Proclaiming the Irish Republic, Easter 1916
Proclaiming the Irish Republic, Easter 1916

At the General Election of 1918, when Sinn Fein won a landslide victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party and proceeded to declare Irish independence with the authority of the first Dáil Éireann, parliamentary politics in Wales also underwent a reconfiguration. Not, as might commonly be considered, in terms of parliamentary voice – as a coupon election, it was Lloyd George’s ruling coalition that won – but in terms of fundamental organisation of seats. Swept away were the old counties and boroughs and in their place came seats familiar to electors into the modern era.  With the sweeping away of old interests, which might have artificially inflated Liberal influence over parliament into the 1920s, the new seats gave Labour a clear heartland: from Gower in the west to Pontypool in the east, the South Wales coalfield was dominated by Labour. Four years later, every seat in the coalfield would be controlled by that one party, a situation that prevailed even during the disaster years of 1931 and 1935.

Irish politics after 1918 were anything but as stable: hardly surprising given the pressures of forming a new state in an era when the very notion of democracy came under attack from all quarters. The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921 split the otherwise ascendant Sinn Fein in two. The Pro-Treatyites led by Michael Collins on the one hand; and the anti-Treatyites led by Eamon de Valera on the other. In the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, which left in no doubt the persistence of the Treaty, Irish politics underwent a rapid reconfiguration. The pro-Treatyites formed the centre-right Cumman na nGaedheal, dominating Irish politics for ten years. After three years of abstention from the Dáil, de Valera’s change of heart in 1926 prompted the formation of a new republican party – Fianna Fáil. What remained of Sinn Fein largely fizzled out in the 1932, the result of not standing for elections in the state. Only the Irish Labour Party, founded in 1912 by James Connolly, stood apart from the collapse of Sinn Fein into various other political parties.

The consequences of these realignments, and placing them into comparative perspective like this, serve as a reminder that when the four nations of the British Isles are set alongside each other, it is not Ireland and England that yields the most interesting insights, but Ireland and Wales. Indeed, I’ve long believed that the real dynamics of the four nations, particularly in the sphere of political possibility, provide for split between Ireland and Wales on the one hand and Scotland and England on the other. This may seem counter-intuitive, since so much of Irish politics was directed at London, at seeing what it was in contrast to England, and that is before we engage on the fundamentals of economics, but let us be clear, only two of the four nations of the United Kingdom underwent a profound shift in political identity in this period. It did not happen in Scotland: the two peaks of Labour support in Scotland in this period were 1923 and 1929, but in both subsequent general elections any advances made were almost completely wiped out by the Conservative Party. And as for England, it began the period chiefly Tory and ended it in much the same position, with a few fluctuations over the interwar period. When the South Wales Coalfield went over to Labour – and taking Wales with it – it did not go back.

So let us delve beneath the level of parliamentary politics and realignments and consider things in more detail. Our first stop is Merthyr. At the end of February, 1919, the Irish of Merthyr and Dowlais formed a branch of the Liberty League, Count Plunkett’s nationalist organisation that advocated ‘self-determination for all small or oppressed nations’ and sought the abolition of hereditary privilege. Within two months, the Liberty League branch was transformed into something much more overt: a branch of Sinn Fein. By early May, the branch was affiliated formally to Sinn Fein in Dublin and was meeting regularly at the ILP hall. The badge of Sinn Fein did not last forever in Merthyr, by the end of 1919 they had adopted the colours of the Irish Self-Determination League, but the identity was clear. As was the support, wholesale support, in fact, for the Labour Party. At a meeting of the ISDL in Merthyr in October 1919, a resolution was passed declaring that:

We, the members of the above branch, call upon the Irishmen of Merthyr and Dowlais to firmly support Labour at the forthcoming Municipal Elections; seeing that the Labour Party are the only party whose mandate suits the National aspirations of the Irish people.

The language is striking, isn’t it? The only party who suits the national aspirations of the Irish people? Nor were the Merthyr Irish alone in associating, by this stage, their ambitions with those of the Labour Party. Similar messages of support can be found from the Swansea Irish, the Mountain Ash Irish, the Pontypridd Irish, the Maesteg Irish, and the Newport Irish. Nationalist organisations found a welcome place on Trades and Labour Council delegates lists, and nationalist speakers found a ready ear even when speaking to audiences where the local Irish population could be counted on the digits of a hand. How different it was a decade earlier when Dowlais’s Catholic teachers complained that local Labour councillors were not treating them fairly – the Labour councillors had voted against equalising the pay of state school teachers and those who taught in the borough’s Catholic schools. And when Keir Hardie stood up at the Labour Party’s congress in Newport after the January 1910 General Election to complain that Labour had not made its major breakthrough because the Irish had been instructed to vote for the Liberals. The Merthyr Pioneer, hardly a disinterested party, admittedly, pondered in December 1919 after months of pro-Labour Irish agitation whether the decision was due to the ‘malicious Prussianism’ of the governing coalition and the death-knell dealt to the Liberalism as an independent political force by Lloyd George’s decision to run a coupon election. Whatever the merits of that argument, what is absolutely clear is that somewhere between 1910 and 1918, the bulk of the Irish nationalist cause transferred its allegiance from the Liberal Party to the Labour Party, and that made for a dramatic transformation in Labour’s fortune after 1918.

None of this is unknown, it is the major theme of Paul O’Leary’s work, as I mentioned in the previous blog in this series, but my take differs from Paul’s in an important respect: that Labour were not the only beneficiaries of changing Irish allegiances. The purpose of this blog, and the wider work that this represents a window into, is to alter our understanding of the nature of the fusion of the Irish and Labour questions by considering the extent to which the ISDL was linked not only to the Labour Party but also to the emerging Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Indeed, it is this connection which merits closer scrutiny, and better understanding, because it is here that the disparate threads of political change in Wales can be brought together. Rather than a monochromatic politics emerging in interwar Wales, albeit the colour of the Labour Party, we get a more complex picture.

Let me begin analysing this theme by addressing the role of the British labour movement in the post-war Irish question. Typically, the labour movement’s response has been seen as perplexing, indicative of the more conservative attitude of the British unions to Irish matters, and of their disinterest. As with what was going on in 1913, this cannot be held up as true of the Miners’ Federation. The MFGB, led by Robert Smilie and the Welshman Frank Hodges, adopted a radical approach calling on the government to remove its troops from Ireland, and to cease arms production. Failure to do either would lead to a programme of down tools by miners up and down the country. In Simile’s own words:

It is not fair to send our lads over there to become involved in Civil War; it is not fair for a great trade union movement to sit down quietly allowing what is going on. It is not fair to our brothers and sisters over there; and it is not fair to content ourselves with merely passing resolutions – the government will not care a rap for resolutions.

That was in 1920. The resolution threatening down tools was unanimously adopted by the MFGB at their annual conference in Leamington Spa that year. It was never carried out, because the TUC did not back it, and the miners soon became embroiled in their own war with the government, but the principle of solidarity so vitally expressed in 1913 still held true.

The overlap of sympathies and solidarities between the miners and the Irish nationalists is quite important, particularly when we look at those who took the matter of direct action into their own hands. Something that’s easy to forget today, but which would absolutely have been realised by would-be revolutionaries of yesterday, collieries were a ready source of explosives. Members of the ISDL across South Wales regularly discussed the possibility of stealing gunpowder and sending it to Ireland as material contribution to the war of independence. But the momentum that had been signalled by the formation of a Sinn Fein branch in Merthyr attracted the attention of the intelligence services as well and the whole region was carefully monitored by the local policy and by the government for signs of revolutionary activity. And sure enough, they found it. In the words of the Home Office’s own intelligence committee reports,

the principal collecting point for the Irish Republican Army is in South Wales, to which point munitions purchased and stolen from all parts of Great Britain [are] being conveyed.

The smuggling operations were eventually broken in October 1921. In a co-ordinated effort, probably one of the first of its kind in Britain, the police and the intelligence services swooped on South Wales, Liverpool, and Newcastle, arresting ten of those they identified as leaders of the operation (others were arrested in subsequent weeks). One of those involved in the ISDL at this time explained to Hywel Francis many years later that ‘some of the chaps I knew got quite long gaol sentences’. Half of those arrested in the October 1921 sting were from South Wales. There was the local organiser of the ISDL in South Wales, J. P. Connolly, the secretary of the Merthyr ISDL and her husband, and two men from Neath. The finger was pointed squarely at the organisational abilities of Liam Mellows, the IRA’s director of supplies. Whatever else may be said, South Wales was strongly connected to what was going on in Ireland and there was both organisational and material support for the Irish cause.

And, I think it not unreasonable to surmise, there was tacit support from the labour movement too – they could hardly have failed to notice what was going on, given the level of integration between the Irish nationalist movement and the labour movement by 1921. It is this, I think, which explains why South Wales never had a formal IRA unit, in contrast to Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, or Newcastle. It didn’t really need one. The long-term implications of military occupation of the region in 1910, which turned it away from firm faith in parliament and civil authority, made for a ready environment in which radical action could take place. As a consequence those involved in it were extremely expert – if at times insufficiently cautious – at smuggling people, information, and illicit materials about.

There were few more expert in those activities than those involved in the Unofficial Reform Committee, its successor the South Wales Socialist Society, and the nascent anarchist and radical socialist movements. Of these the most significant figures were A. J. Cook, Noah Ablett, Arthur Horner, and William Hewlett. Hewlett we encountered in the previous blog in this series as a smuggler extraordinaire, able to help several people escape the authorities by travelling to Ireland. After the war, he turned his attention once again to political organisation, chiefly through the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the URC, and the South Wales Socialist Society (SWSS). The SWSS’s principal achievement, before joining other socialist organisations in forming the Communist Party of Great Britain, was its Industrial Democracy for Miners: A Plan for the Democratic Control of the Mining Industry, a direct successor to the Miners’ Next Step that appeared in 1919. Intended as a workers’ contribution to the debate on the future of the mining industry that would result in the 1920 Mining Industry Act (and the return of the industry to private hands), it signalled that the war had not put an end to the goals of industrial democracy.

But it was Hewlett’s involvement with the SLP that provided a more radical trajectory and would contribute, eventually, to his lionisation in Ukraine and his early death. Before I get to that though, it’s an interesting aside to note that when it was founded in 1903, the Socialist Labour Party enjoyed a lot of support from James Connolly, who spoke at meetings and rallies to get it off the ground. Hewlett was one of the most active South Wales members of the party and was especially prominent during the drive towards Communist unity after 1919. He attended unity discussions, was present as a delegate at the formation of the Communist unity movement, and was a member of the provision executive of the Communist Party of Great Britain on its establishment in July 1920. Writing in the Communist a few days later, Hewlett enthused about the new force in British politics:

I have looked forward, worked, and waited for the day when the British workers would assemble for an honest effort to form a real, live revolutionary Communist Party, that would be broad enough to take within its constitution all the revolutionary elements from the Orkney Islands to the West of Wales.

The following year, Hewlett travelled to Moscow as part of the British delegation (others who went included Harry Pollitt, Robin Page Arnot, J. T. Murphy, and Ellen Wilkinson) to the World Trade Union Congress. Originally scheduled for May, but postponed until July (after the Comintern Congress in June), the WTUC saw the formal establishment of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), the trade union subsidiary of the Comintern. Following the foundation of RILU, radical members of the South Wales Miners’ Federation sought affiliation to it. At their conference in July 1921 – this in the aftermath of the 1921 lockout – delegates voted 120 to 63 to urge the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain to affiliate, in essence stating the SWMF’s open enthusiasm for RILU. Although the SWMF never actually affiliated, there was considerable groundswell of support through the second half of 1921. Much of it orchestrated by the emerging radical leadership of the union, including S. O. Davies, the Dowlais Miners’ Agent and future MP for Merthyr Tydfil.

Hewlett’s prominence in the British delegation in 1921 can be observed at the Comintern Congress. It was he who gave the fraternal address on behalf of the CPGB to those gathered at the Bolshoi Theatre. In a speech introduced by the congress chairman, Grigorii Zinoviev, Hewlett launched a bitter attack on the betrayal of the miners. ‘He [Hewlett] recently arrived from the field of battle’, Zinoviev enthusiastically remarked, ‘where the coal miners’ strike is raging’. Hewlett spoke:

In the name of the British miners, I thank you with all my heart for the outstanding support that you and especially the Russian miners, have sent during their strike. […] Some […] comrades, who had been honoured last year in Russia, betrayed us. I will name only [J. H.] Thomas, [Robert] Williams, and [Ramsay] MacDonald. I am ashamed to say that they abandoned the miners, leaving them to struggle alone in a losing battle. The latest reports tell us that the miners are still struggling and will continue to struggle. […] We vow that the British Communist Party will work without respite until the battle is won and the proletarian revolution reaps its harvest around the world.

Following the two congresses, Hewlett travelled with several other miners to the coalfield near Moscow to observe the mining industry there. He was killed in a railway accident on that journey, along with five others. Eight years later, Tom Gale went to Moscow to study at the Lenin School. Whilst in the Soviet Union he travelled to the Donbass to work in the coal mines there and came across the face of his old friend, Will Hewlett. As he explained to Hywel Francis years later, the miners of the Soviet Union had admired Hewlett, and wished to commemorate him after his death. The face that Gale saw was a bust located in the Donbass Mining Institute.

Hewlett earned – at least in this eyes of his friends – the status of a martyr, killed whilst in the service of the revolution. They said as much in their obituaries. The previous year, the Irish War of Independence claimed its most iconic martyrs: Tomás Mac Curtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork, assassinated in front of his family by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Six months later, Mac Curtain’s successor as Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney, died whilst on hunger strike in Brixton Gaol. The deaths brought the meaning of the Irish conflict into every home in Britain, strengthening the resolve of those who would grant freedom to the Irish. The ISDL grew substantially, with branches in every part of South Wales where there was an Irish community. They organised, fundraised, and agitated, despite the economic travails of the miners’ lockout. In Pontypridd, branch members pressed shops to be able to buy Irish goods, and went from door to door to raise money for the MacSwiney memorial fund. In Swansea, the local branch grew from just twenty five members to over six hundred, enabling it to hold open-air rallies to press the Irish cause and to attract key speakers like Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. From Swansea, a network of sub-branches were formed in Llanelli, Aberavon, Clydach, Neath, Ystradgynlais, and Maesteg, carrying the message of Irish self-determination into the wider region. A similar network was centred on Cardiff, with its sub-branches stretching from Barry to Bristol.

The ISDL was, though, as much a continuation of earlier patterns of community organisation as it was a response to changing political contexts. Branches focused on Irish language classes, on ceilidhs, on putting on Irish plays, on encouraging Gaelic sports, quite as much as they fundraised for the MacSwiney memorial and agitated publically for Irish self-determination. At least, that was the outward face that they presented: as was noted earlier, for some members at least branch meetings offered opportunity for discussion of other methods for aiding the Irish cause. And the overlap between the ISDL, the Labour Party, and the wider economic circumstances of South Wales in the early 1920s, ensured that branch members were focused rather more on what was affecting their own day-to-day lives. As the Merthyr Tydfil branch complained early in 1922, ‘this branch is seriously handicapped in its work by the awful poverty prevailing’. They could not understand, however, why poverty had not awoken in the Welsh the same spirit of national endeavour:

The Irish section of this town has to suffer in common with the Welsh because they (the Welsh) will make no attempt to assert themselves. […] If those pangs [of hunger] were not relieved then, perhaps, they might make an attempt to cast aside this accursed Government of England, whose only aim is to enslave the world.

Needless to say, that never happened.

Now, you might think that there’s something of a disjuncture here between the ISDL on the one hand and the activities of CPGB members like Will Hewlett on the other. I haven’t made good, as yet, on my promise to bring the two together. Well, let me turn to that before I make a conclusion to this blog. Of the various ISDL branches about which we know something, it was that in Maesteg which offers the most direct evidence of migration into the Communist Party. In an interview with David Egan in the early 1970s, one CPer recalled how the local branch had a ‘fair Irish contingent’ and that they ‘came through the ISDL into the Party’. When I first listened to this interview a few years ago, I was a little bit surprised since it was not something that historians had made much of. But teasing out the many strands of influence that contributed to Wales’s (and Ireland’s) political revolution in the early 1920s, it now makes perfect sense.

And so let me conclude with some thoughts. Ireland was one of several political causes to which Welsh people attached themselves during what we might as well call the ‘Welsh revolution’. It went alongside Russia, industrial democracy, socialism, the right to object to the demands of the state, and ownership of the means of production and consumption, and informed the political shift that took place between 1910 and 1922. The result was a Labour Party – and wider labour movement – that was much more multicultural than we give it credit for. Likewise, this was a society that was far more multicultural than we recognise: never before, and almost certainly not again, was it possible to study the Irish language almost anywhere in South Wales. Amhrán na bhFiann has never been sung with such frequency. But in the end the entire political purpose of this movement was absorbed, willingly, by the Labour Party on the one hand and the Communist Party on the other. That might seem quite an alien idea to nationalists today, but the world looked rather different a century ago.