James Connolly has been well served by biographers – W.P. Ryan, Desmond Greaves, Samuel Levenson, R.D. Edwards, Austen Morgan, J.L. Hyland and Donal Nevin amongst many. Liam McNulty’s biography is a valuable addition and deserves to be a standard work. There are three reasons for this.
First Liam illustrates the evolving nature of Connolly's thought in the context of mid Victorian socialism; Connolly’s early activism in Edinburgh and the formation of the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. Connolly’s time in the US is of particular importance revealing his growing appreciation of industrial unionism and sympathetic strikes and how he synthesised the ideas of Daniel De Leon despite their mutual antagonism. Connolly’s return to Ireland, his involvement in the industrial unrest from 1910 to 1914 and the Dublin Lockout and the impact of the First World War on Connolly’s socialism is considered in detail. Liam does not subscribe to the opinion of Sean O’Casey and the conclusion of Austen Morgan that Connolly’s socialism gave way to his nationalism and explains his participation in the Easter Rising in 1916.
Secondly Liam brings a wider international aspect to Connolly’s life often ignored by other biographies. This is a study of the influence of the numerous and complex influences upon Connolly from the socialist and revolutionary movements of his time, particularly Britain, the US and France. Certainly Connolly was dismayed by the collapse of the Second International in 1914 but it does explain why he took the Irish Citizen Army into the GPO. Connolly was doing what he thought the Second International members should have done in 1914 to prevent the outbreak of the war. Liam asserts “Connolly had long assumed that a genuinely nationalist revolution would simultaneously be a socialist one”. Connolly’s pro German stance can be explained as any enemy of the British Empire is our friend, but it is is problematic. Germany was equally imperialistically minded and, by 1916, had a grim track record of atrocities in Europe.
Thirdly, the strength of Liam’s book, the result of six years research, is his lucid and readable style. It has the unique achievement of offering new perspectives to Connolly scholars while being a fine introduction to readers whose familiarity with Connolly may be slight or non-existent.
As Professor Mark Mulholland observes, ‘McNulty’s carefully researched and eloquently written book is a vital contribution to our understanding of this most extraordinary man’