According to James Connolly, there was only six men in attendance at Pierce Ryan's pub on Thomas St. in Dublin, when on the 29 May 1886 the Dublin Socialist Society was reconstituted
as the Irish Socialist Republican Party. These modest beginnings of the party never would have suggested the overall influence the ISRP was to have on left politics in Ireland even to this day.
Typical of the boundless energy of the newly-formed group, almost immediately the wheels were set in motion for public outdoor meetings to be held with the focus being education. I say this was typical of the group as throughout its short history (1896-1904) the ISRP punched above its numerical weight holding many events and producing some superb socialist speakers. In fact in its history the ISRP never exceeded a membership of more than 80 members which makes what they acheived even more impressive. The party was only really active in Dublin but attempts were made in Naas, Cork, Belfast, Limerick and England to establish similarly active branches.
The ISRP believed strongly that the Irish question and class struggle were inseperable. Connolly
viewed the party from its formation as the organisational link between two traditions: that of its own socialism and the politics of the 'advanced nationalists'. He believed that the
'Irish question was at bottom an economic question, and that the economic struggle must be able to function nationally before it could function internationally, and as socialists were opposed to all oppression so should they ever be foremost in the daily battle against all its manifestations, social and political.'
It was two years before the ISRP, despite it being a priority of Connolly, founded its own paper called 'The Workers' Republic'. It served not only as a medium for Connolly to express his opinions but it expressed as a whole a socialist point of view within the general political spectrum
in Ireland. Connolly saw the paper as the party's heartbeat, it was an expression of what the party was about and a way to connect with the workers. Internal fincancial problems led to the suspension of publication on occasion but the importance of the party paper should not be underestimated. It even reflected the internaionalism of the ISRP and carried many international articles and pieces.
The ISRP regarded the paper as vital to any political success they were to have, and even acted
as a debating table at times. Interested and sceptical readers alike were encouraged to write letters with any question or query they had on socialist politics. Connolly in turn would print these curious overtures and respond to them giving a detialed answer for all to read. The Workers' Republic did not lower itself into some arena to denounce other left-wing groups like many other left wing publications had done. Rather, the paper was seen as a 'missionary organ, founded for the purpose of presenting the working class a truer and more scientific understanding of the principals of Socialism...'
When resources were stretched however the paper was pushed aside to a state of secondary importance in respect to electoral success.The ISRP placed a huge emphasis on electoral success but despite this the results at the polls consistently proved disappointing. The party's programme of 1896 outlined and stressed the importance of electoral success in the ISRP's political strategy:
'the conquest by the Social Democracy of political power in Parliament, and on all public bodies in Ireland, is the readiest and most effective means whereby the revolutionary forces may be organised to attain that end'
The ISRP stood it's first candidate in the elections of January 1899. This was seen as an oppertunity for the party to bring its politics to a wider audience in the mainly working class area of North Dock Ward. The ISRP again showed it was not afraid of hard work when over 1000 envelopes containing writings on the election and their candidate's (Edward Stewart) manifesto were distributed to homes throughout the area. Public meetings were held in support of the candidate, with Stewart holding one a month before the vote was to take place. Heckling and scuffles was rife in the crowd gathered,however this was most likely arranged by the opposition.
Stewart fell sort of achieving a seat but a respectable showing left him only 150 votes short of a seat.
Connolly later reflected after another polling loss buoyantly and defiantly against the hardships a socialist candidate had to endure when the ISRP polled 800 votes:
'These votes were cast for no milk-and-water, ratepaying, ambiguous ''Labour' candidates, but for the candidates of a party which in the very stress and storm of the fight instructed its standard bearers to refuse to sign the pledge of the compromising Labour Electoral body, and to stand or fall by the full spirit and meaning of its revolutionary policy. These 800 votes were cast for Socialism in spite of a campaign of calumny unequalled in its infamy, inspite of the fact that the solemn terrors of religion were invoked on behalf of the capitalist candidates, in spite of the most shameless violation by our opponents of the spirit of the Corrupt Practices' Act and despite the boycott of the press'
However these failures in elections and the party's inability to find another strategy to forward the cause of socialism in Ireland could be seen as a central reason why the ISRP eventually failed.Perhaps if one candidate got a foothold in local politics and was elected the future would have been brighter for the party. As it was, the class conscious of the workers in Dublin remained low and the possibility of them adhering to the radical programme of the ISRP also remained low.
The ISRP was ahead of its time and before it's demise in 1904 made an impact on the Irish capitalist dominated political spectrum never to be forgotten. It agitated over issues like the Boer War, the 1798 commemorations and it even represented Ireland at the Second International.As mentioned above the party never had a membership that exceeded 80, which surely suggests to modern socialists parties with much larger numbers the limitless possibilities they have to progress the socialist cause. The hardships and obstacles the ISRP faced are far greater than the challenges modern groups face which makes the achievements of the ISRP a great source of inspiration. We must learn from the ISRP, challenge the capitalist political establishment in Ireland and further the cause of labour in Ireland until our goal of a socialist society is reached.