Red Flag, Green Roots

On May Day we remember the life of Jim Connell, the author of labour anthem 'The Red Flag.'

When Britain’s new parliament met for the first time after Labour’s victory in the 1945 general election, Tory MPs greeted the vanquished Winston Churchill with a rendition of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. A month earlier, facing a landslide defeat, Churchill had turned the end of the campaign into an orgy of red-baiting, even going so far as to suggest a Labour government would introduce a Gestapo to Britain. 

Now, with Labour’s numbers almost double those of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, there was a fitting response: Clement Attlee and his nearly 400 MPs treated Churchill to a rendition of The Red Flag, the first time the song had been sung in parliament itself.

The Red Flag has been part of Labour’s history since at least 1900, when it was sung by delegates from the Independent Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation, Fabian Society and trade union movement at the founding of the Labour Representation Committee. Records suggest it has been sung annually at the party’s conference ever since, save for a brief hiatus under Tony Blair’s New Labour between 2000 and 2003. And it has made its presence felt in many iconic places besides, from the 40 hour strike on Red Clydeside a century ago to the Grunwick pickets of the 1970s.

Written in the wake of the London dock strike in 1889, the city’s dockers memorably reprised it as an anthem during their disputes of the 1950s, on one occasion singing it in a public meeting to counter management’s request for a rendition of God Save the Queen. But the story of The Red Flag’s author, Jim Connell, was almost lost to history. It was only in the 1960s when the late Belfast trade unionist Andrew Boyd set about researching the origins of the song for a BBC documentary that his life was rediscovered. The following biography is substantially indebted to his work.

Working Origins

Jim Connell was born in Kilskyre, county Meath, in 1852, just three years after the end of Ireland’s Great Famine, during which nearly a million people died and more than a million emigrated from the island. His parents, Thomas and Anne, were tenant farmers and raised a family of thirteen children. The young Jim’s schooling was erratic and it wasn’t until his father took a job tending horses for the Earl of Ross in Birr Castle, county Offaly, that time away from the farm and access to a library of books afforded him opportunity for an education. 

Jim Connell was born in Kilskyre, near Kells (pictured, 1900) in county Meath.

In 1867, at the age of fifteen, Jim Connell moved to Dublin. Ireland was at that time in the midst of a Fenian uprising and Connell, working various menial jobs and then on the docks, fell into political activity. It was there he met John Landye, a Fenian socialist and member of Karl Marx’s First International, who introduced him to a radical discussion group which met weekly in the city’s pubs and by weekends for strolls in the Dublin mountains. Years later Connell’s daughter Norah Walshe would remember that it was under Landye’s tutelage that Jim learned “the difference between capitalism and socialism, and became a fluent and attractive debater.”

Unable to find steady work in Dublin, Connell would depart for London in 1875, where his inconsistent temperament would see him wander through a series of jobs: sheep farmer, docker, navvy, railwayman, journalist. But perhaps the most striking of his early engagements in his new city was a run-in with the magistrates in Croydon town hall, where he was fined for killing hares on the property of the Surrey gentry. Connell was a passionate poacher, a hobby he kept up all his life, writing two of his first books on the subject. “There is no reason why any unemployed man’s children should go hungry,” he would tell acquaintances, “while the game preserves of the rich are so well stocked.” He reflected these views in verse:

“In boyhood I quaffed with a passionate love,
The mountain and the moor,
And hated the greed of the covetous lord
Who fenced out the weak and the poor.”

Connell’s political development continued in London and, when the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was founded in 1881, he became one of its first members. Like many of its early luminaries such as Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx and William Morris, Connell was not a particular fan of its leader Henry Hyndman. But unlike these, Connell was less vocal about his objections, owing in part to Hyndman’s sympathy for the Irish cause. When a British wing of the Irish Land League was established by Connell’s friend Michael Davitt the same year, both Connell and Hyndman joined its national executive.

In 1882 Connell married Catherine Aungier, an Englishwoman and fellow socialist activist, and settled in Battersea. It was around this time that he became a regular columnist in the SDF’s newspaper Justice and first began publishing poetry and songs. His early Workers of England, which Connell characteristically set to the Fenian tune O’Donnell Abú, gave an indication of his socialist perspective.

“Workers of England why crouch ye like cravens?
Why clutch an existence of insult and want?
Why stand to be plucked by an army of ravens,
Or hoodwinked forever by twaddle and cant?”

Scarlet Standard

It was in his role as writer for Justice that Connell would compose The Red Flag in 1889. Written on a train from Charing Cross to New Cross, it was published with a Christmas selection on December 21st of that year. Connell would later recall in an interview with Marxist newspaper The Call how he was inspired by the revolutionary fervour of the times.

“One thousand eight hundred and eighty-nine was the year of the London dock strike. It was the biggest thing of its kind that occurred up to that date, and its leaders HH Champion, Tom Mann and John Burns aroused the whole of England by the work they did and the victory they won. Not many years previously the Irish Land League aroused the democracy of all countries… About the same time the Russian Nihilists, the parents of the Bolsheviks, won the applause of all lovers of liberty and admirers of heroism. 

“There happened also, in 1887, the hanging of the Chicago anarchists. The widow of one of them, Mrs. Parsons, herself more than half a Red Indian, made a lecturing tour of this country soon afterwards. On one occasion I heard her telling a large audience than when she contemplated the service rendered to humanity, she was glad her husband died as he did. The reader may now understand how I got into the mood which enabled me to write The Red Flag.”

Jim Connell’s 1900 booklet Red Flag Rhymes.

The Red Flag was picked up almost immediately, with subsequent issues of Justice recording that it was sung at meetings in Liverpool and Glasgow in the following weeks. Its lyrics revealed the developing internationalism of the socialist movement, referencing workers in France, Germany, Russia and America, and were soon republished in other countries. Connell initially set the tune to Robert Burns’ Jacobite anthem The White Cockade, a swifter and brisker rhythm than the one by which it would come to be known.

It wasn’t until 1895 when A S Headingly set The Red Flag to Tannenbaum or Maryland, a decision Connell didn’t approve of. This was, he thought, “church music… composed to remind people of their sins and frighten them into repentance.” But it was, nevertheless, the version which gained ground in the international labour movement, owing in no small part, as the Daily Worker would point out years later, to the fact the lyrics could be more easily heard at a slower pace. (Many years later Billy Bragg and Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan recorded a version of the song to its original tune, which you can hear here. The Tannenbaum version can be heard here.)

Connell would remain intensely proud of The Red Flag throughout his life, remarking in the years before he died that it “gave expression to not only my own best thoughts and feelings, but the best thoughts and feelings of every genuine socialist I knew.” He recorded many times that his favourite lines were the ones which articulated the historic mission of the labour movement, “it well recalls the triumphs past / it gives the hope of peace at last / the banner bright, the symbol plain / of human right and human gain.”

Comrade Connell

In the years which followed The Red Flag’s publication, Connell became a more renowned figure on the British left. In 1890 the SDF named him prospective parliamentary candidate for East Finchley, something which drew the ire of local Liberal MP James Rowlands and Irish nationalist newspaper proprietor TP O’Connor. Gladstone’s Liberals had supported Home Rule for Ireland in the election just four years prior, and felt they were entitled to the support of the Irish population of Britain.

But Connell was not by any means won on the idea of Home Rule for Ireland. Considering himself a radical Fenian – and indeed years later Irish trade unionist William O’Brien would confirm that Connell had joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood before leaving Dublin – he felt little affinity for the bourgeois politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Connell would later write a poem deriding Tim Healy, then MP for the IPP and later the first governor-general of the Irish Free State as a “little office boy”.

Jim Connell wrote for the Social Democratic Federation’s newspaper Justice until leaving the party in the 1890s.

True to form, the Liberals and Irish Home Rulers set about organising an anti-socialist campaign against Connell in East Finchley. In doing so they used many tactics later picked up by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America during their campaign against James Connolly, securing condemnations of Connell from the pulpit and sending mobs to disrupt his meetings. Their “brutal and cowardly” activities were condemned in the pages of Justice, along with Connell’s response:

“On Wednesday night last a large meeting was held in the Hall of Science to further Comrade Connell’s candidature. At the outset, we were saluted by filthy and blackguardly expressions, one ruffian going so far as to kick Comrade Connell… [who] went pluckily through his address. At the end a friend of Rowlands asked whether Connell would retire from the constituency in the event of a no confidence vote. In reply, Comrade Connell seized the red flag and raised it above his head… saying that in spite of paid bullies, if they did not kill him in the attempt, he would continue to raise the red flag aloft.”

Wild Colonial Boy

Unsurprisingly, Connell was soundly defeated in the 1892 election. Shortly afterwards, he departed the SDF for Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, forming a close relationship with the then MP for West Ham South and supporting his campaign to secure broader representation for labour in parliament. In due course he took up a columnists’ job at the party paper Labour Leader.

He used this platform to launch campaigns to improve workers’ conditions across Britain. One of the most prominent of which was the campaign for injured workers and their families that led, in 1896, to the passage of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. Shortly after this, Connell was a founding secretary of the Workmen’s Legal Friendly Society (WLFS), established to help workers navigate the legal procedures necessary to win compensation.

With the WLFS Connell set up office in Chancery Lane, and became a colourful figure in the area surrounding it and the neighbouring Fleet Street. In a profile The Times would describe him as “a big man with a cheery face and heavy upturned moustaches, wearing a huge sombrero and a flowing tie of bright red.” Wal Hannington, a Communist activist who knew Connell later in his life, remarked that he would wear a red scarf every day, save on St. Patrick’s Day when it would be swapped for a green one. Fitting the portrait, Norah Walshe described her father as “wild and at times uncontrollable,” looking like “an actor from a Shakespearean troupe” but “beloved in whatever nook of whatever pub he held court.”

During this period Andrew Boyd recalls that visitors to Connell’s Chancery Lane office included James Connolly and Jim Larkin, luminaries of the Irish labour movement. Jim Connell maintained a close relationship with Ireland throughout his life in London and, in 1898, would write a landmark text on the centenary of the United Irishmen uprising entitled Brothers at Last: An Appeal to Saxon and Celt.

A photograph of Jim Connell from the 1920s.

In Brothers At Last, Connell embraced the spirit of the 1867 Fenian uprising which had first introduced him to radical politics. Encouraging Irish people to find common cause with agricultural labourers of Norfolk and Devonshire, weavers of the northwest and miners of the northeast, he declared that “the workers in Britain were themselves victimised by landlords and capitalists, often to as great an extent as those in Ireland.” This was very much in tune with the 1867 Fenian proclamation, written by socialist James Stephens, which appealed to the working-class of England:

“Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour.”

Ownerless Corner of Earth

By this time Connell was publishing regularly. His fascination with nature and the work of Charles Darwin led to his next prominent work, Socialism and Survival of the Fittest. In it, he polemicised with liberal philosophers like Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” as an expression of social Darwinism, arguing that society’s deep inequalities had biological basis. Connell disagreed, and defended a materialist conception of nature similar in parts to Engels’ then unpublished Dialectics of Nature.

During a stint lecturing in Glasgow, Connell would also explore the city’s experiments in municipal socialism in Glasgow’s Municipal Enterprises. But perhaps most notably he published his Red Flag Rhymes in both England and Scotland, which helped further popularise The Red Flag within the labour movement. It was a copy of this pamphlet that reached the Wobblies in the early 1900s and led to The Red Flag being included in the iconic Little Red Songbook of 1909.

A monument to Jim Connell in Crossakiel in his native county Meath.

Jim Connell remained active in politics in the years which followed. On the outset of the First World War, when many of his former comrades like Henry Hyndman supported British involvement, Connell sided with Keir Hardie, James Connolly and Rosa Luxemburg in opposing the conflict and supporting workers’ resistance to it. He would later write mournfully of Connolly and Luxemburg’s executions, and positively about the Bolshevik Revolution, influenced by Tom Mann’s glowing accounts of its progress.

In 1918 Connell returned to an Ireland on the cusp of the war of independence to support tenant farmers in their attempts to take control of their holdings. A monument to Connell now stands in the place where he spoke to the Ballinlough Back to the Land Committee in Crossakiel, county Meath, that year. Unveiled in 1998 by Peter Cassells of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Mary Turner, the first Irish president of the GMB union in Britain, it bears a quotation from one of his Red Flag Rhymes:

“Oh, grant me an ownerless corner of earth,
Or pick me a hillock of stones,
Or gather the wind wafted leaves of the trees,
To cover my socialist bones.”

The Red Flag led a parallel life to Connell during these years. It was sung when the National Guard was sent in to repress striking West Virginia coal miners in 1912, and when Australian workers organised a mass strike in 1917. It closed out a 1918 meeting of radical republicans welcoming a delegation of Bolsheviks to Dublin, and was sung by mutinous British soldiers during World War One. Randian miners in South Africa sang it on their way to their death at the gallows. As Tom Mann would say at Connell’s graveside, “The Red Flag inspired thousands, possibly millions.”

Though Cowards Flinch

But The Red Flag was not universally popular. Nor was Tony Blair the first Labour leader to try to remove it as the party’s anthem. Three-quarters of a century earlier, while Connell was in the twilight of his life, a similar attempt was made by one of Blair’s predecessors. It is perhaps unsurprising, given his trajectory, that this was Ramsay MacDonald.

In his BBC documentary, Andrew Boyd would record how MacDonald believed there was “not one good line” in The Red Flag. By 1925, he had gone public with this opinion, with remarks arguing that the party still needed “a great Labour song” covered widely in the British press. The Labour-supporting Daily Herald took up the baton of finding a replacement, with its editor Hamilton Fyfe agreeing that The Red Flag was “often poorly sung.”

A plaque to Jim Connell erected by Lewisham Council and the Labour Party at his final address in 22a Stondon Park.

In 1926, the Herald ran a competition to find a replacement. The prize was £50. World-renowned tenor John McCormack and director of Glasgow Oprheus Choir Hugh Roberton were brought in as judges. However, after a year-long search, they abandoned the cause, writing that none of those submitted “stood a chance” of replacing The Red Flag. The Herald accepted their decision, conceding that The Red Flag would be “in possession of the field” for the foreseeable future.

This didn’t stop MacDonald and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) from trying to minimise the role of the song where they could. An editorial in The Worker in 1929 remarked on their efforts to diminish its presence at rallies, speculating that its references to the “weak and base” struck a little close to home. But the competition’s outcome did give great joy to the ageing Jim Connell, with a dinner held in his honour in The Golden Cross pub in Charing Cross to celebrate the song’s endurance.

Not long afterwards, in February 1929, Jim Connell passed away in Lewisham Hospital, close to the Crofton Park home where he spent his final days. Tom Mann led the orations in Golders Green before, as his daughter Norah Walshe remembered, “we all sang The Red Flag, just as he would have wished. It was a sad and wonderful parting.” The Daily Herald reported that:

“It was a very impressive occasion. Just as Jim was no ordinary man, this was no ordinary funeral. The service opened in the lofty, ice-cold, red-bricked chapel with a rendition of The Red Flag. First it was played to the tune of The White Cockade, then to Tannenbaum. A red flag draped on the coffin bore the slogan Socialism Advances. The chapel was filled. There were bearded stalwarts who had fought many a brave fight. There were frail-looking women with red rosettes. When they were offered song sheets, they said: we know The Red Flag, of course we do.”

Ninety years on from Connell’s passing, his song has returned to its place of prominence at Labour Party conference. Thankfully, it is no longer neutered by set-piece tenors or put to a jazz tune, as in previous years, but sung by the delegates at large, just as it was in the Sanctuary pub on the night Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership. One suspects Jim Connell would have been pleased to see it not alone restored in our time, but filled once again with meaning.