Sources


Peter O'Connor Speech
At Dublin University Socialist Society 8 April 1995

First I should introduce myself. I was born on 31st March 1912 in County Waterford. I came from a Republican working class family. My father and three brothers were carpenters by trade, all members of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers. My father was Secretary of the Waterford branch for many years. Our family suffered victimisation for their principles for most of their lives. During the war against the Black and Tans, my brother Francis was the youngest member of the flying column and we took the Republican side during the Civil War. I joined Fianna Eireann when I was nine or ten years of age, and remained a member until I transferred to the IRA when I was 17. I have been a member of the Communist Party of Ireland since 1933, and I fought for democracy and against fascism in the Connolly Column of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. I have served on Waterford Corporation as a Labour councillor, and I am a member of the MSF trade union.

During my years as a member of the IRA - 1929 TO 1934 - I felt that it lacked something. Something was missing which I could not really grasp. Everything seemed to be concentrated on the military aspect of the movement, and little time was given to the political and social side. This was brought home to me very sharply when I was a patient in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, for an operation. It was shortly after what was known as the Cosgrave Coercion Act, 1931 came into being. Just a day or two before I was discharged I was allowed out for an hour. Near the hospital a youth was selling a paper which I bought. It was the "Irish Workers' Voice", organ of the Irish Revolutionary Workers' Groups.

On reading the paper I realised what I had been looking for. This was what the IRA lacked - the combination of political thought and action. I felt the "Irish Workers' Voice" came closest to what my father had taught me about Connolly and his teachings. Shortly after coming home from hospital I wrote to the "Irish Workers' Voice" requesting them to send someone to Waterford to organise the unemployed. The first I remember was held in the People's Park on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1932. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Revolutionary Workers' Groups and Sean addressed the audience from the bandstand. Davy Walsh from Ballytruckle presided. (His son is the present Councillor Davy Walsh of the Workers' Party.)

Towards the end of the meeting someone asked what organisation the unemployed should join. Davy Walsh replied "The Revolutionary Workers' Groups". At this the Secretary, Chairman and Committee of the Unemployed (Able-bodied) Men's Association left the meeting, followed by Councillors Purdue and Nash (see Waterford News 18th November 1932, page 6). A further meeting was held later on that same evening in the ITGWU Hall, Lady Lane where the chairman of the UABMA, McGrath, an ex British soldier, tried to denigrate the RWGs by painting a lurid picture of the conditions in Soviet Russia and in particular in the part of Murmansk where McGrath had served with the British Expeditionary Forces sent by Churchill to crush the first workers' state in its infancy. I can still hear the voice of McGrath even today ringing in my ears -"I was in Russia men, I was in Russia and saw the conditions people are living in, in that country". I was nervous, and wondered how Sean Murray would answer him. Sean rose to a hushed audience. He explained, patiently but firmly, that the young Soviet Government came to power with the help and backing of people like ourselves to put an end to the conditions that McGrath had seen in Murmansk - conditions caused by centuries of exploitation by the Czar and his henchmen and supporters in the imperialist governments of Britain, France, and the USA. He continued in this vein until finally McGrath and his misguided friends left the hall. Sean sat down to loud applause.

During his stay in Waterford Sean stayed in our house at 86 Poleberry where my sister Peggy (Mrs Wynberry) lives at present. The house at that time was well known as a republican, working class and trade union centre.

Sean became a close friend of the family, especially with my father who recognised in him the great working class leader that he was. It was from Sean that I learned to distinguish, when reading the capitalist press or listening to the radio, the distorted views they project on trade union working class activities.

About this time also there was a strike by road workers in the South of Ireland Asphalt Company. It became known locally as the Johnstown strike. The men sought a penny increase on their rate of tenpence ha'penny per hour. A public meeting in support of their demand was held in Broad St on Thursday 1st December 1932. The meeting was addressed by Sean Murray, who spoke on behalf of the leader of the RWGs, Johnny Carr, and my father James O'Connor who acted as spokesman for the strikers' deputation. (See Weekly Star, 2nd December 1932, page 7). The public meeting in Broad St plus the presence of the leader of the IRWGs at the meeting, played no mean part in their victory.

During this period also I was instrumental in forming a Workers' Study Club which I opened at Coffee House Lane to study the writings of Connolly, Marx and Lenin. Some of the most prominent members of the club at that time were Frank Edwards, Jimmy Barry (a docker from Wellington St), Jackie Hunt from New St, Maurice Quinlan (South Parade), J B O'Shea (William St), John O'Dwyer (Newports Lane), Margaret and Nora Murray (Barrack St) Fred O'Shea (Clashrea Place), Tom Coughlan (Morrison Road), Johnny Power (Waterpark Lodge), Johnny Carr, my two brothers Jimmy and Francis and my father James O'Connor and many others that I cannot remember. Frank Edwards, Jackie Hunt, Maurice Quinlan and Johnny Power fought with me afterwards in the Connolly Column against fascism in Spain 1936-39.

1933 was perhaps one of the most momentous years in the history of the Irish working class, when members of the Irish Revolutionary Workers' Groups assembled in Dublin at 5 Leinster St and emerged as the re-formed Communist Party of Ireland. I was privileged to be present at that assembly with another Waterfordman - Bonny O'Shea (who is still alive and living in Australia), and listening to the principal speakers, Sean Murray, Sean Nolan, Betty Sinclair, Donal O'Reilly, Tommy Watters, Jim Larkin Junior, Brian O'Neill and others. We stayed at the house of Madam Despard in Eccles St. Madam Despard was well known as a great suffragist leader in previous years.

What can I say about the Republican Congress that has not already been said, discussed and debated over the years?

The Athlone Call came on 7th and 8th of April 1934. It arose out of a group of IRA officers, Peadar O'Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan, becoming disillusioned with the leadership of the IRA. As George Gilmore wrote in his booklet "The Irish Republican Congress", and I quote, "If they had remained in the Army they would have been subject to the rule which prevented them from speaking or writing or associating themselves with any activities outside the organisation. they would have had to be silent while they knew that a situation of great danger was developing. They withdrew, therefore, from the Convention and from the IRA".

In 1934 a group of us from Waterford had formed a support group for the defence committee set up to oppose the deportation order issued by the De Valera Government on Jim Gralton, the great humanitarian socialist and communist. Despite all efforts, Gralton was sent into a permanent exile, and after a lifetime of struggle he died in New York in December 1945.

The support group in Waterford continued to meet. Most of us were members of the IRA. When the Athlone Call was issued we gave it our full support.

Over the next six months, up to the time the Republican Congress met in the Rathmines Town hall on 29th & 30th of September 1934, there was more political activity in Waterford than there had been previously or since. It was due to the efforts of members of the Republican Congress, ably led by Frank Edwards and Bobby Walsh (at that time captain of the Cumann na mBan who later became Frank's wife) that the terrible living conditions in the city were brought to light and the slum landlords exposed. Frank and I spent weeks visiting people's homes and writing reports, which were printed in the Republican Congress paper at the time.

The strength of the Congress in Waterford can be gauged by the fact that we sent 8 delegates to the Republican Congress. All of the Waterford delegates supported Paedar O'Donnell's Resolution No. 2, the United Front resolution, which was carried.

As the date for the assembly of the Republican Congress approached, supporting calls were issued by trades unionists in Belfast, and in Dublin and other parts of the 26 Counties. The Belfast Call stated: "We are convinced that the horrors of the capitalist economic system, the menace of fascism, the oppression of British Imperialism, and the question of Irish national unity are all inter-related problems, the solution of which can only be found on one possible basis - the conscious solidarity and unity of effort of the workers, small farmers and peasants, North, South, East and West", and urged the support of all trades unionists for the Republican Congress. It was signed by a number of prominent trades unionists and socialists from the North.

The Southern Call stated: "The unity in action of all the workers in Ireland, in the coming struggle, must be achieved if the workers' state is to emerge from the chaos now confronting the people. We urge trades unionists and workers generally to support the call for the Republican Congress and to participate in it in such a decisive manner that its deliberations will be dominated, and its decisions shaped, by working class minds, and, finally, a definite republican working-class leadership be created." It was signed among others by Thomas Dunne. Secretary of Waterford branch of the ITGWU, Nicholas Hunt, President of Waterford branch of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, and my father James O'Connor, as Secretary of Waterford branch of the ASW.

In June that same year in 1934 an incident occurred which caused me and several of my comrades to leave the IRA for good. Eight IRA men from Waterford, including myself, under the leadership of my eldest brother Jimmy who was commandant of the Waterford Battalion at the time, cycled to Bodenstown for the Wolfe Tone commemoration. A group of Protestant working-class lads from the Shankill Road, Belfast, were carrying the Republican Congress banners which bore the words "Wolfe Tone Commemoration 1934, Shankill Road Belfast Branch. Break the connection with capitalism" and "James Connolly Club, Belfast, United Irishmen of 1934". As they battled their way to lay a wreath on Tone's grave, they were attacked by a section of the IRA acting on orders from above.

I was furious, and regretted I was not near enough to defend their right to lay their wreath on Wolfe Tone's grave. To my mind they had as much right, and more, to honour the father of Irish republicanism. I was disgusted with the whole episode. The incident confirmed the view I had held for a long time previously: that by concentrating on the military aspect of the fight for freedom to the exclusion of the politics of the revolution, a large and sincere section of the working class would become disillusioned, thereby postponing the final reckoning.

Fifty years on, at Bodenstown in 1984, I had the honour and privilege of marching side by side with workers from the Shankill Road under the banner of the Communist Party of Ireland - to honour the memory of Wolfe Tone and to sit on the plinth surrounding the grave with such comrades as Sean Nolan, George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell who were also present at the Bodenstown Commemoration in 1934.

I just described the foregoing to show the weakness of the IRA leadership at that time. If, on the other hand they had thrown in their lot with the Republican Congress' effort to mobilise and take the side of the unemployed, of the people in the slums to fight the rack-renting landlords, to take the side of the small farmers and landless men in the countryside in their struggle against the absentee landlords and big ranchers, they would be a force to be reckoned with, they would be in the forefront of the drive to establish the republic in the only way that that republic can be established, by taking sides with the only people who can carry the fight to a successful conclusion.

Instead, what did they do? They dissipated the whole IRA organisation in futile and sterile bombing campaigns in England and Bass raids at home. These Bass raids entailed going into pubs and smashing all the bottles of Bass beer as a protest against British goods being sold. The IRA leadership issued a general order forbidding IRA volunteers to give any support to the Republican Congress; as George Gilmore pointed out, and I quote, "Compliance with it would put the IRA volunteers for practical purposes in the same camp as the Blueshirts. Even within their trade union branches they would be held away from the defence against fascism. That order split the Dublin Brigade in two and most of the units throughout the country were similarly affected."

George Gilmore also wrote, and I quote again "Republican leaders have always claimed the United Irishmen of 1798 as their political forebears. Bodenstown has, since Tone was buried there, been the place of pilgrimage for every party and organisation seeking the support of the national population, and still, since 1798 no republican leadership has succeeded in finding a foothold on the common ground upon which the United Irish movement was built" - and again, "The great weakness in the Republican movement ever since the death of James Connolly in 1916 has been the abandonment by organised labour of the Connolly concept of the re-conquest of Ireland by its people and the substitution for it of the comfortable doctrine of reformism within the imperial system. The hope of the success of the Republican Congress movement in 1934 depended on the labour movement overcoming that weakness." - unquote.

Such then are the grounds upon which the Republican Congress failed. And what of the future?

We must capture, again, the spirit and drive engendered by Frank Ryan, Paedar O'Donnell and George Gilmore in their writings and editorials during the heady days of the Republican Congress in 1934.

The republican and labour movements must arouse the latent revolutionary fervour of the working class. They must support, and be seen to support, the demands of the unemployed for work and trades union wages and conditions. They must support the workers in Irish Steel and Team Aer Lingus etc.

In other words a united front against the whole rotten system known as capitalism. Charlie Donnelly once remarked as he was being sentenced for illegal picketing, "A picket becomes too large for legality as soon as it becomes large enough to be effective". Charlie was to die later with arms in hand in the much more serious picket line on the Jarama front defending the road to Madrid during the civil war in Spain 1936-39.

For the vast majority of people capitalism is not working. It is only the wealthy who stand to gain. People like Tony O'Reilly who "earns" 70,000 a day and Larry Goodman who gave 175,000 to the Fianna Fail Party and when his business adventures landed him in trouble the Dail was re-called for a special session to pass a law to save his company. Can anyone remember a time when there was a special session of the Dail to discuss saving the jobs of workers threatened by redundancy? The scandal of capitalism is not just evident in Ireland but across the world.

When the forces which stand for national independence and for socialism will succeed in breaking down the barriers and set at naught the orange card so cleverly used by the British and their lackeys in the capitalist class to divide our comrades in the North-east of our country - then, and only then, will we be on the high road to a successful conclusion of the aims and objectives of Wolfe Tone, James Connolly, Fintan Lawlor and Padraig Pearce and all the others who have tried without success to end the grip of British imperialism in Ireland.

I will end by again quoting George Gilmore when he wrote, (and I quote), "Perhaps in the story of our failure there may be some pointers towards the making of an effective alliance between the formations in which the progressive elements of rural and urban life find expression. The re-conquest of Ireland by its people awaits the day when those forces meet - and hold."

Peter O'Connor





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