Remembering James Connolly
The Irish Revolutionary James Connolly was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol, this day in 1916.
Connolly was born in an Irish immigrant slum in Edinburgh on June 5th 1868, the third son of John Connolly and Mary McGinn. His parents had moved to Scotland from County Monaghan, Ireland, and settled in the Cowgate, an Irish ghetto where thousands of Irish people lived. He spoke with a Scottish accent throughout his life.
He was born in St Patrick's Roman Catholic parish, in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh known as "Little Ireland". His father and grandfathers were labourers. He had an education up to the age of about ten in the local Catholic primary school. He left and worked in labouring jobs. Owing to the economic difficulties he was having, like his eldest brother John, he joined the British Army.
He enlisted at age 14, falsifying his age and giving his name as Reid, as his brother John had done. He served in Ireland with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment for nearly seven years, during a turbulent period in rural areas known as the Land War. He would later become involved in the land issue. When he heard that his regiment was being transferred to India, he deserted.
Connolly had another reason for not wanting to go to India; a young woman by the name of Lillie Reynolds. Lillie moved to Scotland with James after he left the army and they married in April 1890. They settled in Edinburgh. There, Connolly began to get involved in the Scottish Socialist Federation, but with a young family to support, he needed a way to provide for them.
He briefly established a cobbler's shop in 1895, but this failed after a few months as his shoe-mending skills were insufficient. He was strongly active with the socialist movement at the time and prioritized this over his own work.
By 1892 he was involved in the Scottish Socialist Federation, acting as its secretary from 1895. Two months after the birth of his third daughter, word came to Connolly that the Dublin Socialist Club was looking for a full-time secretary, a job that offered a salary of a pound a week. Connolly and his family moved to Dublin, where he took up the position.
At his instigation, the club quickly evolved into the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). While active as a socialist in Great Britain, Connolly was the founding editor of The Socialist newspaper and was among the founders of the Socialist Labour Party which split from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903. Connolly joined Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith in the Dublin protests against the Boer War.
In 1903 the Connolly family emigrated to the USA, while in America Connolly was a member of the Socialist Labor Party of America (1906), the Socialist Party of America (1909) and the Industrial Workers of the World, and founded the Irish Socialist Federation in New York, 1907.
Connolly famously had a chapter of his 1910 book Labour in Irish History entitled "A chapter of horrors: Daniel O’Connell and the working class." critical of the achiever of Catholic Emancipation 60 years earlier.
On Connolly's return to Ireland in 1910, he was right-hand man to James Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He stood twice for the Wood Quay ward of Dublin Corporation but was unsuccessful. His name and those of his family appear in the 1911 Census of Ireland - his occupation is listed as "National Organiser Socialist Party".
In 1913, in response to the Lockout, he, along with an ex-British officer, Jack White, founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), an armed and well-trained body of labour men whose aim was to defend workers and strikers, particularly from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Though they only numbered about 250 at most, their goal soon became the establishment of an independent and socialist Irish nation.
He also founded the Irish Labour Party as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1912 and was a member of its National Executive. Around this time he met Winifred Carney in Belfast, who became his secretary and would later accompany him during the Easter Rising.
Connolly opposed the First World War explicitly from a socialist perspective. Rejecting the Redmondite position, he declared "I know of no foreign enemy of this country except the British Government."
Connolly considered the leadership of the Volunteers as too bourgeois and unconcerned with Ireland's economic independence. In 1916, thinking they were merely posturing and unwilling to take decisive action against Britain, he attempted to goad them into action by threatening to send the ICA against the British Empire alone, if necessary.
This alarmed the IRB who were planning a rising, in order to talk Connolly out of any such rash action, the IRB leaders, including Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse, met with Connolly to see if an agreement could be reached. During the meeting, the IRB and the ICA agreed to act together at Easter of that year.
During the Easter Rising, beginning on 24 April 1916, Connolly was Commandant of the Dublin Brigade. As the Dublin Brigade had the most substantial role in the rising, he was de facto commander-in-chief. Connolly's leadership in the Easter rising was considered formidable. Michael Collins said of Connolly that he "would have followed him through hell."
Connolly was badly wounded during the rising and by the time of the surrender he had to be carried around in a stretcher. Following the surrender, he said to other prisoners: "Don't worry. Those of us that signed the proclamation will be shot. But the rest of you will be set free."
Connolly was held in a room (now called the "Connolly Room") at the State Apartments in Dublin Castle, which had been converted to a first-aid station for troops recovering from the war.
Connolly was sentenced to death by firing squad for his part in the rising. On May 12th 1916 he was taken by military ambulance to Royal Hospital Kilmainham, across the road from Kilmainham Gaol, and from there taken to the gaol, where he was to be executed.
While Connolly was still in hospital in Dublin Castle, during a visit from his wife and daughter, he said: "The Socialists will not understand why I am here; they forget I am an Irishman."
On the morning of May 12th 1916, he was carried to the prison courtyard on a stretcher. His absolution and last rites were administered by a Capuchin, Father Aloysius Travers. Asked to pray for the soldiers about to shoot him, he said: "I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights."
Instead of being marched to the same spot where the others had been executed, at the far end of the execution yard, he was tied to a chair and then shot. His execution caused so much outrage that the then British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith ordered that no more executions were to take place; an exception being that of Roger Casement, who was charged with high treason and had not yet been tried.
There is a statue of James Connolly in Dublin, outside Liberty Hall, the offices of the SIPTU trade union. Another statue of Connolly stands in Union Park, Chicago near the offices of the UE union. There is a bust of Connolly in Troy, New York, in the park behind the statue of Uncle Sam.
In March 2016 a statue of Connolly was unveiled by his great-grandson, James Connolly Heron, on Falls Road in Belfast. Connolly Station, one of the two main railway stations in Dublin, and Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, are named in his honour.
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