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A history of the communist
movement in Ireland

1864–1896

For more than a hundred years, organisations pledged to promoting socialism have existed in Dublin, Belfast, and—for brief periods—other parts of the country. Sections of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), founded in London by Karl Marx in 1864, existed for a time in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork. The Cork branch had a large membership, running into hundreds; it came under heavy attack from local reactionaries and did not survive for long. Information about the Dublin branch is scant, and it likewise appears to have had a short existence. The groups of the International in Ireland do not appear to have produced any papers or other literature, and what is known about them comes from newspaper reports.
     Irish exiles in Britain were involved with the First International, and they adopted the principles outlined in the International’s statement of aims. An important contribution of the First International to the Irish cause was its drawing of attention to the plight of the Fenian prisoners. The Amnesty Movement in Dublin fully acknowledged the help of the First International, and the prisoners on their release expressed their gratitude.
     The outstanding political contribution of the First International for Ireland was the raising within it of the whole problem of Irish-British relations and the question of Ireland’s claim to independence.

1896–1916

The Irish Socialist Republican Party was founded in May 1896 at a meeting in a public house in Thomas Street, Dublin, by a few people whom James Connolly was able to convince of his proposition that the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, national liberation and socialism, were not antagonistic but complementary. The ISRP had branches in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast.
     It could be said that the ISRP was the real starting-point of the effort to develop socialist ideas and organisation in Ireland; in the short seven years of its effective existence it made an outstanding contribution to the development and propagation of socialist ideas and policies among Irish workers.
     The ISRP did not gain a big membership, but the Dublin Branch, as described by Desmond Ryan, accomplished large sales of its paper and was the driving force in the organising of united action with other groups, notably during the anti-Jubilee demonstrations.
     Efforts to have branches started in Cóbh and elsewhere in Co. Cork were not successful; the ISRP was mostly confined to the work of the Dublin Branch. It did not survive the departure of Connolly for America in 1910.
     The writings of James Connolly that were published during the ISRP period and later remain to this day the main body of socialist literature in Ireland. It was a remarkable output, spread over a short number of years, with very slender resources. In this important regard, no other socialist organisation has surpassed or equalled Connolly’s contribution. The Irish socialist movement is probably among the weakest in the world with regard to the output of literature.
     The organ of the ISRP, the Workers’ Republic, was intended to be a weekly but its publication was irregular. Connolly was often to use the columns of Jim Larkin’s mass-circulation paper, the Irish Worker (1923–1932), and also the Glasgow paper Forward and other journals.
     During Connolly’s absence in America a revival of socialist forces was attempted, and the Socialist Party of Ireland came into existence. It was a small group and issued no publications but circulated socialist publications from Britain. Lectures, debates and propaganda work were its principal activities. The SPI asked Connolly to return to Ireland, with a promise that certain conditions about a wage etc. would be met. Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910. Among his first achievements were the publication of Labour, Nationality, and Religion and Labour in Irish History.
     The promises to Connolly by the Dublin socialists were not fulfilled, and within a year he was in Belfast as organiser of the ITGWU. The Dublin Branch of the SPI remained small and not very active, its propaganda work never reaching the level of the ISRP period. Connolly while in Belfast organised a branch of the SPI and in this period was engaged in the now-famous controversy with William Walker on the national question and socialism. He completed The Reconquest of Ireland (1915) and continued writing for Forward (Glasgow) and other labour papers.
     After Larkin left for America in October 1914 to raise money for the ITGWU, Connolly succeeded him in charge of the union, becoming assistant general secretary. He became less involved in the activities of socialist groups in both Dublin and Belfast; between 1914 and 1916 most of his endeavours were concerned with the union and the Citizen Army. The Workers’ Republic was relaunched in 1915; this was to replace the Irish Worker, which had been suppressed.
     The SPI was not involved, politically or as an organisation, in the preparations for the 1916 rising. As occasion suited, Connolly availed of its platform, but it was the Irish Citizen Army, divorced politically and organisationally from the SPI, that Connolly used for co-operation with the Irish Volunteers. Members of the SPI were involved in the 1916 rising, but the organisation itself was not.

1916–1928

After 1916 the socialist forces were scattered; those who took part in the rising were either shot or interned. After the 1917 amnesty an effort was made to revive meetings of the SPI. There was a coming together of some of the members, and for a time they resumed meetings and lectures, but in a short time the War of Independence (1919–1921) made normal political activity next to impossible. It should be noted that the February Revolution in Russia was the occasion of monster meetings in Dublin, and the November Revolution was likewise hailed by the socialists and the wider labour movement. The national resurgence and the general atmosphere of opposition to British imperialism contributed to this support for the Russian Revolution. By contrast, in Belfast the Russian Revolution evoked no response, no demonstrations of support being held.
     After the Truce of July 1921 the SPI was relaunched in Dublin in October. Within a short time there were sharp political divisions between those in favour of all-out support for the Russian Revolution and affiliation to the Communist International and the older elements—including William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon—who had earlier been zealous supporters of the Russian Revolution but were not for affiliation to the International or for transforming the SPI into a communist party.
     In this situation, Roddy Connolly (James Connolly’s son) and his supporters won the day; Connolly became secretary, and O’Brien, O’Shannon and others were expelled. In November the party was renamed the Communist Party of Ireland, and affiliation to the Communist International was agreed upon. A similar development at the time was taking place among socialist organisations in Europe and America.
     The CPI had not got a big membership, but it was a vigorous propagandist organisation in the short years of its existence. It launched a weekly paper, the Workers’ Republic, with Liam O’Flaherty as editor. Soon the great national debate on the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty enveloped the whole country. The CPI was against the Treaty terms, though Karl Radek, a prominent worker for the Communist International at the time, had a different opinion.
     When finally the Civil War began, in May 1922, the CPI resumed some public activities, including lectures and outdoor meetings; it also provided the leadership of the unemployed movement. The Rotunda in Dublin was seized and the Red Flag was hoisted; however, in a matter of days the IRA police were used to clear the building and make it safe for its private owners. As the delegates to Dáil Éireann assembled on 14 December 1921, both the Black and Tans and the Republican police were arresting the Wexford farm workers who were on strike for trade union recognition.
     The labour and trade union leadership was sharply attacked by the CPI for their support of the Treaty. After Dáil Éireann had endorsed the Treaty in December 1921 and the danger of civil war began to emerge, the labour leadership declared a policy of neutrality. When finally, on 28 June, the Provisional Government attacked the Four Courts, with British guns, members of the CPI took part in the fighting in the Dublin area alongside the anti-Treaty forces.
In America, Larkin had publicly identified himself with the anti-Treaty position and had finally supported the Russian Revolution; it was assumed by the CPI that on his return to Ireland he would be a supporter of the party. They reckoned wrongly. On his return, in September 1923, Larkin dismissed the CPI and let it be known that he would not be associated with it. If there was to be a left party it would have to be his own creation; but in reality Larkin never believed in or grasped the importance of political organisation. Larkin swamped the small Communist Party of Ireland with his big meetings and mass support; and in 1924 the CPI decided to dissolve.
     Larkin and the Workers’ Union of Ireland were closely identified with the Communist International; the WUI was an affiliated section of the Red International of Labour Unions. The Irish Worker League was formed in September 1923 as the political expression of the Larkin communist movement. The Irish Worker was revived as a weekly paper and was soon to be involved in a series of libel actions. Larkin contested and won a Dáil seat in 1927 but was disqualified, as he was a bankrupt.
     The Irish Worker League was founded at a large public meting in the Mansion House at which Bob Stewart was among the speakers. More than five hundred people signed up for membership. Larkin never wanted a political party, in which he would have to share authority. The IWL never really functioned as a party, but as occasion required, for election or other purposes, the title was used by Larkin. By about 1928 Larkin had ended his active association with the Communist International and thereafter he became concerned solely with the survival of the WUI, which was not adding to its membership: if anything, the reverse was true.
     An attempt to form a Revolutionary Workers’ and Working Farmers’ Party was made in 1927, and a duplicated weekly, the Hammer and Plough, was launched. Nora Connolly O’Brien (James Connolly’s daughter), Roddy Connolly and Pat Daly were members of its committee. An effort to bypass Larkin and get recognition from the Communist International failed. The new party and the paper lasted for a few months. Two candidates were chosen to contest the June 1927 general election, but they were not nominated.
     In 1928 the Connolly Workers’ Educational Club was re-formed, and it filled the gap in holding lectures, meetings, debates and the occasional publication of a small four-page paper.

1929–1941

Probably one of Larkin’s last acts in his relations with the Communist International was the sending in 1928 of a group of about a dozen people to the Lenin School in Moscow, among them Seán Murray (a former IRA commandant living in London at the time), James Larkin Junior (Larkin’s son), and Ben Buckley. Of this group only Murray and Larkin were to play a continuing role in the communist and labour movement.
     In 1929 the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups were formed, their aim being to prepare the ground for the early launching of a communist party. Some members of the Connolly Club were involved. Tom Bell, formerly of the Communist Party of the United States and the Lenin School, was in the early stages the leading person involved. The Communist Party of Great Britain assisted, and Bob Stewart spent some time in Dublin and Belfast helping to get the groups organised. Because of earlier association in the Larkin period, Stewart had the confidence of some leading republicans, including Peadar O’Donnell. Educational classes among republicans were held, as well as at the Banba Hall, at the time a progressive national and trade union centre.
     The Irish Worker’s Voice was launched in April 1930, with Tom Bell as editor. Initial issues carried a narrow “class against class” line, and sniping at republicans and at Fianna Fáil was a feature. A slogan to be heard at the time was “Not back to Connolly but forward to Lenin.”
     Seán Murray and James Larkin Junior returned from Moscow in late 1931. Soon there were clashes about policy and about Tom Bell’s behaviour in general. Murray became secretary of the group and editor of the paper. Though there was much improvement in the presentation of policy and in relations with some rank-and-file republicans, the RWG did not grow to a large membership. Unemployment was the great social scourge of the time, and public activities were mostly on this question, with meetings, demonstrations, and marches to the workhouse.
     James Larkin Junior became chairman of the RWG and played a part for a time in educational work, as well as public speaking. In 1930 he and another member were put forward for election to Dublin City Council. Larkin was elected; the vote for the other candidate was small. The Larkin name rather than an endorsement of RWG policy would account for his success. Larkin Senior was also elected, on his own “Independent Labour” ticket. The RWG in those days, in common with the republicans, pursued an attitude of severe criticism and hostility towards the Labour Party.
     The world crisis of capitalism was now at its worst. Poverty was severe in many countries. Unemployment struggles predominated, Ireland being no exception. In addition there was the constant stream of anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda. The IRA endorsed a new social programme, and Saor-Éire was formed as a political wing. The occasion was used by the Cosgrave government, confronted with some big economic problems, to raise a red scare to justify a new coercion act, the Constitution (Amendment No. 17) Act (1931). An order made under this act declared the RWG and eleven other organisations illegal from October 1931. The Irish Worker’s Voice was not banned, but issues were seized as they left the printer, and for financial reasons publication of the paper had to be suspended. During the coercion period, which lasted until March 1932, the RWG hardly functioned, but leading members did meet.
     In the general election of 1932 the RWG resumed activity and nominated two candidates. Larkin Junior polled almost a thousand votes, though this was not enough to win a seat; a small vote was received by the other candidates. The policy put forward in the election was afterwards acknowledged to have been in many respects wrong for the situation. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” was the position adopted in relation to the Cosgrave government and Fianna Fáil. A strong line against a tariff policy was taken.
     Following the success of de Valera in 1932, the RWG resumed legal existence, and the Irish Worker’s Voice resumed publication. A policy of conditional support for the de Valera government became the line. This position came in for criticism in the Communist International, only Willie Gallacher of the CPGB supporting the Irish party’s position.
     Larkin Senior, though no longer identified with the communist movement, never publicly criticised or attacked the RWG or, later, the Communist Party. In the earlier 1930s a focal issue in the Dublin trade union movement was having the Workers’ Union of Ireland affiliated to the Dublin Trades Council, which, after much patient left-wing endeavour, had been reunited in the late 1920s. The ITGWU was the main stumbling-block to the WUI’s affiliation. The RWG and later the Communist Party played an important part in the final rallying of enough support to have the WUI affiliated.
     At all times during both the RWG and Communist Party period, constant difficulties had to be met and overcome in finding printers prepared to print the party’s paper. Clerical reaction used its influence constantly to frighten printers, and this was mostly effective.

     In Belfast the membership of the RWG, never very large, was at first drawn almost entirely from among Catholic radicals, mostly unemployed and influenced by the Connolly socialist-republican tradition; their influence in the labour movement of the time would have been small. However, the RWG was the leading force in the united social struggle of the Belfast workers in 1932. This was a protest action against the terrible social conditions that mass unemployment imposed, and the immediate demand was a simple one: a few shillings’ increase in the outdoor relief (unemployment assistance). Party members involved in that struggle did a wonderful job; the publication of the full story of those events is long overdue.
     The RWG in 1932 had carried through an impressive campaign of meetings, and paper sales were also increasing. New premises were acquired, and a programme of expansion was in view. But local reactionaries of all shades were encouraged by the rising wave of reaction in Europe, particularly the coming to power of Hitler, and anti-communism received a new lease of life. The communists were in the front line of attack; later the IRA came under fire from reactionaries and the government, while at best the trade union and labour movement was holding a defensive position.
     It was in this situation that the founding meeting of the new Communist Party of Ireland was held, on 3–4 June 1933. The meeting, while not illegal, had to be held without publicity. Dublin and Belfast had branch representation; others present were individual contacts, with Cork, Castlecomer and Longford represented by a few delegates. The programme set out in Ireland’s Path to Freedom was adopted and a national committee elected. Jim Larkin Junior became chairman of the party and Seán Murray secretary.
     The Irish Worker’s Voice as a weekly paper appeared regularly until June 1936, when financial circumstances forced its suspension. The National Executive Committee functioned irregularly between 1933 and 1936; thereafter it virtually ceased, some of its personnel being no longer attached. Membership of the party remained small, and in Dublin the many efforts to build local branches were unsuccessful.
     On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the 1916 rising the party organised a number of special events. The Irish Revolt: 1916 and After by Seán Murray was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Easter 1916, a play by Montagu Slater that featured the 1913 lock-out and the 1916 Rising, was staged by the Unity Theatre, London, in 1935, with incidental music by Benjamin Britten.
     In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish War Against Fascism and the rise of the Christian Front, the public work of the party became extremely difficult. The Communist Party was the organiser of the Irish Section of the 15th International Brigade. Public meetings were attacked, and even joint public meetings with the Republican Congress had to be heavily protected. Skirmishes often took place after such meetings. A weekly bulletin to replace the Irish Worker’s Voice and to put forward the party’s position on Spain and on local issues was issued.

Bill Scott, the first Irish volunteer to go to Spain to fight against fascism    Bill Gannon, founder-member of the CPI, 1933, recruiting officer of volunteers for Spain, 1936–38
The Worker, a weekly bulletin, appeared in July 1936 and ran for thirty-five weeks. It stopped shortly before the appearance of the weekly publication Irish Democrat, which appeared in March 1937. This was sponsored by the Northern Ireland Socialist Party, Republican Congress, and Communist Party of Ireland.
     During the Munich and other crises leading to the Second World War, public meetings and other activities were held. There were also joint meetings with the Republican Congress and others to demonstrate opposition to fascism. In 1938 a small four-page Irish Worker’s Weekly was launched. This was later enlarged and its circulation developed.
     With the outbreak of war in 1939 the party was not in good shape. Membership had already been greatly weakened by emigration, some leading members being involved. A manifesto setting out the party’s attitude to the war was published in the Worker’s Weekly and as a pamphlet. It called for the withdrawal of the Six Counties from the war.
     The proposal to apply conscription to the Six Counties was opposed by the de Valera government and by national opinion, north and south. A mass meeting in Dublin on the question was supported by labour, republican and communist forces. William McCullough of the Belfast party was the speaker.
     The Belfast Branch from 1933 onwards began to transform; in a few years its membership was based mostly on the Protestant workers, and its influence in the trade union movement became much greater. After the Soviet Union became involved in the war, in 1941, the Belfast Branch further increased its membership, its influence, and its activities. In the 1945 election, party candidates were nominated in three constituencies, and all three registered an impressive vote.
     In the early days of the war the Belfast party also had difficult problems to face. Jingoism was abroad, and the party’s position on the war was not popular. William McCullough, Betty Sinclair and Val Morahan were jailed because of articles that appeared in the Irish Worker’s Weekly. At times the title Red Hand was used to overcome a ban on the paper.
     The achievements of the war years in membership, influence and activities were not maintained, but many of the members of the branch continued to hold leading posts in the trade union movement.
     In 1941 a proposal was put to the Dublin Branch that it suspend its activities and that members direct their efforts to developing the broader labour movement. There was much debate, disagreement and misgiving about the proposal; however, in June 1941 the proposal for suspension was finally carried, by a sizable majority. The terms of the resolution were as follows:
This branch meeting after hearing a report on the situation in the country and the position in the labour movement endorses the decision of the national committee on the need to turn towards the organised working class as an urgent step towards the building up of a revolutionary socialist movement in Dublin.
     To facilitate this objective the branch meeting agrees with the national committee to suspend independent activity and to apply the forces of the branch to working in the Labour and trade union organisations in order to carry forward the fight against the heavy attacks now being launched against the workers.
     In welcoming this step of the party leadership the branch members shall continue to give the support and active co-operation in the publication and sale of The Worker’s Weekly and will co-operate in every way in any efforts that are made to widen its scope and extend its influence.
     The extension and sale of socialist literature will equally have the continued assistance of all comrades who have so energetically carried out this work.
     While suspending the branch as a political unit from the 10th July 1941 the continuation of the existing sales and literature organisations which at present exist shall be retained.
     Finally having as an organised force in the past the members will in the new situation adhere to the principle of working in a conscious way in an organised manner to inspire the working class movement with socialist ideas and principles.
The maintenance of a Marxist centre was agreed upon; however, with emigration continuing to take a heavy toll, this was not easily achieved. The Irish Worker’s Weekly was maintained for some months but finally had to be suspended, as a position had been reached where the wartime censor was stopping any worthwhile comment, even on internal social problems.
     Some meetings were held under all sorts of auspices, and then a committee came together to organise a fund appeal for a bookshop. Premises were acquired, and in January 1942 the bookshop opened in Pearse Street. Under the asuspices of the bookshop, lectures and weekend schools were held, and a duplicated political letter was circulated to a few hundred people.
     A monthly journal, Review, was launched in 1945 and attracted a varied selection of writers; it had a circulation of a couple of thousand. Publication continued until September 1948.

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