In this week’s Sunday Read, we look back at the struggles that inspired The Red Flag, written by Jim Connell, a man who is honoured this weekend at the Red Flag Festival culminating in a ceremony in Crossakiel, county Meath later today. 

In 1918, Jim Connell, an Irishman born in Rathnisca near Kilskyre in Kells, Co Meath, rallied 600 tenant farmers, imparting the knowledge that legislation could secure ownership of their homes and given the nature of their occupations, secure their livelihoods.

Fast forward more than a century, and Connell’s message on housing remains, tragically, as relevant as ever. Despite generations of struggle, the dream of secure, affordable housing continues to elude countless people and families living and working in Ireland. 

Before independence, blame for poor housing fell on British shoulders. 

However, the reality is that post-independence, successive Irish governments have largely failed to deliver on housing for all.

The initial focus on owner-occupancy schemes priced out those most people in need, while subsequent Fianna Fáil dominated Governments built small, expensive houses before privatising public housing stock.

Throughout our entire history, housing policy has prioritised developers, bankers, and private landlords, leaving working people struggling to afford rent and owning their own home remains an aspiration.


James Connolly, a man whose live trade unionists will celebrate next weekend, prophetically warned against merely changing the flag above Dublin Castle without addressing the underlying class struggle. He cautioned that neglecting the red flag – the symbol of socialism – would leave workers “scraping around for the landlord’s rent or the money-lenders’ interest same as before.”

Jim Connell’s legacy extends beyond housing. He drew inspiration for The Red Flag, from struggles like the Haymarket massacre, where workers fought and died for the 8-hour day. May Day, a day of international solidarity, continues to honour these sacrifices. 

Published in 1889, The Red Flag quickly became a rallying cry for socialists around the world. 

Connell intended for the song to be sung to the tune of “The White Cockade,” a Jacobite song composed by Robert Burns in 1790, but fate intervened, and “Tannenbaum” (or “Maryland”) became the everlasting melody.

Despite attempts to dethrone it, The Red Flag has remained the anthem of the British Labour Party.

A competition in 1925, launched by Labour leader Ramsey McDonald seeking a replacement of the song, and despite 300 entries and prize money of £50 the judges, one of whom included famous Irish tenor John McCormack, determined that there were no worthy contenders. 

The music critic of The Daily Herald at the time aptly observed, “There must be virtue in a song that has been popular for generations in at least three countries.”

In addition it’s place in the British Labour Party, the song marks the conclusion of the annual conference of the Irish Labour Party and was also adopted as the anthem of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland.

As we reflect over the May bank holiday weekend, a holiday won by workers, the echoes of Connell’s fight and Connolly’s warnings resonate deeply with trade unionists the world over. The struggle for secure housing, good wages and respect at work remains central to our movement and our mission.

Jim Connell’s story reminds us that the fight for a better future is a constant struggle. A long road. By truly learning from the past and drawing inspiration from those who came before us, we can honour his legacy and win an Ireland with fairness at work and justice in society at its core.