In 1910 James Connolly returned to Ireland after working for seven years as a revolutionary in the US. His return coincided with the publication of his major pioneering work, Labour in Irish History.
It challenged the “common sense” view that Irish independence was the preserve of the nationalists.
The leaders of the Second International of world socialist parties argued that in “backward” countries socialism would follow the full development of capitalism.
They supported the granting of independence to the colonies and their capitalist development as the prerequisite for the growth of a working class “mature” enough to bring in a socialist government.
Connolly rejected this mechanical approach.
Instead of seeing the workers of Ireland as mere victims of oppression, he saw them as the force for change. He was the first to argue that the only way to achieve Irish independence was through the fight for a workers’ republic. He set out to build a socialist movement in Ireland.
When he had left Ireland in 1903, trade unionism was weak and restricted to the craft unions.
There were huge numbers of unskilled workers, but high levels of unemployment and the pattern of casual labour thwarted attempts to organise them.
Dublin was a city of poverty wages and terrible squalor. But the working class was moving forward.
In 1907 the Belfast dock strike opened up a period of labour militancy that shook the whole of Ireland.
It was led by James Larkin, the firebrand organiser for the British based dock workers’ union, and involved the poorest workers in the city.
Hired on a casual basis, dockers were forced to work long hours in all weathers for rotten pay.
Within months of his arrival in Belfast, Larkin had recruited nearly 5,000 dock workers to the union.
The bosses responded by firing union members.
Larkin brought out all the dockers and carters. For the first time Catholic and Protestant workers fought together against the bosses.
The strike was condemned by Unionist bosses, the Catholic church and home rule politicians.
Scab labour was brought in from Britain and southern Ireland. Battleships were sent to Belfast Lough and cavalry was used to put down rioting.
Larkin invited the Scottish revolutionary John Maclean to Belfast to help with the strike. Maclean described the atmosphere:
“The labourers are mad keen to join the union. They are rolling up in their tens of thousands to the steps of Custom House Quay on a Sunday morning to listen to the revolutionary gospel of socialism.”
Some 100,000 marched down the Protestant Shankhill Road in a display of solidarity.
The combination of low pay and the strain of protecting the scabs provoked a mutiny in the Belfast police and the city was thrown into chaos.
The Unionist press portrayed the events as a “nationalist insurrection”, warning of attacks on Protestants. But Larkin and the strike leaders prevented division by stressing unity.
The strike was broken by the intervention of the British leader of the dockers’ union. Alarmed by the strike, he reached a shabby settlement with the bosses over the heads of Larkin and the strikers.
Despite the defeat, the strike heralded a new period of labour militancy. In 1908 Larkin led strikes of Dublin carters and Cork dockers.
In 1910 he formed the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Within three years its membership had quadrupled to 10,000. It supported Irish independence.
Connolly became its Belfast organiser in 1910. In 1911 the union produced the Irish Worker newspaper and built an impressive sale of 95,000.
Connolly saw the possibility of creating “one big union” through the new ITGWU. From 1910 until his execution in 1916, Connolly’s main work was within the ITGWU. The Socialist Party, which he also led, received less of his time and energy.
His acceptance of the Second International’s concept of what a party should be meant he saw party activity as restricted to education, propaganda and standing in elections.
But the rise of Irish labour coincided with a period of political turmoil for which Connolly was ill-prepared.
There was a renewed demand for home rule and the emergence of a more militant form of nationalism. Unionist reaction and the dramatic collapse of the Second International in the face of war were other major issues.
The next column will look at how Connolly faced these challenges.