Connolly in America

James Connolly and the United States, written by Carl and Anne Barton-Reeve.
Reviewed by Niall Kelly, Galway, Militant Irish Monthly, February 1980.

James Connolly and the United States covers the years from 1902 to 1910 spent by Connolly in America. It is a welcome publication covering a period of Connolly's life which is still largely unknown to most people, even those active in the Labour Movement in Ireland and almost completely ignored by American labour historians.

Grinding Poverty

Those years in the United States were ones of grinding poverty and destitution for many workers and their families. When the Stock Market collapsed in 1907 there was mass unemployment and poverty. Connolly wrote to John Matheson, his friend in Scotland: "The misery and hunger now in New York are dreadful. I am simply frightened at the immediate outlook for the family and myself." The Reeves record that in that year in Philadelphia 500 people ate leftovers from the Reading Terminal market scales and in Coney Island, New York, a line formed to eat the food left on the beach by picnickers. It was in such conditions, well documented by the Reeves, that Connolly worked.

From his first lecture tour of the United States in 1902, organised by the Socialist Labour Party of the United States, through his more lengthy stay with his family from 1903 to 1910, Connolly was at the centre of activity in the Labour Movement there. He worked with the leading activists of the time - 'Big' Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and many others.

Connolly's early years in the United States were largely spent in activity with the Socialist Labour Party. The Reeves devote considerable attention to his heated clashes with Daniel DeLeon, leader of the SLP, over the crucial question of the necessity for socialists to become involved in the struggles of workers, in particular for higher wages. DeLeon was opposed to fighting for higher wages as he claimed it increased prices and was therefore of little value. Connolly showed that the reverse was the case and that socialists must fight, not only for the establishment of socialism, but also linking this to the immediate economic issues.

National Organiser

The Reeves chart, in some detail, Connolly's work in organising the new trade union, the industrial workers of the World (IWW), which has some brief, historic successes, and of Connolly's eventual resignation from DeLeon's SLP to join the Socialist Party of America, becoming a national organiser for that party in 1909.

Connolly was dogged by poverty for most of his life in America, often barely managing to feed his family. This did not have a detrimental effect on the family relationship which was closely knit during al the turbulent days in the US with Connolly often gone for many months on nationwide speaking tours. The Reeves draw on the writings of his two daughters, Ina Connolly Heron and Nora Connolly-O'Brien which reveal a moving side of the Connolly family both in the US and in Ireland.


While Connolly was in the US, he kept close contact with events in Ireland. He also saw the importance of organising the immigrant Irish in the US in support of socialism. Together with other Irish immigrants, he organised the Irish Socialist Federation and produced a paper for the Federation called 'The Harp'. The Reeves also recount Connolly's political work among the Italian and German communities for which he learned both Italian and German.

While Carl and Anne Barton Reeve deal in detail with Connolly's life in the United States, they quite rightly place considerable emphasis on Connolly's eventual move towards involvement in the 1916 Rising. However, while the shortcomings of Connolly on issues in the US are correctly analysed, such as his lack of emphasis on the special problems of the Black peoples, they adopt a rather uncritical approach to his involvement in the Rising.

The Labour Movement was not to the forefront in the Rising and the immediate pre-1916 period was not used to build a workers movement which could draw the small farmers and other oppressed sections of society into the fight against Imperialism and for Socialism. The isolation of Connolly form such labour leaders as Lenin and Trotsky, coupled with the betrayals by most of the European Labour leaders on the question of the War were important factors in this. The chapter on O'Casey, who opposed what he saw as Connolly's drift to nationalism, seems unnecessarily harsh, and seems to be used more to bolster their own uncritical view of 1916 rather than add any particular insight into those events.

At 10 this book by the Reeves will be beyond many readers pockets but they should ensure that their local library gets a copy. It is an important publication covering not simply the life of James Connolly but the times in which he lived, in Ireland and the US - crucial years indeed for the Labour movement in both countries. As the labour movement sought to assert itself politically and on an independent basis on both sides of the Atlantic over 70 years ago it is a timely reminder of what yet remains to be done by the labour movement in Ireland, north and south, and in the United States.

More articles on Labour History
are available here.

Articles on Northern Ireland covering 1968-1994
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap