The Connolly Association in Manchester 1938-1962

The Connolly Association – originally the Connolly Club – was founded in 1938 from the ashes of two earlier Irish republican organisations. For nearly thirty years it campaigned from a left-wing perspective for Irish civil rights.

The Connolly Association was originally called the Connolly Club. The organisation emerged from a merger of the London branch of Republican Congress (a political organisation established in April 1934 by left-wing Republicans such as Frank Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell, which called for the creation of a Workers’ Republic) and the Irish section of the League Against Imperialism, an international socialist organisation which had been established in 1927 and disbanded in 1937.

By 1936 the Republican Congress was defunct but activity continued in London leading to the formation of the Connolly Club on 4th September 1938 at a meeting in the AEU Hall, Doughty Street. The first organiser, until his return to Ireland, was Michael McInerney. Other active members in the early years were Jim Prendergast and Patrick Musgrove.

In January 1939 the Club published the first issue of its monthly newspaper Irish Freedom (later renamed the Irish Democrat) which cost twopence. The editorial noted that it was the latest in a long line of papers with the same name and asserted that the demand for Irish freedom “will never be crushed, will never be eliminated except by satisfaction.”

An article in the paper countered the myth that the Irish were “job stealers”, arguing that the question of Irish people living in England could be used by:

“Fascist minded people in the same way as the Jewish people have been used by Hitler. In order to take the minds of the British people away from the real cause of the misery existing in England, campaigns are being organised in such places as the Midlands, Coventry, Birmingham etc where unemployment is high, against the Irish.”

The writer finished by urging the Irish to join trade unions or the National Unemployed Workers Movement. The Connolly Club used Irish Freedom to establish its organisation, gradually building up its sales in major Irish centres around Britain

At the onset of the war in September Irish Freedom proclaimed that the Connolly Club stood for “Freedom Unity and Democracy” but that they had no faith in Chamberlain. “We therefore state that the best manner in which we, as Irish workers, can play our part in this grave struggle is to unite our forces, irrespective of party or political differences, to smash the one barrier that prevents our country being able to play a more effective part in the war against fascist aggression, the partition of Ireland.” The paper also published the statement of the Communist Party of Ireland on the war.

At the annual conference of the Connolly Association in the autumn of 1945 the Manchester delegate was Jimmy McGill, a tunnelling worker from Donegal, who was warmly congratulated by delegates on his lively account of branch activities in the city. Jimmy eventually left the building trade to run a second-hand bookshop in Waterloo Place, Oxford Road. The shop was barely heated but the fortunate visitor might find a whiskey bottle in circulation amongst regulars to fend off the cold. Sadly, after his death, Jimmy’s own very extensive collection of books on Irish history did not find its way to a library. The secretary in Manchester in the late 1940s seems to have been Arthur Gracey, who lived on Talbot Road in Old Trafford.

In the immediate post-war period the organisation continued its campaigns on passports, welfare and conditions in hostels where they held a number of meetings. But as the restrictions on travel were lifted and employment conditions improved it switched its focus back to making propaganda for socialism and to raising the question of partition in the British labour movement as well as lobbying for the release of Irish Republican prisoners in Britain. Whilst there were close links with the Friends of Ireland group in parliament, there was little love lost between the Connolly Association and the Anti-Partition League, because the latter echoed the conservative Catholic nationalism of De Valera and was opposed to socialism.

Desmond Greaves became editor of the Irish Democrat in early 1948 . Greaves had been born in 1913 in Birkenhead into a Protestant family which hailed originally from Newcastle, County Down and studied at Liverpool University where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934, remaining a member for the rest of his life. He also became interested in Irish politics and sold the paper Republican Congress in Irish districts of Liverpool.

In 1937 he went to London where he became acquainted with leading Communists such as T A Jackson, who had a strong interest in Ireland, having known James Connolly personally. He eventually went on to write the classic Irish history Ireland Her Own. During the war Greaves worked at Woolwich Arsenal and afterwards became chief scientist at Powell Duffryn.

He joined the Connolly Club in 1941 and in 1951 he gave up full-time work to devote himself to the Connolly Association and the Irish Democrat, much of which he wrote himself as well as supervising the printing, distribution and sales. In the course of fifty years of political activity Desmond must have spoken at thousands of meetings, indoors and outdoors, from a packed public hall to a handful of people in a room above a pub.

A voluminous correspondent, he had a huge network of contacts across Ireland and Britain and beyond, which enabled the Connolly Association to wield much more influence than its modest membership might have indicated. In addition to his writing in the Irish Democrat Desmond also wrote pamphlets and somehow found the time to write a number of important history books, most notably The Life and Times of James Connolly, published in 1961, and Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, published in 1971. He died suddenly in 1988 whilst travelling back on a train from a meeting, a political activist to the end.

In 1955 the Connolly Association adopted a new constitution which expressed two aims; to win support in Britain for a united independent Ireland and to stand for equal treatment for the Irish in Britain. The organisation also pledged itself to continue to publish and make known “the teachings of the great representatives of Irish democratic republicanism, especially of the socialist James Connolly.” A pamphlet published by the Birmingham branch argued that emigration was not just the result of unemployment and low wages at home in Ireland but also caused by partition hindered industrial development. It stated that:

“…a united Ireland would make it easier to get a united working class and this would make for a higher standard of living, which is the great cause of employment.”

The report at the 1958 conference summed up the organisation’s achievements.

“Month by month members have sold the Irish Democrat. Through this means the policy of the Association have been brought before many thousands of Irish people in Britain and important sections of the trade union and labour movement. In addition to this there is readership in Ireland and other parts of the world, principally Canada and Australia. The various campaigns of the association have been publicised and anti-Irish discrimination has been exposed. Many hundreds of public meetings have been held throughout Britain; thousands of leaflets on special topics have been distributed; MPs have been effectively lobbied and regular branch meetings with talks and discussions have been held in the main centres, principally London and Manchester. London and Manchester remain the two strongholds, and organisational difficulties previously hampering the work because of the lack of premises were overcome by the acquisition of a new central office in London and new premises in Manchester.”

In 1958 the Connolly Association sent the English lawyer John Hostettler over to Belfast to cover the trial of Kevin Mallon and Francis Talbot, two Republicans accused of murdering a member of the RUC in Tyrone. Both men claimed that they had been beaten to obtain confessions. There were three trials associated with the case and Hostettler observed them all. Eventually the two men were acquitted. On his return Hostettler spoke at meetings all over Britain, including in Manchester, about what was going on in the North of Ireland and wrote a pamphlet which laid bare the workings of the Special Powers Act.

The branch in Manchester was active throughout most of the 1950s and into the 60s. Membership was boosted by the collapse of the Anti-Partition League, some of whose leading members, such as Daniel Kilcommins, now joined the Connolly Association. Joe Deighan, originally from the Falls Road, became Secretary of the Manchester Connolly Association and also served as national president of the Association. Tommy Watters was also an active member. Many of the leading members of the branch were also active in the trade union movement. Tommy Watters was a printer and Father of the Chapel, Danny Kilcommins was chairman of his ASW branch while Joe Deighan was a delegate to the Manchester Trades Union Council.

The branch had an office at 94/96 Grosvenor Street, All Saints where there was also a hall which they used for socials. There were regular meetings at these premises for members with guest speakers. In March 1961, for instance, Desmond Greaves spoke on “In Search of Connolly” while John Hostettler spoke on “Human Rights in Northern Ireland and Britain’s Responsibility.”

The branch also held meetings every Sunday at Platt Fields. These ran into trouble in April 1954 when an official from the Manchester Corporation told them to take down the Irish tricolour. They refused, so he tore it down. After protests the council eventually backed down over the issue.

In November 1959 the branch issued a manifesto which called for a good turnout for the annual Manchester Martyrs procession on 29th November and also called for the organisation to be allowed to join the memorial committee. It seems likely that they had been kept off because in the climate of the cold-war politics of the1950s they were seen as too left-wing. The manifesto called for a united front of Irish organisations in Britain, arguing that the Connolly Association had a special contribution to make to the Irish cause because of its working class membership. They also said that the involvement of the branch on the Martyrs Committee would add young people to the commemoration, noting that “the Annual Commemoration in Moston has not deeply impressed itself on the Irish who have recently come from Ireland.”

“So isn’t it obvious that the Connolly Association should be represented on the Martyrs committee – along with all other Irish organisations who are prepared to help to keep this historic national commemoration going year by year. Our participation would completely rejuvenate the event, increase the attendance by hundreds, and would not alter its fundamental character to the slightest degree – indeed we should get back to what Seamus Barratt and the original committee stood for, not the affair of some of the Irish but the affair of all the Irish.”

In March 1960 four members – Joe Deighan, Daniel Kilcommins, Michael Rabbitt and Michael Crowe – were arrested whilst selling the Irish Democrat on Oxford Road, a place they had been selling in for seven years with no trouble. The police alleged that they were causing an obstruction and next morning visited their houses, though no charges were brought in the end.

In May 1960 the Association joined with other Irish organisations in Manchester in protesting when a Mr McMillans, Park Superintendent, banned Gaelic games from Manchester parks on the grounds that they were “not a recognised game,” even though hurling had been played in Platt Fields for nearly forty years. Manchester Corporation backed down and agreed that Gaelic games could be played once more after a form had been filled in.

The Manchester branch attempted to stir public interest in what was happening in Northern Ireland by organising a protest march against the continued imposition of internment by the Stormont government. This took place on Sunday 18th September 1960 when about a thousand people walked from Platt Fields to All Saints led by the Kerry pipe band and Kathleen O’Reilly’s girl dancers clad in Irish national costume. Some unions sent banners and messages of support were received from a number of local MPs, including Frank Allaun and Konni Zilliacus.

In November 1963 the branch made a significant contribution to the history of the Irish in Manchester when they published a pamphlet entitled The Story of the Manchester Martyrs, researched and written by two members of the association Jimmy McGill and Tom Redmond. In 1966 Desmond Greaves spoke on The Epic of 1916 and What It Means For Us today at a meeting on Easter Sunday in Chorlton Town Hall.

In the summer of 1961 the Connolly Association organised a national march from London to Birmingham as a way of bringing to public attention their campaign on the Six Counties. They called for the repeal of the Special Powers Act, an enquiry into the Government of Ireland Act, an amnesty for Republican prisoners and recognition by the Stormont government of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. There were fourteen marchers (including a number from Manchester) who set off from London on 25th June carrying a banner which read “Ireland One Country”. They included Tom Redmond, Aine Redmond, Sean Redmond, Desmond Greaves and Chris Sullivan. Walking in temperatures in the mid 80s they spoke at meetings along the way and arrived in Birmingham on 2nd July when, to their great relief, it finally rained.

Planning for a second march began immediately, this time organised by the Manchester branch of the Association, which departed from Liverpool on 25th August after an address by Eric Heffer, vice-president of the Trades Council. The marchers this time were Joe Deighan, Desmond Greaves, Danny Kilcommins, Sean and Aine Redmond.

On the way into Manchester the marchers were given a police motor-cycle escort until they reached Platt Fields. After an outdoor meeting in Hulme the marchers headed north to Oldham, making a slight diversion to Moston cemetery where they intended to place a wreath on the grave of Seamus Barrett. On arrival at the gates of the cemetery they found them guarded by a large posse of police who directed them to the far side of the road. A cemetery official informed them that the grave was the property of the Gaelic League, who had not given permission for a wreath to be placed. The marchers made it clear that they would not leave without laying the wreath. The stand-off was resolved when a Brother John was summoned who said that it had already been agreed that they could lay the wreath. And so they did and departed on their way, arriving at their final destination of Nottingham on 3rd September.

The third and most ambitious of the Connolly Association marches took place in the spring of 1962. This time the route was Liverpool to London, a distance of some 250 miles. The march left Liverpool on 30th March arriving in Manchester the following day where there was a public meeting at Chorlton Town Hall at which Tony Coughlan, Desmond Greaves, Sean Redmond and Joe Deighan spoke. Attempts to hold a factory-gate meeting the next day were defeated by the weather so two marchers went the offices of the Guardian on Cross Street to hand in some information about Northern Ireland, none of which was published. When they arrived in Macclesfield they found the town in uproar over rents and the town hall being barricaded for the second night running. The march arrived in London in mid April.

Looking back nearly 30 years later Tony Coughlan reflected that the marches

“were modest enough affairs, a couple of dozen Irish men and women giving up part of their annual holidays to try to show what the British government were permitting Brookeborough and co to get up to in the Six Counties. Even though they were met with indifference and ridicule rather than brickbats, these can truthfully be said to have been the first Irish civil rights marches.”

Article by Michael Herbert

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