The Agitator

As part of our contribution to the #ArchiveDiaspora campaign organised by Archives and Records Association Ireland on 1 July we shared an image of James Connolly’s membership card for the Socialist Labour Party. Connolly was born in Edinburgh to Irish parents in 1868. He became involved in socialist politics in Edinburgh in the 1890s before moving to Dublin in 1895. He was a key figure in the 1916 Rising, leading the Irish Citizen Army, and was executed following its suppression.

James Connolly’s membership card for the Socialist Labour Party, 1903 (Tait & Watson collection)

The card comes from an earlier period in Connolly’s life, over twenty years before the events in Dublin of Easter 1916. One aspect of the document, dating from 1903, which attracted particular attention is what Connolly noted as his occupation. The word written by Connolly is difficult to decipher. One suggestion received was ‘Agitator’ which would certainly fit with Connolly’s political activities at the time.

In the spring of 1903 Connolly was in Scotland on a speaking tour. Taking advantage of disagreements within the Social Democratic Federation, the political group who had invited him to speak, Connolly sought to drum up support for a new party modelled on the American Socialist Labour Party. He was appointed national organiser and spent several months establishing the new party in Scotland before leaving for the United States in September 1903.

The elusive occupation given by Connolly could certainly relate to his activities in Scotland at the time (Agitator? Organiser?). While in Edinburgh in 1903 Connolly also attended classes in linotype operation given at a local technical college so the term may relate to the printing trade. His early life as a working man would also have given Connolly plenty of possible options. Writing to J Matheson (editor of The Socialist newspaper) in March 1903 Connolly listed some of his previous occupations:

“I have been a proof-reader, a tile-layer (ten years ago), a while-you-wait shoemaker, a mason’s labourer and a carter.”

James Connolly, letter to J Matheson, 9 March 1903

To this list can be added additional jobs recorded by Samuel Levenson in his biography of Connolly which included “an Edinburgh rubbish collector, a failed cobbler, and an incompetent ditch digger.”

Connolly’s membership card is one of a set of 66 cards which form part of a set of papers relating to the Socialist Labour Party in our Tait & Watson collection of early left-wing political material. The cards illustrate the range of professions and occupations which were represented in the new party. Some capture the zeal of the newly politicised. When Harry Forbes from Gravesend, Kent, filled in his membership card he noted his occupation as “Stereotyper – wage-slave.”

Table of occupations recorded on membership cards of the Socialist Labour Party (1903):

ArtistAssistant timekeperBellhangerBookbinderBookseller
Brass finisherBlacksmithCar conductorCivil ServantCoach painter
Commercial travellerCompositorConfectionerCooperFurniture maker
Glass makerHouse painterHousewifeJoinerJewel case maker
LabourerLetterpress printerMachinistMinerPainter
Paper sellerPostmanPressmanPrinterRagman
Railway workerShoemakerStereotyperTailorTelegraphist
TinsmithTweed finisherWarehouse manWatch-makerAgitator (?)
Copy of The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Labour Party, 13 February 1919 (Tait & Watson Collection)
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