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4 May 2015 Edition

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‘The Workers’ Republic’ of James Connolly

Remembering the Past

In the long run, the freedom of a nation is measured by the freedom of its lowest class; every upward step of that class to the possibility of possessing higher things raises the standard of the nation in the scale of civilisation; every time that class is beaten back into the mire, the whole moral tone of the nation suffers. James Connolly’s editorial, ‘The Workers’ Republic’, 29 May 1915

JAMES CONNOLLY was a self-taught literary man as well as a man of action in trade unionism and revolutionary politics. Reared in dire poverty, he saw education as vital for progress. He was a voracious reader from an early age and he became a prolific writer. In 1915 and 1916, his writings in his paper, The Workers’ Republic, had a crucial influence on the forces that made the Easter Rising possible. 

The first Workers’ Republic newspaper lasted from 1898 to 1903 and was published by Connolly and his comrades in the Irish Socialist Republican Party. In its pages, Connolly set out his consistent, lifelong theme that the working class should be to the fore in the struggle for Irish independence and that Irish national freedom was essential in order to achieve socialism as well. 

In the United States between 1908 and 1910, Connolly edited and wrote for The Harp, a socialist paper aimed at the exiled Irish community. As an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World, Connolly stressed the primacy of trade union struggle. 

The Irish Worker was started by Jim Larkin in 1911 and Connolly was one of its main writers. He edited it when Larkin was imprisoned during the 1913 Lockout and it contained some of Connolly’s most stirring and militant pieces at that time. With Larkin in the USA in 1914, Connolly took over as editor of the paper and acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. 

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the British Government introduced the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). This severely curtailed civil rights and was designed to curb opposition to the war. From the beginning, Connolly denounced the war and Ireland’s forced participation in it. He slammed the recruiting efforts of the British Government and its allies, John Redmond and Edward Carson. Before long, the British authorities at Dublin Castle took action. 

In December 1914, the British Government suppressed The Irish Worker, Irish Freedom (newspaper of the Irish Republican Brotherhood), and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin. Connolly beat the censor by producing a special edition on 19 December with the banned article ‘Courts-Martial and Revolution’, which contained his famous declaration: 

“If you strike at, imprison or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you and, mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst!”

Connolly secured a printer in Scotland and produced a short-lived paper The Worker but repeated police seizures finished it off in February 2015. 

Determined not to be silenced, Connolly now sought a printing press which could be installed in Liberty Hall. He found a dilapidated machine for sale in nearby Abbey Street. A member of the ITGWU objected to the press being brought into Liberty Hall as it might be used for “illegal printing” and bring the notice of the police on the building. Connolly explained to the committee that it was “only a little one” and could save money by printing union material. He secured the agreement of the committee and the press was installed. 

The rickety printing press had to be propped up on bricks in the basement of Liberty Hall. It took time to assemble the necessary type and other equipment but when it was up and running it could print 1,600 copies per hour. 

Connolly was now ready to publish his new paper and The Workers Republic appeared on 29 May 1915. 

The first editorial was entitled ‘Our Policy’ and stressed that it was a paper for the working class and the labour movement. In relation to the war, it said “the Defence of the Realm Act is very far-reaching and we are not yet in a position to prevent its enforcement”. 

DORA was increasingly being used to arrest and deport republicans, Volunteer organisers and other opponents of the war and the British connection. Just two weeks before the The Workers’ Republic appeared, Seán Mac Diarmada was arrested in Tuam and imprisoned in Mountjoy. 

Ironically, while DORA suppressed free speech and allowed the British to deport and imprison people, the law in relation to possessing arms was lax by today’s terms. Thus, for much of its existence, the printing press in Liberty Hall was guarded by armed members of the Irish Citizen Army who deterred action by the police. By this means Connolly was able to defy DORA and “prevent its enforcement”. 

The Workers’ Republic carried Connolly’s political articles, trade union and socialist news as well as pieces on guerrilla warfare and street fighting, authored first by Connolly and then by Citizen Army officer Michael Mallin. Through 1915 and into 1916 Connolly urged joint military action with the Irish Volunteers, culminating in his co-option in January 1916 onto the Military Council that planned and carried out the Easter Rising. 

The old printing press in Liberty Hall, on which The Workers Republic had been printed, performed its last duty when it printed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. 

The Workers’ Republic, edited by James Connolly, was first published in May 1915, 100 years ago this month.

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