Unreliable Quotes

Liam O Ruairc takes the late  Desmond Greaves to task for some unreliable quoting of James Connolly. Liam O Ruairc was co-editor of The Blanket.

A problem with Desmond Greaves’s well-known biography of James Connolly is the reliability of some of his quotes.
For example Greaves ascribed to Connolly a ‘stages’ theory of revolution in which the national democratic revolution is “the first stage of revolution” and this “recalls the approach of Lenin” in Two Tactics (C.Desmond Greaves (1961), The Life and Times of James Connolly, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 425).  

To substantiate his claim, Greaves quotes an article from Connolly entitled ‘Economic Conscription’ published in the Workers’ Republic of 15 January 1916, where he argues that as the “propertied classes have so shamelessly sold themselves to the enemy, the economic conscription of their property will cause few qualms to whomsoever shall administer the Irish government in the first stage of freedom” (Ibid, 384).  Greaves stresses this phrase - but it isn’t there; what Connolly wrote was in fact “whomsoever will administer the Irish government in the first days of freedom” (cfr. the second volume of the Connolly (mistitled) Collected Works p.127).  This fact was pointed out by John Hoffman, a Connolly Association member, in 1978 but as late as 1985 Greaves was still repeating this claim (ie. page 223 of his essay in the Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front collection edited by Jim Fyrth and published by Lawrence and Wishart).

It is also worth examining another crucial quotation that appears in Greaves’ account that has been since accepted as one of the keys to understanding Connolly’s attitude in 1916. According to Greaves, shortly before the Easter Rising, Connolly addressed the Irish Citizen Army and told them:
The odds are a thousand to one against us. If we win, we'll be great heroes; but if we lose we'll be the greatest scoundrels the country ever produced. In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty” (C.D. Greaves, op.cit, 403).

It should be noted that "those with whom we are fighting" could at this time refer to MacNeill etc. It would be mistaken to read an attitude to Pearse and Clarke, with whom Connolly was in collusion.

But as John Newsinger points out:
The trouble with this quotation, which is routinely reproduced in numerous books and articles, is that it has no reliable provenance, that there is no contemporary evidence that he actually said it. Moreover, it is starkly contradicted by just about everything we know for certain he did say and write…The weight of evidence is overwhelming. (John Newsinger (2004), Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, London: Merlin Press,131-132).

Things are further complicated  by the fact that a slightly different version of this alledged Connolly quote exists:

The odds against are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold on to your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal: Remember we're outnot only for political liberty but economic liberty as well. So hold on to your rifles. (Max Cauldfield (1964), Easter Rebellion, London: Frederick Muller, 45)

No source for this quote is given. But it seemed to have been authentic enough to be quoted by Roy Foster. (Roy Foster (1988), Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London: Allen Lane, 478)

That it has no reliable source is backed up by the fact that the major memoir of the Irish Citizen Army makes no reference to such a speech (Frank Robbins (1978), Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army, Dublin: The Academy Press, 68-69).  Nor is it mentioned in either Sean O’Casey’s 1919 Story of the Irish Citizen Army or Jack White’s 1930 Misfit memoir; and R. M. Fox’s 1943 History of the Irish Citizen Army gives no indication that such an order was given. A search through the Bureau of Military History online did not bring any more information about this alleged quote.

Was it another Greaves invention? This writer had serious doubts regarding the authenticity of this quote attributed to Connolly until directed by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght to an article which appeared thirty years prior to the Greaves book: John O’Keefe’s ‘Citizen Army Veteran’s Memories of 1913-1916 and Connolly’ originally published in Workers’ Voice, 14 May 1932 and subsequently republished in 1916 Easter Week 1966 issued by the Irish Socialist on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising.

In the penultimate paragraph of his article John O’Keefe states:

“Connolly’s address to the Citizen Army a couple of days before the Rising should never be forgotten by the Irish workers. ‘Being the lesser party’, he said , ‘we join in this fight with our comrades of the Irish Volunteers. But hold your arms. If we succeed, those who are our comrades today we may be compelled to fight tomorrow.’ And when one of our number raised the question of our strength came the reply: ‘The people will help.’”

It is not exactly the same quote as that given by Greaves, but indicates that something along those lines might have been said by Connolly. The same quote appears on pages 89-90 of Brian O’Neill’s 1936 book Easter Week published in London by Lawrence & Wishart. Interestingly, O’Neill adds: “Here were clearly foreshadowed the stages of the struggle.” No source is given for the quote but given O’Neill’s Communist Party background it is highly likely he got it from O’Keefe.

The reader should note that D.R.O'Connor Lysaght demolished the myth of the 'Labour must wait' quote alleged by George Gilmore. (D.R.O'Connor Lysaght (2001), 'Labour Must Wait': The Making of a Myth, Saothar, vol.26, 61-65)

Another remark attributed to Connolly in 1916 is that he allegedly gave the order that "not one shot" was to be fired in Ulster because he was afraid of sparking sectarian tensions and consequently to be a true follower of Connolly today means to refuse firing one shot in the north and supporting the Peace People. (George Gilmore (1978), The Irish Republican Congress, Cork: the Cork Workers' Club, iv, vi-vii) It is not C.D. Greaves who made that claim but George Gilmore, and he never gave a source for it. The source for “not one shot" was to be fired  in Ulster could only have been Denis McCullough, President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History in 1953 recalled the following:

I was summoned to Dublin. . .  There Pearse made the following arrangements. When the date for the Rising was decided, we were to receive a code message, the date given in which was to be read as seven days earlier, as the date set for the Rising. I was to mobilise my men, with all arms and ammunition and equipment available, to convey them to Tyrone, join the Tyrone men mobilised there and ‘proceed with all possible haste, to join Mellows in Connaught and act under his command there’… I pointed out the length of the journey we had to take (from Belfast), the type of country and population we had to pass through and how sparsely armed my men were for such an undertaking. I suggested we would have to attack the R.I.C. barracks on our way through, to secure the arms we required. Connolly got quite cross at this suggestion and almost shouted at me. ‘You will fire no shot in Ulster: you will proceed with all possible speed to join Mellows in Connaught, and’, he added, ‘if we win through, we will then deal with Ulster’. He added further. . .  ‘You will observe that as an order and obey it strictly’. I looked at Pearse, to ascertain if he agreed with this and he nodded assent, with some remark like ‘Yes, that’s an order’. That interview is perfectly clear in my mind, and was exactly as I set it down. (Bureau of Military History, Denis McCullough Witness Statement 915, December 1953).

The meaning of this ‘you will fire no shot in Ulster’ order is thus different from that ascribed to it by Gilmore. Given the importance that the “hold on to your rifles” and “you will fire no shot in Ulster” remarks took in subsequent debates, it is important to trace their origin as accurately as possible.


The author would like to thank Stephen Coyle for providing the relevant parts of the John O’Keefe article and Manus O’Riordan for providing the Denis McCullough statement.


  1. Why has there never been a true complete works of Connolly published

  2. I believe I once saw a twelve volume set of Connolly's works in Queens university bookshop. I spoke to my pal two years ago as we occasionally brought up the story of how his mum threw out all his personal belongings including the set and also separately some records I gave him. We rarely speak but always bring that story up.

    The set cost £100 or £120 twenty odd years ago and were cloth hard backs. Grey if my memory is right.

    The problem I have with this story is that I can find no record online to the set. Anywhere. I checked all the online catalogues and archives.

    I am sure these existed. If I saw a record I'd have no doubt but I doubt myself because of the passage of time and lack of evidence apart from my and my friend's memory.

    Perhaps it was a privately published collection someone did for research purposes? Maybe I am imagining it and my friend is pulling my leg. I doubt it but can't explain it.

    This was at a time very few people would have bought such things. Writings of the 1916 leaders were as rare as hens teeth in newly published books back then. You would have found pamphlets and poorly published paperbacks with flimsy covers. The type you'd find in Sinn Fein bookshop twenty five years ago.

    I remember cursing myself for not buying the Connolly set but I couldn't afford it. I can also remember what shelf and in what part of the bookstore they were.

    I know Donal Nevin who was also Connolly's biographer intended to publish a complete set but that was much later and unfortunately he never did it. I read that Nevin wanted to do it as it had never been done before.

    That's the mystery. It annoys the hell out if me.

  3. Talking of unreliable quotations Donal Nevin also had one of Connolly's whilst he lay injured in the GPO. He was asked how he felt and he replied, and I paraphrase, "I have a good book, a cigarette and there is a revolution. What could be better?"

    Too lazy to check the exact quotation. I think Nevin described it "as being said" that it happened.

    However, Lorcan Collins told me that he didn't include it in his biography of Connolly as he was unsure of the veracity of the quotation.

    It's a great one whether true or not. ;)