Work World

Mat Callahan resurrects songs of an Irish labor leader

On a bright, spring morning in Dublin nearly a hundred years ago, the Irish socialist leader James Connolly was executed by firing squad. His bloody death was the British army’s punishment for his involvement in the Easter Rising, and it set off outrage among the thousands of people who loved the charismatic, working-class organizer.

Unfortunately, historical amnesia has all but eliminated knowledge of Connolly from public consciousness, although a few of his followers are determined to revive the story of the man credited with establishing the modern Irish labor movement.

Mat Callahan, musician and author of The Trouble with Music, is going about his Connolly revival in a musical way. Originally from San Francisco and now a full-time resident of Switzerland, Callahan and his band recently recorded a collection of Connolly tunes for a new project titled Songs of Freedom. On May 25, he performs at the Arlene Francis Center.

“He was definitely a voice for the working people,” says Callahan by phone from the Bay Area. “As a musician, I felt that the way to reintroduce Connolly was through the lesser-known fact that he actually wrote some beautiful songs.”

Inspiration for the project started with Callahan’s 60th birthday party—coincidentally, the same day as the birth of the French Revolution. Revolutionary songs, many by Connolly, became the order of the festivities, and Callahan assembled a band of friends to play them.

“The Irish musicians said, ‘We really need to get this out in Ireland,'” he says, mentioning the economic crisis there and beyond. “The situation demands it.”

Thus began a search for an original songbook, published in 1907 in New York, where Connolly lived while organizing with the International Workers of the World. After enlisting the help of a rare and collectible bookstore in Ireland, Callahan tracked down a copy, edited by Connolly, in the Dublin National Library. The bookseller also found a second book, published in 1917, containing original lyrics by Connolly.

Fans of the Looters, the San Francisco–based band fronted by Callahan in the 1980s, should expect a wholly different sound. “The Connolly stuff is more traditional and acoustic, whereas the Looters were a full-on worldbeat band,” he says.

Nonetheless, in a world where the 99% and an ongoing economic crisis dominate national and global discussion, the time is right to recognize a Marxist leader of the Irish working class, says Callahan. “Connolly is as timely today,” he adds, “as he was a hundred years ago.”

Mat Callahan performs at Honk Voyage, a benefit for the Hubbub Club Marching Band, on Friday, May 25, at the Arlene Francis Center. 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. 6pm. $10. 707.823.5865.