like eirigi.  IMHO.

Or to some kind of trust that turns Connolly House into a centre for workers’ political education that can be used by any left-republican current.

Further reading on the assault on Markievicz by Matthews and others: here.

On Nora Connolly see here and here 

See also: Republicanism in the 21st century – report on a meeting

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Posted on May 27, 2016, in 1930s and 1940s, Commemorations, Economy and workers' resistance, Free State in 1920s, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish Citizen Army, Nora Connolly, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions, Women in republican history, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Someone should write a play called ‘Madame Matthews on Trial’ and go through all Matthews’ misuses of historical evidence.

  2. oconnorlysaght

    Well Peadar O’Donnell is recorded as saying in his nineties that if he were younger and had it all to do again, he would stick with the CPI.
    I am not as au fait with A.Matthews work as, perhaps, I should be. I did not find her Citizen Army book so very bad; indeed, my main complaint was its blandness. Still, there is quite a blistering attack on it in the current Irish Labour History Society journal, ‘Saothar’. Certainly, as I have said before (on this site, she should be challenged on whence the blazes she got her ‘info.’ on Constance’ shooting of the cop and on her stance at the court martial.
    I agree that Brian and Adrian gave a touch of class to the video, tho’ I think that Adrian might have elaborated a bit more on the cockup over the Comintern directive that split Congress. For once, the Kremlin had it right, offering a compromise that might have been acceptable to all. It seems to have been the CPGB that misconstrued the matter. Why? What is certain is that it was never disciplined, whilst better people were booted out of the 3 International for less.
    My biggest gripe was that there was no mention of the Dublin transport Co. strike, in which Congress took part. It was one of the biggest Irish stoppages of the thirties. It ended the union ban on the Dublin trams that Murphy had achieved in the lockout and it saw Sean Lemass using the FS Army f to break the strike for the first time.

  3. Matthews’ bullshit about Markievicz at the court-martial comes from the Willey memoir written over 30 years later. And, of course, Willey was from an upper crust northern unionist background and became a Free State judge.

    Matthews seizes on his memoir because it suits the Matthews Party Line. She repeats this particular tripe in both ‘Renegades’ and her bland little book on the ICA. She decides not to mention that the official record of the court-martial says no such thing. Markievicz appears to have conducted herself with dignity, just as one would expect of her.

    Of course, in History at about stage 3 level, and certainly in postgrad work, it is very much impressed on students that you can’t simply ignore evidence, especially very important/significant evidence, just because it is counter to your beliefs or existing claims – yet this is exactly what Matthews does. She’s a very shoddy historian. Her cherry-picking of sources, and non-mention of sources that don’t fit her party line, should really have been picked up during her postgrad work, and certainly when she was doing her PhD/character assassination job on republican women.

    Her work is full of double standards, cherry-picking of evidence and generally shoddy methods. In “Renegades’ she even repeats the same information a few pages later, in almost the same words, right near the start of the book. It’s almost like it is written by two different people and the ‘join’ has been done remarkably badly.

    Her work is essentially a sustained attack on Markievicz, Gonne, Helena Molony and any and every other prominent republican woman of that era. She is, however, an admirer of Jenny Wyse Power – because Power had a little business. Power, of course, was one of the very few women involved in Sinn Fein who supported the Treaty.

    It’s a mystery to me why anybody on the left would give her the time of day. She just makes stuff up to the point where I genuinely wonder if she has mental health issues.

  4. My goodness, civil war politics is alive and well on the left in this lovely country. When is it going to get over itself and start finding ways of co-operating. The homeless children need a radical voice.
    In relation to the documentary I think that we should be encouraging young independent filmmakers, like Donal, to continue their examination of our shared history. No one has said that this is a very well made documentary and congratulated him on his work. Well done Donal.

    • Hi, you will notice that this blog contains a *lot* of calls for socialist-republicans to work together. I look forward to the day when there is one significant socialist-republican party, organising against the GFA, partition, and capitalism.

      But this doesn’t mean we should bury our differences. 100 years on from 1916 I would have thought that the idea “We’re on one road, it may be the wrong road, but we’re together” would have been left well and truly behind. Yes, let’s encourage young independent film makers – but one of the ways of encouraging them is encouraging them to think deeply about the work they are doing.

  5. oconnorlysaght

    Yes, we must work together, but this does not mean keeping our critical faculties in cold storage.
    The Congress video is a fine work and should be seen. It should not be regarded as the last word on its subject, partly because it leant too hard on one political milieu. Whether this affected its ignoring of the tram/bus strike I do not know.
    We should regard the socialist video as still perfectible. Another fine work, in which I had a small appearance, on the Limerick Soviet was marred by the makers allowing the ending to be hijacked by two labourites making historically inaccurate excuses for Tom Johnson’s betrayal.
    Still, if these works introduce more people to Soviet and Congress, they will have done well.

  1. Pingback: Review of ‘Republican Congress’ Documentary by Donal Higgins | The Cedar Lounge Revolution

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