This is a guest post by Gerard Madden. Gerard Madden is an Irish Research Council funded PhD student in NUI Galway, currently completing a dissertation on ‘Irish Catholic anti-communism in the era of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, 1940-1971’. A founding member of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class, he is interested in the cultural and political history of twentieth century Ireland, North and South, and the revolutionary left, both in Ireland and internationally.
For historians of the British and Irish communist movements, Irish republicanism, the Northern Ireland conflict, and those examining the Irish community in Britain generally, the digitisation and uploading online of the newspapers of the Connolly Association, Irish Freedom (1939-1944) and the Irish Democrat (1945-2000), by the group are an important development that will make research much easier.
Wedding traditional Irish republicanism with socialism, the Connolly Association played a highly visible role in the Irish community in Britain after its establishment in 1938, having branches in most of the main cities to which Irish immigrants were attracted in the large-scale post-war migration across the Irish Sea. As Enda Delaney’s The Irish in Post War Britain notes, the group held frequent meetings in Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner in London, while in Birmingham Connolly Association members sold the Irish Democrat outside churches, in pubs, and to arriving Irish immigrants getting off trains.
The Irish Democrat’s editor from 1948 to 1988 and the Association’s most important figure was C. Desmond Greaves, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and an early biographer of several important figures in Irish radical history, notably James Connolly and Liam Mellows. While a majority of the Connolly Association’s members were not involved in the CPGB, something confirmed by the CPGB’s archives, the paper’s denials of CPGB links convinced few observers, limiting its appeal amongst the broader Irish community. Correspondence between Greaves and CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt in the CPGB archives confirms that the paper was seen by the party as a means for it to reach out to the Irish working class in Britain.
The paper was certainly identified by Catholic clerics, both British and Irish, as an attempt to recruit unwitting Irish Catholics into the British communist movement. Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a Galway-born labourer and Connolly Association member, recalled seeing a comrade attempt to sell the paper to an elderly Irishman who snarled, ‘clear off with your oul’ paper, the Church doesn’t approve of it.’ The News of the World- also a bugbear of Irish Catholic clergy for its perceived immorality- was sticking out of the man’s pocket, prompting the paper-seller to turn ruefully to Mac Amhlaigh and ask, ‘just how mixed-up can Irishmen get?’ One particularly vocal anti-communist among the Irish Catholic hierarchy, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, went as far as to write to the Irish Democrat denouncing it as communist in 1949 after it denied a claim by him that the group was a communist front, the paper publishing the letter but rejecting subsequent ones from Browne.
The Irish Democrat also covered other events of interest to the Irish community in Britain, in order to appeal to the working class Irish community which it targeted– for instance, it regularly reported on the events of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Britain, an important social outlet for Irish Catholic immigrants. The Irish language featured regularly in the paper – unsurprising, given Mac Amhlaigh, a well-known Irish language writer, was a regular contributor. It also covered broader social issues in Britain from a specifically Irish perspective, such as London’s racist Notting Hill riots of 1958, urging the Irish community to disavow racism and support their fellow immigrants against discrimination.
Moving into later decades, the newspaper is also an important source when examining the emergence of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, campaigns surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of Irish people in Britain during the conflict, and the relationship of the British Labour Party and the broader British left towards Ireland. While Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with Sinn Féin in the 1980s has become a talking point of Labour’s current leadership election, also of contemporary interest is the appearance of Labour’s current acting leader, Harriet Harman, on the front of the January 1983 issue declaring her support for an united Ireland!
The Connolly Association’s newspapers were not easily accessible to historians before this- I had previously relied on the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, of all places, to access the Irish Democrat for my current research on the Irish Roman Catholic Church and anti-communism during the Cold War, the Archdiocese under Archbishop John Charles McQuaid collating the paper to keep up to date with the activities of the Irish communist movement. In making them freely and easily accessible online, the Connolly Association have done both scholars and those interested in the Irish left more broadly a great service.