James Connolly: A Study of his Work and Worth, by Gerald O’Connor/ Seán Mac Giollarnáth (1917)

Gerald O’Connor was the pen-name of Seán Mac Giollarnáth, a writer, judge, and Celtic scholar who was born on 13 September 1880 in Bogwood, Gurteen, near Athenry, Co. Galway.[1] He left for London sometime round the turn of the century and worked in the British Revenue Department at Somerset House.[2]  He was sworn into the IRB while in England and became active in the Gaelic League where he got to know Pádraig Ó Conaire and Mícheál Breathnach. In 1908 he returned to Ireland and in 1909 he took over from Padráig Pearse as editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, the newspaper of the Gaelic League, a position he held until 1917.[3] He taught at St. Enda’s College with Pearse until 1916.

In 1920 Mac Giollarnáth qualified as a solicitor and practiced in Athenry where he presided at Sinn Féin courts and acted as a courier for the IRA. He was made a district judge in 1925 and retired from that post in 1950. He was married to Tríona Ní Fhearáin, from Magherafelt, Co. Derry.[4] they had three sons. He died in Galway city on 28 January 1970.

It was during his time as a district judge that he became an active folklorist, collecting stories, prayers, definitions, and proverbs. There is a dedicated website to the material, hosted by NUI Galway, available here.

Mac Giollarnáth used a number of pseudonyms during the revolutionary period. In 1916 he pubished a biography of Pearse under the name of “Colin”.[5] His biography of Connolly – the first to be produced – was published the following year under the name “Gerald O’Connor”. He also published articles on the pen names ‘Maine’ and ‘Tadhg Ó Ceallaigh’.[6] He initially spelt his surname ‘Mac Giollanatha’, changing it to ‘Mac Giollarnath’ from 1920 onwards.[7]

Mac Giollarnáth was an acquaintance of Connolly, and clearly admired him for his republicanism and championing of the rights of the working classes. He was less taken, however, with socialism as a solution to Ireland’s problems. ‘Were [Connolly] now alive he would certainly be as stout an opponent of the socialism which we see coming into being’ wrote Mac Giollarnáth, ‘as Father Kane was of that Socialism which many brilliant writers believed would liberate and elevate the dispossessed millions of the earth.’[8]

The socialism that Mac Giollarnáth was talking about was the range of wartime measures brought in by Westminster from 1915 onwards. ‘State Socialism or State Control, which we now see coming into being in England’ he wrote, ‘and which is being imposed upon Ireland also, is bringing with it, as Belloc predicted it would bring, the Servile State.’[9]

Socialism, in Mac Giollarnáth’s eyes, was state interference in business and the provision of supports to people. It is not a million miles from the current debates in the US, where the Right decry any state involvement as not only socialism but outright communism.

The purpose of the pamphlet seems to be to appropriate Connolly for Gaelic League nationalism, and to use him as a way of keeping workers on board with their vision of an independent Ireland. The year of its publication – 1917 – is key. The Great War is not yet over, nor looks like it is ending any time soon, and Sinn Fein is not yet the political and social force it became after the 1918 general election. ‘Connolly willingly gave up his life for his Republican ideals’ wrote Mac Giollarnáth in his conclusion. The fact that Connolly’s republicanism was an anti-colonial Marxism – and that his Marxism was not a tactic to achieve an independent Ireland but a vision for its future – was something that Mac Giollarnáth could downplay as Connolly was conveniently dead. The first biography of Connolly, in many ways, set the template for the future.

[1] “Beathaisnéis Sheáin Mhic Giollarnáth,”  Cartlann Ghaeltacht Chonamara, accessed 28 April 2022, https://www.cartlann.ie/exhibits/show/cartlann-sheain-mhic-giollarna/se–n-mac-giollarn–th

[2] Obituary of Seán Mac Giollarnáth, Irish Independent, 2 February 1970.

[3] “Beathaisnéis Sheáin Mhic Giollarnáth”.

[4] Vincent Morley, “Mac Giollarnáth (Mac Giolla An Átha; Forde), Seán,” Dictionary of Irish Biography, accessed 28 April 2022, https://www.dib.ie/biography/mac-giollarnath-mac-giolla-atha-forde-sean-a5049.

[5] Colin, Patrick H. Pearse: A Sketch of his Life (Dublin, 1916)

[6] “Beathaisnéis Sheáin Mhic Giollarnáth” .

[7] “Beathaisnéis Sheáin Mhic Giollarnáth” .

[8] Gerald O’Connor, James Connolly: A Study of his Work and Worth (Dublin, 1917): 14.

[9] O’Connor: 13.

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