James Connolly and Esperanto

Having known for some years of the evidence (see below) that James Connolly was an Esperantist, I recently found evidence that three other martyrs of 1916 – Joseph Plunkett, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Peadar Macken – spoke Esperanto or were interested in it.  My purpose here is to set out all this evidence, and to show how Esperanto fits in with Connolly’s ideology.

In 1887 Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jewish Polish doctor, published his first book on the international language he had devised, calling himself “Doktoro Esperanto”, (roughly “Dr Hopeful”).  Richard Geoghegan, an expert in Irish and many other languages, wrote the textbook that introduced Esperanto to the English-speaking world. Geoghegan was born in England of Irish parents, and was brought up in Dublin.

The idea caught the imagination of many progressives and socialists worldwide. In 1903-8 political workers’ Esperanto organisations were formed in Stockholm, Frankfurt on Main, The Hague, Paris etc and the first international one, La Internacia Asocio Paco-Libereco, was founded in Paris in 1906.  It sought to oppose ”militarism, capitalism, alcoholism, and all dogmas and prejudices” and to “improve social life”.

A history published in 1996, Mallonga Historio de la Esperanto-Movado en Irlando,  (A Short History of the Esperanto Movement in Ireland) says that in 1907 La Irlanda Esperanto-Asocio was formed, with Joseph Plunkett on its first committee.  He knew Irish, Latin, Greek, French, some Arabic, English, and Esperanto.

The only evidence I have that Connolly spoke Esperanto is from James Connolly, His Life, Work and Writings, by Desmond Ryan, Dublin 1924, p.69:

“German he knows, French, Italian, Esperanto too, some Irish, much economic, revolutionary, historical and general lore.”

He also mentions Peadar Macken, Vice-president of Dublin Trades Council, who was killed at Boland’s Mill in the 1916 Easter Rising.  After saying how he loved speaking Irish, Ryan says (p.80), “He fought hard, too, for the claims of Esperanto”.  He describes Macken as a close disciple of Connolly.

Ryan’s evidence is significant because he knew Connolly personally, took part in the events of 1916, and is a respected writer on the period.

I learned recently that Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had some Esperanto books among his possessions at the time of his death.  (His son, Owen, told this to one his students, Christopher Fettes, who is now one of Ireland’s leading Esperantists).  A biography of Sheehy-Skeffington (With Wooden Sword, by Leah Levenson) says (p.13) that, in a letter to his local newspaper in Co. Cavan in 1893, at age fifteen, he wrote that “Gaelic” was irretrievably dead and “the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland”.

Sheehy-Skeffington and Macken were members of Connolly’s Socialist Party of Ireland from its foundation in 1904, and worked closely with him on many campaigns.

From this new evidence there seems no reason to doubt Desmond Ryan’s statement that Connolly spoke Esperanto.

There is also some evidence that Bulmer Hobson, a prominent Irish republican of the period, took an interest in Esperanto.  Maire Mullarney found two Esperanto books – a novel and a dictionary – in his house when she became owner of it upon Hobson’s death in 1969.

In Workers’ Republic of December 2nd 1899, Connolly wrote:

“I believe the establishment of a universal language to facilitate communication between the peoples is highly to be desired.  But I incline also to the belief that this desirable result would be attained sooner as the result of a free agreement which would accept one language to be taught in all primary schools, in addition to the national language, than by the attempt to crush out the existing national vehicles of expression.”

In The Harp (April 1908)he wrote:

“I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability of an universal language; but I do not believe it will be brought about, or even hastened, by smaller races or nations consenting to the extinction of their language.  Such a course of action, or rather of slavish inaction, would not hasten the day of a universal language, but would rather lead to the intensification of the struggle for mastery between the languages of the greater powers.

On the other hand, a large number of small communities, speaking different tongues, are more likely to agree upon a common language as a common means of communication than a small number of great empires, each jealous of its own power and seeking its own supremacy.”

This has indeed been the experience of Esperanto.  The great powers have blocked its progress, while support has mainly come from smaller and weaker language communities. Its progress was set back hugely by the banning of Esperanto, and the killing and persecution of Esperantists, by Hitler and Stalin.  The standing of Esperanto among socialists has still not recovered from the blows dealt to it by Stalin.  It is high time that socialists considered the matter anew.

Esperanto fits Connolly’s idea that nationalism and internationalism should go together.  By putting all language communities, large and small, on the same level, it expresses the equality of nations and the unity of humankind.

Esperanto gives many of the benefits of studying Latin for only a fraction of the work.  This is because its spelling, pronunciation and grammar are very simple and totally regular, and because its vocabulary is drawn from the words most common in European languages.  Hence knowledge of Esperanto makes it easier to learn a foreign language, teaches grammar, and helps reveal the meaning of unfamiliar English or foreign words. As a self-educated man, this would have appealed to Connolly.

He would also have seen its potential for international solidarity – a potential still largely unfulfilled.

Esperanto is easy to learn because it is designed to be easy to learn.  It works as an international language because it is designed for that purpose.  It has been used for over a hundred years and has a substantial body of literature.

The time for the world (and the EU) to agree on a single, neutral language for international purposes is long overdue, and is only prevented, as Connolly predicted, by great-power rivalry.  English is rightly seen as a vehicle for US influence (though it can of course be used for any purpose).  The attempt to use English as an international language is at best an elitist approach, as only the elites of the world will have the time and money to study English to the level required.  Even then those who are not native speakers will always be second-class speakers, always at a disadvantage when up against native speakers.  Esperanto is the egalitarian solution, respecting the equality of all nations.

A task of socialists in the 21st century should be to restore the link between Esperanto and socialism.  Global solidarity is needed more than ever.

For more information, and online courses, see the website of the Esperanto Association of Ireland (a non-political organisation)www.esperanto.ie .

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The above article has been adapted from one originally written by its author, Ken Keable, in April 2001.