In the 1970s I was a member of the Communist Party Esperanto Group, a specialist group within the CPGB.

There I first learned of the evidence that James Connolly, the great Scots-Irish Marxist, trade union leader and Irish nationalist, spoke Esperanto.

But recently I have found evidence that three other martyrs of the 1916 Easter Rising - Joseph Plunkett, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Peadar Machen - spoke it or were interested in it. My purpose here is to set out all this evidence, and to discuss how Esperanto fits in with Connolly's ideology, and more.

In the 1930s my mother, Gladys Keable (1909-1972), was Organiser of the British Labour Esperanto Association (BLEA) and in 1937 she became the last Secretary of the International of Proletarian Esperantists (IPE). My father, Bill Keable (1903-94), was editor of the BLEA bulletin, Ruga Esperantisto (Red Esperantist). Consequently I have always had a strong awareness of the connections between Esperanto and socialist ideas, and the value of Esperanto as a tool of international labour solidarity.

The Historical Background

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 it 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.

He called 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 (pronounced gaygun), an expert in oriental languages as well as of Irish, who was born in Birkenhead of Irish parents, and was brought up in Dublin. He wrote the textbook that introduced Esperanto to the English-speaking world, and he became the second Esperanto author, after Zamenhof.

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.

Like many others, my mother learnt Esperanto in the 1920s, in England, as a result of her membership of the ILP. World Esperanto Congresses, held annually from 1905 to 1913, received considerable press coverage. Connolly was in the USA in 1910, when the venue was Washington.

In 1903-8 political workers' Esperanto organisations were formed in Stockholm, Frankfurt on Main, The Hague, Paris etc and the first international one, Internacia Asocio Paco-Libereco, was founded in Paris in 1906.

Through its publications it sought to oppose "militarism, capitalism, alcoholism, and all dogmas and prejudices" and to "improve social life". It did not survive the 1914-18 war1.

The Evidence

A short history [2] published in 1996 says that the first Esperanto organisation in Ireland was the Dublin Esperanto Group founded in 1905, and that an all-Ireland organisation, La Irlanda Esperanto-Asocio, was formed in 1907, with Joseph Plunkett, later to be one of the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation, on its first committee. He had, it says, a good knowledge of Irish, Latin, Greek, French and English, as well as Esperanto.

The only evidence I have that Connolly spoke Esperanto is found in James Connolly, His Life, Work and Writings, by Desmond Ryan (Talbot Press, Dublin 1924) p.69:

"German he knows, French, Italian, Esperanto too, some Irish, much economic, revolutionary, historical and general lore."

Ryan knew Connolly personally. He also mentions Peadar Machen, Vice-president of Dublin Trades Council, who was killed in the Easter Rising. After saying how Machen loved speaking Irish, Ryan says (on p80), "He fought hard, too, for the claims of Esperanto". He describes Machen as a close disciple of Connolly.

I learned recently from Christopher Fettes, a vice-president of the Esperanto Association of Ireland, that Sheehy-Skeffington had some Esperanto books among his possessions at the time of his death. Francis's son Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, who taught Fettes, gave him this information when he was a student.

A biography of Sheehy-Skeffington (With Wooden Sword, by Leah Levenson, Gill & MacMillan 1983) says (p.13) that, in a letter to his local newspaper in Co. Cavan in 1893, at age fifteen, he wrote that "Gaelic" was irretrievably dead and "the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland". This book also says that he took his degree, at University College Dublin, in modern languages.

Bulmer Hobson was a prominent republican of the period. A leading Irish Esperantist, Maire Mullarney, has told me that, being a family friend, she took over his house in Dublin after he died in 1969, and that among his library she found an Esperanto dictionary and a novel in Esperanto. It is possible, of course, that Hobson's interest in Esperanto began long after 1916.

Sheehy-Skeffington and Machen were 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 the statement by Desmond Ryan that Connolly spoke Esperanto. I hope someone will take up the challenge to seek more information on this.

The place of Esperanto in Connolly's ideas.

In Workers' Republic of December 2nd 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." [3]

The above is consistent with support for Esperanto, which is meant to supplement other languages, not to 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 on the others. Esperanto can be 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, and highlights both his internationalism and his marked awareness of the language barrier.

In The Harp (April 1908) he wrote:

"I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability of an 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. The above quotation, although not proving that Connolly was an Esperantist by 1908, shows that he had given the subject of an international language considerable thought and that he supported the idea.

Whilst in America, Connolly learnt Italian and German in order to discuss socialism and trade unionism with immigrant workers. He did a lot of studying whilst on long train journeys across the USA, and it may be that this was when he learnt 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. It has indeed been used for this purpose. 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, publishing 33 periodicals5. In 1935 it had about 17,500 members, of whom half were operating illegally.

From 1932 to about 1939 IPE operated a sophisticated system (called "Proletarian Esperanto Correspondence" - 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, IPE 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.

"The Latin of democracy" gives many of the benefits of studying Latin for only a fraction of the work. This is because its spelling, pronunciation and grammar are very simple and totally regular, and because its vocabulary is drawn from the words most common to the main European language groups, (especially the Latin-based group).

Hence knowledge of Esperanto makes it easier to study a foreign language, teaches grammar, and helps reveal the meaning of unfamiliar English words. These benefits would have appealed to Connolly, a self-educated man from an impoverished background.

The Relevance of Esperanto in the 21st Century

The time for the world to agree on a single, neutral language for international purposes is long overdue, and is only prevented, as Connolly predicted, by the rivalry of the great powers. English is not neutral, but is a rightly seen as a vehicle for US influence. (It is also far too difficult to learn and has numerous variants).

In March 2001, President Chirac of France called for a worldwide alliance of speakers of the Latin-based languages to resist the spread of English.

The need of the EU for a common language is also obvious, and will become more so as the EU expands. The EU has already decided that expansion will require it to abandon the present pretence of "language equality", thus relegating some language communities to second-class status. (The EU officially has 11 working languages, which theoretically have equal status, although in reality most EU offices use either English or French).

As the world has over 3000 languages, learning more of them will never solve the problem. Only a neutral language, designed for the purpose, has the potential to solve the problem of the language barrier on a fair basis acceptable to all.

The language barrier impedes the much-needed growth of international solidarity, not only for the labour movement, but for a host of other movements as well, e.g. those concerning women's rights, other human rights, world hunger, environmental issues and world peace.

Esperanto organisations campaigning on these issues already exist, but could be much more effective if more activists in these fields (especially from the English-speaking world) became 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. China has mostly been quite 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". The Communist parties of Portugal and Russia have recently come out in support of Esperanto, and in July 1996 the Communist group in the French Senate proposed a law on the teaching of Esperanto.

Today there are two main worldwide left-wing Esperanto organisations. The largest is SAT which is an umbrella movement for several different left groups. The other is Internacia Kolektivo Esperantista Komunista (IKEK). Its quarterly magazine Internaciisto contains news and ideas from many countries. SAT has a small branch in Britain.

Probably the biggest working-class organisation is Internacia Fervojista Esperanto-Federacio for railway workers, which has affiliates in many countries, including China, and holds lively gatherings.

Restore the Link

In the early 1930s the main strongholds of Esperanto were in Germany and the USSR. In 1932 the pro-soviet Germana Laborista Esperanto-Asocio had 4000 members in over 200 branches. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote "Esperanto is an arm of the Jews" and after seizing power in 1933 he systematically destroyed the Esperanto movement in Germany and all the occupied countries.

In the USSR, despite the very pro-communist stance of the Union of Soviet Esperantists (which was affiliated to IPE), and the state support it had received in Lenin's time and later, in 1938 the Stalin regime denounced Esperantists as "dangerous cosmopolitans" and spies.

Thousands were sent to labour camps and some executed. These persecutions caused a severe setback for Esperanto worldwide. Subsequent attempts to make Russian the interlanguage of the socialist bloc were, inevitably, a failure - logically they meant that Cuba should speak to Vietnam in Russian.

One of the tasks of socialists in the 21st century should be to restore the link between Esperanto and socialism, and between Esperanto and the labour movement. Esperanto in the hands of the labour movement can become a mighty weapon of international solidarity.

Appendix

Since the middle ages there have been many attempts to create an international language. (Robert Boyle, the founder of chemistry, invented one that greatly interested Isaac Newton). But only one has been a success.

Esperanto has achieved a large following, a considerable literature of original and translated works, novels, drama, poetry, songs and scientific papers.

The World Esperanto Association has members in 117 countries and national associations in over 60. It has consultative status with UNESCO and NGO status with the United Nations. Hundreds of people have learned it from birth as a first language.

Until a number of governments make it a priority, all that Esperantists can do is to prove that it works, and to keep developing it by use in more and more fields.

Unlike English, its claim to become the agreed second language is principled: it is neutral, it is designed for the purpose, and its correct usage is defined by its international usage, not by how it is spoken by native speakers in one place.

About 3000 Esperantists have registered their e-mail 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 well as 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.

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. H

Notes:

1. D Blanke (Ed.), Sociopolitikaj Aspektoj de la Esperanto-Movado, Hungarian Esperanto Association, Budapest 1978, p.46-7, 50 and 56.

2. Liam Ó Cuirc, Mallonga Historio de la Esperanto-Movado en Irlando, Esperanto Association of Ireland, Dublin 1996, p.9 etc.

3. In Workers' Republic of December 2nd 1899, in reply to a questionnaire sent to him by the Polish paper, Krytka. Quoted in James Connolly, Collected Works, Vol.1, New Books Publications, Dublin 1987, p.345.

4. Quoted in Collected Works, Vol 1, (as above), p. 341.

5. Ilustrita Historio de la Laborista Esperanto-Movado, Fritz-Hûser-Institut, Dortmund 1993

Further Reading, Information and Websites:

Marjorie Boulton, Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1960.

Esperanto Association of Britain: 210 Felixstowe Road,

Ipswich, IP3 9BJ

http://www.esperanto-gb.org

There are groups in many British towns and cities, and organisations for Scotland and Wales, reachable via EAB.

Information in English on the Web:

http://www.webcom.com/~donh/esperanto.html or http://www.uea.org

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