Uncovering Ireland’s Communist History

A new film offers a visually attractive, fair-minded, and substantial introduction to the lost world of Irish Communism, and the vision of a more just future that Irish Communists sought to create.

Connolly Youth Movement flags raised in Dublin on a day of national protest against the privatization of water in Ireland, September 17, 2016. (Azzy O'Connor / Wikimedia Commons)

When I speak of scientific socialism I speak in terms of bringing about a revolution, bringing about the workers’ republic which Connolly spoke to us about. A workers’ republic to us means one thing and one thing only, the economic domination, the ownership of every factory, mill, and mine in this country, by the working people.

Gliding over the frosty rooftops of a wintry north Dublin suburb, as the voices of the Red Army Choir swell from hushed tones to their full, bombastic chorus, the camera descends into a garden inhabited by a trampoline, basketball hoop, and, at its center, a six-foot marble bust of Lenin. A sharp cut to stock footage of Brezhnev-era Red Square, and to our red-clad, beret-sporting narrator Daracha Nic Philibín, accompanies a tonal shift, as the Alexandrov Ensemble gives way to the synthetic beats of modern-day Belarussian post-punk outfit Molchat Doma. “It’s easy to forget, as we look back at the closing years of the twentieth century, that competing ideologies still remained about how life should be organized.”

Reds! na hÉireann, a new Irish-language TV film on the inner lives of the later-twentieth century Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) from director Kevin Brannigan, evokes in its opening vignette the dynamic medley of contrasts that defined the experience of the Irish Communists, south and north. A montage of the global Cold War — when “revolutionary left-wing groups emerged . . . even here in Ireland” — culminates in grainy film of a rainy Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) march against the Vietnam War, with the Marxist grouping’s namesake depicted on a banner reading: “For Peace and Socialism.”

Looking back on these events from the far side of the “End of History,” Reds! frames its subject from the offset as indelibly rooted in the prelapsarian era before the definitive, disillusioning collapse of Soviet socialism. Pairing kitschy Soviet aesthetics with futuristic electronic scores, and black-and-white footage of idealistic young faces in packed meetings with present-day, high-definition interviews in old cadres’ sleepy homes, the film’s stylized, multimedia impression of the Irish Communist experience conjures a resonant sense of nostalgia for a lost alternative modernism.

Communism and Ireland

Reds! is a snappily constructed, engaging panorama, leading viewers along the — for many, likely unfamiliar — social and cultural tracks of Communist politics in the Ireland of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. All manner of historical materials are drawn upon, including a wealth of remarkable footage of CPI and CYM meetings sourced, Brannigan tells me, from “deep in the RTE [Ireland’s public broadcaster] archive” (likely unseen since original broadcast in the late 1960s). Periodic narration gives loose structure to this collage, offering viewers new to this history a handrail throughout, but for the most part, the film’s titular reds are allowed to speak for themselves — primarily via extended, intercutting interviews with eleven stalwarts of the contemporary CPI.

The Communist Party of Ireland (the third historical organization to claim that title) was, the film explains, formed in 1970 following the merger of the Irish Workers’ Party and Communist Party of Northern Ireland, as “an all-Ireland party” — with concentrations in Dublin and Belfast, and other branches throughout the island.

The organizational history of the CPI otherwise receives little discussion, but the significance of a sense of history among these young cadres is obvious throughout. White-bearded party longtimer Sean Edwards, interviewed from a living room festooned with republican, communist, and Spanish Civil War memorabilia, explains: “We forged a dream of Irish socialism from our own history, and our own struggle.” Alongside Lenin, the figure of James Connolly looms large within these Communists’ iconography. Through wonderful footage of the CYM headquarters in Pembroke Lane, Dublin, we see giant canvases being painted of Connolly and Lenin, with the walls adorned by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) flags and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

A strong pedagogical culture within the CPI’s youth wing stands out. As RTE footage pans over bookshelves lined with editions of Lenin, Engels, Connolly, and Eurocommunism: Myth or Reality?, present-day interviewee Mick O’Reilly — seen in the recording as a young man, addressing a room of late-’60s haircuts on “Connolly’s Marxist teachings” — explains: “The one thing about the Communist movement and the Connolly Youth Movement and all of that was reading.” Another cadre concurs, recalling that where some “went to TCD [Trinity College Dublin ] or UCD [University College Dublin] . . . we went to the CYM for our education.”

The relationship of the Communist Party to Irish republicanism receives some discussion, though is perhaps not as prominent a theme here as one might have expected. Philadelphia-born former nun Helena Sheehan (author of the well-known Marxism and the Philosophy of Science) and Eoin Ó Murchú were both members of Official Sinn Fein before finding “a new home with the Communist Party,” following internecine splits and the murders of Billy McMillen and Seamus Costello.

Recollections of the path to Communist politics by former cadres hailing from ostensibly nationalist west and loyalist east Belfast bolster the claim of one interviewee that, in the Six Counties, the CPI “was a nonsectarian space in the middle of a sectarian conflict . . . a really precious thing in terms of Northern Ireland.” Beyond this, however, there is relatively little discussion of how Communists in Northern Ireland confronted the problem of sectarianism among the broader working class, or of the heated contemporary debates over the national question and so-called Two Nations Theory. This is consonant with the film’s general focus, primarily interested not so much in the specificities of CPI high politics as in the zeitgeist of what it meant to be a young Communist in contemporary Ireland.

Raphael Samuel, recalling his youth in the Communist Party of Great Britain, wrote that “[to] be a Communist was to have a complete social identity, one which transcended the limits of class, gender, and nationality. . . . [W]e lived in a little private world of our own.” This element of the Communist subcultural experience is a strong feature throughout Reds!; one interviewee, having joined the Communist Party in Sheffield, found that upon moving to late-’60s Belfast that “there were ready-made friends here within the Communist Party, you know.”

Through contemporary footage, photos, and descriptions, we get a picture of the meetings, marches, “Party bazaars,” and other get-togethers where Irish Communists congregated, families in tow. For Belfast poet Sinead Morrissey, the youngest interviewee, Communism was “a very familial affair as well because it was the party that had brought my parents together.” Morrissey’s bittersweet recollections of her “communist childhood,” and of the “really clearly defined spaces where this world unfolded . . . where I felt I really belonged,” give valuable dimension to the daily lived reality of these reds: “I just remember posters of Marx, and I remember everybody smoked . . .”

Post-Soviet Melancholia

The emotional relationship of these Irish Communists to contemporary Eastern Europe occupies the final third of the film. The CPI was generally close to Moscow, with many of its cadres, we learn, often venturing to the Eastern Bloc for party congresses or family holidays. “There was always a welcome for us in Moscow.”

Reds! paints an interesting picture of these Irish cadres’ reception of repression and reform in the Soviet bloc, up to its terminal crisis in 1989–91. The Warsaw Pact suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, O’Reilly (who eventually left the CPI for the Eurocommunist Irish Marxist Society) recalled, was “a disgrace . . . condemned by the Communist Party here in Ireland” — but one that “started a split that lasted for years,” and in his view “poisoned everything.”

On this, and into the years of perestroika, most interviewees speaking on the subject identify themselves as having been increasingly critical of the unfreedoms and corruption in the Eastern Bloc, and supportive of reform initiatives. We don’t really hear from the pro-Soviet hard-liners they reference having contended with at the time.

Forthright narration and contemporary RTE footage of discontent and demonstrations as these governments flagged offer a correctly negative diagnosis of the political systems of Eastern Europe in which the Communist Party leadership of the 1980s still maintained illusions. Despite this, the film’s concluding treatment of the collapse of the USSR, and our protagonists’ contemporary responses, is ambiguous and affecting.

Testimony recalling dashed hopes that the Soviet system could have been reformed into “a better form of socialism, a more democratic form of socialism,” the collapse in Belfast of Sinead Morrissey’s “childhood family,” and the lamentation in hindsight of the subsequent epoch of untrammeled capitalist triumphalism worldwide, all help communicate to the audience a palpable sense of loss.

It might be said that the film’s considerable focus on the course of the Soviet Union’s dissolution comes at the expense of greater engagement with the political and social conditions faced by the Communist Party in contemporary Ireland. This editorial decision probably owes in part to the nature of the program, as a film primarily aimed at Irish audiences about Communism, rather than at established left-wing audiences about Ireland.

That said, there is no question that Reds! has a great deal to offer international audiences interested in the place of Communist politics within the Ireland of the Troubles. This is a real example of serious historical filmmaking, drawing creatively upon diverse original and historical source materials to proffer a visually attractive, fair-minded, and substantial introduction to the lost world of Irish Communism.