Northern Ireland news

Derry collector uncovers letters to James Connolly

The letters show details of James Connolly's everyday work as a socialist leader.
Seamus McKinney

A DERRY collector has unearthed a fascinating series of letters which shed light on the day-to-day life of Easter Rising leader, James Connolly.

The dictated letters were sent by Connolly’s close personal friend and Scottish socialist, John Carstairs Matheson in 1904.

The correspondence was found by Frankie McMenamin, an avid collector of historic memorabilia. Mr McMenamin discovered the valuable hoard at an antiques fair in County Donegal.

It is believed the letters were originally stored at Connolly House in Dublin but later came into the possession of collectors.

Mr McMenamin said: “I couldn’t believe what I was looking at when I lifted the bundle of letters. They were all immaculately typed and it was clear that they had been sent to Connolly. It was really exciting.

“They provide a fascinating insight into what occupied him on a daily basis and how much he was devoted to the socialist cause, even back in 1904.”

Born to Irish parents in Edinburgh in 1868, Connolly was the last of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation to be executed by British forces after the Easter Rising. As founder of the Irish Citizen Army, he was co-leader of the Rising with Patrick Pearse.

Connolly retained close links with the Scottish left, largely through his friendship with Carstairs Matheson, leader of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland.

A school teacher from Falkirk, Carstairs Matheson was a Gaelic speaker and editor of “The Socialist”, a newspaper established by Connolly in 1901.

Carstairs Matheson’s letters reveal a warm bond between the two men, with the Scot displaying a wicked sense of humour, not to mention a love of colourful language. The letters are dotted with words for those who invoked his and Connolly’s wrath such as “muckwallowers” and “reptiles”.

He reserved some of his most stinging criticism for US socialist and founder of “revolutionary industrial unionism”, Daniel De Leon.

Carstairs Matheson praises a column by Connolly in May 1904 for his “dastardly and contemptible stab in the back” for the American and promises to send him 100 copies of The Socialist in which the column is printed.

“I always thought you were a titanic sort of being, James, but I never realised it so thoroughly as when I read that Machiavellian article of yours,” he said.

The letters also give an insight to the tensions between various socialist and left-wing groups. It is particularly interesting that the anti-Semitism which continues to frustrate the British Labour Party was an issue in 1904.

Carstairs Matheson asked of Connolly if he still read the United Irishman”. He noted it carried details of attacks on Jews in Limerick.

“They are strong on the anti-Semitic racket just now and are glorifying as a patriot some priest in Limerick who is preaching a crusade against them, the Jews, a crusade which has led to a certain number of assaults and rifling of shops etc. in that town.”

Other letters give details of the day to day life of both men, with Carstairs Matheson outlining plans to increase the size of The Socialist and asking for more “copy” from Connolly.

In a letter at the end of March 1904, he details to Connolly the reaction to the most recent edition of The Socialist, noting that “the Labourites are all off their head about the Chinese Labour business”.

Mr McMenamin said he was delighted with his find. He believed they would also give an indication of the hardships faced by ordinary working men and women in the early 1900s.

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