Born in Cork in 1923, the story of his life was to be inexorably linked to the struggles for Irish freedom and socialism. In the tradition of the great Irish labour leader and revolutionary James Connolly, Jim Savage was one of those who saw no antagonism between the struggles for national independence and socialism, maintaining, like Connolly, that the two were indeed complementary.
Whether as a member of the old IRA or, for much of his life, the Communist Party of Ireland, Jim worked with like-minded comrades "to maintain this link," while fighting political reaction in whichever guise it reared its ugly head. In 1935, at the age of 12, he joined the republican youth movement, the Fianna. By the age of 17, he was commanding officer of the number two company of the IRA first battalion in Cork.
It was during this period that he came into close contact with fellow Cork man, left-wing republican and prominent International Brigader Michael O’Riordan, who was also in the IRA at that time. O’Riordan, who had fought with the Connolly Column on the side of the democratically elected republican government of Spain in the war against the fascist insurgency of General Franco, went on to become the chairman of the Communist Party of Ireland. Both Savage and O’Riordan were among large numbers of republicans interned in the Curragh during the early to mid-1940s by the De Valera government of the day, which adopted a position of neutrality in the war against nazi Germany.
It was a time of increasingly sharp divisions within the republican movement over its role and political direction and both O’Riordan and Savage became prominent figures of the left-wing Connolly Group. Following their release on extended parole in the mid-1940s, both threw themselves into socialist politics, first founding the Liam Mellows branch of the Irish Labour Party in Cork and then, after their expulsion for being too radical for the timorous right-wing Labour leadership of the day, the Cork Socialist Party.
Despite its name, the latter was effectively the Cork branch of the Communist Party of Ireland. The reason behind the subterfuge was the exceptionally strong grip of the Catholic church in Cork, which waged virulent anti-communist campaign against what it saw as the nefarious evils associated with all forms of "godless" socialism.
As Jim told me many years later, it was far from unusual, especially during the anti-communist fervour of the 1950s, for the Catholic church in Cork to mount daily processions outside the Savage household protesting at the "red threat" within.
It was sometime after his release from the Curragh that Jim came into contact with the late Desmond Greaves, Irish labour historian, political activist and editor of the Connolly Association’s newspaper the Irish Democrat for over 40 years. (See entry for Greaves.) It was Greaves who persuaded him to write for the paper, a commitment that he maintained for five decades, until ill health prevented him from contributing further at the beginning of 2002.
Many of his contributions focused on issues of concern to the local working-class movement – as both a trade union and political activist, he was often directly involved – and highlighted the malign effects of Irish capitalism on ordinary working people, especially the poor and the vulnerable. Something of a pioneer in raising the environmentalist banner, he also alerted readers to the dangers posed by pollution and the poor health and safety practices prevalent among industrial employers, especially the major petrol and chemical concerns operating in and around Cork.
Yet, as a committed internationalist, he never forgot the bigger picture, especially his commitment to a united and independent Ireland. He was staunch supporter of the civil rights approach to achieving Irish unity. This was originally conceived by Greaves and taken up by trade unionists and other progressives in the six counties, who went on to form the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
While a supporter of the current Irish peace process, this support was undoubtedly tempered by concerns over what he saw as Britain’s duplicitous role and a general mistrust of politicians, including republicans and socialists, whom he saw as equally susceptible to the intoxication of power and the trappings of office as others from less progressive backgrounds.
A modest man of enormous personal and political integrity and courage, Jim will be remembered on both sides of the Irish Sea by those who knew him as a socialist and a champion of Irish freedom. Shortly before the Easter rising against the yoke of British imperialism in 1916, James Connolly declared: "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered."
It’s a sentiment by which Jim Savage lived his life and one which progressives in Britain would do well to adopt as part of their contribution to the struggle to overcome the legacy of British imperialism in Ireland. Jim Savage died in hospital on Cork on December 16th 2005 following a short illness.
Morning Star Wednesday 28th December 2005