Was Connolly an Esperantist?

In 1887 Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jewish-Polish doctor, published his first book on the international language he had devised. He insisted from the start that the language was not his property but that, like all languages, it belonged to the people who used it, and would develop in accordance with their needs.

Zamenhof styled himself Doktoro Esperanto, which means 'Doctor one-who-is-hoping', and soon Esperanto became the name of the language.

One of his earliest converts, and the first in the English-speaking world, was Richard Geoghegan, an expert in oriental languages and Irish, who was born in England of Irish parents and brought up in Dublin. Geoghegan wrote the textbook that introduced Esperanto to the English-speaking world, and became the second Esperanto author.

The first Esperanto organisation in Ireland was the Dublin Esperanto Group founded in 1905. In 1907 an all-Ireland organisation, La Irlanda Esperanto-Asocio, was formed. Its first committee included Joseph Plunkett, later to be one of the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation. Plunkett had a good knowledge of Irish, Latin, Greek, French and English, as well as Esperanto.

Esperanto was an idea that caught the imagination of many progressives at the time, including many socialists. This trend occurred (though possibly not in Connolly's time) in the Independent Labour Party, of which Connolly was a member in his early years in Scotland.

World Esperanto Congresses were held, as now, annually from 1905 to 1913 and received considerable press coverage. Connolly was in the USA in 1910, when the venue was Washington. Between 1903 and 1908 political workers' Esperanto organisations were formed in Stockholm, Frankfurt on Main, The Hague and Paris.

The first international organisation was Internacia Asocio Paco-Libereco, founded in Paris in 1906. It sought to oppose "militarism, capitalism, alcoholism, and all dogmas and prejudices" and to "improve social life". Unfortunately, it did not survive the 1914-18 war.

The only evidence I have that Connolly spoke Esperanto is found in Desmond Ryan's James Connolly, his life, work and writings, published in 1924 in which he states: "German he knows, French, Italian, Esperanto too, some Irish, much economic, revolutionary, historical and general lore."

Ryan, who knew Connolly personally, also mentions Peadar Machen, vice-president of Dublin Trades Council, who was killed at Boland's Mill in the Easter rising. Ryan describes Machen as a close disciple of Connolly. After saying how much Machen loved to speak Irish, Ryan says: "He fought hard, too, for the claims of Esperanto".

Another martyr of 1916 who worked closely with Connolly for a number of years was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who, I learned recently, had some Esperanto books among his possessions at the time of his death. His biography, With Wooden Sword, by Leah Levenson, says that he wrote a letter to his local newspaper in Co. Cavan in 1893, when he was only fifteen, stating that Gaelic was irretrievably dead and that "the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland".

Another prominent republican of the period, Bulmer Hobson, also possessed material in Esperanto at the time of his death in 1969. It is possible, of course, that Hobson's interest in Esperanto began long after 1916. However, Sheehy-Skeffington and Macken were both members of Connolly's Socialist Party of Ireland from its foundation in 1904, and worked closely with him on many campaigns right up to 1916 when all three met their deaths.

In light of these facts, there seems no reason to doubt Ryan's statement that Connolly spoke Esperanto.

There are also some interesting, albeit indirect, references in Connolly's own writings. In an edition of Workers' Republic in 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.

The complete success of the attempts at Russification or Germanisation, or kindred efforts to destroy the language of a people would, in my opinion, only create greater barriers to the acceptance of a universal language.

Each conquering race, lusting after universal domination, would be bitterly intolerant of the language of every rival, and therefore more disinclined to accept a common medium than would a number of small races, with whom the desire to facilitate commercial and literary intercourse with the world, would take the place of lust of domination.

Connolly's statement is consistent with support for Esperanto, which is meant to supplement mother tongues, not replace them. It also shows that Connolly agreed with one of the central arguments for Esperanto, namely that the language problem will never be solved by one of the great powers trying to impose its language. Esperanto has a chance of being acceptable to all because it gives no nation a special advantage.

When he stood in a municipal election in Dublin in 1902, Connolly issued an election leaflet in Yiddish, an action that was very unusual for the time, highlighting both his internationalism and his awareness of the language barrier.

While in the USA, Connolly wrote an article in the April 1908 edition of his paper The Harp, in which he said:

I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability of a 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. It has been the great powers which have blocked its progress, whereas support has mainly come from smaller and weaker language communities. While not proving that Connolly was an Esperantist by 1908, the above quotation shows that he had given the subject of an international language considerable thought and that he supported the idea.

While in America, Connolly learned Italian and German in order to discuss socialism and trade unionism with immigrant workers. He studied while on long train journeys, and it may be that this was when he learned Esperanto.

Esperanto fits Connolly's belief that nationalism and internationalism should go together. By putting all language communities, large and small, on the same level, it helps to protect minority languages, expresses the idea of the equality of nations, and helps to unite nationalism with internationalism. It also expresses the idea of the unity of humankind.

One attraction for Connolly would have been its obvious potential as a tool of international solidarity, and for the spread of socialist ideas.

Much basic socialist and Marxist literature was published in Esperanto by SAT, the

Workers' Esperanto Movement, which was founded in Paris in 1921.

A pro-Soviet organisation, the International of Proletarian Esperantists (Internacio de Proleta Esperantistaro -- IPE), split away from SAT in 1932, uniting about 13,000 members in 18 countries. In 1935 it had about 17,500 members, of whom half were operating illegally.

From 1932 to about 1939 IPE operated a sophisticated system (Proleta Esperanto-Korespondado -- PEK) of gathering news of labour and anti-fascist activities from its national affiliates. The collected material was copied to all affiliates, who translated them into their local languages for publication.

IPE also organised the twinning of Soviet factories with other factories, its members providing the translation service. PEK distributed on-the-spot news of the Spanish War, Chinese resistance to Japan's invasion and of pre-war resistance to Nazism. IPE collapsed after Stalin began persecuting Esperantists.

After the Second World War, Esperanto flourished in some countries of the Soviet bloc, notably Bulgaria and Hungary, and to a lesser extent Poland and the GDR. Communist China has been mostly supportive, and today Esperanto is taught in a number of universities there. The China Academy of Sciences recently adopted Esperanto as one of its official working languages. The movement also receives official support in Cuba and when, in 1990, the World Esperanto Congress was held in Havana, Fidel Castro told the congress "I am a soldier for Esperanto".

Today there are two main world-wide left-wing Esperanto organisations. The largest is SAT, an umbrella movement for several different left groups. The other is Internacia Kolektivo Esperantista Komunista, which shares the problems of other communist organisations in coming to terms with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Probably the biggest working-class organisation is Internacia Fervojista Esperanto-Federacio, for railway workers, which has affiliates in many countries, including China. There are also groups campaigning on language minority rights, women's rights, other human rights, world hunger, environmental issues and world peace.

In the 1930s, Catholic and secular Esperanto organisations flourished in Ireland and the Irish Catholic ran a long series of lessons. In 1937-39 Radio Éireann broadcast a series of talks in Esperanto to Europe. In Ireland today, Green Party MEP Patricia McKenna supports Esperanto and some other MEPs, including Mary Banotti (Fine Gael) and Brian Crowley (Fianna Fáil), have indicated a sympathetic interest. The Green Party officially supports Esperanto.

La Esperanto-Asocio de Irlando has members north and south, publishes a regular bulletin and holds monthly meetings. One of its leading members, Maire Mullarney, has published Everyone's Own Language, about her experiences as an Esperantist. World-wide, about 3,000 Esperantists have registered their email addresses with a central directory, and many local, national and international Esperanto organisations now have websites. Much Esperanto literature is available on the Web, as are courses for learning the language.

Regular Esperanto programmes are currently broadcast on six radio stations: Warsaw, The Vatican, Beijing, Havana, Vienna and RAI Internacia (based in Rome). Warsaw and Beijing broadcast daily in Esperanto. Because its grammar, spelling and pronunciation are simple and totally regular, and its vocabulary is drawn from the most common European words, Esperanto is easy to learn and gives many of the benefits of learning Latin.

Estimates of the number of Esperantists in the world indicate about one million -- some say two -- but it is difficult to attach meaning to these figures, as it is difficult to define who qualifies as an Esperantist -- rather like trying to estimate how many people in Ireland speak Irish.

l The above is an edited extract of a paper circulated by Ken Keable at the recent Connolly conference in Dublin. For the full text contact: Ken Keable, Kilclooney, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford, Ireland. Email kenkeable@eircom.net

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