Have you noticed the silly hats, some shaped like shamrocks, others like pints of Guinness? Is it a promotion? Or something to do with the Cheltenham races? That was my reaction until the penny dropped… this is the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day – or Paddy’s Day as it’s always been called without anyone complaining of racism.
What now comes across as one big sales pitch for Guinness, Caffrey’s and Jameson’s, used to be a highly political weekend. Of course drink, song and the so-called “craic” always predominated: nothing wrong with that! But discussion, debate and argument about politics was part of it as well. And given that the Irish in Britain have traditionally been associated with manual engineering and construction jobs, and have long had a strong presence in the trade unions, the Labour Party and left groups (noteably the Communist Party), the celebrations inevitably took on the flavour of a labour movement event.
I’m basing all this on my experiences in Birmingham in the 1970′s, but I’m sure the same was true of all major conurbations with a significant Irish presence at that time. My recollection is that the labour movement atmosphere was much more obvious than Irish republican sentiment (though that was undoubtably there in the background). Part of the reason for this was probably (after 1974, anyway) the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings which had caused a serious anti-Irish backlash and put Irish republicans of whatever hue, on the defensive in Birmingham and throughout England. But it was also because the major Paddy’s Day celebrations were organised by the Connolly Association, which was to all intents and purposes the Communist Party’s front organisation for the Irish in England. Very closely associated, as well, were a group of rather impressive, tough-looking characters introduced to me as the “stickies”, whom I soon discovered to be the Official IRA: they were the CP-influenced more ‘political’ and ‘left-wing’ section of the old IRA that had split in 1970/71, when the ‘Provos’ (including the youngsters Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) had broken away to form a ‘physical force’ alternative, denounced (not altogether wrongly, IMHO) by the Officials as “fascists”.
It goes without saying that a lot of the politics in all of this were none too healthy – and even at their best, strongly laced with romanticism and crude workersim. Stalinist concepts predominated (the CP’s “Irish expert” Desmond Greaves had had some success in promulgating a preposterous theory that the nationalism of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie represented a progressive anti-colonial force, viz-a-viz the UK) and the thoroughly reactionary role of the Catholic Church was studiously ignored. Also, the Protestant working class of the Six Counties were largely written out of the equation - dismissed as colonialist stooges or regarded (at best) as potential comrades who could be won over on the basis of economic struggle. I don’t recall a serious discussion about workers’ unity (North and South, Catholic and Protestant) ever taking place at that time…
…But despite all the political weaknesses, the Paddy’s Day celebrations of the 1970′s were wonderful, educative experiences. They taught (or drove home to) me, the centrality of the working class in any endevour that dares to call itself socialist. They tought me not to be too judgemental about fundamentally decent people (nor to be too ready to overlook weaknesses)…above all, they encouraged me to read up on, and find out more about Irish republicanism and its contribution to the socialist tradition. I learned about the heroes (Woolf Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, James Connolly and Jim Larkin), and the villains (Eamonn De Valera, Eoin O’Duffy and the right-wing – sometimes semi-fascist – republicans of the Southern bourgeoisie).
I started out writing this intending it to be an elegy on the decline of Paddy’s Day into an apolitical Guinness-and-silly hats festival. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve realised that such a conclusion would be profoundly unfair: the decline of Paddy’s Day is merely one aspect of the decline of working class culture in Britain, Europe and the ‘West’ in general. The Irish in Britain are no better and no worse than any of the rest of us in that respect. The task before all of us is to rebuild that culture – hopefully on a much better political foundation.
Meanwhile, before anyone points it out: I know full well that the term “craic” is a phony construction (like “ploughman’s lunch” and “balti”), but the battle on that point was lost years ago. To close, here’s Dominic Behan’s anthem to Irish construction workers in England , “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”:
The above is dedicated (in the words of Sean Matgamna, who had no hand in writing any of it), “to all the victims of the crime the British Empire and the divided Irish bourgeoisie – Orange, Green, and Green-White-and-Orange alike – did by partitioning Ireland in 1922. It is dedicated too to the Irish labour movement on both sides of the border (and the Irish sea – JD), which must fight its way out of the blood-soaked mess capitalism has made in Ireland and build the only republic that is not a grim and cynical mockery of the long struggles of the Irish people for freedom – the workers’ republic.”