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Last updated:06 May 2015

Jim Connell and 'The Red Flag'

The song, 'The Red Flag' is probably one of the most sung songs in the world. The words were written in 1889 by Jim Connell, an Irish journalist who used to say: "I was educated under a hedge for a few weeks". 

The Red Flag - a songsheetIt was after attending a lecture on socialism at a meeting of the Social Democratic Federation that he wrote The Red Flag which was inspired by the then current London Dock strike together with the Irish Land League activities, the Paris Commune, the Russian nihilists and the Chicago anarchists. Originally it was written to the tune of The White Cockade, an old Jacobite song, but it is more well known to the tune of Tannenbaum which Adolphe Smith Headingley started the custom of singing it to. In Connell's own words he knew that the song would live because of the last line, 'This song shall be our parting hymn' - words that can best sum up the thoughts and feeling of every genuine socialist. It was published in Justice soon after it was written and sung at socialist meetings in Glasgow and Liverpool.

The Red Flag soon became the anthem of the Independent Labour Party and it echoed around the world, sung with fire and fervour. Ramsay MacDonald tried to have it replaced as the Labour Party Anthem in 1925 but even though there were over 300 entries in a competition he was unsuccessful. However Tony Blair and New Labour decided in 1999 that the stirring old socialist anthem would no longer be sung to close the Labour Party Conferences. But it will continue to be sung 'no matter what Blair or New Labour might think'.

Born in Kishyre, County Meath in 1852, Connell became involved in land agitation and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood as a teenager before moving to Dublin at eighteen. As a casual docker he became blacklisted for his attempts to unionise the docks and eventually moved to London five years later. After a variety of jobs he joined Keir Hardie's newspaper The Labour Leader as a journalist. During the last twenty years of his life he was secretary of the Workingmen's Legal Aid Society. He addressed a crowd of six hundred at Crosskiel in 1918 and it was to be his last visit to Ireland. A monument to Jim Connell was unveiled on 26 April 1998 at Crossakiel.

Jim Connell died in 1929 in London and The Red Flag was sung at his funeral in Golders Green to both airs and was his parting hymn.

 

Resources about Jim Connell in the library collection

About Jim Connell

Jim Connell Memorial Committee, Jim Connell: author of the Red Flag: memorial unveiling, Crossakiel, 26th April 1998 (1998)  Shelfmark: AG Ireland Box 11

Andrew Boyd, Jim Connell: author of the Red Flag (2001) – Shelfmark: AG Ireland Box 1

By Jim Connell

  • Brothers at last: a centenary appeal to Celt and Saxon (ca. 1898) - Shelfmark: AG Independent Labour Party Box 2
  • Confessions of a Poacher (2004) - Shelfmark: G37
  • Socialism and the survival of the fittest (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Independent Labour Party Box 2

Songs

  • The blackleg - Shelfmark: J18/12
  • People of England (1939) - Shelfmark: AG Workers’ Music Association Box 1
  • Workers of England - Shelfmark: AG Songs Box 3

And of course various versions of The Red Flag

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