James Connolly was born at 107 Cowgate in Edinburgh (an area known commonly as Little Ireland) on June 5 1868 and went on to become the General Secretary of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union (IT&GWU), one of the seven signatories to the 1916 Proclamation of Irish Independence, and to take part in the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. For the latter role he was executed by firing squad on May 12 1916.
The Irish Citizen Army had been co-founded by James Connolly in 1913 at the headquarters of the IT&GWU and from this period onwards he wrote articles on guerrilla warfare in the Workers Republic newspaper. This increased militancy and organisation was noted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) who had been secretly planning a revolt. Connolly was then appointed by the IRB to be Military Commander of the Republican Forces in Dublin.
The Easter Rising began on Monday April 24 with the combined forces of the Irish Volunteers, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, the Hibernian Rifles and Cumann na mBan. During the rising, Commandant General Connolly was Commanding Officer of the Dublin Division and in charge of the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin. As a consequence of the ferocity of the attacks against the GPO, Connolly was badly wounded.
At the collapse of the rising after a week of fighting against superior British forces, Connolly was court-martialled. He was visited in jail by his wife Lily and daughter Nora shortly before his scheduled execution. On May 12 at the hour of dawn he was taken from the military hospital in Dublin Castle to Kilmainham Jail, where he was so injured that he had to be strapped to a chair prior to his execution by firing squad. He was the last of the leaders of the 1916 rising to be killed. Both the body of James Connolly and the other 14 leaders of the rebellion were thrown into a quicklime pit at a military cemetery at Arbour Hill.
Connolly’s family stemmed from County Monaghan in Ireland and he was raised into the poor Irish ghettos of Cowgate in Edinburgh. His radicalisation derives in many ways from the experiences of this time. After first spending some time as an ink devil for the Edinburgh Evening News he joined the British Army – 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment – at the age of 14. All seven years of his army career was spent in Ireland and this further added to his developing political and social consciousness. His first hand witnessing of the army’s role in Ireland led to his decision to discharge himself without permission and return to Scotland.
During his time in Ireland, Connolly met Lily Reynolds from County Wicklow who he would later wed at the Roman Catholic Church of St John in Perth. The wedding took place 20 April 1890 and the marriage certificate records Lily Reynolds as living at the Guildhall, 102 High Street in Perth. Shortly afterwards the couple returned to Edinburgh and set up home at 22 West Port near the Grassmarket. During the course of the marriage Lily gave birth to six children, the oldest Mona was killed in an accident whilst Connolly was away in the United States on a lecture tour.
After this Connolly became increasingly involved in socialist and trade union activity which included joining Keir Hardie’s (1) newly formed Independent Labour Party. Amongst the offices he held included Secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, organiser for the Dublin Socialist Club, organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World and General Secretary of the IT&GWU.
With James Larkin (2), the Liverpool born Irish Labour leader Connolly toured the United States giving lectures and organising for various labour organisations. Together with Larkin he organised the great transport strikes in Dublin of 1913 and opposition to the Great Lock-Out of workers in August of that year. An event that could be described as one of the most significant in trade union history. Connolly recounted it as “an apprenticeship in brutality, a hardening of the heart of the Irish employing class”.
In an attempt to break the power of the IT&GWU, bosses in Dublin had attempted to prevent thousands of workers from going to work. Connolly speaking at a rally that had been banned was arrested and given a three-month sentence. Hundreds of trade unionists were also seriously injured when the police battened those Dublin workers in and around the Liberty Hall. Two young workers were killed. Over 25,000 workers were locked out for eight months causing starvation and hardship for their families. In solidarity Connolly went on hunger strike in Mountjoy jail – within a week of which the authorities released him. The workers eventually had no choice but to return to work. The union continued to grow in membership.
Within a short time of his arrival in Ireland to work at the Dublin Socialist Club, Connolly formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Connolly’s idea that “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and social” was dominant and the party advocated the complementary struggle of national liberation and socialism. Connolly wrote a number of texts that include ‘Erin’s Hope’ (his first collection of essays), ‘The Axe to the Root’, ‘Socialism Made Easy’, ‘Labour in Irish History’ and ‘Labour, Nationality and Religion’.
Throughout his life James Connolly was an ardent fan of Hibernian FC. He had actually attended its founding meeting at St Mary Street Halls in 1875. As a youngster in Edinburgh he would often carry the players football kits along Easter Road to the matches so obtaining sixpence and free admission. His letters from America contain requests for information about his beloved team; “A little Scotsman told me Hearts were in the final of the Scottish Cup and they were knocking hell oot the Hibs, whereat I felt very much depressed”.
“The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour, they cannot be dissevered.”
“Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”
1 Keir Hardie (1856-1915) was a founder member of the Labour Party. Originally a Lanarkshire miner and later a journalist he was Labour’s first parliamentary candidate. He became chair of the Independent Labour Party and MP for Mid-Lanark, West Ham South and for 15 years Merthyr Tydfil.
2 Liverpool trade unionist and leader of the IT&GWU. He was deported from the United States in 1923 because of his political activities.