James Connolly on Wolfe Tone
The following article by Connolly appeared in Workers Republic (August 13, 1898); this was the paper of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which Connolly had established in Dublin in 1896. The transcribing is by the James Connolly Society in 1997. The piece is taken from the Marxist Internet Archive.
Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when living. Universally true as this statement is, it applies with more than usual point to the revolutionary hero in whose memory the Irish people will, on Monday, 15th August, lay the foundation stone of a great memorial.
Accustomed, as we are, to accept without question the statements of platform oratory or political journalism as embodying the veriest truths of history, the real meaning and significance of the life and struggles of the high-soured organiser of the United Irish movement of 1798 is too often lost to the people of Ireland today. We think with pride and joy of Wolfe Tone and his struggle for Ireland, but when we think of his enemies, of those who thwarted him at every opportunity, who ceased not to revile him while alive and paused not in their calumnies even when he had passed beyond the grave, we are too apt to forget that the most virulent and unforgiving of those enemies were not the emissaries of the British Crown, but the men from whose lips the cant of patriotism was never absent, the leaders in Church and politics of the people whose emancipation Wolfe Tone had laboured to secure – and met death in the effort to forward. Yet it is a lesson we need to remember, fraught as it is with meaning, in the task before the Irish democracy today.
There are few passages in the life of Tone more pregnant with interest to the attentive reader than that which chronicles the negotiations between himself and the great Whig Party of which Grattan was such a shining light. The attempt of the Whig aristocracy to cajole and bribe the young and ardent democrat into lending his intellect and powers to the service of their party, and the scornful refusal of the high-minded, but penniless, Tone to thus prostitute his genius in the cause of compromise and time-serving, points a moral the young men of Ireland might well lay to heart in deciding under which flag they will take their stand in the struggle to which we henceforth challenge friends and enemies.
“I was a democrat from the commencement,” proudly declared our hero, and in the light of that announcement we at once perceive why the wealthy classes of Ireland with scarce a dozen exceptions ranged themselves against him; why Grattan never by word or deed testified the slightest sympathy with the United Irishmen; why Dan O’Connell took up arms to defend Dublin for the British Government against his own countrymen and rebel co-religionists; why the Catholic aristocracy fought side by side with the Orange yeomanry; why the fiercest invectives of Lord Castlereagh or Beresford of the Riding School were but faint echoes of the maledictions heaped upon the revolutionists by the aristocratic Catholic Bishops; why, in short, Wolfe Tone and his comrades were overwhelmed by the treachery of their own countrymen more than by the force of the foreign enemy. He was crucified in life, now he is idolised in death, and the men who push forward most arrogantly to burn incense at the altar of his fame are drawn from the very class who, were he alive today, would hasten to repudiate him as a dangerous malcontent. False as they are to every one of the great principles to which our hero consecrated his life, they cannot hope to deceive the popular instinct, and their presence at the ’98 commemorations will only bring into greater relief the depth to which they have sunk. Our Home Rule leaders will find that the glory of Wolfe Tone’s memory will serve, not to cover, but to accentuate the darkness of their shame.
Wolfe Tone was abreast of the revolutionary thought of his day, as are the Socialist Republicans of our day. He saw clearly, as we see, that a dominion as long rooted in any country as British dominion in Ireland can only be dislodged by a revolutionary impulse in line with the development of the entire epoch. Grasping this truth in all its fulness he broke with the so-called ‘practical’ men of the time, and wherever he could get a hearing he, by voice and pen, inculcated the republican principles of the French Revolution and counselled his countrymen to embark the national movement on the crest of that revolutionary wave. His Irish birth did not create his hatred of the British Constitution, but only intensified it. Like Mitchel, fifty years later, he held ideas on political and social order such as would have made him a rebel even had he been an Englishman. In this fact lay his strength and the secret of his enthusiasm. We who hold his principles cherish his memory all the more on that account, believing as we do that any movement which would successfully grapple with the problem of national freedom must draw its inspiration, not from the mouldering records of a buried past, but from the glowing hopes of the living present, the vast possibilities of the mighty future.
When the hour of the social revolution at length strikes and the revolutionary lava now pent up in the Socialist movement finally overflows and submerges the kings and classes who now rule and ruin the world, high up in the topmost niches of the temple a liberated human race will erect to the heroes and martyrs who have watered the tree of liberty with the blood of their body and the sweat of their intellect, side by side with the Washingtons, Kosciuszkos and Tells of other lands, a grateful Irish people will carve the name of our precursor, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the man whose virtues we can only honour by imitation as the Socialist Republic will yet honour his principles by realisation.
Related: Constance de Markievicz on Wolfe Tone: here