Nora Connolly O’Brien -- Prodigy, Rebel, Politician, Connolly's Daughter

Nora Connolly was born into a family that knew hardship from birth. The second child of James Connolly and Lillie Connolly (nee Reynolds), she would forge her way through life based on the knowledge and learning that was instilled into her by both of her parents; her mother a governess who home schooled all of her children - her father an informally educated intellectual - and it was this learning that was as much a part of her life as breathing was.

Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1893 and was the second child in a family of seven children. Some sources suggest that Nora became her father’s shadow and was with him when he toured Scotland and made all of his speeches. This was to serve her well in later life when she became a senator in the Irish government. When she was 3 years of age, the family moved to Dublin where her father had found work with Jim Larkin in the union. Her formal education extended to learning Gaelic language on a weekly basis while her mother, Lillie Connely, continued to home school the younger children. It is said that Nora was able to read, write and do arithmetic by the age of three years. By the age of nine years, Nora’s family had moved to New York, leaving Ireland just after the tragic death of the eldest child, where her father had been told he would find work in an insurance company.. This work did not materialize, so he became involved in politics, where he earned a meager wage touring the United States lecturing on socialism.

However, while he was accepted by the Irish–Americans, it was difficult to sustain his family on the wages he earned. As it was the custom with children of the working poor, and exploited by the elite of New York, Nora got a job hauling a cart around the city of Troy, known as the "Collar City" due to its history producing the then-everpresent starched collars. She picked up shirt collars from seamstresses and delivered them to the shirt factories. They moved to New Jersey, and this is where Nora’s youngest sister Fiona was born in 1907. Then it was back to the Bronx in New York. For this part of her life, Nora spent most of her time with her father, touring, lecturing, attending union meetings and helping him publish and sell The Harp, which launched in 1908. It was at one of these meetings that she met John Devoy and other Clan na Gael leaders. (It was Clan na Gael that would later help finance the Easter Rising.)

The whole family were becoming increasingly homesick, so the family talked about moving back to Ireland. Nora was sent back to Ireland in 1909 at the tender age of 16 years, quite a capable teenager, to find accommodation for the family in Belfast -- she probably knew more about socialism and how to fend for herself than any teen of the present day. In this era, it was not uncommon for the children of the working poor to be sent somewhere on their own to secure accommodation. It was the way of the world that existed for the poor in this era. [Read "That’s Just How it Was"]. By 1910, the whole Connelly family had returned to Belfast to live.

When she arrived in Belfast, with no one to meet her, she began to get involved in the labour and republican movements. The whole family remained in Belfast while her father stopped in Dublin to work with James Larkin and became an organizer of the Transport and General Workers Union. Encouraged by her father as one of the founding members of The Young Republican Party, she also helped to found the Belfast branch of Cumman na mBan advocating against the partition of Ireland.

Nora participated in her first strike at this very tender age, while working in Belfast, protesting conditions that were unhygienic to say the least [more like slum areas] -- no sick pay, no paid leave. Her father’s daughter, she soon earned the name of a person who would take on the might of the wealthy industrialists.

By 1914, Nora and her sister Ina were couriers of ammunition around Ireland -- they were a part of the group who met the Asgard yacht when Erskine Childers sailed into Howth Harbour with a large consignment of rifles. The two sisters were rewarded with two rifles each. Nora, trusted by her father implicitly, was then sent to America with a message from her father about the rising planned for 1916.

When Nora returned to Dublin she met the members of the Military Council who were planning the rising, despite the fact that only the inner circle of men knew the plans for the 1916 Easter Rising; she was perceived as her father’s delegate, and recognised as a person, like his father, who could be trusted. In the days before the rising, Nora was sent back to Belfast to try and convince the leading activists there to join the fight. Under her command, the 23-year-old Nora Connolly and nine other members of Cumann na mBann returned to Dublin to take part in the Rising and were the only organised group to leave Ulster to participate.

On Easter Monday, Nora describes ‘having the rare privilege of cooking breakfast for all the leaders of the Rising in Liberty Hall’ – a privilege that she carried with her for the rest of her life.  

Pearse then ordered Nora back to County Tyrone to try and remuster the Northern Division of the Irish Volunteers. This attempt failed, and both she and her sister took a train back to Dublin. Due to train disruptions, however, it stopped in Dundalk and she and her sisters walked the rest of the way to Dublin, a journey of approximately 50 miles, spending a night sleeping in a field in Balbriggan. They arrived in Dublin the next day, only to find out that the surrender had taken place just hours before. She recalled vividly 'visiting her father in Dublin Castle, and as he slipped her his statement to the Court, he told her to be careful as she smuggled them out'. He was very adamant that the family return to the United States because he thought that there would be resentment against them.

After her father’s execution, the remaining family were denied passports to immigrate. Undeterred, they travelled to Boston via Edinburgh with Nora using the pseudonym Margaret (her middle name). As all the republicans moved in the same circles, it was in Boston where she met Seamus O’Brien, who was a courier for Michael Collins, and was there on his behalf. They soon became a couple, and married in 1929.

To further the Irish cause, she spent long hours lecturing at Faneuil Hall, which was a byproduct of the many years she had stood by her father’s side as he lectured all over England, Ireland, Scotland and America. She then wrote a book titled “The Unbroken Tradition,“ which described the Easter Rising in great detail. This book, however, was banned in the United States by President Woodrow Wilson as it had been labelled anti-British and this also came when America had entered World War 1 and allegiance to Britain was at its strongest.

By 1917, she had entered Ireland anonymously via Scotland and Liverpool, disguised as a boy, as she had been turned away by border control while using her own name. She remained quiet for a while, and was kept hidden in safe houses around Ireland so as not to give the authorities any reason to suspect her involvement in Irish politics. By 1918, however, she was disagreeing with Labour's policy on neutrality and became involved in canvassing for Sinn Féin in the general elections, while remaining active in Cumman na mBann.

During the War of Independence, Nora continued her membership in Cumann na mBann, which afterward opposed the  newly forged Anglo-Irish Treaty. As a result, she became directly involved as a supervisor at an Anti-Treaty first-aid post at Tara Hall. Cummann na mBan was outlawed by the newly created Free State government and, in 1922, Nora was arrested and imprisoned with Seamus and the rest of her comrades and placed in Kilmainham Goal. She was released in August 1923. She was made paymaster general of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) when Margaret Kinnider was arrested in December.

Nora pursued many different courses of action in her attempt to achieve an independent Ireland. She co-founded the short-lived Workers Party with her brother Rodrick in 1926. She was a part of the Republican Socialist movement of Ireland but left after the division over whether the Republican Congress should transform into a revolutionary Socialist Party, or remain as a united front for all progressive forces against fascism. She favoured forming a new political party, so when a resolution was passed to remain as a united front, she had her group withdraw from the Congress.

Then Nora and Seamus operated the Labour Party’s Drimnagh Branch Dublin -- but resigned from the party when the workers republic cause was deleted from its constitution in 1939. During the1930s, she worked as a statistician in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union [ITGWU]. During World War 2, she became a telegraph agent until ill health forced her into retirement. At one point, Nora and Seamus ran a food store but due to rationing during the war hey had to close it.

Not withstanding her retirement on the grounds of ill health, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera nominated her to the post of Seanad Éireann in 1957 as a seanadói [senator]. She made it clear, however, that she would be an Independent seanadori -- and would not join his Fianna Fáil party. Despite this, she was always listed as a Fianna Fáil seanadói. In 1965, she was again nominated to the post by then-Taoiseach Séan Lemass. Her father’s daughter to her core, she blocked many a bill that felt was not for the good of the whole country – including  the proposal to abolish proportional representation and a Church-prompted bill to consign female juvenile offenders to the Magdalene Laundries.

When Jack Lynch, however, was elected Taoiseach in 1966, he failed to nominate Nora to the Seanad and thus ended her political career. Shortly before her death in 1981 she spoke at the 1980 Ardfheis organized by Sinn Féin. 

During her lifetime, she remained good friends with Margaret Skinnider, and in later life would spend long weekends with Margaret [including her sister Ina] until Ina died.

Nora died in Meath Hospital on June 17, 1981, surrounded by her nieces, nephews and  others from her family. She was buried as per her wishes in Glasnevin Cemetery, having requested a republican funeral.

Then then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey had made plans to attend the funeral, even pencilling it into his diary. He did not, however, attend. When asked about his absence at the funeral, he declined an answer -- but some sources claim that Haughey decided to avoid the funeral because of its overtly republican nature.

And so… yet another women who gave her all for her country, who was as controversial in life as she became on her demise, was shunned even in death, by Ireland's Taoiseach. Shame oh shame ...

Nora lived to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising. She received an honorary doctorate in law and was a member of the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society in the 1960s and '70s.

An author as well as a politician, she wrote:

* "Portrait of a Rebel Father," 1935

* "James Connelly Wrote for Today -- Socialism," 1978

* "We Shall Rise Again," 1981

Views: 1544

Tags: 1916, Easter Rising, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish Women

Comment by Colm Herron on September 25, 2016 at 5:27am

Mary, you have given us so much here. The Lynches and the Haugheys - of which there are many - are well gone now but the fire, integrity and love of the Connollys will never die. 

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Comment by That's Just How It Was on October 2, 2016 at 10:42am

Thank you Colm.... it is a sad indictment on our politicians that women of Nora Connolly O'Brien did not and have never been awarded the  accolades that they so rightly deserve... 


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