James Connolly (Séamas Ó Conghaile) is one of the handful of men who share the dubious honour of being placed in the iconic status categories in the Irish history books based on his involvement in the Easter Rising 1916 as well as his role in the Trade Union movement. He was born in Cowgate 1868 to Irish emigrant parents who had moved there for economic reasons from Monaghan. Cowgate was a slum area of Edinburgh that did not enjoy a good reputation in Scotland. It was considered to be an Irish ghetto where many, many thousands of Irish settled in an attempt to gain employment. He belonged to the Parish of St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, which was nick-named ‘Little Ireland,' like many other countries all over the world where the Irish would settle.
Educated up to the age of eleven years at the local Roman Catholic Primary School, he decided that he would be better off working. He worked at many different labouring jobs, like his father and grandfather before him. He then made the decision to enlist in the British Army like his older brother [who had deeply regretted his own decision]. The military did offer him food, shelter, and a wage; more importantly he would be educated in the art of military life. Like his brother, he lied about his age to be able to join the Army ; he was only fourteen years of age, and his name was listed as Reid in the Amy documents. Entering a grown man’s world at such a young age...
Serving in Ireland for nearly seven years, he would gain the knowledge and experience and education that would serve him well for the rest of his life. This was a very turbulent period in rural Ireland, and he saw and had to do things that would have a profound effect on him. He developed a deep hatred for the British Army which would last all his life. When he heard that his regiment was being transferred to India, he deserted the British Army.
This is when he met a young woman called Lillie Reynolds. They moved back to Scotland and they were married in 1890. They had a few children within years of getting married. He joined the Socialist Movement and aligned himself to Syndicalism, a movement that was thought to have started in France to aid and support all workers. However, as much as he wanted to commit himself to this role of supporting people, he had a young family to keep. He set up a cobbler’s shop which failed a month later, not least because his cobbling skills were insufficient. Another reason was that he was strongly active in the socialist movement and he prioritized this work over his Cobbler shop.
At this time his brother John was secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation. He got sacked, however, from his Edinburgh Corporation job because he spoke out at a rally in favour of an eight-hour day. James then took over John’s role as secretary. This would become a pivotal point in his life, because this is where he would meet Keir Hardy who formed the Independent Labour Party in 1893. During this period he took up the study of Esperanto: a constructed language that was designed to make international communication easier.
It was through his connections in the Trade Union Environment that he heard that the Dublin Socialist Club were looking for full-time secretary, offering a salary of one pound per week. This of course was too good an opportunity to miss out on, so he applied for and got the position. So, just after the birth of his third daughter, Connolly moved his family back to Dublin, Ireland.
Under his leadership, the Dublin Socialists quickly evolved into the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which has gone down in the Irish history books as being of pivotal importance in the early history of socialism and republicans. He was among the founders of the Socialist Labour Party when it split from the Social Democratic federation in 1903.
Always acting in the best interests of the working people wherever they were, he joined Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffiths in the Dublin protest against the Boar War. At this time, he felt that economically he would be better off to immigrate to America. SO once again he packed up all his belongings and his family , and off to America the family sailed . . He immediately joined the Socialist Party of America 1906, and founded the Socialist Federation New York 1907. Then he joined the Socialist Party of America 1909, and the Industrial Workers of the World movement, always wanting the workers to get what was justified.
In 1910,he made the decision to return home to Ireland, so he and his family moved back to Dublin where he would meet up with James Larkin. Larkin was a fellow Syndicalist [one who wants a economic society owned by the workers; a replacement for capitalism.] He became James Larkin's right hand man in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
He stood twice for the Wood Quay Ward Dublin Corporation, but was unsuccessful. His name in the Dublin Census 1911 lists him as ‘National Organiser, Socialist Party.” In response to the Lockout 1913, he co-founded the Irish Citizen’s Army [ICA]. This is where the skills that he learned in the British Army came to fruition. The Irish Citizen’s Army was made up of approximately 250 men including another ex-British Army man who was one of the co-founders: Jack White. All of these men were by background, labourers, who understood only too well the brutality that was perpetrated on the striking workers by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Their goal of establishing The Irish Labour Party grew out of the need to the defend workers and strikers. The political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress met this need, and he soon became its National Executive. On Trade Union business, he travelled to Belfast, where he met Winifred [Nora] Carney. She became his secretary, and was with him during the week of the Easter Rising, she became his confidant , and li became very close to his family and very firm friends with Nora [Connolly’s daughter]
Connolly considered the Leaders of Irish Volunteers and The Irish Military Brotherhood to be bourgeois, and stood aloof from them. In his opinion, he considered them to be merely posturing and unconcerned with Ireland's Independence; thinking that they were unwilling to take divisive action against the British Government and Dublin Castle. In his attempt to gage a reaction from them, he goaded them by threatening to send the Irish Citizen’s Army to war against the British Empire...alone, if it became necessary.
On hearing this, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who already had plans in place for an insurgence that very year, made haste to have a discussion with Connolly to see if an agreement could be reached to prevent a disaster happening.
What has now become imperative in Irish history is that Roger Casement [a British Diplomat and an Irish Rebel] had been arrested while disembarking off a German submarine on his way to meet the Volunteers at the gunboat to unload the armoury. Compounding this travesty, MacNeill [Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers] on hearing of Casement’s arrest, and then getting the news from Bulmar Hobson , that the Rising was going to take place on the Easter Sunday, countermanded the plans for the Easter Rising by advertising in the Independent that all orders given to the Irish Volunteers were rescinded. Confusion reigned throughout this period all over Ireland, with some of the Volunteers already having smashed their weapons and some going off to the Fairytown Races. However, Clarke, Pearse, Connolly, Cathal Brugha and all the inner sanctum of the Leaders confirmed that the Easter Rising should go ahead, so instead of the Rising happening on the Easter Sunday morning, it happened on the Eater Monday morning, knowing that their days were numbered by the arrest of Casement.
In the weeks leading up to the Eater Rising, Connolly’s wife Lillie and his family arrived in Dublin from Tyrone where she had been staying. Accommodation had been found for them in Count Markiewicz’s cottage in the mountains outside Dublin. Connolly now felt able to address the Citizens Army in Liberty Hall 1916, where he told then that the Irish Citizens Army no longer existed and that they were all now a part of The Irish Republican Army. He stated that he was the Commandant-General of all the insurgent forces in Dublin.
History now records that Connolly, Pearse, Clarke, MacDermott, and Plunkette made their way up O’Connell Street [was Sackville Street] and based themselves in the General Post Office with all the Volunteers and Cumman na Mbann. They were to make their move on that fateful Easter Monday morning at 12:00 PM ; at the first stroke of the Angelus, the insurrection was to begin.
Patrick Pearse was the one who read out the Proclamation on the first stroke of the 12:00 Angelus, and so the Easter Rising began.
As mortars, bombs, and bullets rained down on the General Post Office, Connolly proved himself to be inspirational and effective: supervising the construction of defences, determining and adjusting strategy, and summoning reinforcements. That only nine volunteers died in the Post Office during the fighting is said to be a testimony to his talents.
It was only when fire swept through the General Post Office that the order was made to leave the building. By that time, Connolly was severely wounded. Even after he had been severely wounded and operated on by Dr O’Mahoney [a prisoner] in the closed off section of the makeshift headquarters, he remained staunchly supportive to his men; speaking to them from a hospital bed that had been wheeled into the troops where they had burrowed down in Henry Street, following the excavation of the GPO. In order to prevent further blood loss, the fateful decision was made to surrender.
Patrick Pearse would write of him, “Wounded, still the guiding force of our resistance; nothing would break the will of this man."
When Patrick Pearse had been to see General Lowe to treat; Connolly was immediately arrested. Connolly was taken to the Red Cross Hospital at Dublin Castle. For the last fortnight of his life he was attended to by Surgeon Tobin who was greatly impressed by Connolly. He spoke to the world no more. His only visitors: his wife and children, his secretary, and Father Aloysius (Capuchin Friars) would be able to record his feelings and thoughts for the future. His reflections on the struggle would have to be reconstructed from these recollections, which were recorded while he was under terrible emotional stress and physical pain. One thought that he had been that he had a Scottish accent, and that the Irish people would not know why he was there: "They will never understand why I am here; they will forget that I am an Irishman.”
He was court martialled while he was in Dublin Castle, propped up in bed. The statement that he would present at his court martial would find its way into his daughter Nora hands while he was in hospital . His expectation that the Rising's organisers would be the people to be , and the rest set free did not happen; as history now records.
At midnight on the 11th May,1916, he was woken to told that he would be executed at dawn the next morning. His wife Lilly and his daughter Nora were sent for; he surreptitiously slipped the hand written notes from his court martial into Nora’s hand. At dawn the next morning, he was taken by stretcher to Kilmainham Goal. Blindfolded, he was lifted into a chair and executed on the 12th May, 1916. He left a widow with seven young children. Fr. Aloysius was by his side.
The note that he surreptitiously slipped to Nora reads as follows:
"I do not wish to make any defence except against charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners. We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call that we then issued to the people of Ireland, was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war. We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die for to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.
Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, or even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.
I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of women and girls were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest to it with their lives if need be."
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Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams.
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