On this May Day let us remember the contribution of the Revolting Irish and that the anthem of the International Labour Movement “The Red Flag” is really green! Indeed it was the Red and Green flags used in railway operations which inspired Irishman Jim Connell to pen “The Red Flag”, the anthem of the international Labour Movement. It is a truism that the Irish are always revolting! Indeed the contribution of the Irish to World Revolution is often overlooked. Take the French Revolution for instance. People are often unaware of the unique Irish contribution to both sides of the events. The charge of the mob on the Bastille Prison was led by Robespierre’s Irish assistant and of the only seven prisoners they found inside one was an Irish lunatic who thought he was Julius Caesar!
Then in South America we did our bit from Bernardo O’Higgins the liberator of Chile to more recently Ernesto Guevara Lynch, more commonly known as Che, his nom de guerre. Less known is our contribution to Charlie and Fred who produced the Communist Manifesto, itself launched in 1848 to a largely Irish audience at a Workingman’s club at the corner of Endell Street and Long Acre in Covent Garden, London. The analysis of social conditions and the effects of Capitalism on which the Manifesto is based was “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. This was the study over two years of social conditions in working class Manchester which Frederick Engels compiled with the help of Mary Burns, an Irish factory worker, who was his lover and collaborator and lived with him until her death in 1863. Engels then lived with Mary’s sister Lydia! Mary Burns was the key who unlocked access for Frederick Engels to the working class poor of Manchester. They also travelled to Ireland together on a number of occasions and Engels also wrote on the conditions in Ireland under English rule. When Frederick moved from Manchester to London they lived in Primrose Hill not far from Karl Marx in Belsize Park.
Indeed one of the delicious footnotes to the foundation of Communism is a letter from Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen (the Von lets you know her family were aristocratic) to a friend that she found Engels living with an Irish factory girl somewhat common! Marx married Jenny von Westphalen in 1843 and she accompanied him into exile. The family lived in Dean Street, Soho.
Then in 1855 when Jenny inherited some money enabling the family to move to a small house in No.1 Maitland Park Road, Belsize Park. Both Marx and Engels lived in London until the end of their days Marx in 1875 and Engels in 1895. The only “successful” revolution in their lifetime was the Paris Commune in 1871, which with hindsight was not a great success for the Communards who were massacred if they didn’t escape.
Still in Labour Movements and political parties in the countries where the Irish Diaspora settled they formed the backbone in agitation for labour and political rights. There were two reasons for this; they had been schooled in Ireland through anti-landlord / British organisations such as the Land League and the Fenian Brotherhood and wherever they settled they found themselves at the bottom of the pile and excluded. One such export to England was the remarkable, Jim Connell, best known as the author of the Socialist anthem, “The Red Flag.” Connell was born in Kilskyre, near Kells, County Meath and as a teenager became involved in land agitation and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Aged 18 and a signatory to the Fenian Oath, he moved to Dublin where he worked as a docker until he became blacklisted for attempting to unionise the workers. The story combines two of my interests, Irish History and Railways for it was a railwayman’s red signal flag which provided the inspiration for the song’s title.
In 1875, in the footsteps of millions of Irish men and women, Connell then made his way to England and London in search of reliable work. Here he developed his knowledge of politics, economics and science, particularly Darwin’s theories. In a pamphlet entitled Socialism and the Survival of the Fittest, Connell challenged the idea of capitalism being a “natural” system. He contrasted many species in nature, such as bees, who were “natural communists”, with capitalism, which protects the unfit and parasitical in the shape of those non-producers, the capitalists themselves.
He held a variety of jobs, including time as a staff journalist on Keir Hardie’s newspaper The Labour Leader, and was secretary of the Workingmen’s Legal Aid Society during the last 20 years of his life. For 10 years he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by Henry Hyndman, which supported the cause of Irish land reform and self-determination; both Connell and Hyndman were on the executive of the National Land League of Great Britain, which aimed to promote the need for land reform in Ireland amongst the workers in England. In the late 1890s, however, Connell left the SDF and joined the Independent Labour Party.
Connell was inspired to write a socialist anthem after attending a lecture at a meeting of the SDF during the London Dock Strike of 1889. He set down the words while on a train journey from Charing Cross railway station to New Cross on his way to his home in Honor Oak, south London. It is generally accepted that he gained inspiration as he watched the train guard raise and lower the red signal flag on the platform. It is normally sung to the tune of the German-language carol O Tannenbaum (also used for the state song of Maryland) though Connell had wanted it sung to a tune he called The White Cockade. Indeed, Tannenbaum was not a felicitous choice being once described by my townsman, George Bernard Shaw as “the funeral dirge of a dead snail!”
Many years later, Connell wrote that the song was inspired by the upsurge in trade unionism at the end of the 1880s, the Land League in Ireland, the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, and the hanging of the Chicago anarchists in 1887 – the struggles of the international proletariat of his time. It reflected a time of great strides in working class political life, after a quarter century of economic depression when reaction had reigned supreme on the international scene.
In 1920 in How I Wrote “The Red Flag” he commented: “Did I think that the song would live? Yes, the last line shows I did: “This song shall be our parting hymn”. I hesitated a considerable time over this last line. I asked myself whether I was not assuming too much. I reflected, however, that in writing the song I gave expression to not only my own best thoughts and feelings, but the best thoughts and feelings of every genuine socialist I knew… I decided that the last line should stand.” Jim Connell was by all accounts something of a maverick. According to the communist author Wal Hannington, a close friend in Connell’s later life, he was “very much an individualist who would have found it difficult to accept any sort of party discipline,” while his daughter Norah Walshe said that at times he could be “wild, uncontrollable and impulsive”.
Notwithstanding, he was a man who remained true throughout his life to the ideals of socialism, using his many skills to further the cause, and in the process giving us The Red Flag. He died in February 1929 in Lewisham, south London. His memory is preserved by a plaque at 22a Stondon Park, Lewisham, South London, and a bronze bust in Crosskiel, County Meath, Ireland.
So there you have it, a potted history of the revolting Irish from the French Revolution to modern times and two unsung Irish heroes, Mary Burns and Jim Connell. One final footnote. When Jim Connell wrote “The Red Flag” on a steam train from Charing Cross to New Cross in 1889 he had only 17 minutes to write it. If he did it today due to the great advantages of Rail Privitisation he would have 21 minutes. So it is likely a modern version of the Red Flag would have an extra verse, probably on the evils of Privatised Railways!
THE RED FLAG
(sung to theme of the German Christmas carol, O Tannenbaum)
The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts blood dyed its every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high. (chorus)
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.
Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.
It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.
It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.
See also for the French Revolution and Ireland.