Sixteen men were executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising – the seizure of the General Post Office in Dublin by Irish volunteers that took place one hundred years ago this coming April. Among those executed was James Connolly: leader of the Irish Citizen Army, trade unionist, revolutionary Marxist, de facto commander-in-chief of the Easter Rising.
Connolly has been canonized in the century since his death. That death – at the hands of an occupying British Army – is by itself enough to command respect of anyone concerned with self-determination, but there is also a certain tragedy in how overlooked his eloquent words and ideas can be, even today.
“As extraordinary as his personal leadership was,” writes Mat Callahan in Songs of Freedom: The James Connolly Songbook, “it is ultimately his ideas that are of the greatest import for present and succeeding generations.” Connolly wrote brilliantly on the necessity of socialism to the cause of Irish independence, as well as all manner of topics relevant to the world socialist movement. Almost every word he wrote was in the service of nurturing a radical workers’ culture that had as its aim a thoroughgoing transformation of not just Ireland but the entire world. So it was with his song lyrics and poetry, including the long poem below: “The Legacy: A Dying Socialist to His Son.”
At first glance it would appear there’s something almost quaint to this poem. There is no unorthodox structure here; Connolly writes in basic rhyming couplets, working very much in the then-dominant tradition of radical labor folk songs that were easy to learn, adapt and perform. But this straightforwardness shouldn’t be mistaken for crudeness or even simplicity.
True, there is none of the unorthodox structure that Connolly’s countrymen – Joyce, Behan, Beckett – would employ in the years after his death. This does not make it any less of an effective modernist work. Connolly uses heptameter (lines of fourteen alternating unstressed and stressed syllables) throughout the work to spin the poem’s imagery from the mundane to the fantastic and historic, from the solemn quietude of an old man’s death bed to the grand cosmopolitan machinations of industry and time.
What is happening in “The Legacy” therefore is a reversal of sorts, a demand of the reader that the dying wishes of a worker be given the same credence, their memory carry the same weight, as all the kings and queens and industrialists of the world. This kind of sentiment – the rhetorical flipping of empire and capital’s interests with those of ordinary people, implicitly questioning why the former is prioritized over the latter – is later echoed by Connolly’s own last words, given to his daughter Nora the day before his execution: “We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.” – Alexander Billet
* * *
Come here my son, and for a time put up your childish play,
Draw nearer to your father’s bed, and lay your games away.
No sick man’s ’plaint is this of mine, ill-tempered at your noise,
Nor carping at your eagerness to romp with childish toys.
Thou’rt but a boy, and I, a man outworn with care and strife,
Would not deprive you of one joy thou canst extract from life;
But o’er my soul comes creeping on death’s shadow, and my lips
Must give to you a message ere life meets that eclipse.
Slow runs my blood, my nether limbs I feel not, and my eyes
Can scarce discern, here in this room, that childish form I prize.
Aye, death’s grim hand is on my frame, and helpless it lies here
But to my mental vision comes the power of a seer,
And time and space are now as nought as with majestic sweep
I feel my mind traverses the land and encompasses the deep;
Search backward over history’s course, or with prophetic view
And sounding lines of hope and fear gauge man’s great destiny too.
The chasm deep 'twixt life and death I bridge at last tonight,
And with a foot on either side absorb their truths and light.
And thus, my son, though reft of strength, my limbs slow turn to clay,
Fired by this light I call you here to hear my Legacy.
“My Legacy!” Ah, son of mine! Wert thou a rich man’s pride
He’d crown thee with his property, possessions far and wide,
And golden store to purchase slaves, whose aching brain and limb
Would toil to bring you luxury as such had toiled for him.
But thy father is a poor man, and glancing round you here
Thou canst see all his property – our humble household gear,
No will we need by lawyers drawn, no witnesses attest,
To guard for you your legacy, your father’s last bequest.
“Thy father is a poor man” mark well what that may mean,
On the tablets of thy memory that truth write bright and clean.
Thy father’s lot it was to toil from earliest boyhood on,
And know his latent energies for a master’s profit drawn;
Or else, ill-starred, to wander round and huxter-like to vend
His precious store of brain and brawn to all whom fate may send
And cross his path with gold enough to purchase Labour’s power
To turn it into gold again, and fructify the hour.
With sweat and blood of toiling slaves, like unto us, my son,
Aye, through our veins since earliest days, ’tis poor man’s blood has run.
Yes, son of mine, since History’s dawn two classes stand revealed,
The Rich and Poor, in bitterest war, by deadliest hatred steeled.
The one, incarnate greed and crime, disdaining honest toil
Had grasped man’s common birthright and treasure house, the soil.
And standing twixt their fellow man and all that earth could give
Had bade them render tribute if they would hope to live.
And, building crime on top of crime, had pushed their conquests on
Till, arbiters of life and death, they stood with weapons drawn.
And blades athirst to drink the blood, on land and over sea,
Of him who dared for human rights to stem their tyranny.
They held our lands, our bodies ruled, and strove to rule the mind
And Hell itself could not surpass their evil to mankind –
And all who strove for human rights to break their cursed yoke –
The noblest of our race, my child, went down beneath their stroke.
And where’er earth’s sweetest spots, in nature’s loveliest haunt
Each built his fort or castle grim the poor of earth to daunt.
And issuing forth from walls of stone, high over cliff and pass,
With sword in hand, would gather in the tribute for his class.
And given emblems of their rule, flaunting to humankind
The pit to drown our women, the gibbet for our men,
Stood, aye, beside their fortresses; and underneath the most
Tier upon tier of noisome cells for those the tyrant smote.
Thumbscrews and rack and branding rod, and each device of Hell
Perverted genius could devise to torture men to sell
(For brief respite from anguish dire to end their wretched lives)
The secret of their comradeship, the honour of their wives.
As the fabled as the tree of old, by ancient poets sung,
Consumed with blight each living thing then ‘neath its branches sprung,
The rich man’s power o’er all the earth had spread its baleful blight
Respecting neither age nor sex to sate its lust and might.
It stole the harvest from the field, the product of the loom,
Struck down the old man in his age, the young man in his bloom.
It robbed the carrier on the road, the sailor on the tide
And from the bridegroom of the hour it took the new-made bride.
Such crimes it wrought not Hell itself and its satanic school
Could fashion crimes to equal those wrought by the rich man’s rule.
“The past?” Aye, boy, the method’s past, the deed is still the same,
And robbery is robbery, yet though cloaked in gentler name.
Our means of life are still usurped, the rich man still is lord,
And prayers and cries for justice still meet one reply – the sword!
Though hypocrites for rich men’s gold may tell us we are free,
And oft excel in speech and print our vaunted liberty,
But freedom lies not in a name, and he who lacks for bread
Must have that bread tho’ he should give his soul for it instead.
And we, who live by Labour, know that while they rule we must
Sell Freedom, brain and limb to win for us and ours a crust.
The robbers made our fathers slaves then chained them to the soil,
For a little larger chain – a wage – we must change our toil.
But open force gave way to fraud but force again behind
Prepares to strike if fraud should fail to keep men deaf and blind.
Our mothers see their children’s limbs they fondled as they grew
And doted on, caught up to make for rich men profits new,
Whilst strong men die for lack of work and cries of misery swell
And women’s souls in city streets creep shuddering to Hell.
These things belong not to the past but to the present day
And they shall last till in our wrath we sweep them all away.
“We sweep them.” Ah, too well I know my work on earth is done,
Even as I speak my chilling blood tells me my race is run.
But you, my last-loom child, take the legacy I give
And do as your father did whilst he was spared to live.
Treasure ye in your inmost heart this legacy of hate
For those who on the poor man’s back have climbed to high estate.
The lords of land and capital – the slave lords of our age,
Who of this smiling earth of ours have made for us a cage
Where golden bars fetter men’s souls, and noble thoughts are flame
To burn with vain desire, and virtue yields to shame.
Each is your foe, foe of your class, of human rights the foe,
Be it your thought by day and night to work their overthrow.
And howsoe’er you earn your wage, and wheresoe’er you go,
Be it beneath the tropic heat or mid the northern snow
Or closely penn’d in factory walls or burrowing in the mine
Or scorching in the furnace hell of steamers cross the brine
Or on a railroad’s shining track you guide the flying wheel
Or clambering up buildings high to weld the frames of steel
Or use the needle, or the type, the hammer or the pen,
Have you one thought, one speech alone, to all your fellow-men.
The men and women of your class, tell them their wrongs and yours,
Plant in their hearts that hatred deep that suffers and endures,
And treasure up each deed of wrong, each scornful word and look
Inscribe it in the memory, as others in a book,
And wait and watch through galling years the ripening of time
Yet deem to strike before that hour were worse than folly – crime.
This be your task, oh son of mine, the rich man’s hate to brave
And consecrate your noblest part to rouse each fellow slave.
To spread the day the world awaits when Labour long oppress
Shall rise and strike for Freedom true and from the tyrant wrest
The power they have abused so long. Oh ever glorious deed!
The crowning point of history, yet child, the bitterest need.
Ah, woe is me, thy father’s eyes shall not behold the day
I faint and die; child, hold my hand –
Keep – thou – my – Leg-a-cy.
This version of Connolly's poem, along with many of his other lyrics, can be found in Songs of Freedom: The James Connolly Songbook, edited by Mat Callahan and published by PM Press. Much thanks to the editor for his assistance to Red Wedge.
James Connolly (1868 – 1916) was an Irish socialist and republican leader, a trade unionist, writer and poet. In 1916 he helped lead the Easter Rising, for which he was executed by the British Army.