One of my many ongoing projects is to research the life and times of the Irish socialist Con Lehane. Born in Coachford, County Cork in 1877 as Cornelius Lyhane, he became the linchpin of the Cork branch of James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party from 1898-1901, where he usually went by the name Con O’Lyhane. Following clerical reaction against the socialists, Lyhane emigrated to London in December 1901, and adopted the name Con Lehane. Lehane settled in the area near Finsbury Park in North London, and joined the local branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
These were years of uncertainty and ideological realignment in the socialist movement internationally, which can be characterised broadly as between a reformist wing that felt that socialism could be implemented through reform from on high by government, and a revolutionary wing, sometimes referred to as ‘impossibilists’ which tended to look toward the self-organisation of workers as the way forward, and were increasingly influenced by the ideas of syndicalism or industrial unionism.
In 1903, a significant number of the membership of the SDF, particularly those in Scotland, left to form a new radical socialist organisation called the Socialist Labour Party, whose first organiser was none other than James Connolly.
A year later in 1904, other impossibilists, especially in London, broke from the SDF to form another organisation called the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which continues to this day. One of the founding members of this organisation was none other than Con Lehane, who became its General Secretary and editor of its paper, the Socialist Standard.
Lehane did not last long in the SPGB, however, and was eventually expelled.
As anyone who knows me will attest, I love to explore London and, in particular, to locate sites of historical interest, especially those that connect with London’s radical history. Thankfully, Lehane lived just down the road from me, so, with the help of some of his letters, I was quickly able to locate the three places where he resided near Finsbury Park.
When he first moved to London, Lehane resided at 15 St Thomas Road. Today this is right next door to the Finsbury Park Mosque. Although the building that currently sits there looks original, closer inspection suggests that this may not be the case. It is taller than all the other buildings on the terrace, and is of a different shape. The brickwork is also of a different design and looks newer than the neighbouring houses.
Lehane then resided at 33 Birnam Road, with the earliest letter I’ve found from this address dated 5 February 1904. Birnam Road is a quiet terrace, in a quiet neighbourhood. Of his three residences near Finsbury Park, this is the only one which seems to have remained as it was at the time.
From 6 July 1906 at the latest, Lehane was living at 115 Isledon Road. Unfortunately, this building has long since disappeared, to be replaced by an NHS centre, below.
However, some of the original terrace remains further up the road, which gives some idea of the house Lehane would have lived in. Overall, all three were typical North London houses, no different than those which people typically live in today, and then, as now, often divided into flats.