Congress revisited

Donal Fallon and Donal Higgins during filming (Thom McDermott)

The story of the Republican Congress’s success in bringing together many of the best socialist and republican activist in Ireland into one organisation for a few months in the 1930s is to be critically revisited in a new documentary this summer. LookLeft discussed ‘The Republican Congress’ with its producer and director, Donal Higgins, and historical advisor and presenter, Donal Fallon

Why did you think it was important to make a documentary on the Republican Congress?

Donal H: “I think Congress is an important part of the history of the Irish left which has not got the attention it deserves. It’s a story primarily about working-class people. These are the stories that fall through the cracks. The Republican Congress offered a vision, however short-lived, of an alternative Ireland that wasn’t dominated by capital and the Church. It was able to bring the most progressive forces together and get them thinking about what type of society they wanted.”

What parts of the Republican Congress story do you think are not as well-known as they should be?

Donal F: “One aspect is the Tenants’ League and indeed this is where they enjoyed the most success. So much of the focus of the period is on Spain, ideological battles and the like, that social campaigns are overlooked. I also think the fact so many Ulster Protestants were willing to get involved in a decidedly Republican organisation is a key part of their story.”

What audience is the documentary aimed at and how was it produced?

Donal F: “The documentary is aimed at a wide range of people. The idea is that people who know little or nothing about Congress would enjoy it but undoubtedly it has lessons for the modern left and young activists today. We hope it sparks some contemporary political discourse too.”

Donal H: “We shot it over the winter throughout Ireland, in Dublin, Belfast, Waterford, Limerick, and also Bodenstown. It was good fun making it and full credit to the whole crew for doing such great work during filming and in the post-production phase. We got the funding to make it from the Broadcasting Authority.”

Do you think the Republican Congress could have been more successful if the Spanish Civil War had not intervened?

Donal F: “The Spanish Civil War gave Congress a lifeline, something to mobilise around. It reinvigorated the activists around the movement, which was by then in decline. We lost a lot of good people in the Spanish Civil War and that also had an impact on the development of the Left in Ireland. At the time it was hard with Church and state to build the Left and the loss of those people didn’t help.”

What do you think are the lessons of the Republican Congress for the activists of today?

Donal H: “The lessons in this story for us are the reminders that the Left has always faced opposition from wellorganised opponents, be they the clergy, business interests or the press, these remain huge obstacles. But at the same time the Left can often be their own worst enemies. This is key to the Congress, its message of anti-sectarianism and its attempt to unite workers across religious divisions.”

The Republican Congress will premiere on Dublin Community Television this July – see LookLeft Facebook for up dates.