Jim Connell was born in Kilskyre Co Meath in 1852. As a teenager, he became involved in land agitation and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. At 18 he moved to Dublin, where he worked as a casual docker, but was blacklisted for his attempts to unionise the docks. Failing to find any other work, he left for London in 1875, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He worked at a variety of jobs. He was a staff journalist on Kier Hardie’s newspaper “The Labour Leader” and was secretary of the Workingmen’s Legal Aid Society during the last 20 years of his life.
He wrote “The Red Flag” in 1889 on the train from Charing Cross to New Cross after attending a lecture on socialism at a meeting of the Social Democratic Federation. It was inspired by the London dock strike at that time, as well as activities of the Irish Land League, the Paris Commune, the Russian nihilists, and Chicago anarchists. The song quickly became an anthem of the international labour movement. Although he wrote it to the tune of “The White Cockade”, it has come more often to be sung to the tune of “Tannenbaum”.
It has echoed around the world, sung with fire and fervour, for over a century. Although a competition was held in 1925 to replace it as the Labour Party Anthem in Britain and over 300 entries were received, it has not been displaced. Newly elected Labour MPs entered the House of Commons in 1945 singing it. The Rand Miners of South Africa went to the gallows singing it. Irish Trade unionists and political activists proudly sang it in 1998 in Crossakiel. It has appeared in virtually every collection of international labour songs published and will live on in the future on World Wide Web and new multimedia productions.
Jim Connell died in 1929 in London. At his funeral in Golders Green “The Red Flag” was sung to both airs. It was his parting hymn.