A New Celtic Earworm

One of the best parts of my job is that we are allowed (and even encouraged) to listen to music while we work. Of course, I’ve listened to all sorts of albums in a variety of genres, as my tastes are somewhat eclectic, but I’ve also spent time listening to Pandora and catching up on podcasts. I’ve had trouble working and listening to spoken-word podcasts and staying focused on my work, but I’ve had fun listening to music-based shows. One of my favorites is The Irish and Celtic Music Podcast; I don’t love every song, but in the time I’ve been listening, there have been six songs that I’ve liked well enough to purchase (that doesn’t seem like a lot, but I’m really picky about what I’ll buy, since I have other recordings of many traditional tunes – how many versions of “Calliope House/The Cowboy Jig” or “She Moves Through the Fair” does one person need, after all?). The most recent of these purchases was a song called “James Connolly” by Black 47; it played in Show #182 near the end. I was drawn in by the catchy bagpipe riffs (at least, I assume they’re bagpipes; it doesn’t sound quite like a saxophone, and I would expect bagpipes from a Celtic band), but after I listened to it a few times and started learning the lyrics, I was really impressed by the unabashedly political content. Of course, that’s hardly novel in Celtic music, and whether or not I agree with the ideas expressed in the song is beside the point. What really got me to thinking is the way that there seemed to be so many more people during that time period who were willing to give their lives to attempt to effect economic and political change. Wikipedia says that James Connolly was executed for playing a leadership role in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, and the song lyrics imply that he knows he will likely die in the Easter Rising even before it begins, but he does it anyway. To me, this is true dedication; he thought what he was doing was so important that he was willing to pay the ultimate price, even though there was slight chance of success. Regardless of Connolly’s ideology, he deserves a lot of respect simply because he was willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.

When I first put the song on repeat, I felt energized listening to it; it’s got a great beat, and it’s very singable, even though it’s written a bit low for my range. The more I listened, though, the more I started feeling tired and a bit sad. I kept listening to see if I could figure out where those feelings were coming from. I don’t know that I’ve got a complete answer yet, but I have a few preliminary ideas:

  1. In the words of the song, Connolly is fighting for “a republic for the working class [and] economic liberty.” He was far from the only person fighting this fight; even the briefest mention of the Industrial Revolution in any history text mentions how the factory and business owners took advantage of their workers, and how the workers organized to protest these abuses. In many histories, the actual struggle is somewhat de-emphasized, but real people fought and died to bring about basic rights for workers. These people paid with their lives so that workers would receive basic considerations that most people today take for granted, such as safety overrides for automated factory equipment and the forty-hour work week. These considerations were not bestowed on grateful workers by benevolent companies; real people organized and fought and died for these basic human rights. Despite all the lives lost and the blood shed, in so many ways, it seems to me that so much of these gains have begun to erode in the twenty-first century. Union membership has been falling slowly but steadily, and many of the protections that organized labor has fought hard to get and keep are likewise eroding. For example, when I taught, the contract between my school district and my union included a “no-strike” clause. This effectively takes away most of the union’s advantage, since the school can simply “wait out” the union. So I’m sad because I recognize that Connolly and others like him cared enough to fight and die for all of us, and in return, we have allowed their hard work to be unraveled piece by piece.
  2. Despite the fact that so much of the work of Connolly and others like him is being undone, I don’t see anyone stepping up to fight again for the rights of workers. Sure, there are many groups lobbying Congress or stumping for donations, or even running for office, but I don’t see anyone who is willing to fight and die for these rights the way that Connolly did. I had hope for the Occupy movement – I thought their hearts were definitely in the right place – but it seems to have fizzled as people realized that they were not actually willing to put their one-and-only life on the line for their cause. I can’t say I blame them; I don’t have an opinion about whether or not there’s an afterlife, but either way, death seems to be pretty final. At the same time, without people willing to make that level of sacrifice, I don’t see how anything will change. Furthermore, if my first point is correct, and we are allowing Connolly’s work to unravel, it does seem awfully futile to make those kinds of sacrifices, since we’ve seen first-hand that they aren’t all that effective in the long run.

If there’s no one willing to step into Connolly’s shoes and usher in a new Labor Movement, how will things ever do anything but continue to get worse? At its heart, I think this is why I’m feeling sad; I don’t see that things will get any better any time soon; in fact, I think they’re going to get a lot worse. That’s pretty damn depressing. I don’t like feeling depressed, so I started searching for signs of hope, and I did, in fact, find a few:

  1. I was depressed because I was looking for More Of The Same – I was looking for a New Labor Movement to come about that would look awfully similar to Connolly’s movement, and I was sad because I wasn’t seeing one. However, I do see a lot of people these days who are trying to make a difference in other ways. Armed uprisings didn’t work, but a quick Google search shows so many resources for “off-grid” living and self-sufficiency, even in the Electronic and Information Ages. More and more people are using the Internet and social media to find ways of supporting themselves that don’t necessarily require working for companies that will take advantage of them. It seems that instead of fighting the dominant ideology, many people are choosing instead to set up pockets of alternate ideologies. The goal of these alternate ideologies is not to attempt to openly challenge the dominant ideology the way Connolly did, but simply to coexist in a “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me” sort of fashion. In their own quiet way, these alternate ideologies may yet destroy the dominant ideology far more thoroughly through simple attrition. Furthermore, I can be a part of this movement without putting my one-and-only life at risk by making a series of small changes in the way I choose to live. For example, I can shop at a farmer’s market instead of a supermarket. I can patronize local businesses instead of huge corporations. I can offer my skills in trade for the skills of others.
  2. I’m so lucky that I live in a country and a culture that allows me to make those kinds of choices. I may wish to live in a place where my personal culture aligns more closely with the dominant culture, but the culture of individuality that we enjoy in the United States means that I have a lot more options than people in many other places where the culture is more restrictive. That’s tough to remember when the bills just keep coming and there seem to be so few options, but few options are usually better than none.

More than anything else, I want to believe that Connolly’s sacrifice was not in vain, and that’s hard sometimes. However, the optimist in me will continue to look for reasons to be hopeful. That sounds trite, and it’s definitely easier to say than to do, but at the same time, the more hopeful I feel, the more willing I will be to make even small sacrifices toward a better future.

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