Revolution is in his blood, says Mat Callahan. After all, the singer-songwriter was born on the 14th of July—Bastille Day—the opening battle of the 1789 French Revolution. Now Callahan is in California for a 14-city tour to perform songs written by Irish labor organizer James Connolly, whose books include Socialism Made Easy and Songs of Freedom.
If the name James Connolly doesn’t ring a bell it may be because his anti-Capitalist ideas didn’t have much of a shelf life in American history books. But in Ireland, Connolly is widely remembered as the founder of the Irish Citizen Army (1913), a leader of the Easter Rising (1916) and a Socialist songwriter whose life ended in 1916 at the age of 48 on the receiving end of a British firing.
If you have heard of Connolly maybe you recall John Lennon quoting him on TV in the early ’70s: “The female worker is the slave of the slave,” said Lennon, who transposed the sentiment with Yoko Ono into, “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
GT recently spoke with Mat Callahan about Ireland, revolution and the Songs of Freedom book/CD (2013, PM Press) that Callahan helped assemble from Connolly’s lost writings and lyrics.
GT: James Connolly moved to the United States in 1903 and brought revolutionary ideas with him. Why did Connolly come to this country?
Callahan: Connolly was one of the many impoverished workers who came to the U.S. looking for a means of a livelihood. That was part of the reason he came. But Connolly already had essays and articles published in the United States under the auspices of the Socialist Labor Party of America. He couldn’t work in Ireland because he was too well known as a labor organizer. To support his family he came to the U.S. and was immediately embraced by the labor movement in New York. In 1905 he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W) at its very founding.
Connolly wrote, “Civilization cannot be built upon slaves, civilization cannot be secured if the producers are sinking into misery.” What’s most important to you about spreading the message of his ideas and songs?
The bottom line for me is to get people to read what he actually wrote. He was a Marxist and influenced by the Second International as well as the Wobblies (I.W.W.). Here was a guy from the lowest depths of the working class who managed to teach himself to read, to think and to articulate in an eloquent way the noblest ideals of humankind. That includes not only trying to improve the lot of the working class, but also he was a leader of the whole idea of fighting for self-determination, which was a major theme of the 20th Century.
Connolly was also a feminist, wasn’t he?
Connolly’s statement that John Lennon quoted on the Dick Cavett Show many years ago was, “Woman is the slave of the slave.” Connolly was writing about the role of women in history, but also imagining a Socialist Workers Republic of Ireland and what the role of women would be in liberating Ireland’s working class.
Connolly helped to form and lead the Irish Citizen Army. Does armed resistance resonate now metaphorically or literally?
The Irish Citizen Army was organized in 1913 to defend the workers of Dublin against employers using the police to attack them. The workers did not get any of their demands but one lasting effect of the 1913 Dublin Walkout was the formation of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). This army was originally to defend the workers but it led up to the Easter Rising. This was not an underground organization. They did march and drill openly in Dublin. This was obviously symbolic because there were not enough of them to actually take on the Brits in direct armed conflict. But they did play a pivotal role when the decision to do the Easter Rising took place. To a certain extent it was a forerunner of Vietnam, Cuba or China; people fighting for national liberation and a working class republic. I’m not advocating the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, or even think that particular form of struggle is suitable for today’s conditions, but I nonetheless support what it represented for liberation in general throughout the 20th century. We certainly have something to learn from it in terms of our current dilemma.
Connolly dedicated himself to the struggle to “liberate humanity from all forms of slavery.” How successful have we been in moving toward this goal?
Connolly came along at the end of a century full of revolution starting with the American, French and Haitian revolutions of the late 18th century. The 20th century had several French Revolutions and a feeling that “workers of all countries unite” really had a future. At the moment it seems like that great wave of human liberation has been turned back. But Connolly’s determination was steeled in struggle itself; that the problems of the world cannot be solved through talk. It requires active engagement, whether its labor organizing or organizing a food co-op or playing in a band. Once you’re engaged you see the process in a different way than if you’re on the sidelines. My own optimism comes from being involved as opposed to just reading the news.
Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore will be performing modern adaptations of Connolly’s revolutionary tunes at The Poet & The Patriot at 9 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 22 and at San Jose’s Caffe Frascati on Jan. 28.