It was a bitterly cold afternoon in Glasnevin Cemetery. The crowd gathered to remember the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of Big Jim Larkin stood in silence as a mark of respect and remembrance for thirteen other Irish people who had died on this day fifty years ago.
Perhaps the connection between the people is greater than the coincidence of the dates of their deaths. Perhaps if Jim Larkin’s vision of the future had prevailed, then the sectarian history of Ireland would not have continued as it did and no-one would have needed to have marched for civil rights because those rights would have been foundational to the state.
Maire Comerford’s memoir of the War of Independence and Civil War complains of Republicans in the Six Counties that came to constitute Northern Ireland choosing Catholicism over socialism. Perhaps that was the moment of failure for Republicanism that led to the institutionalized sectarianism that developed in both jurisdictions.
Perhaps it would always have been impossible to have persuaded working-class Protestants, particularly those in the north-east of the island, that their best interest lay in making common cause with working men throughout the island.
The Church of Ireland community numbered some ten per cent of the population of the new Irish Free State in 1922. It is suggested that large numbers left when the State began, but large numbers remained. To leave meant having money to travel and somewhere to go, the people who had neither would have been the working class Protestant community in Dublin. The people from among whom came Sean O’Casey, the first volume of whose autobiography can only be fully comprehended through familiarity with the Church of Ireland prayer book.
What if events after the 1913 lockout had taken another path? What if Larkin and Connolly, founders of the Irish Labour Party in 1912, had been able to advance a Republican cause that was not rooted in old-fashioned Catholic nationalism? What if the starry plough had been the flag for all Irish workers, Catholic and Protestant? What if people in 1916 had been motivated more by securing decent conditions for working people than by Pearse’s idea of blood sacrifice for some unsubstantiated notion of “nation?” What if Protestants in Dublin had been encouraged to persuade Protestants in Belfast that their future lay in standing together?
As it was, Connolly died at Kilmainham. Republicans were denounced by the hierarchy and the parish priests. The Free State turned against those who continued to pursue a Republican cause. De Valera turned against those who once supported him. Larkin’s memory was domesticated by the church, John Charles McQuaid celebrated Larkin’s funeral Mass. All trace of socialism was gone. Each jurisdiction was content in its own sectarian existence. 30th January 1972 had its roots in 1922, and all that preceded it.
What if the Labour Party of Larkin and Connolly had prevailed?