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Review: The Irish Worker 1912 Christmas Number
by D.R.O’Connor Lyaght
24 December 2012
James Curry and Francis Devine introduce “Merry May Your Christmas Be and 1913 Free from Care”: The Irish Worker 1912 Christmas Number.
Irish Labour History Society, Dublin 2012.
The Irish Labour History Society are to be praised for republishing the long hidden Christmas number of the original Irish Worker. This is not because it contains the most brilliant work produced by its contributors, though in some cases the writers’ work does stand with the best. More importantly, this number reminds the reader how Jim Larkin saw the socialist ideal as more than a question of economic ownership or even of technological advancement, but one of the overall cultural achievement of the individuals in the community. There is also, however, a less inspiring but still important reason to read this work; it reflects how far away Larkin and Connolly were from leading the Irish workers to a position in the vanguard of those working to fulfil this vision.
The first consideration can be shown easily enough. Larkin was able to get a number of the leading Irish writers to give their talents free as contributors to this work. They included, besides Larkin and Connolly, Standish O’Grady (whose idiosyncratic politics has made him much less known now than then), St John Ervine (who had yet to Mussolini into the ideologist of the more rabid wing of Ulster Unionism), W.P.Ryan (later to publish the first history of Irish Labour since Connolly), Maude Gonne and Sean O’Casey, writing in Irish. It should be added that some of the best stuff is not by those mentioned in the last sentence, notably A.P.Wilson’s (Mac’s) knockabout panto, Ali Martin Baba and His Forty Thieves, James J. Burke’s Henryesque Adventures of a Christmas Pudding. Delia Larkin’s “An Xmas Incident” or Meadb Caomanac’s “A Stolen Ms”. The Ernest Kavanagh cover is also a subversive joy with its portrayal of Santa Clause elves as celebrating proletarians.
Mention of this illustration raises the negative side of the Worker’s Christmas number. The cover is the only illustration. It is difficult to know why this was so, since, even then, such works were provided with pictures, in Kavanagh, Larking had a brilliant draughtsman, and there were artists who were known to be broadly sympathetic to his cause. Was it the expense? Probably it will never be known.
This lack of drawings makes the publication the more grim. In Dublin in 1912, it had to be stark if it were not to be totally utopian. This is not to say that here are not utopian contributions, such as W.P.Ryan’s “On a Tram Car in Wonderland” and, less successfully, Fred Bowers sub-H.G.Wellsian “The First and Last General Strike”. The “Useful Hints” pages with their advice about cooking “Rich Plum Pudding” would have seemed pretty utopian, too, for most readers.
Such contributions are outnumbered by the grim portrayals of actual working class living conditions. A.Patrick Wilson’s one act play “Victims” with its destitute tenement family and dying baby takes the prize. It is followed closely by Cathal Lally’s “The Passing of the Kid”, by Meadb Caomanac’s “The Tramp” and by Denis J. Gregan’s poem “When the Fishing Boats came Home”. Worse than these are the some more optimistic stories notably “The Maid of the Mill”, by William Partridge (the same William Partridge who would be a leader of the workers in the Lockout a few months later), J.C.’s (probably James Casey’s) “A Happy Christmas Ending”, or A.M.Scott’s “Teddy’s Dark Christmas Eve”, in all of which the happy ending is achieved by a benevolent capitalist descending at the crucial moment. Even in Caomanac’s “Stolen Ms” it is hinted that a happier future will be secured by its hero’s legacy. Ryan’s tramcar trip leads to a wonderland where Larkin can converse amicably with his class enemies, albeit in Liberty Hall itself, where such discussion has become all too frequent.
Of course, even more than now (though not, if the present bosses’ offensive, continues, more than in the future) this sort of thing reflected working class reality and the dreams of too many of that class’ members. The problem was that the Irish Worker was created to cause its designated readership to look away from the despair of their lives and their hopes of good bosses and legacies and into the greater realism of concerted action for better conditions and ultimately state power. How well did this Christmas number do this?
It did not add very much to what it had produced before. As editor, Larkin declares that only the workers will be able to bring lasting peace to the world. Connolly preaches the Divine Gospel of Discontent. Ervine urges joint working class action against sectarianism. Joseph Foley (Shellback) explains that emigration is an economic problem. Maude Gonne describes the malnourishment of schoolchildren. Sean O’Casey writes of Eoin Roe O’Neill who seems to resemble Larkin. What is lacking is any analysis as to how the evils denounced in these pages are to be overcome: how the workers and oppressed are to take state power. In “Victims”, Wilson mentions the necessity for a single big union (implicitly, like the Irish Transport), but in passing. Otherwise, the reader is left with the co-operatism of Mary Lawless, backed by Tom Kelly’s historical description of the heyday of the Dublin Guilds to get a glimpse of the future and to hope that it can be achieved somehow, perhaps through an invention like that described by Bowers or by the revival of the heroic Irish spirit preached by O’Grady. There is no evidence of any attempt to combine holiday reading with a raising of class consciousness beyond basic militancy, probably because no such attempt was being made.
The Irish Worker Christmas Number is, then, pre-eminently of historic interest, but not as much as it should be. Today it is arguable that working class consciousness is higher than it was century ago. The problem is that it is retarded not because of any absence of education but by the disagreements of the various schools of thought. The most educated working class leaders are more conscious socialists than their ancestors, but their consciousness has shown them different courses of action. On the other hand, and overwhelmingly, there are the heirs of the fakirs who opposed Larkin and Connolly, leading parties formally independent but practically as subordinate to capital as their ancestors were more honestly. Ali Baba Martin’s Forty Thieves are alive and well.
The answer is, of course, a party with members as educated as they are committed and linked on equal terms to other such parties abroad with political disagreements worked out in comradely and respectful fashion. It is tempting to feel that the hopes of many of the Christmas numbers contributors that benevolent capitalists will be enough to improve conditions are more realistic. Of course, such hopes are as utopian as Bowers idea of a liberating invention. As can be seen today, even the most benevolent capitalists find sooner or later that they have to reduce workers living standards either individually or in collusion with their peers. Why this should be has been explained many times: the capitalist’s need for profit comes to clash with the needs of those employed. In this review it can be repeated only that a Socialist party as has been described must develop from its advocates hard work in 2013.
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