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28 June 2001 Edition

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James Connolly and Esperanto

KEN KEABLE ([email protected]) is a keen devotee of Esperanto, the universal language devised to facilitate communication between peoples throughout the world. He has known for some years that James Connolly was an Esperantist but recently found evidence that three other martyrs of 1916 Ð Joseph Plunkett, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Peadar Macken Ð spoke Esperanto or were interested in it. Here, he presents his findings and discusses how Esperanto fits in with Connolly's ideology.

In 1887, Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jewish Polish doctor, published his first book on the international language he had devised, calling himself ``Doktoro Esperanto'', (roughly ``Dr Hopeful''). Richard Geoghegan, an expert in Irish and in oriental languages, wrote the textbook that introduced Esperanto to the English-speaking world.

The idea caught the imagination of many progressives and socialists worldwide. In 1903-`08 political workers' Esperanto organisations were formed in Stockholm, Frankfurt-on-Main, The Hague, Paris etc and the first international one, La Internacia Asocio Paco-Libereco, was founded in Paris in 1906. It sought to oppose ``militarism, capitalism, alcoholism, and all dogmas and prejudices'' and to ``improve social life''.

A history published in 1996, Mallonga Historio de la Esperanto-Movado en Irlando, says that in 1907 La Irlanda Esperanto-Asocio was formed, with Joseph Plunkett on its first committee. He had a good knowledge of Irish, Latin, Greek, French and English, as well as Esperanto.

The only evidence I have that Connolly spoke Esperanto is from James Connolly, His Life, Work and Writings, by Desmond Ryan, Dublin 1924, p.69:

``German he knows, French, Italian, Esperanto too, some Irish, much economic, revolutionary, historical and general lore.''

He also mentions Peadar Macken, Vice-President of the Dublin Trades Council, who was killed at Boland's Mill. After saying how he loved speaking Irish, Ryan says (p.80), ``He fought hard, too, for the claims of Esperanto''. He describes Macken as a close disciple of Connolly.

I learned recently that Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had some Esperanto books among his possessions at the time of his death. (His son, Owen, told this to one his students who is now one of Ireland's leading Esperantists). A biography of Sheehy-Skeffington (With Wooden Sword, by Leah Levenson) says (p.13) that, in a letter to his local newspaper in Co. Cavan in 1893, at age fifteen, he wrote that ``Gaelic'' was irretrievably dead and ``the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland''.

Bulmer Hobson was a prominent nationalist of the period. A leading Irish Esperantist, Maire Mullarney, has told me that, being a family friend, she took over his house in Dublin after he died in 1969, and that among his library she found an Esperanto dictionary and a novel in Esperanto.

Sheehy-Skeffington and Macken were members of Connolly's Socialist Party of Ireland from its foundation in 1904, and worked closely with him on many campaigns.

In Workers' Republic of December 2nd 1899, Connolly wrote:

``I believe the establishment of a universal language to facilitate communication between the peoples is highly to be desired. But I incline also to the belief that this desirable result would be attained sooner as the result of a free agreement which would accept one language to be taught in all primary schools, in addition to the national language, than by the attempt to crush out the existing national vehicles of expression. The complete success of the attempts at Russification or Germanisation, or kindred efforts to destroy the language of a people would, in my opinion, only create greater barriers to the acceptance of a universal language. Each conquering race, lusting after universal domination, would be bitterly intolerant of the language of every rival, and therefore more disinclined to accept a common medium than would a number of small races, with whom the desire to facilitate commercial and literary intercourse with the world, would take the place of lust of domination.''

In The Harp (April 1908) he wrote:

``I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability of an universal language; but I do not believe it will be brought about, or even hastened, by smaller races or nations consenting to the extinction of their language. Such a course of action, or rather of slavish inaction, would not hasten the day of a universal language, but would rather lead to the intensification of the struggle for mastery between the languages of the greater powers.

On the other hand, a large number of small communities, speaking different tongues, are more likely to agree upon a common language as a common means of communication than a small number of great empires, each jealous of its own power and seeking its own supremacy.''

This has indeed been the experience of Esperanto. The great powers have blocked its progress, while support has mainly come from smaller and weaker language communities. It has also been hampered by severe persecutions of Esperantists by Hitler and Stalin.

Esperanto fits Connolly's idea that nationalism and internationalism should go together. By putting all language communities, large and small, on the same level, it expresses the equality of nations and the unity of humankind.

Esperanto gives many of the benefits of studying Latin for only a fraction of the work. This is because its spelling, pronunciation and grammar are very simple and totally regular, and because its vocabulary is drawn from the words most common in European languages. Hence knowledge of Esperanto makes it easier to learn a foreign language, teaches grammar, and helps reveal the meaning of unfamiliar English or foreign words. For example, the word for ``man'' is viro; the ``o'' makes it a noun; and vir reflects the English virile and the Irish fir. These benefits would have appealed to Connolly as a self-educated man.

He would also have seen its obvious potential as a tool of international solidarity. It is indeed used for this purpose, but much more could be done.

Esperanto in Ireland

In the 1930s, Catholic and secular Esperanto organisations flourished in Ireland and the Irish Catholic ran a long series of lessons. In 1937-`39 Radio Éireann broadcast a series of talks in Esperanto to Europe. Today, the Green Party officially supports Esperanto. La Esperanto-Asocio de Irlando has members north and south, publishes a regular bulletin and holds monthly meetings. Maire Mullarney has published Everyone's Own Language (Nitobe Press, Dublin 1999) about her experiences as an Esperantist. After attending a World Esperanto Congress in China in 1986, she concluded that the authorities there would like to make much more use of Esperanto for their external contacts, if other countries would reciprocate.

As the world has over 3,000 languages, learning more of them will never solve the problem. Only a neutral language, designed for the purpose, has the potential to solve the problem of the language barrier on a fair basis acceptable to all. Esperanto has a vast literature of original and translated works, novels, drama, poetry, songs and scientific papers. The Universala Esperanto-Asocio has members in 117 countries and national associations in over 60. It has consultative status with UNESCO and NGO status with the United Nations.

The time for the world (and the EU) to agree on a single, neutral language for international purposes is long overdue, and is only prevented, as Connolly predicted, by great-power rivalry. English is rightly seen a vehicle for US influence. (It is also far too difficult to learn and has numerous variants). A task of socialists in the 21st century should be to restore the link between Esperanto and socialism. Global solidarity is needed more than ever.

Further Information:

Esperanto Association of Ireland (politically neutral): 9 Templeogue Wood, Dublin 6W. www.iol.ie/~carsfrn

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1