A Socialist Insurgent

BOOK REVIEW by Bill Anderson

This book is part of a series, 16 Lives, all being reviewed by Tinteán reviewers.

Lorcan Collins: James Connolly: 16 Lives, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2012.

ISBN: 9781847171603

RRP: Paperback: $28.64; Amazon Kindle Ebook: $9.99

It is fitting that this volume in the ’16 Lives’ series of biographies of the sixteen men executed after the Easter Rising in 1916 was one of the first three books to be launched. The launch, appropriately enough, was held at the Dublin General Post Office in O’Connell Street – the site, of course, of the Headquarters of the Republican forces during the Rising and a ‘sacred’ site for Irish Republicans to this day.

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James Connolly Cover

Lorcan Collins, the author of James Connolly 16 Lives (well known as the organiser and guide of the ‘1916 Walking Tour’ in Dublin) speaking at the hugely well-attended launch of his book – and the simultaneous launch of two other books in the series on Michael Mallin and Brian Hughes – commented that there were more people present at the launch than there were in the GPO. during the Rising in Easter Week 1916!

The whole concept behind this series is, I think, imaginative, smart and wholly admirable. The basic plan is that, starting in 2012, a series of biographical studies on the sixteen executed 1916 leaders will be published with the final books in the series being published in 2016 as part of the Commemoration and Celebration of the Centenary of the Rising. Collins and Dr Ruan O’Donnell are editing the books and they state that the series is ‘conceived with the objective of recording for posterity the lives of the sixteen men who were executed after the 1916 Easter Rising. Who were these people and what drove them to commit themselves to violent revolution?’ The editors commit themselves to ensuring that each biography in the series is ‘meticulously researched yet written in an accessible Fashion’. No small task!

In relation to Collins’ biography of Connolly I believe that the objectives of the series have been most splendidly achieved. This is a thoughtful, well-balanced, sensibly structured and extremely well-written book. Supported by a ‘Timeline’ of Connolly’s life and times, a useful and clear map of central Dublin in 1916, a selection of interesting photographs (some of which were new to me) an extensive bibliography and a couple of short appendices containing some of Connolly’s writings (including a number of his ballads and poems) the author presents a really clear and concise introduction to Connolly. I can see this book – and other books in the series if they are of this volume’s quality – being used extensively in schools and universities and being a great introduction for people who don’t know much about Connolly.

Clearly this is not a book that is essential reading for people who are already familiar with Connolly’s writings and with the major biographical studies. There are no new political insights/analysis or previously unearthed information. What there is in abundance is sound judgement and high-level writing skills – this is a really well told and entertaining account of Connolly’s life. Collins doesn’t engage deeply with Connolly’s political development and the many debates surrounding his life, his work and his legacy – this was not the intention of this book. It is, however a most accessible book as it is not only very readable but is also most attractively produced and reasonably priced.

One story about Connolly that was new to me and which I think is dubious in the extreme is an anecdote recounted by Catherine Morris, claiming that Connolly when visiting a technical school to see and work a spinning jenny deliberately stuck his hand into the machine and injured it in order to understand the suffering of those who had to work such a machine. Connolly had no need to do something foolish and pointless like this in order to understand the hardships and dangers of working class life, his own life was one of poverty, extreme hardship and danger. Neither Connolly’s working class credentials, nor his physical courage or his intellectual gifts were ever in question. I find this story impossible to believe, indeed preposterous. Connolly’s immediate response to an unsafe working environment would have been to organise a strike, his long-term response was, of course, to fight for a Socialist Workers’ Republic that would ensure that no one ever had to work in such dangerous conditions.

By any standards Connolly was a great and inspiring man and his important role in modern Irish history can hardly be overstated. This biography is a very good effort at producing a reliable and readable popular biography of Connolly. One hopes that it wins the wide readership that it deserves. The whole series is worthy of support. It is a wonderful publishing idea/project that, if this book anything to go by, is being brought to very successful fruition.

Other than Connolly the biographies in the series, some of which are already in print and have been reviewed in Tinteán, and all of which will be published before the centennial of the Rising, are Michael Mallin, Joseph Plunkett, Roger Casement, Thomas Clarke, Edward Daly, Sean Heuston, Sean MacDiarmada, Eamonn Ceannt, John MacBride, William Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Kent, Con Colbert, Michael O’Hanrahan and Patrick Pearse. All of these biographies will, I am sure, be well worth reading and I think that those dealing with executed leaders who have not previously had major biographical studies devoted to them will make an important contribution to Irish historiography.

BILL ANDERSON

Dr Bill Anderson is a professional historian. A Scot, he migrated to Australia in 1976. He has lectured on the Holocaust at Deakin University for many years and has in the past lectured on Irish and Scottish History at the University of Melbourne. He is a former Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.