Historian tracks path of Irish radicalism

Adrian Grant’s ‘Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-39’ was, says its author, a “labour of love.”

Adrian Grant’s ‘Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-39’ was, says its author, a “labour of love.”

“There were times when I doubted whether I could pull it off but a few days away from the research and I was itching to get back to it again with some new idea or insight,” he admits.

The new book – published by Four Courts Press – is an original examination of socialist republicanism from the perspective of the Labour movement alongside the IRA and other republican groups.

However, much more than that, it is an enthralling narrative of the many connections and alliances that existed between republicans, socialists, communists and others.

The book guides the reader along the many twists and turns that trace both mainstream and radical Irish politics in what was a tumultuous period of Irish history.

Buncrana-born Adrian, who holds a PhD from the University of Ulster and is editor of the online history magazine, ‘Scoláire Staire’, explains the genesis of his new book.

“While I was writing a dissertation for my degree at Magee, I took a great interest in the subject of the book,” he says. “That dissertation was actually about the relationship between the IRA and Nazi Germany during the Second World War but part of it involved investigating the ideological make-up of the 1930s IRA.

“I found it fascinating that the IRA was openly left-wing in the early 1930s but, less than ten years later, was working alongside Nazi Germany in the hope of freeing Ireland, whatever the cost.”

He adds: “The more I researched the left in the IRA, the more interested I became. I started reading every book I could find on inter-war Irish radicalism. Where it led me was to the realisation that this whole socialist republican thing was about much more than a few IRA members who held James Connolly up as their hero.

“Coincidentally enough, one of the best books written on Irish communism is by Emmet O’Connor who lectures at Magee. It was through working with him at Magee that the time period and subject matter for the book really became clear in my head.

“The book really starts with the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union by Jim Larkin in 1909. It follows the labour and republican movements right through all the twists and turns of the revolutionary 1910s before going on to examine the less well known period of the 1920s and 30s. It finishes with the start of the Spanish Civil War – a war that many socialist republicans left Ireland to fight in.”

So, what does Adrian’s book add to the canon of publications that already exist on Irish radicalism in the early twentieth century?

“There have been a few books written on Irish radicalism over the last ten or twenty years but my book analyses the labour movement and the republican movement together in depth for the first time,” says Adrian.

“Events like the Dublin lockout, 1918 election, War of Independence, formation of Fianna Fail etc., all take on a different hue when viewed from this perspective. Also, socialist republicanism has for too long been thought to be the ideology of the IRA and other republican groups. My book shows that there was much more to it than that.”

Asked if the politics of the Labour movement and republicanism in early twentieth-century Ireland has, until now, been overlooked by historians, Adrian says both ‘yes and no.’

“The last two decades have seen a fair amount of research on republicanism in the early twentieth century. Brian Hanley’s The IRA, 1926-36, being a particularly good example. There have been a few books on Labour by some dedicated labour historians but there is still a lot to be done.

“One thing that you will find is that, in general histories of the early twentieth century, the Labour movement is usually dismissed or some tired old myths are perpetuated. Labour being a victim of circumstances in Ireland, Civil War politics and ‘labour must wait’ are forever cited as reasons for the party’s weakness. There is much more to it than that and I try my best to show that in the book.”

Adrian agrees that socialist republicanism - ‘examined in detail from the perspective of the Labour movement alongside the IRA and other republican groups’ – is a pretty onerous task to undertake.

“Given that it’s never been done before, there was a lot of research to get through,” he acknowledges. “I went through mainstream and radical newspapers, government documents and private papers, as well as Special Branch files and Soviet political records. Putting it all together coherently, and in a way that is both readable and entertaining, was another task altogether. But, it was all worth it to see the book in its finished form and available for everyone to appreciate.”

While some commentators are keen to draw similarities between the early twentieth century and current events, Adrian says it’s also important to draw distinctions.

“At that time, you had a world war, a revolution in Ireland, the formation of the first workers’ state in Russia, and an expectation amongst the people of a new dawn for democracy and an age of the people. You also had partition and a civil war here before the two new states began to bed down in the 20s and 30s. These kinds of events are unparalleled in our time.

“However, you also had a market crash in 1929 and a crippling recession/depression across the world in the 1930s. The Irish government was also under severe strain because of a massive debt it owed to the British Exchequer. There were calls from socialist republicans to default on the debt, which were dismissed as the crazy ideas of irresponsible communists. De Valera eventually defaulted on the debt when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932.

“I think what we should learn from that is not to dismiss alternative ideas out of hand just because they don’t fit in with the current mainstream agenda. For example, some of the ‘radical’ things socialist republicans called for in the 1930s are what we all expect as a minimum today.”

Adrian says there are a few themes in his book that the Derry/Donegal reader should look out for.

“There is a discussion on the anti-conscription general strike in Derry in 1918. In fact, employees of the ‘Derry Journal’ honoured the strike call along with most of the city’s workers. Usually, when we hear about the great anti-conscription strike, it is said that everywhere except the north honoured it. It should be noted that even the pro-conscription ‘Londonderry Sentinel’ admitted that the city came to a standstill on the day.

“There are other bits and pieces about Derry and Donegal in the book, like the Derry dockers’ reaction to Jim Larkin when he arrived in Ireland like a bull in a china shop in 1907.

“I studied the Labour Party in Donegal, too, and give a sort of character sketch of a man called Archie Cassidy who is, to date, Donegal’s only ever Labour TD. Apart from that, Peadar O’Donnell (of Dungloe and Waterloo Street fame!) features throughout the book, as does Sean McCool from Stranorlar.”

So what’s next on the agenda for Adrian?

“At the moment I’m working in the Tower Museum in Derry but I’m using my spare time to edit Scoláire Staire [an online history magazine mainly written by young historians just getting started in their careers] and organise events for the West Inishowen History & Heritage Group. I have a lot of information left over from the book that I’ll turn into articles sometime in the future. Apart from that, and when I find the time, I’m planning to research the lives of Irish working people in the nineteenth century.”

‘Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-1936’, by Adrian Grant, is published by Four Courts Press and is available in bookshops.