A trip to the James Connolly Visitor Centre
12 August 2019
An irony of the recently opened James Connolly Visitor Centre on Belfast’s Falls Road is that it confirms one of his big ideas. A larger irony is that it doesn’t even refer to it. Instead it offers a very limited version of the Connolly familiar from the murals and essentially sets out to claim him for Sinn Féin.
The exhibits start with the Easter Rising, an event that occurred at the end of his life. More appropriately it closes with the Easter Rising. In between we learn that he was born in Edinburgh, served in and deserted from the British Army, worked as a union organiser in Ireland and the United States and was executed for his role in leading the Easter Rising. The percentage of visitors to the centre who are unlikely to know these broad facts will not be high.
Virtually absent from the modest range of reproductions of posters, newspapers and ephemera from the period is any indication that Connolly was a revolutionary Marxist who was involved in the debates of the international socialist movement at the time. The Connolly we are given is one with whom union bureaucrats and Republican activists can be happy. You’d never guess from the material on view that much of his polemical fury was directed against the political limitations of the parliamentary nationalists of his day.
Everything about the centre tells you that it is part of the “peace process” gravy train, right down to the appointment (as administrator of the centre) of a Sinn Féin councillor with an impeccable history in the IRA. Connolly’s most famous prediction about the northern state was that it would be a reactionary sectarian carve up. In 1914 he wrote:
“Belfast is bad enough as it is; what it would be under such rule the wildest imagination cannot conceive. Filled with the belief that they were after defeating the Imperial Government and the Nationalists combined, the Orangemen would have scant regards for the rights of the minority left at their mercy.
Such a scheme would destroy the Labour movement by disrupting it. It would perpetuate in a form aggravated in evil the discords now prevalent, and help the Home Rule and Orange capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchwords of the day. In short, it would make division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded.”
Of course, when your funding streams are almost certainly reliant on a confusion of ideas and a sectarian carve up of money, jobs and patronage that’s not an aspect of Connolly’s legacy that you would want to draw much attention to.
Maybe one day Belfast will host an exhibition which isn’t afraid to look at what Connolly had to say about the northern state, how partition would affect the Irish working class, his polemics against bourgeois nationalists and his syndicalist reading of Marxism. None of that is on view at the Visitor Centre.
Did I mention that he was involved in the Easter Rising?