Everything you ever wanted to know
By Conor Kostick
There has been a very long tradition of socialism in Ireland, with Irish socialists making major contributions to the international socialist movement. Today in Ireland there are several socialist parties and several prominent socialist individuals.
The Beginnings of Socialism in Ireland
The origins of socialism in Ireland can be found in a very particular place and at a distinct moment in time: Ralahine, County Clare, on 7 November 1831. On that day, a commune was founded by forty-one adults and twelve children on the estate of John Vandeleur. Governed by an elected committee of nine, they strove to farm the estate as equals, share the wealth they produced, and educate the children. At first, the experiment in a kind of socialism that echoed the efforts of philanthropist Robert Owen in England was a success. There was no private property (even the dogs belonged to the commune) and they built a school and a kitchen in which they shared their vegetarian meals. Twenty-nine new people joined the commune and Ireland’s first mowing machine was introduced to help with the work.
E.T. Craig, who helped set up the commune, subsequently wrote about it and made an observation that is fundamental to socialism and relevant nearly two hundred years later when he expressed the belief that free people who have a say in the way that work is carried out are much happier and more productive than those who are alienated from their work.
Every member felt he [sic] had an interest in preserving the property and increasing the product. Under a despotic domineering task-master they often appeared sullen, depressed, and dissatisfied. When appointed to their labour by the men they had elected, they were free, cheerful, and contented. The change was from that of slavery to that of freedom. Nothing is more painful to a high moral and generous mind that that of being forced to do the work of a severe, unfeeling foreman or employer.
Another highly relevant feature of Ireland’s first socialist movement was that it coped with a cholera epidemic, in 1832, without a single case of sickness, “although people were carried off in scores by fever and cholera in the neighbourhood and around us.” The success of the commune in avoiding an outbreak of disease was attributed to their relatively high levels of nutrition and an attention to cleanliness, especially in the management of human waste.
Unfortunately for the participants, however, the sudden disappearance of the owner of the land, John Vandeleur, brought Ireland’s first experiment in socialism to an abrupt end. Having gambled for large amounts at his Kildare Street club in Dublin, Vandeleur forged Bank of England powers of attorney until his schemes unravelled and he fled the country, sending a letter to his wife and five children that he would never see them again. The land on which the commune stood was sold towards the repayment of Vandeleur’s debts.
The Influence of Irish Socialists on the Chartist Movement
The next development of socialism in Ireland was a significant one. Members of the growing working class in the country began to organise for their political rights and in doing so brought about a new, more militant approach to socialism. Whereas Ralahine and the wider international trend to establish socialist communes was non-confrontational – typically having a wealthy patron to assist in their creation – the rise of trade unions in Ireland required a fierce battle against a capitalist class whose wealth was beginning to really take off.
The capitalists operating at the top of the Irish economy in the 1830s and 1840s were largely British, but there were powerful Irish business owners too (especially those involved in the export of livestock and eggs to Britain) and these found a political voice through Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell, the great reformer, is celebrated with statues and streets all across Ireland. His long career was spent advocating for the repeal of the 1801 Act of Union, an act that had been disastrous for Irish industry. But the (limited) independence for Ireland that O’Connell sought was also one that was bitterly opposed to socialism and trade unions.
In 1838, the People’s Charter was launched in Britain to overhaul a corrupt and limited form of parliamentary democracy that saw only rich, property-owning males have the vote. Very quickly, a mass working class movement developed around the demands of the charter, a movement which included the mass strikes in the north of England that led Frederick Engels to arrive at the philosophy we now call after his close friend Karl Marx. Engels was able to meet with Chartists and working-class radicals in large part thanks to his lover – Irishwoman Mary Burns – and her sister Lizzie.
Irish trade unionists in England were heavily involved in the Chartist movement and whereas O’Connell was advocating a return to the relationship between Ireland and England that existed before the 1801 Act of Union, the Irish Chartists were for the complete separation of Ireland from England. The Irish Universal Suffrage Association (IUSA) was founded in 1841 with the participation of around 1,000 Chartists in Ireland. They added an extra demand to the People’s Charter, that of a repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland, although they added, it would ‘be of no benefit to Ireland, unless preceded by universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, equal representation and no property qualifications.’
As Europe moved towards revolution in 1848 the socialists in Ireland were able to influence affairs here to the extent of pulling thousands of working class Repealers away from O’Connell. They aspired to hold a Chartist National Assembly in Dublin but with the decline and repression of the European revolutionary wave the IUSA collapsed.
Marxism in Ireland
When Marx and Engels arrived at their theory of communism, they brought about a seismic shift in socialist thinking. And not just for the philosophy of socialism. Marxism has made a profound contribution to almost all disciplines, especially in the humanities. For Irish socialists, the work of Marx and Engels helped clarify their own aspirations. Their goal was now a much more fundamental one than creating model co-operatives or winning the franchise for workers: it was to be part of an international working class movement that would culminate in an epoch-making transformation of society from capitalism to one where workers would rule for a time, before all distinction based on class would melt away.
Irish socialists helped influence this vision, not least in convincing Marx and Engels that independence for Ireland was a highly revolutionary demand that would contribute to the overthrow of capitalism. Among several Irish socialist revolutionaries in Marx and Engel’s circle of friends was Joseph Patrick McDonnell, a fellow member of the General Council of the International Working Men’s [sic] Association (the IWMA, also known as the First International, was the first attempt to create an international socialist party). McDonnell, a Dubliner, had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and had been a leading member by the time the Fenian movement was suppressed. Arrested in 1866, McDonnell spent a year in prison without charge, before moving to London and organising highly effective protests on behalf of Irish prisoners (one, at Hyde Park on 24 October 1869, had as many as 120,000 people at it).
A close supporter of Marx on the General Council, McDonnell used his IRB connections to gain members for the IWMA, the first Marxist party in Ireland. A branch was established in Cork in 1872 and growing swiftly to 500 members, saw a fierce battle ensue, as the Church hit back with a counter-mobilisation of tradesmen under their influence. “They were nothing less than murderers,” said Reverend Canon Maguire in an attempt to scare potential support away from the Cork IWMA. “They would bring out the priests and bishops, place them against the wall and shoot them.” An alliance of the British authorities, upper-class nationalists, the Catholic church, and conservatives who had taken fright at the Paris Commune of 1871 was too powerful for the young communist movement, which fell apart, after probably achieving a membership of around 2,000 across the country (mostly in Cork, Dublin and Belfast). The brief existence of an Irish section of the IWMA contributed to the fact that anxious employers in the south of Ireland agreed to a nine-hour working day, as had been achieved in England in 1872.
Syndicalism and the rebirth of socialism in Ireland
By the early twentieth century, the establishment of strong, stable, craft trade unions in many European countries and their input into the Second International brought about the idea – represented today in Ireland by the Labour Party and the Social Democrats – that socialists should accept that a capitalist economy is inevitable. Instead of being part of a working-class movement that strives to take control of the large businesses, the task of socialists should be to legislate to improve the position of workers within a capitalist system.
It was evident at the start of the Great War that most members of the Second International accepted this more modest goal (all the big socialist parties of Europe supported their own business class in the war effort), socialism in Ireland, however, remained internationalist and focused on achieving a complete transformation of society, in large part due to the efforts of the unskilled workers to organise themselves into trade unions. From 1911, a strike wave around the world saw ‘syndicalist’ tactics adopted to win a better life for unskilled workers.
Because they could so easily be replaced and because they had so little to live on, unskilled workers who went on strike had to win swiftly if they were to win at all. They therefore developed the tactics of forming mass pickets that didn’t hesitate to roam from workplace to workplace shutting entire districts down. Along with this militant approach to going on strike, workers who advocated syndicalism also developed a sense of solidarity across the entire workforce. Theirs was a practical kind of socialism that came from within the working class, whereas more and more, the socialists of the Second International stood apart from the people who voted for them and held elitist, paternalistic ideas about their own roles.
In Ireland, where syndicalism was particularly strong, militant unskilled workers found two magnificent representatives and socialist organisers in Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Larkin and Connolly became world-famous socialists largely because they gave articulate expression to the values of the radical working class communities of whom they were a part.
Jim Larkin and revolutionary socialism in Ireland
Having participated in several large strikes and become a trade union organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers, in 1908 Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). This was a radical, syndicalist-inspired, trade union and one based in Ireland rather than England. With rapid growth among the dockworkers of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Dundalk, Waterford and Sligo, Larkin aspired to bring all workers into ‘one big union’ that could take control of the whole of industry. He founded a popular newspaper, The Irish Worker, that by 1912 was selling 20,000 copies a week and which gave voice to workers themselves as well as carrying persuasive and wickedly barbed agitational columns by Larkin.
The upward trajectory of the ITGWU and socialism in Ireland was temporarily halted by William Martin Murphy for the employers. Murphy rallied 400 of Dublin’s employers into making a stand against Larkin. They tried to force their workers into signing a pledge not to join the ITGWU, precipitating a seven-month lockout from August 1913, with tens of thousands of workers affected. When the bitter conflict eventually came to an end, with workers signing the anti-union pledge, Larkin left for the USA where he became a member of the Socialist Party of the USA and the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary syndicalist trade union.
Arrested in 1919 for ‘criminal anarchy’, Jim Larkin missed the high point of Irish working class strikes and ‘soviets’, returning to Dublin in 1923 where he never ceased to strive for socialism in Ireland and the improvement of working class lives.
James Connolly and the Socialist Party of Ireland
James Connolly too was a syndicalist and organiser for the ITGWU and the Industrial Workers of the World in the USA. His life was lived in working-class communities in the company of fellow revolutionaries. Connolly had a much deeper interest in socialist theory than did Larkin and his (self-taught) engagement history and politics made him an extraordinarily effective writer and speaker. Probably the most important book ever written by an Irish socialist is Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, whose core argument is that only the working class can be relied upon to bring about Ireland’s escape from British rule and that this revolt against the empire would be bound up in the struggle to establish socialism in Ireland. Wealthy nationalists could not be relied upon, because they were tied ‘by a thousand golden threads’ to Britain.
While studying the history of the Irish working class movement, Connolly came across the example of the commune at Ralahine and drew this important conclusion from the experience:
In the most crime-ridden county in Ireland this partial experiment in Socialism abolished crime; where the fiercest fight for religious domination had been fought it brought the mildest tolerance; where drunkenness had fed fuel to the darkest passions it established sobriety and gentleness; where poverty and destitution had engendered brutality, midnight marauding, and a contempt for all social bonds, it enthroned security, peace and reverence for justice, and it did this solely by virtue of the influence of the new social conception attendant upon the institution of common property bringing a common interest to all. Where such changes came in the bud, what might we not expect from the flower? If a partial experiment in Socialism, with all the drawbacks of an experiment, will achieve such magnificent results what could we not rightfully look for were all Ireland, all the world, so organised on the basis of common property, and exploitation and mastership forever abolished?
Connolly’s influence spread far beyond the working class and he won over radical nationalists such as Countess Markiewicz to the goal of socialism in Ireland. Such was the respect he had with figures like Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse that Connolly was made commandant of the Easter Rising of 1916, for which role he was executed by General Maxwell. James Connolly is Ireland’s most famous socialist.
Ireland’s revolutionary workers 1918 – 1923
Workers in Ireland played an enormously important role in the War of Independence (1918 – 21) that saw Britain concede a limited form of independence to 26 counties of Ireland. As well as boycotting British institutions such as courts, tax collection, barracks and businesses serving the army, there were four massive general strikes in the period. In addition and sometimes lasting for months in the Civil War (1922-3) – until forcibly ended by Free State troops – there were hundreds of takeovers of businesses, which, inspired by events in Russia, often declared themselves to be ‘soviets’.
The most radical actions of the time were often led by supporters of Connolly and Larkin, typically revolutionary syndicalists. But the fact that a mass socialist party did not emerge from these years is largely because with Connolly dead and Larkin in jail, the leading figures in Ireland’s trade union movement were more of the Second International mentality, accepting the need for a capitalist economy in Ireland and steering working class protest towards support for Sinn Féin.
Ireland’s many socialist parties
Across the twentieth century there have been dozens of socialist parties in Ireland. The proliferation of small socialist parties in Ireland (represented graphically on the Timeline of the Irish Left, at the Irish Left Archive) gives the impression of a fractious, irresponsible left. But very important questions underlie the differences in approach between these parties. Socialists worldwide are divided on the question of reform or revolution and also on whether governments such as that of Russia or China (which call themselves socialist or communist) should be supported as examples of what socialism can achieve. In Ireland there is an additional source of division: what stand should socialists take on the question of Northern Ireland? Some socialists believe it necessary to ally with republicans until the country is united; others that a united Ireland will not be achieved without a mass workers movement, north and south; and yet others that a united Ireland should not be a goal for socialists, except as part of an international socialist federation of countries.
These are questions that are fundamental to what kind of vision a socialist party offers for the future and while all of the left can unite on campaigns like that of the 2014–16 anti-water charges campaign, it is understandable that different parties would form around the diverse approaches to these questions.
Socialism in Ireland today
The people and parties attempting to achieve socialism in Ireland today include the following:
The Communist Party of Ireland, founded in 1933, recognises in Russia and China and other Communist countries a model for socialists. It founded a – now autonomous – party for younger members, the Connolly Youth Movement.
Éirígí For A New Republic is a Dublin-based split from Sinn Féin, formed in 2006.
Independent Left is a new socialist party with an emphasis on the environment and inclusivity. Councillor John Lyons for Artane / Whitehall is a member.
Militant Left, a 2020 split from the Socialist Party, is based mainly in Northern Ireland, and has a representative on Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.
People Before Profit was set up by the Socialist Workers Party (now Socialist Workers Network) to widen their appeal. Richard Boyd Barrett, Bríd Smith and Gino Kenny are their TDs.
RISE, was a 2020 split from the Socialist Party, with Paul Murphy as TD, which merged with People Before Profit early in 2021.
Socialist Democracy, has roots in the influential People’s Democracy of the late 1960s in Northern Ireland. The socialist historian D.R. O’Connor Lysaght was a member.
The Socialist Party, which runs in elections under Solidarity-People Before Profit, has Mick Barry as a TD and Ruth Coppinger as a former TD.
The Workers and Unemployed Action group. Focused on Clonmel, until the election of 2020, WUA had Séamus Healy as a TD and two councillors. Currently the party has one councillor.
The Workers’ Party grew from a split with Sinn Féin in 1970 and for a period in the 1980s was the largest socialist party in Ireland. Today it has one councillor, Éilis Ryan in north Dublin.
As well as these parties that are explicitly striving for socialism in Ireland, there are three other political parties in Ireland who sometimes refer to socialist ideas and historic figures such as James Connolly: The Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats. These parties see the achievement of a socialist world as unrealistic and, instead, they aspire to play a part in a government that proves to be a success for Irish business while also having the goal of improving the living standards of Irish workers. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Dublin City Council (in the case of the Social Democrats) that when their two major aspirations collide, these three parties side with the business agenda.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is socialism and what is it not?
Socialism is the idea that the world’s wealth should be shared among all. And that capitalism should be replaced with a world economy where everyone is free and has a say in how society is run. Socialism, therefore, does not exist in China, Russia or anywhere currently in the world.
Is Ireland socialist?
No, not by a long way. Even in regard to social welfare and state support for childcare, health, education, etc. Ireland has levels of investment that are far below the European average.
What does it mean if you’re a socialist?
You believe it is possible to change the world to one where people live in peace and co-operation. You are against prejudices such as racism and sexism, that divide the working class and provide scapegoats for the failings of capitalism.
Who is the leader of the socialist party in Ireland?
There are several socialist parties in Ireland. Having an entrenched ‘leader’ or collective leadership that remains largely unchanged for decades is not the ideal model of a socialist party.
What are the beliefs of the socialist parties in Ireland?
All the socialist parties in Ireland – as elsewhere – share a belief that capitalism should be challenged and replaced by a system where the wealth being created is shared among all. Most, too, believe that it is the working class that has the ability to bring this about.
What are the main principles of socialism?
Wealth should be shared; no one should suffer poverty; the world should be free of prejudice; businesses should be run by their staff collectively; radical measures should be taken in response to global warming. Independent Left believe it should also be a principle of socialism to phase out animal farming and treat all sentient beings with compassion.
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For more socialist history and especially the role of socialists in Ireland’s War of Independence, you might enjoy my book: Revolution in Ireland.