5 February 2009 Edition
Remembering the Past
The Fenian who wrote ‘The Red Flag’
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
IT HAS been sung at socialist and trade union gatherings for over one hundred years but it is only in recent years that its author has become more widely known. The song is The Red Flag and the author was Jim Connell, an Irish republican from County Meath.
Jim Connell was born in 1852 in Kilskyre, County Meath. His earliest political involvement was as a teenager when he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and became involved in land agitation. These were the years when the Fenians were at the height of their popularity and there were the first stirrings of what would become the Irish Land War.
In 1870, Jim Connell moved to Dublin, where he worked on the docks. He was blacklisted after trying to organise the dock labourers and in 1875 he emigrated to London. He worked at a wide variety of jobs, never losing his rebellious spirit. He once described himself as “a sheep farmer, dock labourer, navvy, railway-man, draper, journalist, lawyer of sorts and all the time a poacher”.
After working on the railways he became a journalist on the early socialist newspaper, The Labour Leader, edited by Keir Hardie. Connell was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and it was while returning from a socialist lecture in 1889 that he wrote The Red Flag, on the train from Charing Cross to New Cross.
In describing himself as a poacher, Connell showed that his youth in Ireland had given him a healthy disdain for landlordism. He served on the executive of the Irish National Land League in Britain, having founded the first branch in the East End of London. He wrote two books about the injustice of the game laws.
He told a socialist comrade that the Red Flag was “inspired by the Paris Commune, the heroism of the Russian nihilists, the firmness of the Irish Land Leaguers, the devotion unto death of the Chicago anarchists”.
The Red Flag is usually sung to the German air Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree) but Connell wrote the words to the air of the old Jacobite Song, The White Cokcade, a much more stirring tune. Connell said he would never forgive the man who changed the air.
Connell spent the last 20 years of his life as the secretary of the Workingmen’s Legal Aid Society. His last visit to Ireland was in 1918 when he addressed a public meeting of 600 people in Crossakiel in his native County Meath.
Jim Connell, Irish republican, socialist and author of The Red Flag, died in London on 8 February 1929, 80 years ago this week.