Claude McKay speaking at the fourth congress of the Communist International, 1923.

In the summer of 1920, Jamaican poet Claude McKay attended a Trafalgar Square rally in solidarity with Irish nationalists. Wearing a green necktie, McKay mingled among Sinn Fein supporters who greeted him enthusiastically as “Black Irish” and “Black Murphy”:

With both hands and my bag full of literature I had to find time and a way for hearty handshakes and brief chats with Sinn Fein Communists and regular Sinn Feiners. I caught a glimpse also of proud representatives of the Sinn Fein bourgeoisie. For that day at least I was filled with the spirit of Irish nationalism – although I am black!

Later a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay spent more than a year in London from 1919-21.  He wrote poetry, networked among local revolutionaries and tried to find a means of bridging the divide between nationalist struggle and socialist internationalism. The radical circles of his London social world, described in his 1937 memoir, were centered around the International Club – a venue which hosted revolutionaries including communists, anarchists, radicals from the Russian Jewish diaspora and Irish nationalists.

McKay’s working days were spent reading and typing in the equally cosmopolitan offices of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought. This small Fleet Street outfit was staffed by a diverse radical coterie including Irish diaspora journalists, Jewish East Londoners, and Pankhurst’s Italian anarchist partner Sylvio Corio. Alongside a Finnish communist he knew as “Comrade V”, McKay was tasked with earmarking items from the foreign press that would be of interest to the Dreadnought’s readers. He also contributed his own poetry and articles to the paper, the first of which dealt explicitly with Ireland:

McKay WD.jpg
Workers’ Dreadnought 14 August 1920

Writing under the pseudonym ‘C.E.E.’, McKay took his first swipe against those within the British labour movement who opposed armed intervention in Russia but remained quite on the same repressive methods when applied to Ireland. This was a critique printed elsewhere on the pages of the Dreadnought and vocalised by Irish figures such as the socialist William O’Brien and founder of the Irish Self-Determination League Art Ó’Brían. But McKay did not only upbraid the British left. He also critiqued the “so-called rebel” Erskine Childers for his suggestion that Ireland was deserving of a system amenable to “a white people”. Then what precisely did Childers believe non-white people deserved?

McKay’s pen and argument were doubtlessly sharpened by his encounters with the British socialist intelligentsia – figures such as Shapurji Saklatvala, a communist MP with Irish nationalist sympathies, and George Bernard Shaw. Although the latter was something of a disappointment to McKay, who had previously admired the Irish playwright from afar. In his memoir A Long Way From Home, McKay recalled how Shaw:

told me about a Chinese intellectual who had come all the way from China to visit him, and wanted to talk only about Irish politics. He laughed, thinking it was funny. And I laughed too, yet I could understand a little why an educated Chinaman could have the Irish situation on his subtle Oriental mind.

For McKay, the oppressed people of the colonial world all fitted into a broader struggle. In particular, Lee M. Jenkins notes that McKay crafted an analogy between the Irish and the rural Jamaicans of his youth. He was not only interested in the political dimensions of the Irish struggle, but also drew inspiration from the cultural renaissance of the Irish literary revival. Two months after his first Dreadnought piece on Ireland, he published another article subtitled “Will Sinn Fein Go Red?”

Workers’ Dreadnought, 9 October 1920

British labour was once more taken to task for its milquetoast response to Ireland. Another motif repeated from McKay’s first piece is that of Royal Irish Constabulary members resigning rather than resist the Irish national struggle. McKay may have been drawing a parallel with Russian soldiers who laid down their arms rather than oppose their own revolution during 1917.

McKay’s interest in the Irish national ferment emerged from his social and political surroundings in the imperial metropolis, in addition to his readings of Irish literature. More than simply a useful analogy to be used in his arguments for an integrated socialist struggle uniting the white European revolutionaries and anti-colonial activists, Irish nationalism stirred in McKay a genuine feeling of sympathy, which he demonstrated in polemics for socialist weeklies or by wearing his green tie on Trafalgar square. After returning to New York in 1921, McKay joined a communist group known as the African Blood Brotherhood. Long rumoured by historians to have adopted its moniker from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the ABB was headed by Cyrill Briggs, another member of the Carribean diaspora with an interest in Irish nationalism. McKay continued to draw on Irish influences, both literary and political, in his later career.

With the recent revelations regarding the British government’s appalling mistreatment of the Windrush citizens, (including an act of Home Office-orchestrated archival vandalism), it seems a fitting moment to remember Claude McKay and this moment of active solidarity among an earlier generation of diaspora groups in Britain. The stories of Britain’s immigrant communities are tied together in interesting ways. Perhaps we reflect our shared history best by standing together in the present.

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