James Connolly was a leading figure in recent Irish history. James Connolly played a leading part in the Easter Uprising of 1916 and his execution outraged many in Ireland.
James Connolly was born in June 1868. For a man so linked to Irish history, Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The area he lived in was nicknamed ‘Little Ireland’ and was one of the city’s slum areas. His parents were originally from County Monaghan and their life in Edinburgh was hard. Connolly’s mother, Mary, died early as a result of the deprivation they faced.
James Connolly went to school until he was ten years of age. He then joined a newspaper firm where he cleaned the rollers of dried ink. It was dull work but it brought in some income for the family. At the age of fourteen, James Connolly joined the British Army. He stayed in it until he was twenty-one. All of his service was in Ireland, mainly around Cork. Here he witnessed how the Irish were treated not just by the army but also by the landlords who owned the land there. It was at this time that Connolly developed a hatred of landlords.
In 1889, James Connolly left the army and married. He moved back to Edinburgh where he worked as a labourer and a carter. It was around this time that he became interested in socialism. Connolly joined the Scottish Socialist Federation and he was also involved with Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party.
James Connolly went to Dublin after the failure off his cobbler’s shop in Edinburgh. Here he was the organiser of the Dublin Socialist Society. In May 1896, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Society and he founded the organisation’s newspaper – “The Worker’s Republic”. After this, James Connolly embarked on a series of lecture tours, both in Scotland and America.
He returned to Dublin from America in 1902. By this time the Irish Socialist Republican Society had essentially ceased to exist and Connolly founded the Socialist Labour Party. This was not a success and Connolly took his family to America to live. Connolly was a founder member of the Irish Socialist Federation which published “The Harp” newspaper. In 1908, Connolly was appointed the organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World and between 1908 and 1909, he spent his time trying to expand support for all socialist groups in America, though primarily on the East Coast with its large American-Irish population.
In 1910, James Connolly returned to Dublin and in 1911 he was appointed the Belfast organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In 1912, he helped to found the Irish Labour Party. James Connolly also formed the Irish Citizens Army during the so-called ‘Great Lock-Out’ of 1913 when Connolly became a central figure in the workers opposition to the Employers Federation. The Irish Citizens Army was created to protect the workers from any groups that might have been employed by the employers to ‘rough up’ any striking worker. It was at this time that James Connolly revived a newspaper called “The Worker’s Republic”. Up to this year, all of Connolly’s work had been orientated around socialism and developing the rights of the working class. His work was specific to the Irish population but it was not, at this time, linked to an Ireland free from British rule. The revival of this newspaper was the first time that any form anti-establishment could be properly identified. A republic by its very definition does not have a monarchy and the most important aspect of Britain’s establishment then was the monarchy. The title may have been symbolic but the symbolism it represented was important.
James Connolly fell out with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. This group had been established as a defence against the Ulster Volunteers. At the start of World War One, the Irish Volunteers numbered 180,000. It was led by the Provisional Committee and the Provisional Committee refused to allow the Irish Citizens Army to have any input into it – hence, why Connolly fell out with it.
During the war, the majority of the Irish Volunteers supported John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who supported the government in London and its war aims. Redmond also supported the suspension of the 1912 Home Rule Bill for the duration of the war. Around 11,000 Irish Volunteers did not support Redmond and left the organisation. These people were the more radical side of the Irish Volunteers who were furious that Redmond, having pushed for a Home Rule Bill, now accepted that it could not come into being until the war was over. In 1915, trench warfare was dominant and there was no end to the war in sight. Therefore, there was seemingly no chance in the immediate future for Ireland to get any form of Home Rule. To some this was unacceptable. However, these people were in the minority as many people in Ireland supported the London government’s war effort.
In February 1915, “The Worker’s Republic” was banned by the authorities in Dublin Castle. In the same year, James Connolly was appointed acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. By now, Connolly had become very militant. He paraded units of the Irish Citizens Army in Dublin and such displays alarmed those who had left the Irish Volunteers and gone to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). They felt that such displays would attract the attention of the authorities which they did not welcome as they were making plans towards a rebellion. In an effort to bring on board Connolly and to tame his more wild displays of militancy, the IRB took him into their confidence. Connolly was told about the planned rebellion for Easter 1916. After this, Connolly took an active part in the preparations and he was appointed Military Commander of the Republican Forces in Dublin, which encompassed the Irish Citizens Army.
When the rebellion started on Monday 24th April, James Connolly was one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation. Connolly was in charge of the General Post Office during the rebellion – the rebels headquarters. He was severely wounded during the fighting and was arrested once the rebels had surrendered. He was court-martialled in a military hospital in Dublin. Charged with treason, there was no doubt as to what the verdict and punishment would be.
At his court martial, Connolly made the following statement:
“We want to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. “With reference to the uprising, Connolly stated:
“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 to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe. I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be”
James Connolly was sentenced to death. Some of the employers with whom he had battled in the ‘Great Lock-Out’ of 1913, called on the British government to execute Connolly.
On May 12th,1916, Connolly was shot by firing squad. He had been taken by military ambulance to Kilmainham Prison, carried on a stretcher to a courtyard in the prison, tied to a chair and shot. With the other executed rebels, his body was put into a mass grave with no coffin. All the executions of the rebels angered many Irish people who had shown little support for the rebels during the rebellion. However, it was the circumstances of Connolly’s execution that created the most anger. In death, Connolly and the other rebels had succeeded in rousing many Irish people who had been, at best, indifferent to the rebels and their desires when they had been alive.
Citation: C N Trueman “James Connolly”
historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 25 Mar 2015. 8 Mar 2021.