James Connolly and the Catholic "Orange Order"

Submitted by AWL on 9 November, 2021 - 7:08 Author: James Connolly
Unionist postcard

Introduction, by Sean Matgamna

The partition of Ireland in 1920-1 was and is an imperialist crime. Why?

In principle Marxists are in favour of the right of compact minorities to separate off the area where they are a territorial majority from an existing state, if that is what most of them want. Vladimir Lenin outlined socialist principles here in a 1913 Bolshevik Party resolution:

Insofar as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife, it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government which guarantees full equality of all nations and languages, which recognises no compulsory official language, which provides the people with schools where instruction is given in all the native languages, and the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority.

This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local self-government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.

But isn’t that just splitting up the working class? Is it not our fundamental concern to unite workers across all borders and divisions?

Yes, and the approach Lenin outlined in 1913, though seemingly its opposite, is designed to win working-class unity where workers are divided. The alternative to Vladimir Lenin’s approach is to have an existing state coerce any minority that fights to secede with repression, up to and including such horrors as that inflicted by the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka on the Tamil minority in the island - mass slaughter in 2008-9, and after that as much repression as the majority thought necessary.

The principle that minorities concentrated in given areas have the right to secede from a given state brings consistent democracy into play. The workers on both sides combine to oppose any force, threat of force, or reserved power against the minority (or by the minority against pockets of the majority people, or others, inside their claimed area).

That principle protects and builds and sustains unity of the workers on both sides of any division/border. It works against chauvinism from the oppressed as well as against the chauvinism of the oppressor.


Preserving the borders of any given state, as such, is a matter of indifference to the working-class internationalists on both sides. With commitment to consistent democracy, and good will, practical border difficulties can be resolved easily.

The working-class unity that can be built on such principles despite the possible creation of a new state border is real and democratic, the opposite of the coercion of a recalcitrant minority, and workers of the majority acquiescing in that and sharing responsibility for it.

Within that basic policy of the right to secede, socialists generally oppose the fragmentation of existing states, for example the separation of Scotland from England and Wales, and, most emphatically, the recent separation of the UK from the European Union. However, if it had come to it that the EU could only retain the UK by coercion, socialists would have said that secession was better, and called upon the workers of the EU to support Britain’s right to secede.

Spain’s coercion of Catalan nationalism could well be building up towards something like the insurgency of the Basques, from the 1960s up to 2011. In Lenin’s time, the experience cited to support favouring the right to separate was the 1905 separation of Norway from Sweden. The Swedish workers’ movement opposed any suggestion of coercing Norway. The existing state divided, and yet relations between the two peoples, and the working classes, were not poisoned as they would have been if the Swedes had coerced the Norwegians.

In 1990-1 many peoples previously within the USSR set up new separate states, peacefully (more or less). That included Ukraine, which for decades had been the largest oppressed nation on earth. In 1992 multinational Czechoslovakia subdivided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The other scenario was enacted in multinational former Yugoslavia, where the chauvinism of Serbia led to bitter wars.


Why then, given the realities of conflict within Ireland, was the partition of Ireland between the Orange-Unionist-Protestant North and Catholic-Nationalist South a crime? Because the partition was not and is not such a division between two peoples, let alone a democratically agreed division.

In the long discussion on Protestant-Unionist, Catholic-Nationalist relations in Ireland, opened by Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill in 1886, why didn’t the Nationalist and Unionist leaders search for and find a democratic inter-Irish solution to the divisions on the island? Because both sides, Unionist and Nationalist, looked to Britain to coerce the other Irish. Britain did coerce nationalist Ireland, long after Gladstone moved the First Home Rule Bill. The nationalists expected the British to force the Unionists into a united Home Rule Ireland for them.

When the crisis came, about the Third Home Rule Bill, in 1912 and after, the nationalists were in the invidious position of looking to Britain to act on their behalf and coerce the Unionists on their behalf. [1]

Faced with the credible threat of civil war, the Liberal Government ratted on their Irish clients and allies. Nationalists dismissed the militarised Unionists of the North. Most Nationalists said that Carson was bluffing. James Connolly sneered at “the wooden guns of Ulster”. By then, this was a form of wilful denial of reality.

Under duress, the Nationalists accepted Partition and set about selling it to their electors. On the eve of the Great War Joseph Devlin convinced a Convention of the Nationalists of the whole province of Ulster to accept Partition, “temporarily”…

It was the worst of all possible solutions. A second, artificial, Irish minority was created in the Six Counties. Where there had been one minority problem, there were hereafter two. In the Six Counties state a Protestant-Unionist majority occupied the north-east corner, Antrim and Down, most of Derry county and a lot of Armagh. Catholics and Nationalists were the majority in Tyrone and Fermanagh. Catholic Nationalists occupied not much less than half the land area; were a two-thirds majority in one of the two big cities, Derry, and almost a third of the population of Belfast. The Northern Ireland Catholics in the large border areas with the 26 Counties were kept in the Six Counties against their will by force, by a reign of military terror conducted by a chauvinist Orange-Unionist militia and the British Army.

The Six Counties state was supposed to give Unionists freedom from domination and oppression by the Catholic majority in the 32 counties; but the Catholics were a bigger minority of the Six Counties population than were the Protestants in all of Ireland. It was an imperialist carve-up, not an “objective” or a democratic separation of Irish Protestant-Unionists from Catholic Nationalists.

It was the work of some of the same people who made the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, setting up states that imprisoned many minority peoples, and laid down powder-kegs at the foundations of Europe that would explode into World War 2.

When in that era the Unionists asserted that they were a separate people in Ireland, they meant not the “Ulster Scots” in north-east Ulster, but a people scattered around the island. Protestants were 25% of the people of Dublin; James Connolly married one of them, Lillie Reynolds.

The Unionist leaders acted as people who thought they were entitled to as much of Ireland as they could take, never mind what the people in a given territory wanted. They were used to coercing Irish Catholics. Edward Carson had spent most of his career representing landlords against their tenants in Irish courts. He would have no qualms about having to coerce Catholics in a “Protestant State for a Protestant people” six counties.

Frank Gallagher, in The Indivisible Island, tells a story that as the Irish Home Rule Bill looked to win through Parliament, Edward Carson, the leader of the Unionists, suggested to John Redmond, the Parliamentary leader of the Home Rule nationalists, that he, Redmond, should agree to the exclusion from Home Rule of the whole of the province of Ulster, nine counties, where Protestants were only a bare majority. That, so Carson tried to convince Redmond, would ensure that partition would not be permanent.

Carson was not a partitionist. He was using north-east Ulster as an argument against Home Rule for any part of the island. He may have been sincere in what he said to Redmond. And he may have felt that the Catholics in a nine-counties sub-state could be coerced as they traditionally had been.


In any case, the actual partition and the coercion the Unionists imposed on the Catholic majority territories along the border was, from their own point of view, very stupid. It destabilised their sub-state. Coercion within the UK could only go so far, and eventually the Catholics mobilised against being second-class citizens. Out of that developed a military uprising that lasted a quarter of a century. Britain, faced with a mass Catholic revolt, abolished Protestant-sectarian home rule in 1972, and begin a long-sustained effort to impose statutory Catholic-Protestant power-sharing in the Six Counties.

One of the commonest ideas about partition, even now, is that it divided the workers and the population. The opposite is true: the existing divisions in the north-east of Ireland among the workers and other classes led to partition, not the other way round.

A no less widespread idea is that malign Protestant sectarianism stood more or less on its own. The truth is that there was a no less malign sectarian force on the Catholic side; a Catholic “Orange Order”: the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin).

Led by the MP for West Belfast, Joseph Devlin, the AOH was dedicated to promoting Catholics and Catholic interests, excluding Protestants from jobs and local government contracts, and having Catholics boycott Protestant and patronise Catholic shops.

It was an all-Ireland organisation. After that party’s 1909 convention it controlled the Home Rule party, the United Irish League. By its enemies it was sometimes, not jokingly, called the Ancient Order of Hooligans. It broke up meetings, terrorised and beat nationalist and Catholic opponents. During the 1913-14 strike and lockout in Dublin, the AOH organised gangs of hooligans to attack strikers; they tried to organise a sectarian trade union in rivalry with the Irish Transport Workers’ Union.

The convention at which the AOH took control of the Home Rule party was known afterwards as “the ash-plant convention”, because the AOH were armed with ash-plants, used by drovers on cattle and by the AOH on people.

Some Home Rulers split off after the “ash-plant convention” and formed a separate organisation, largely in the Cork area, the All For Ireland League, led by William O’Brien, the Nationalist MP.

By the time the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912, both the AOH and the Orange Order were working powerfully to sharpen the Catholic-Protestant, Home-Rule-Unionist polarisation.

The article here reprinted in full for the first time (from Forward, 18 March 1911) deals with the AOH as James Connolly and others saw it in 1911 and after. The version of this article in Desmond Ryan’s four-volume collection of Connolly’s writings, published between 1948 and 1951) is valuable, but the uncut version is more valuable still. We should not undervalue the achievement of Desmond Ryan and the ITGWU leader, William O’Brien in managing to publish so much of Connolly in that repressive clericalist Ireland.

[1] The Provisional IRA were in the same position during their long war: trying to coerce Britain into “persuading” the Unionists into a united Ireland. Persuasion here did not mean only persuasive words.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians

By James Connolly

This article appeared in Forward, 18 March 1911, where it was titled “Mr John E Redmond MP: His Strength and Weakness”. The endnotes indicate what was cut in the previous reprinted version. Subheads here are Solidarity's.

In endeavouring to give readers of Forward in Great Britain some real conception of the realities of Irish political life, one finds the task of explanation made increasingly difficult by the spectacular nature of the campaign waged by the Redmondites on the one hand, and the reactionary, lying stupidities of the Irish Tories on the other. The fact that national political freedom is both desirable and necessary blinds many people to the truth that the advocates of such freedom on the political field may be most intensely conservative on the social or economic field and, indeed, may be purblind bigots in their opposition to all other movements making for human progress or enlightenment.

On the other hand there are not wanting, even among Socialists, many who seeing the socially reactionary character of much of the agitation for national freedom, became opposed to the principle because of the anti-Socialist character of some of its advocates.

The Socialist Party of Ireland avoids the dangers of either course. It recognises that national political freedom is an inevitable step towards the attainment of universal economic freedom, but it insists that the non-Socialist leaders of merely national movements should be regarded in their true light as champions of the old social order and not exalted into the position of popular heroes by any aid of Socialist praise or glorification. A fact many of our British comrades are apt to forget, and this forgetting of which by those British comrades places many a serious stumbling block in the path of Socialism in Ireland.

We need not beslaver the United Irish League because we detest the Tories. We can detest them both. In fact they represent the same principle in different stages of social development.

The Tories are the conservatives of Irish feudalism, the United Irish Leaguers are the conservatives of a belated Irish capitalism. It is our business to help the latter against the former only when we can do so without prejudice to our own integrity as a movement.

How difficult this becomes, at times, is best illustrated by the position of Mr. John E. Redmond, M.P., “Leader of the Irish race”, as his followers enthusiastically assure us. Mr. Redmond has a record as a reactionist difficult to excel. Long before the Parnell split, he denounced the Irish agricultural labourers in a speech at Rathfarnham, near Dublin, for forming a trade union to protect their own interests. On the granting of Local Government in 1898, a measure that first enfranchised the Irish working class on local bodies, Mr. Redmond made a speech counselling the labourers to elect landlords to represent them — a speech truly characterised by Mr. Michael Davitt in the House of Commons as the “speech of a half-emancipated slave”. The labourers in town and country treated Mr. Redmond’s advice with contempt and elected men of their own class all over Ireland. Compelled by the imperative necessity of maintaining in power a Home Rule government, Mr. Redmond votes for every measure of social reform the defeat of which would lead to the resignation of said government, but quietly acquiesces in every exemption of Ireland from progressive measures. Mr. Redmond believes that the Irish people are capable of governing their country, but opposed the proposal of Mr. T.W. Russell to allow the Irish people to control their own schools under the Local Government Act of 1898. Mr. Redmond bewails the fact that lack of employment compels the Irish workers to emigrate at the rate of 30,000 per year, but opposed the attempt of the Labour party to compel the government to recognise its duty to provide work for them at home; Mr. Redmond believes that all public servants and representatives should be paid for their services to the State from the funds of the state, but is opposed to payment of members being extended to Ireland; Mr. Redmond’s heart bleeds for the poor of Ireland, but he would not vote for the Feeding of School Children’s Act to be applied to Ireland, and Mr. Redmond is a friend of the Labour party in England (!), but his party fights to the death against every independent candidature of Labour throughout the purely Nationalist districts of Ireland.


If we are, as we are, capable of running our own country, how comes it we are not fit to be trusted with our own schools? And if the public control of schools by the Catholic Irish people would lead to atheism and to the persecution of the clergy, how has it not produced the same effect in Canada which Mr. Redmond is continually praising as an example for Ireland? Here is what a clergyman, the Rev. J.E. Burke, in a recent speech in the Assembly Hall, Belfast, said of the educational system of Canada — that country so beloved of Mr. T.P. O’Connor and Mr. Redmond:

“They had no church schools — nothing but state schools. While the priest and the parson were at liberty to visit the schools and give advice and encouragement, they had nothing to do in the management. The children of all nationalities and all creeds and classes attended these schools and grew up together in them, and he believed that the result of this was a better understanding amongst them in after life”.

Mr. Redmond exalts Canada as a model for Irish Government, but opposes in Ireland all these domestic institutions which make free government a success in Canada.

If it was right, as it undoubtedly was, to demand aid for Irish farmers, why is it not equally right to demand state aid or local aid for starving Irish school children?

If, as Mr. Redmond claims, Ireland is overtaxed to the extent of over two millions per year, how will payment of Irish members of Parliament be a gift from the “British” Treasury? Does one feel like the recipient of a “gift” when you get back some of your own?

How then does Mr. Redmond and his party maintain their hold despite their essentially reactionary position? Simply because the Irish Unionists are still more reactionary. It is almost a choice between the devil and the deep sea.


Observe: In the debate in the House of Commons on the M’Cann case, Mr. Joseph Devlin, M.P., taunted the Orange bigots with the fact that none of their clergymen had been on the Anti-Sweating platform in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. As a matter of fact, the same was true of the Catholic clergymen. None of them were on that platform either, but the stupid Orange reactionaries could not think of a better answer to Joe than to deny the fact of the sweating. The obvious retort was apparently beyond their capacities.

Another illustration: In the debate upon the issue of the writ for North Louth, an Orange member, Mr. William Moore, moved to suspend the issue of the writ for four months on the ground that “Protestants” had been assaulted. This motion was made despite the fact that the whole trend of the evidence had been to prove that every species of intimidation and bribery had been brought to bear upon Catholics who refused to bow to the dictates of the official Home Rule gang. That, in short, it was Catholics who needed to be protected and not Protestants.

A motion to suspend the issue of the writ pending a Parliamentary investigation into the workings of the organisations responsible for the wholesale terrorism exercised upon the electors of North Louth — irrespective of religion — would have opened the way for a capable man to give such an exposure of the workings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin) and its relation to the United Irish League, as might have led to the extirpation of that pest in Ireland, but no one could expect such statesmanship from the Orange quarter.

But just imagine what a real Irish democrat could have made of such a situation! Then he could have dealt with the pilgrimage of the M.P.’s to America and Canada to beg from Irish exiles money towards the Irish cause, how our exiled brothers and sisters stinted themselves of, perhaps, even the necessaries of life in order to help to “free Ireland and uplift poor Mother Erin”, and how the money thus procured was used to debauch Irish men and women, to destroy political purity, to purchase bludgeons to smash in the heads of Irish men, and to terrorise the peaceful countryside?

A real representative of the Irish democracy might go on to show how Mr. Joseph Devlin’s organisation, the A.O.H., supposed to be the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but by some believed to be the Ancient Order of Hooligans, has spread like an ulcer throughout Ireland, carrying social and religious terrorism with it into quarters hitherto noted for their broad-mindedness and discernment.

How it has organised the ignorant, the drunken and the rowdy, and thrown the shield of religion around their excesses; how it has made it impossible to conduct a political contest in the South of Ireland except on the lines of civil war; and how, every man who dares to oppose the Redmondite party, or every man within that party who opposes the A.O.H., must be at all times prepared to take his life in his hands.


There are two indictments of that most nefarious order from representative Irish sources, and, making all due allowance for the possibility of partisan colouring, they yet draw a woeful picture of the state of matters Mr Redmond permits, or is compelled to permit, in order to maintain his throne. Let me explain that the name “Molly Maguire” is the name given popularly to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin). The quotation is from the Cork Free Press, and is a review of a speech by Mr. W. O’Brien, M.P.

“Mr. O’Brien dealt with facts. He said that the Molly Maguire secret society is purely sectarian in its character; that no Protestant can be a member pf it; that it has absolute control of the funds and can devote them to what purposes it wishes; that it is employed by unscrupulous politicians to serve their own base purposes; that it is in the main responsible for the multiplied scandals of recent years in our public life; that it is the instrument which has been used to swamp Conventions, to rob the people of their electoral rights, and to deprive them of a voice in the shaping of public policy; that apart from its intrusion into the field of politics, its raison d’etre is to give a preference to Catholics as against Protestants on all occasions; that its members are under an implied obligation to support each other, and that, therefore, it lends itself to log rolling of the most immoral character; that to give effect to its principles must lead to the boycotting and extermination of the Protestant community; that if Catholics are to withdraw their custom from Protestants in order to transfer it to rival traders who are Catholics, the result must be to convert the shops of the former into howling wildernesses; that if the Molly Maguires can help it no contract can be given by a public board to Protestants; that they must, under the operation of the same rule, be inexorably shut out from offices of emolument in the public gift as well as from seats in public bodies; that in this way Hibernianism revives and accentuates the worst features of Orangeism; that it has been admitted by one of its Grand Masters, Mr. Sisk, to be a species of Catholic freemasonry; that it is a thing hateful in itself, pregnant with moral evil, and inimical to the great and ennobling doctrines of Irish nationality; that its domination must enkindle the flames of sectarian strife from end to end of the land, and make the concession of self-government to a people subject to its sway an absolute impossibility”.

The other is from the pen of Mr. Lindsay Crawford, leader of the Independent Orangemen, and a name to conjure with among the Protestant democracy of the North. These opinions could be supplemented from every quarter where independent thinking is done in Ireland - North, South, East, and West. Every shade of political feeling in Ireland, outside of the official gang at the head of the United Irish League, agree that this organisation of Mr. Devlin’s creation, and of whose work Mr. Redmond accepts the fruits, is the greatest curse yet introduced into the political and social life of Ireland. It is the organised ignorance of the community placing itself unreservedly at the disposal of the most insidious and inveterate enemies of enlightenment. In West Belfast it calls upon the Labour vote, upon the Socialists, to vote for “Wee Joe Devlin”, and in Queenstown it ferments a riot in order to prevent a socialist speaker delivering his message; it is a true incarnation of medieval intolerance masquerading in the guise of Christian charity.

Says Mr Lindsay Crawford:

“The trouble in Ireland is mainly attributable to the extreme sectarian influences — Orange and Green — that are still ranged in opposite camps on the banks of the Boyne. On one hand is the Orangeman, warm-hearted and generous despite his fanaticism, and who, in the sacred name of Protestantism, opposes the principles of good government imperishably associated with the Reformation and with the revolution of 1688. On the other hand is the Hibernian — kindly and tolerant in his individual capacity — who is kept in ignorance of the real aims and ambitions of his leaders and whose individuality is is crushed under the iron heel of the caucus. These two organisations constitute the real obstacle to the peace and progress of our country, and their attitude towards each other is the more reprehensible in that each professes to be rooted in Christian principles. Christianity forsooth! What a profane travesty of the teachings of the gentle Nazarene! If these sectarian societies represent Christianity on its two sides then we may well despair of our country. Do thorns bring forth grapes? Does Christianity express itself in hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness? It were easy, did space permit, to adduce proofs in support of the contention (1) that Protestant opposition to home rule is incompatible with the instincts and traditions of Protestantism; and (2) that sectarianism and nationality (as exemplified in the attempted fusion of the UIL and the AOH) are mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable.”


Such is the problem, or rather some factors in the problem, in Ireland. Say, ye British Socialists, have your leaders any conception of this problem, or do they imagine that an Irish branch of a British Socialist organisation can grapple with this problem, or do anything with it save make a mess of it?

Or that it can be grappled with in any manner save from within the Irish nation by the workers of Ireland uniting in a party of their own to throw off the incubus of social slavery and religious intolerance? Such is the work the Socialist Party of Ireland sets out to accomplish. In that work the Socialists of Ireland know well that they can expect no help or countenance from the bigots of either Green or Orange persuasion, and while ever insisting upon the right of Ireland to control its own destinies, it allows precedence in its thoughts and plans to no interest but one, that of the working class. To the Redmonds and the Devlins, the Carsons and the Moores — it leaves the apostleship of religious bigotry; in our ranks there is no room for that type of politician of whom the poet writes that:–

With all his conscience and with one eye askew,

So false he partly took himself for true;

Whose pious talk, when most his heart was dry.

Made wet the crafty crow’s-foot round his eye;

Who never naming God except for gain,

So never took that useful name in vain;

Made Him his cat’s paw, and the Cross his tool,

And Christ his bait to trap his dupe and fool;

Nor deeds of gift, but gifts of grace, he forged,

And, snakelike, slimed his victim ere he gorged.


John E Redmond was a small-scale Irish landlord. He sided with Charles Stuart Parnell when the majority of the nationalists turned against him as he was involved in a scandal. Parnell died in 1891, and Redmond became leader of the Parnellites. The two factions reunited in 1900. Redmond was titular leader but the anti-Parnellite John Dillon had the predominant influence in the party.

The M’Cann case: Mrs McCann, a Northern Ireland Presbyterian married in her own church to a Catholic man, complained of harassment by her husband and his priest, and her husband’s abduction of their two children. Hansard reference: bit.ly/mc-c

Joseph Devlin MP: Devlin revived and built up the AOH into a formidable force in Irish Catholic Nationalist politics. The AOH took control of the Home Rule party, the United Irish League, in 1909. The Home Rule party was wiped out in most of Ireland in the 1918 General Election, except in parts of Ulster. A remnant, the Nationalist Party, survived in the Six Counties until it merged with others to form the SDLP in 1970.

The Molly Maguire secret society: Popular name for the AOH.

William O’Brien, Nationalist MP: Very prominent in land agitation, in 1902 he organised a conference of landlords and tenants which agreed on measures to buy out the landlords. It resulted in the Wyndham Act of Parliament in 1903. Taking this as his model he advocated all-round conciliation of the Irish Unionists. He separated himself from the Home Rule Party when the sectarians of the AOH took control, and founded the All For Ireland League. He wound up joining Sinn Fein.

Lindsay Crawford: An Independent Orange Order emerged in 1902 led by Thomas Sloan. It was working-class in composition and aligned with Jim Larkin to (briefly) unite the workers in Belfast in 1907. Lindsay Crawford was a prominent member and his writings gave the IOO an appearance of liberalism and hostility to sectarianism. With the polarisation around the Third Home Rule Bill, Sloan and his friends swung back into mainstream Orangeism. Crawford was expelled. He became a Free State functionary in the 1920s. In the late 60s the IOO aligned with Ian Paisley, who denounced the Orange Unionist Establishment.

Omitted from the previous version of this article, in Desmond Ryan’s four volumes of Connolly’s writings, are most of the 850-odd words after “... every man within that party who opposes the AOH must be at all times prepared to take his life in his hands”, i.e. the passage starting: “There are two indictments...” and concluding with the end of the citation from Lindsay Crawford, “... antagonistic and irreconcilable”.

Of those 850-odd words only 120-odd were included, the three sentences - “Every shade of political feeling... guise of Christian charity” - just before the citation from Crawford.

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