James Connolly

James Connolly
James Connolly, 1911

James Connolly — Irish socialist, republican martyr. Entirely self-taught (no man who started work aged 11 could be otherwise), he was a writer of blistering prose, an agitator, a propagandist, and – eventually – a well-regarded theorist of international socialism. He was born in 1868 of Irish parents in the "Little Ireland" slums of Edinburgh.

It was as a young British soldier – he enlisted aged 14 – that he first saw Ireland, serving in those same "occupying forces" of the "Brigand Empire" that later would form his firing squad.

In 2002, Connolly was voted in 64th place in a BBC poll of "100 Greatest Britons".

Sources differ on whether he deserted from the army or was merely time-expired: in any case he became active in trade union affairs in Scotland. He was a paid political organizer (£1 a week) when he returned to Ireland in 1896 to found the Irish Socialist Republican Party – memorably lampooned by Sean O'Casey as a "tiny dribble of followers, one of them carrying a box so that, when Connolly spoke, he might be lifted up before the people".

IWW is coming
poster for the "Wobblies", date unknown
James Connolly return meeting poster 1910
leaflet announcing Connolly's return to Ireland, 1910

To Irish nationalists, socialism was at best a foreign contamination; at worst, it was the work of English spies and heretical agents. In 1903, seeking more fertile ground, Connolly emigrated to America where he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World – or the "Wobblies" as they're fondly recalled.

But Ireland drew him, and he returned in 1910, becoming active in Larkin's Transport and General Workers' Union. He was Larkin's second-in-command during the Lock-out. And when Larkin departed for America in October 1914, Connolly took command of the Union.

Connolly was 46 now. He was a solid stocky big-moustached man, "carried forward", says O'Casey "on two short pillar-like legs". He was teetotal, non-smoking, never seen but wearing a clean hard collar. He was a staunch believer in the equality of women – John Lennon in 1972 credited Connolly's dictum "the female worker is the slave of the slave" as the inspiration for his song "Woman is the Nigger of the World". By all accounts he was a good speaker: forcible, logical, rarely straying from the point. He had a quick line in repartee. To a heckler who asked "You know so much, but who will win the Derby?", he instantly replied: "A horse, and I am surprised at an ass needing to enquire." He was tough-skinned, iron-willed, "capable of producing the most blistering language, either with his pen or his tongue, and revelling in sheer audacity".

Connolly, Kernoff
Workers' Republic – weekly newspaper Connolly founded

Larkin had appealed to the hearts of the Dublin poor. Connolly addressed their heads. In the Workers' Republic, the newspaper he founded, he argued that Irish independence would bring nothing of progress unless it included a change in the fundamental structure of society. Dublin locally was governed by nationalists, yet still the workers of Dublin suffered. Nationalism could not be the answer. Increasingly for Connolly the answer required an armed insurrection against capitalist power.

"We are out for Ireland for the lrish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared." – Workers' Republic, April 8 1916.
Connolly, Kernoff
Connolly depicted in Citizen Army uniform
Harry Kernoff, 1935

Under Connolly's leadership, the Irish Citizen Army evolved from a workers' protection troop to an armed militia openly preparing for war. In Liberty Hall, the union's headquarters, he installed rifle-ranges and bomb-making works. He filled the Workers' Republic with provocative articles on "Insurrectionary Warfare". These provocations might be smiled at by the British authorities (the Citizens' Army never numbered more than 300 souls), but they alarmed the upper echelons of the IRB. The Irish Republican Brotherhood had plans of its own for a rising: Connolly's combativeness – "What could he do but stage a riot?" asked Pearse – threatened any chance of their success.

In an incident widely known as "the Kidnapping", Connolly went missing for three days in December 1915. It transpired he was in secret talks with the IRB. Connolly was inducted into the Brotherhood's Military Council; in return he pledged the Citizen Army to an alliance with the Irish Volunteers, then firmly under the IRB's control. When Easter Week eventually came, he was made commander-in-chief of all republican forces in Dublin – de facto military leader of the Rising. He signed, as a member of the "Provisional Government", the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

"During the fight he was wounded, but insisted upon continuing in command, having a bed made among the fighters in the General Post Office. While thus lying down he was brought a cup of tea, and his comment upon this attention was 'This is revolution de luxe!'"
Connolly statue
James Connolly statue, near the rebuilt Liberty Hall, Dublin
by Eamonn O'Doherty, erected 1996

Connolly was the last of the Dublin leaders to be executed. He had been severely wounded in the fighting: to shoot him with any style at all the military needed to prop him in a chair and strap him there. This detail proved shocking to the Irish people: the reporting of it marked a turning-point in public opinion. Asquith, the British Prime Minister, immediately ordered an end to the executions, though an exception was made for Roger Casement in London. As Connolly had predicted, socialists everywhere denounced him as a "chauvinist": "They all forget," Connolly told his wife, "that I am an Irishman."

The socialism that James Connolly stood for and fought for was largely forgotten in the Ireland that followed. Heroes must be made fit for their nation: Connolly's confession of his sins to a Capuchin priest the night before his death became almost the most significant act of his life. It's only in more recent years that Connolly's socialism has been acknowledged, even acclaimed: most obviously in the politics of Sinn Féin, that "bourgeois" nationalist party Connolly had eviscerated when alive.

The night before his execution, he told his wife of an incident that occurred late in the Rising:

"There was one young boy, Lillie, who was carrying the top of my stretcher as we were leaving the burning Post Office. The street was being swept continually with bullets from machine-guns. That young lad was at the head of the stretcher and if a bullet came near me he would move his body in such a way that he might receive it instead of me. He was so young-looking, although big, that I asked his age. 'I'm just fourteen, sir,' he answered. We can't fail now."

O where O where is our James Connolly

Television interview, 11 May 1972. The Dick Cavett Show: John and Yoko collection [videorecording] DVD 2005, ISBN 0738933570