Charlie McGuire, Sean McLoughlin. Ireland's Forgotten Revolutionary.
Sean McLoughlin is best remembered as the 'boy commandant' of Easter Week, 1916, promoted from volunteer by James Connolly himself as the insurgents made their last stand. The incident featured in a (thrilling then, embarrassingly creaky with hindsight) television docu-drama of the Rising, broadcast on the fiftieth anniversary, and seemed symbolic of Connolly's judgment and faith in the future. In fairness to Charlie McGuire's rather cliched subtitle, that's about all that McLoughlin was remembered for, and even that was forgotten by the 1970s, as the Northern conflict scared official Ireland into turning its back on its militant republican origins. This is the first study of McLoughlin, and as the author of an excellent biography of his sometime comrade and near contemporary, Roddy Connolly, the author is well qualified for the challenge.
Relatively little is known of McLoughlin's life, and McGuire's account is often skeletal and supplemented with context. McLoughlin was a little older than the 'boy commandant' tag would suggest, and it may have been used for its propaganda value. Some doubted whether he had really been given the rank, which would remain a sore point with him to his death. Born in 1895, the second of six children, McLoughlin grew up in the Dublin tenements, left school in his 'early teens', and worked in a mattress factory. Despite his limited schooling, he took a keen interest in writing and languages. His 'extreme nationalist' mother appears to have had a greater impact on him than his Larkinite father. At any rate, his activism was in the republican rather than the labour movement. As McGuire makes clear, his promotion in Easter Week was no romantic gesture, but recognition of his bravery and leadership under fire.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the 1916-24 period, when McLoughlin found himself in the fist of the revolution, and for which there are more sources on the subject. After his release from prison in the general amnesty of December 1916, he organised for Michael Collins. In 1919 he moved to the far left with inexplicable speed. As with so much on McLoughlin, the explanatory evidence is no longer extant, and McGuire can only surmise about the influence of his father, Connolly, and the upsurge of trade union direct action throughout Ireland. McLoughlin's message was consistent and Connollyite: workers and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) should unite to build a workers' republic; without a national revolution, there would be no social revolution; without the workers, bourgeois nationalists would betray the republic. McLoughlin's revolutionary socialist career took him back and forth between Ireland and Britain, a to-ing and fro-ing that was not at all unusual: Glasgow especially was virtually a hub for Irish socialists and republicans at this time. In Ireland he joined the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), the Citizen Army, and the Communist Labour Party, an ultra-left breakaway from the SPI. In the north of England and Scotland he undertook speaking tours for the Glasgow-based Socialist Labour Party (SLP), championing its De Leonism against Communists and Labourites. By all accounts he was a cogent and inspirational orator and well received by British audiences. During the Irish Civil War in 1922-3, he was again at the centre of events, liaising between Mikhail Borodin, the Comintern's man in Britain, and the IRA. Despite his earlier criticism of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he now threw himself into building the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). Yet in 1924 he left Ireland permanently for the north of England, abandoned revolutionism, retreated from politics, and faded into obscurity. There were still flashes of the 'boy commandant' during World War II, however, when he commanded Civil Defence training camps. He died in Sheffield in 1960.
McGuire covers McLoughlin's final thirty-six years in six pages, and ends with a misconceived conclusion setting out the author's analysis of what went wrong with independent Ireland. Finally, there are appendices comprised of two short articles and a song written by McLoughlin, and a political programme to which he contributed. It's surprising that someone with ready access to the press, notably the SLP's Socialist and the CPI's Workers' Republic, and interested in developing Connollyism, didn't publish more substantial work.
So what was he? A 'boy commandant' who never grew up, an Irish Victor Grayson, or, as McGuire would have it, a great man with the right approach who was ultimately defeated by backsliders and counter-revolutionaries? We can only seek an answer in possibilities. McLoughlin suffered from repeated ill health after 1916, when he endured a hectic period of organising, speaking, living 'on the run' and imprisonment. By the 1930s he looked 'tired and worn out'. He had grounds for disillusionment with his comrades. In 1920 he was expelled from the SLP as a police spy. McGuire concludes that covert arms procurement activity on his part for the IRA led the SLP to mistake him for an agent provocateur. In 1923-4, when an official of the Workers' Union of Ireland, he fell foul of the notoriously jealous Big Jim Larkin, who proceeded to blacken his name in Ireland. Like many republicans, he would have been bitterly disappointed with the achingly conservative Irish Free State. Also, though this is not an argument that McGuire would sympathise with, his ultra-leftism inevitably consigned him to the margins, and he flitted about between too many different organisations, not bothering to consolidate his influence in any of them. To his credit, perhaps, he was interested in action rather than power. McGuire's own leftism intrudes a little in the narrative, which is padded out with too many didactic passages giving his own views on events.
Nonetheless, McGuire is to be congratulated on rescuing McLoughlin's forgotten socialist career, and for his painstaking efforts to assemble a biography from sparse and spare sources. It's an exciting story of exciting times and essential reading for anyone wanting to know of the red underbelly of the Irish revolution.
Emmet O'Connor, University of Ulster
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Communism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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