Where, oh where, is our James Connolly?

by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh

“There is always some excuse ready for evasion. The difficulty is, that every party likes some part of the truth; no party likes it all; but we must have it all, every line of it. We want no popular editions and no philosophic selections—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” —Terence MacSwiney, Principles of Freedom

SIPTU’s Head of Research publicly announced in 2001 that the union would be sponsoring “the publication in several volumes of all Connolly’s articles and letters”, which would “at last enable us to appreciate Connolly’s own originality and greatness to the full”.1 I happened to be sitting next to him on the platform, and in my own contribution I welcomed the announcement but hoped people wouldn’t take it as a signal to sit back and think all was now well in the world of publishing Connolly. I was aiming for that curious amalgam that goes under the name of ‘cautious optimism’, and probably came off as a moany old begrudger. In fact, I was guilty of being far too generous altogether.

Recovering Connolly

My presence on that platform was a result of the momentum that had been building up for five years previously. On the unveiling of a statue of Connolly in Dublin in 1996, I was allowed to point out in the programme that hundreds of his articles had never been made available since their original publication, and to republish the first Connolly work for twenty years.2 The year after, The Lost Writings was published, in which I assembled 65 articles of his unpublished since his execution. It never ceased to amaze me how many people were under the sincere impression up until then that all of Connolly’s work was available. The Collected Works title put on a reprint of previous Connolly selections in 1987-8 had been taken all too literally by many. Also in 1997 Red Banner began its ‘Hidden Connolly’ series, underlining that The Lost Writings wasn’t even the half of it.

A group including some prominent labour historians then tried to get an initiative off the ground which would assemble a team of researchers to publish all of Connolly’s works, an initiative which had the blessing of the Labour Party leader (dubious as that may be). But the SIPTU announcement cut the feet from under that. While ‘The Hidden Connolly’ continued to mine a seemingly inexhaustible seam, any impetus towards publishing Connolly’s complete writings was sucked into the Liberty Hall plughole.

The first fruit of SIPTU’s project appeared in 2005 in the shape of a Connolly biography by Dónal Nevin. It was a disappointing work, but promised “the publication of James Connolly’s collected writings”, sponsored by SIPTU and edited by Nevin in collaboration with researchers from the union.3 The same year SIPTU received €20,000 from the state for “Production and publication of two Volumes regarding James Connolly.”4


Between Comrades, Nevin’s collection of Connolly’s letters, was published in 2007.5 Reviewing it, I pointed out a welter of errors in the texts: letters left incomplete, omitted altogether, misread and misunderstood. “The editor’s failure is fundamental: he has not produced a fully accurate and reliable version of the texts themselves”, I wrote, and concluded that “the job will have to be done again and done properly, this time with due editorial care and attention”.6 That review caused outrage in the Labour History Society, with a former cabinet minister decrying my attack on Nevin, but wisely demurring when asked to actually refute what I had said. That year €50,000 more came from the government, specifically for Between Comrades.

In 2009 Nevin admitted that “A number of Connolly’s letters in Between Comrades were incomplete.” He filled gaps in just three of them, as well as providing the text of two further letters uncovered by Theresa Moriarty (in Liberty Hall, somewhere Nevin evidently hadn’t thought to look).7 SIPTU received another grant of €19,000 that year and €16,000 in 2011,8 in which year two more volumes of Writings of James Connolly edited by Nevin were published, gathering Connolly’s books and pamphlets, and his articles.9 Launching them on 17 November, Éamon Gilmore called Nevin “the leading scholar in Ireland on James Connolly” and his collection of Political Writings “a real treasure trove”.10


But there was something a little strange about these two volumes, or about their availability. Very few shops sold them. Hardly any reviews appeared as, clearly, no review copies were sent out. Most curious of all, no copies went to the National Library or Trinity College Library or the other institutions legally entitled to any book published in Ireland.

As far as can be ascertained, there is only one public, reference or academic library in the world which holds a copy of just one of the volumes. (Arise, Bray Public Library, and take your place among the nations of the earth!) They became bibliographic rarities very quickly. You could be forgiven for thinking that SIPTU circulated only a limited number of the edition while holding on to the rest, as if to formally fulfil the letter of a commitment rather than making the books generally available.


Nevin’s Collected Works (confusingly employing that title again) contained seven books or pamphlets of Connolly’s, songs, and a play. The Political Writings contained 266 articles and manifestos, while its introduction (p xxi) claimed that about 600 articles exist in all. So whatever we had here, it was not all of Connolly’s writings, not by a long chalk. The project of publishing the complete works of James Connolly as an integrated series—first proposed in the 1920s11—is back waiting to reach square one.

In the meantime, there is plenty of Connolly’s work which has never been published since his execution, which lies in a limited number of libraries beyond the access of most. Making that available can be a valuable stopgap pending the complete works and—on the principle that appetite increases with eating—a real stimulus towards their publication. Much of Connolly is available in print, and latterly on the internet.12 A good deal of this consists of articles reproduced in part rather than in full, but there is still no shortage of Connolly writings yet to be republished at all. If people can’t or won’t bring out the lot, then publishing these articles and speeches in full is the most worthwhile contribution.

Nevin’s Collected Works contains nothing which isn’t already available. While it claimed that Connolly’s 1916 play Under Which Flag? was being “printed here for the first time” (p xii), it had in fact been published three years earlier,13 and Nevin’s version contained several errors.14 The raw texts of Connolly’s books and pamphlets aren’t hard to come by, and in more reliable form. Connolly explained in Socialism Made Easy that a capitalist getting a 20 per cent return on a $1000 investment would accumulate $2000 profit in ten years and $3000 in fifteen—but Nevin’s copying and arithmetic is faulty: “in the course of ten years he would draw three thousand dollars” (p 95). In Labour in Irish History Connolly claims that William Thompson’s work “might have been written by a Socialist of the twentieth century”, but here he was made to say the exact opposite, that it “might never have been” (p 232).

Big gaps

But it is among Connolly’s articles, letters, and reports of his speeches that the big gaps in publication lie, and this is where Nevin’s collection of Connolly’s Political Writings came in, you would think. However, of the 266 items it gave, 199 had already been published elsewhere in whole or in part at the time the book came out. Fully three quarters of them could be read easily enough in print or on line. Of the 67 which hadn’t been republished, thirty-four were extracts rather than the full article. Only 28 articles—less than one ninth of the total— were being made available in full for the first time since Connolly’s death.15

The appearance of truncated articles is a serious defect that runs throughout the book. Two fifths of the articles, 106 of them, are not reproduced fully. This is problematic in itself, but even more so is the fact that it wasn’t done openly. While the reader can often make an educated guess, only in eight of these instances is an indication given that we are presented with an extract from a longer work. A part is obviously less than the whole, and an incomplete article can give a skewed idea of an author’s intentions. When it is presented as if it were complete, the danger of misunderstanding is greater still.

Publishing incomplete articles without saying so unfortunately has a pedigree in Connolly selections. The volumes edited by Desmond Ryan in the 1940s and ’50s(16) are full of this practice. Other collections have followed Ryan’s example, and the 1987-8 Collected Works were a reprint of those volumes. But when Ryan gave an extract rather than a full article, at least he gave the extract in full. On the odd occasion that he omitted sections in the middle of an extract, he indicated as much.

Surreptitious cuts

The worst aspect of Political Writings is that the editor surreptitiously cut here and there in the middle of articles as he saw fit, without so much as a hint to the reader. In fact, it takes a close familiarity with Connolly’s work, and not a little forensic comparison, to uncover this. To take some instances, a paragraph has been cut on each of pages 119, 179, 391 and 415, and a big paragraph and a half on page 421. Two paragraphs are missing from pages 80, 162, 527-8, 567 and 572; three from pages 139 and 559; and four from page 605. Pages 234 and 257 are both five paragraphs short, while nine paragraphs are absent from page 256. The article extract which Nevin entitled ‘Emigration’ (p 219-21) has had three paragraphs removed on the quiet and then another three further on, while ‘The Ballot or the Barricades’ (p 482-3) is missing three paragraphs in the middle and two at the end. Two paragraphs are gone from the extract ‘The Catholic Church and Human Progress’ (p 282-5), as well as twenty more paragraphs later on.

Some of these are undoubtedly down to editorial error, a straightforward failure to compare the text with the original. But bad and all as that is, in most cases it is clear that Nevin consciously cut parts of articles, took it upon himself to covertly sub-edit Connolly’s articles a century on. A clear example is ‘Ballots, Bullets, or—’, in which Connolly debates with Victor Berger on how to respond if the capitalist class refused to accept a socialist victory. He discusses the development of the airship and its effect on the balance of military advantage in such a situation—but these dozen sentences have been removed from the version of the article in Political Writings (p 306-9). A page later, a single sentence referring again to airships has been taken out—for fear that the earlier cut would show, clearly. Finally, the last page of Connolly’s article is omitted altogether. It reads:

“But all this requires organization inspired by a revolutionary aim, and at every stage of the game instilling into the mind of the worker that he is being organized, not as a carpenter, a miner, a steel mill employee, a printer, or a teamster, but as a member of the working class, with rights and destinies bound up with all others of his class.

“What is Industrial Unionism? The economic manifestation of Socialism.

“I take it, then, that the real answer to the problem Comrade Berger propounds is:

“Not the Bullet or the Ballot, nor the Ballot or the Union, but rather the Union and the Ballot, each resting upon, fortifying and completing the other.”17

The absence of this last passage—a crucial part of the article, and a significant illustration of Connolly’s position on the matter—is a sin of omission rather than commission. We know this because Ryan made the very same mistake when he published the article.18 Nevin clearly copied from Ryan rather than consulting the original article, and while others have been guilty of the same laziness,19 the other excisions within the piece are all his own work. Evidence of covering up such copying is to be found on page 468: although his abridgement 4 of ‘The Friends of Small Nationalities’ is the same as Ryan’s, Nevin takes out the dots which Ryan put in to indicate where he had cut.20

Some of what is left out of Political Writings has a tragicomic air to it, as if to include it would be too ironic a commentary on the book’s adulteration of Connolly’s work. A passage which should be on page 560 contains the phrase: “Always and ever the working class movement seeks after clearness of thought”.21 “In Ireland, however, we have ever seized upon mediocrities and made them our leaders”, writes Connolly in a passage omitted, and in a later section left out of the same article (p 585-6) he says that “in Ireland words are generally the means by which we conceal our ideas”.22

Taking liberties

Liberties were taken with the text to hide cuts, as on page 242, where the first half of a sentence is chopped, but a capital letter put on the next word as if the sentence were intact. On page 264 two sentences are clumsily rearranged into one for the same purpose. Attempts by Ryan to ‘improve’ Connolly’s text are adopted in preference to the original. Even though Shakespeare himself uses “learn” in the same sense, Connolly’s “You cannot learn starving men Gaelic” is changed to “You cannot teach” (p 99).23 In an article written in the US, “our Socialist party locals” is translated into “our socialist party branches” (p 309),24 which removes, not alone an easily understood Americanism, but a reference to a specific organisation. Throughout, Nevin frequently preferred to substitute a title of his own for the one Connolly chose, without telling the reader.

Connolly published differing versions of his article ‘British Rule in India’ but, instead of giving his latest version and indicating differences from earlier ones, Nevin took the awkward option of publishing the earliest version and listing later additional material— while managing to miss a paragraph (p 31-8). When Connolly replied to a questionnaire on Polish politics, he published the questions before his answers, but the editor here took it upon himself to change that arrangement, and also mixed in a bit of a paragraph from another article altogether in the middle of it all (p 645-6).

We don’t have all of Connolly’s editorial on ‘The Painters’ Lock-Out’ in the June 24 1899 Workers’ Republic: it breaks off midsentence, and the following page hasn’t survived. Political Writings solved that by changing the comma at the end of the page into a full stop, as if the article was complete—but not before dropping the preceding paragraph (p 119).

Some articles are dated wrongly (p 163, 202, for example) or incompletely (p 84, for example), and an election address is dated a year early (p 638). Where Connolly gives the day and month of a lecture by Pádraic Pearse, the editor decided to give the year too, but got it wrong (p 579). Repeatedly, Connolly’s quotations were made indistinguishable from his own words, as on pages 111, 200, 206 and 536. Two 1913 editorials from the Irish Worker are included (p 430-2, 434-6) although they were clearly not written by Connolly at all, but by Jim Larkin: any editorials Connolly wrote for the paper at that time were signed by him.

Footnote problems

The reader will soon give up on the editor’s footnotes. In the first hundred pages alone, they miscalculate Connolly’s percentage share in an election (p 19), place the foundation stone for a Wolfe Tone monument at the wrong corner of Stephen’s Green (p 72), and tell us that Dublin’s Mendicity Institution no longer operates (p 89). Things improve when footnotes are lifted from Ryan (p 496, for example), but modesty forbids me from praising those on page 571, taken verbatim as they are from The Lost Writings!25

Let’s remind ourselves what SIPTU promised: “the publication in several volumes of all Connolly’s articles and letters”. What they gave us is a collection of works already available, a collection of letters with many omissions and inaccuracies, and a selection which claims to have nearly half of Connolly’s articles. They said we would be able “to appreciate Connolly’s own originality and greatness to the full”. Instead, Connolly’s originality and greatness were made to give way to the editor’s preferences as he cut and changed according to his own inclinations, unbeknownst to the reader.

Dónal Nevin passed away at the end of 2012, after a life which included some genuinely valuable contributions to labour history. The tradition of not speaking ill of the dead should counsel us to ensure that necessary criticisms of his work are valid and stand up to rigorous research. Those of us who openly gave voice to such criticisms during Nevin’s lifetime cannot be accused of waiting until he was unable to answer back, although his reputation as an editor of Connolly is bound to suffer from the future scrutiny of others.

The shine will wear off Éamon Gilmore’s ‘treasure trove’ as quickly as it wore off himself, while claims that Nevin produced “a definitive collection of his writings… allowing us access to what Connolly himself thought and said, without the filter of editorial interpretation or omission”26 will soon be passed over in embarrassed silence. But there is another dead man whose legacy we should be concerned to defend above all from being insidiously undermined: James Connolly.

Public money

Looking at the resources behind these volumes only underlines the scandal. We know that €105,000 of taxpayers’ money was poured into them, although it is hard to see what it was spent on. SIPTU annual reports aren’t specific enough to itemise that, or how much of the union’s own funds were put in, or whatever logistical support its officials provided.

However, the truth is that more has been done better with less.  Far fewer resources would have been sufficient to do the job right, if only there had been a far more conscientious approach to it.27

Some are contenting themselves with the belief that, if not Connolly’s complete works, the 2011 volumes come close enough, or constitute a real step forward. There is a positive to be found in them: 28 new articles reproduced in full. But that falls far short of what has been achieved elsewhere, and is heavily outweighed by the negative, which has slipped past what little scrutiny has been brought to bear. Connolly’s works have been subjected to many editorial indignities over the years, but the concealed disfigurement wrought upon so many of them here represents a new low. Understanding that is a crucial first step: the thread must be untangled so it can be taken up again.

Even a passing familiarity with the history of Connolly’s posthumous publication will tell you that such wasted opportunities litter the road. The reputation of making Connolly’s work available has proved far more attractive to many than the hard work necessary to actually do so. The sluggish attitude that ‘Ah, sure, it’ll do’ has proved hardier than the simple realisation that, at the end of the day, it’s as easy to do something right as to botch it. But, for all the attempts to muffle it, Connolly’s voice will one day be heard loud and clear and undiluted, illuminating a path for workers in Ireland and beyond.

1 Manus O’Riordan, ‘Researching Connolly’ <http://www.iol.ie/~sob/jcet/ 2001-04-22-mor.html.
2 ‘The Hidden Connolly’, James Connolly: Memorial unveiling, Dublin May 1996.
3 Dónal Nevin, James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’ (Gill & Macmillan 2005), p xxii.
4 Enda Kenny, written answer in the Dáil, 20 September 2011, <http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/dail2011092000055?opendocument&gt;.
5 James Connolly, Between Comrades: Letters and Correspondence 1889-1916 (Gill & Macmillan 2007).
6 Saothar 32 (2007), p 109-11.
7 Saothar 34 (2009), p 135-8.
8 Enda Kenny, written answer in the Dáil, 20 June 2012, <http:// oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/
9 Political Writings 1893-1916 and Collected Works, edited by Dónal Nevin and published by SIPTU.
11 By his son Roddy: see my introduction to James Connolly, The Lost Writings (Pluto 1997), p 5-6.
12 Most of what has been published can be accessed at <http://www. marxists.org/archive/connolly/index.htm>. Every issue of Red Banner continues to publish the ‘Hidden Connolly’, and the first 128 articles of that series are at <http://www.redbannermagazine.com/hiddenconnolly.htm&gt; .
13 In James Moran (ed.), Four Irish Rebel Plays (Irish Academic Press 2007), p 105-29.
14 As well as more minor mistakes, exchanges of dialogue are missing on p 357 and 364. See Ms 13945, National Library. (Moran’s version also has a couple of issues.)
15 These articles can be found on p 1-5, 28-30, 39-40, 44-6, 50-2, 67-8, 72-3, 165-7, 170-6, 205-8, 270-2, 322-4, 392-5, 403-6, 407-10, 432-4, 517-18, 644, 645-6. I have no access to the original publication of twelve of these articles, and am therefore making the assumption that they are reprinted in full— which seems a generous assumption in some cases.
16 James Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism (1948); Labour and Easter Week (1949); The Workers’ Republic (1951); Labour in Ireland (no date), all published At the Sign of the Three Candles.
17 International Socialist Review (Chicago), October 1909, lch 355-8.
18 The Workers’ Republic, p 68, reprinted in Collected Works, II (New Books 1988), p 246. 19 See James Connolly, Selected Writings, edited by P Berresford Ellis (Penguin 1973), p 205. Similarly, the identical mistakes in Nevin’s version of ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’ (p 512-16) show it to be a copy of Ellis’s version (p 175-80). See James Connolly, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’, The New Age (London), April 30 1914, p 810-11.
20 Socialism and Nationalism, p 148; Collected Works, I (New Books 1987), p 430.
21 ‘The Man and the Cause!’, The Workers’ Republic, July 31 1915.
22 ‘Notes on the Front’, The Workers’ Republic, December 4 1915. Nevin leaves out another passage later in the article.
23 Compare ‘Home Thrusts’, The Workers’ Republic, October 1 1898 with Socialism and Nationalism, p 58 and Collected Works, I (1987), p 340.
24 Compare James Connolly, ‘Industrialism and the Trade Unions’, International Socialist Review, February 1910, p 714 with The Workers’ Republic, p 75 and Collected Works, II (1988), p 253. Ryan’s substitution of full names for initials and surnames here is followed exactly by Nevin, as is his amalgamation and separation of paragraphs.
25 See Socialism and Nationalism, p 181-2; Collected Works, I (1987), p 463-4; and The Lost Writings, p 234-5.
26 John Callow, James Connolly & The Re-Conquest of Ireland (Evans Mitchell/GMB/RMT 2013), p 23.
27 Recent examples of what can be done are provided by two pamphlets edited by D R O’Connor Lysaght. James Connolly, Old Wine in New Bottles: Some Lessons of the Dublin Lockout (2013) provides five articles unpublished since Connolly’s death (not nine as the contents page claims, unfortunately), while James Connolly, The Steampacket Company Strike: Articles (2014) gives six, mainly short announcements.

The above article is taken from the now-defunct left journal Red Banner #59, March 2015.  I’ve added subheads and broken up some of the longer paragraphs.  



Posted on September 12, 2017, in 1913 lockout, Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Labour Party, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions, The road to the Easter Rising, Toadyism, Trade unions, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, Women, Women's rights, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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