“It was a month’s peep into the Dark Ages, surrounded by cruel, callous, cold-blooded savages who killed for the love of shedding human blood, for the money they could get off the dead bodies, and the loot they could get out of their victims’ houses. They had not the slightest regard for human life; no respect for personal property. In fact, I found very little traces of civilisation or human feeling among the Army of Occupation.”[i]
These were the recollections of Harry Arthur Campbell, an Australian-born socialist stump- orator who travelled to Ireland in October 1920 to document British reprisals. Campbell, an increasingly oppositional member of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow, was writing to urge his erstwhile colleagues in the New Zealand Labour Party to escalate their campaign for Irish independence.[ii] His observations, published as a six-penny pamphlet, The Crucifixion of Ireland, led me on a search earlier this year through British and Australian archives for clues about an activist who moved across and between identities.[iii] As Tim Ellis reports, a recognition of ‘back-and-forth’ encounters with Ireland emerged as a prominent thread in papers at the recent Global Irish Revolution workshop in Belfast. This post will examine such mobilities through the experience of an activist from beyond the Republican movement. What might political ‘pilgrimages’ reveal about the translation of the Irish revolution into other global imaginaries?[iv]
Campbell, who spent a month in Ireland after emigrating from New Zealand to Glasgow, was one of at least 30 Australian political activists, of both Irish and non-Irish settler descent but predominantly male, who travelled to Ireland between 1916 and 1923. Like subsequent generations of Western ‘fellow travellers’ to Russia and China, these Australians visited revolutionary Ireland predominantly out of political interest in a moment of world-historic significance: variously, as students, tourists, literary travellers, dignitaries and even deportees. Their experiences thus resembled, but also sharply diverged from, the mode of radical border-crossing that Maurice Casey discussed in an earlier piece. For Campbell, ‘Ireland’ figured as the opposite of what Russia represented for 20th-century Australian radicals: a dystopian site of military violence, rather than a model of social transformation.[v]
Together, these travellers’ accounts form the basis for part of my wider research into the impact on Irish revolution on social movements in Australia, the most institutionally embedded of which was the ‘White Australian’ labour movement.[vi] While the majority of my historical subjects lacked the ability to travel abroad, the hybrid identities of those who physically visited Ireland can complicate the historiographic assimilation of the ‘Irish Question’ into Australian nationalist narratives.[vii] Their largely transitory encounters with Ireland, and subsequent efforts to translate this knowledge into ‘local’ political contexts, reveal alternative dimensions to the ‘Irish Question’ in Australia beyond that of ‘ethnic contribution.’[viii] A re-emphasis on the historical agency of activists themselves offers a basis for moving beyond debates over whether ‘the Irish’ constituted the “fun factor” or the “leaven in the mix” of the Australian nation, towards a consideration of ‘Ireland’ within wider global imaginaries.[ix]
Dedicated to the “enslaved, oppressed, tortured and robbed sons and daughters of Ireland”, The Crucifixion of Ireland combined graphic, first-hand descriptions of military violence with a conventionally nationalist narrative of Irish history. In line with most foreign correspondence in Ireland during the War of Independence, Campbell focused on the actions of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, rather than the Irish republican movement itself.[x] Curiously, he omitted any reference to either the Easter Rising or its leaders from his narrative. His observations of RIC raids in O’Connell Street, including at the Gresham Hotel and Oxford Billiard Room, conveyed the raw emotion of the moment: “The screams and shouts of the women and children were most heart-rending. The fear and excitement which prevailed when shots were fired at the crowd were indescribable[xi]
In documenting these sights, Campbell travelled as an active participant, rather than a touristic observer ofthe metropolitan contest over Ireland. His pamphlet was a contribution to a live contest over the ‘Irish Question’ in the British Labour Party which, as Geoffrey Bell and Ivan Gibbons have argued, largely avoided actively supporting Irish independence.[xii] By the time of his visit, he had gained infamy in the party as a vocal internal dissident over the Irish Question, and routinely criticised the party leadership for failing to mobilise ‘direct action’ against British rule in Ireland.[xiii] When the ILP failed to send its own planned delegation to Ireland, Campbell took matters into his own hands by travelling to Ireland as an ‘independent observer.’[xiv] He was, by 1920, a self-described “Australian Sinn Feiner” in the British labour movement.[xv]
Yet Campbell maintained no organisational ties with the Republican movement, and his emplacement within the Anglophone socialist movement offers an insight into alternative circuitries of transnational contention around Ireland beyond diasporic networks themselves. He had, as a labour organiser in New Zealand for 27 years, corresponded with Keir Hardie from as early as 1908.[xvi] During the bloodiest phase of the war in Ireland, in 1921, he circulated copies of his pamphlet to contacts in the Australian and New Zealand Labour movements as a form of long-distance activism. Writing to the Melbourne radical Robert Samuel Ross to urge the Victorian Socialist Party to do more for Irish independence, he appealed, with growing despair: “For god’s sake, Bob, get into the fight! Get all the Socialists on the job.”[xvii]
As a second-generation settler and the son of a squatter from Eniskillen, Campbell retained a diasporic identification with Ireland, but his politicisation around Irish republicanism was embedded in locally-specific contexts.[xviii] In Glasgow, his own outlook was shaped by a growth of Irish republican activity in the large local Irish community.[xix] Glasgow had, by 1920, also emerged from a wave of labour militancy on the ‘Red Clydeside’, and Campbell’s disillusionment with the Labour Party over Ireland took place within a broader climate of radicalism. Upon his return from Ireland, Campbell severed his ties with the Labour Party and entered into the orbit of the Communist-aligned Scottish Worker’s Committtee, who published his pamphlet. Unusually, it was around the Irish Question, rather than Russia, that Campbell drew the conclusion that the Bolsheviks were “good, honest, sincere, able men with clean hands.”[xx]
Conversely, Campbell’s attachments to the imagined community of ‘Australia’ reveal a fluid relationship to ‘ethnic’ identity. In Scotland and England, he consciously played up his ‘Australianness’ for labour movement audiences, and published two pamphlets that championed the Labor Government of TJ Ryan in Queensland as a social laboratory for Britain to follow.[xxi] Yet he had lived in New Zealand for most of his adult life, and had never visited Ryan’s Queensland. Drawing upon this ‘long-distance’ Australian nationalism, he likened Ireland to a “convict nation.” Central to his enactment of an “Australian” identity however, was a commitment to the White Australia Policy and the politics of the global colour line.[xxii] A shift in emphasis from ‘the Irish in Australia’ to ‘Australians in Ireland’ can offer an avenue for interrogating settler identities as performed, rather than accepting them as given.
At the height of the Irish War of Independence, Ireland became a site of political ‘pilgrimage’ for activists from white settler societies. Though an unlikely case study of Irish-Australian politicisation at first glance, Harry Campbell’s travels to Ireland, and oppositional stance in the Scottish labour movement around the Irish Question, offer an insight into the interplay between ‘local’ and ‘global’ contexts that shaped the impact of the Irish Revolution abroad. His life, as a transnational activist whose political identity spanned four national contexts, largely falls beyond essentialist narratives of ‘Australian’ nation-building. A re-emphasis on the historical agency of activists themselves reveals the ‘Irish Question’ in Australia to have been embedded within circuits of contention that crossed oceans.
Please do not reproduce without permission.
Jimmy Yan is a second-year PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. His research examines the impact of the Irish revolutionary period on social and political activism in Australia. He has published in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies and Labour History, and in 2017, received the Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand Postgraduate Essay Prize. Earlier this year, he took part in the ‘Global Irish Revolution’ workshop at Queen’s University Belfast. His twitter handle is @Jimmy_H_Yan and he can be contacted at email@example.com
I’d like to thank Max Kaiser for reading through a draft of this post.
Featured image: Ceannt and O’Brennan papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 41,521/2/9
[I] ‘A Maoriland in Ireland’, Maoriland Worker, 19 January 1921, p.3.
[ii] The New Zealand Labour Party had taken up the Irish Question by this point.; RP Davis,“The New Zealand Labour Party’s ‘Irish Campaign’, 1916-1921.” Political Science19, no. 2 (December 1, 1967): 13–23.
[iii] HA Campbell, The Crucifixion of Ireland, Glasgow: Scottish Workers’ Committees, 1920.
[iv] See Scalmer, Sean. “Translating Contention: Culture, History, and the Circulation of Collective Action.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 25, no. 4 (2000): 491–514.
[v] Jon Piccini, “‘Light from the East’: Travel to China and Australian Activism in the ‘Long Sixties.’”The Sixties6, no. 1 (June 1, 2013): 25–44..; Sheila Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Rasmussun (eds.), Political Tourists: Travellers from Australia to the Soviet Union in the 1920s – 1940s, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008
[vi] See Jimmy Yan, “Revolutionary Ireland and Transnational Labour Solidarity on the Victorian Railways: The Case of Alex Morrison and Tom Wilson, 1921–22.” Labour History, no. 114 (2018): 17–36.
[vii] Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, Sydney: UNSW Press, 1987.
[viii]Ibid, p. 10.
[ix] O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, p.19.; Jeff Kildea, Anzacs and Ireland, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2007, p. 120.; For a recent critique of ‘ethnic contribution’ histories of the Irish in Australia, see Lindsay J. Proudfoot and Dianne P. Hall, Imperial Spaces: Placing the Irish and Scots in colonial Australia, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011,p . 5- 7.
[x] Walsh, Maurice. The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution, London: I.B. Tauris: 2011, p.
[xi] Campbell, Crucifixion of Ireland, p. 23.
[xii] Ivan Gibbons, The British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State, 1918-192,London : Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015, p. 42.; Geoffrey Bell, Hesitant Comrades : The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, London : Pluto Press, 2016, p. 130.
[xiii] Geoffrey Bell, Hesitant Comrades : The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, London : Pluto Press, 2016, p. 130.
[xiv] ‘Our Letter Box’, Labour Leader (London), 13 May 1921, p. 2.
[xv] ‘Our Letter Box’, Labour Leader (London), 15 April 1920, p. 9.
[xvi] Harry Arthur Campbell to Keir Hardie, 21 April 1908, LSE Archives, ILP papers, 1908/140.
[xvii] ‘In Ireland To-Day’, Ross’s(Melbourne), 7 May 1921, p. 19.
[xviii] ‘Arthur Henderson’s Denial’, Forward (Glasgow), 25 September 1920, p. 7.
[xix] Gerard Noonan, The IRA in Britain: 1919 -1923, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014
[xx] ‘Arthur Henderson’s Denial’, Forward(Glasgow), 10 September 1920, p. 7.
[xxi] HA Campbell, ‘Socialist at Work in Queensland’, London: Reformer’s Press.; HA Campbell, Socialism in Practice, London: Reformer’s Press, 1918.
[xxii] ‘An Australian in Ireland’, Truth (Brisbane), 10 June 1918, p. 9.; Campbell, Socialism in Queensland, p. 11.; Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line : White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Critical Perspectives on Empire. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2008.