Remembering James Connolly

By Joe Davison

May the 12th each year marks the anniversary of the death of James Connolly. Executed in Dublin by the British, after taking up arms in the 1916 Easter Rising to liberate Ireland and end 800 years of uninterrupted occupation, he died a martyr in the cause of self determination and social and economic justice.

The story of that rising -- of the Irishmen and women who so bravely took on the forces of British Imperialism and held out for four days; of the leaders who were rounded up afterwards and executed, each of them defiant to the end; of the aftermath and the birth of the Irish Republican Army -- is well known. The story of James Connolly, however, is less well known.

James Connolly, born on June 5th, 1868, was the youngest of three brothers. At the age of ten, after his mother died, he lied about his age and began work in the printshop of a local newspaper. At an age when his life should have consisted of going to school and running free with other boys his own age, here he was being introduced into the cruel world of wage slavery, a mere child experiencing all the dirt and noise and smells of heavy machinery amid the worn and broken men who toiled long hours for starvation wages.

Desperate to escape such a fate, at the age of fourteen Connolly once again lied about his age and joined the British Army. He was posted to Ireland, the birthplace of his parents, and it was there, witnessing the atrocities that were being carried out against the Irish people by the British Army, that the seeds of class consciousness and hatred of oppression were planted.

It was also during this period that he met his wife, Lillie Reynolds, who worked as a domestic servant to a prominent unionist family in Dublin. Lillie would remain by her husband’s side, sharing in his triumphs and defeats right to the end, her dedication to him marking her as an outstanding figure on her own merit.

Connolly deserted from the British Army at the age of 21, moved back to Scotland with his wife, and there began his involvement in the class struggle. A voracious reader, he read all of Marx’s writings, and even studied German and French in order to widen his studies.

He joined the Socialist League in Scotland and, by dint of his passion and commitment to the struggle, three years later was appointed secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation. He even entered a municipal election as a socialist candidate and received 263 votes.

In 1896, Connolly returned to Dublin, a city which he’d grown to love while posted there in the British Army, in response to an offer to come and work for the Dublin Socialist Club. Shortly after his arrival he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). In his first statement on behalf of the ISRP, he said: “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social. The national ideal can never be realised until Ireland stands forth before the world as a nation, free and independent. It is social and economic, because no matter what the form of government may be, as long as one class owns as private property the land and the instruments of labor from which mankind derive their substance, that class will always have it in their power to plunder and enslave the remainder of their fellow creatures.”

Connolly had decided by this point that the two strands of revolutionary thought in Ireland, national liberation and socialism, rather than being antagonistic, were in fact complementary. This was a view which ran counter to the prevailing strand of Marxist philosophy which obtained across continental Europe at that time. It held that the struggle for socialism must be international and reach across the false divisions of national, ethnic, and cultural identity. Nationalist movements as such were scorned and vilified, deemed bourgeois in both character and design.

But those European Marxists had no experience of living under the yoke of imperialism, and thus for them the National Question could only ever exist in the abstract.

Some of Connolly’s most powerful writing and thinking came on this very issue, demonstrating a development which placed him at the vanguard of revolutionary theory. “The struggle for socialism and national liberation cannot and must not be separated.”

“The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour.”

As if to emphasize his status as a revolutionary theoretician, Connolly was also an early champion of women’s rights. “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.”

In 1903, as work and finances in Dublin dwindled, Connolly moved to the United States. He’d visited there the year before; traveling across the country lecturing on political philosophy and trade unionism, and his lectures had received a warm reception and much praise from leading figures in American socialist circles at that time, such as Daniel De Leon.

After a hard initial few years in his adopted country, Connolly eventually managed to find stable work, and in 1906 he became a paid organizer for the recently formed Industrial Workers of the World. He also joined the American Socialist Labor Party and founded a monthly newspaper, The Harp, with which he aimed to reach the East Coast’s huge Irish immigrant population.

It was mainly due to Connolly’s focus on Irish immigrants that he and De Leon split. De Leon abhorred Connolly’s belief that Marxist teachings must be adapted to varying cultures and traditions if a nation of immigrants was to be mobilized in the cause. The split was acrimonious, Connolly accusing De Leon of being elitist, De Leon questioning Connolly’s integrity and socialist credentials.

However, Connolly continued on the path that he had chosen, and it was obvious by now that a large part of his motivation in doing so was an increasing homesickness for his beloved Ireland.

In 1910, his dream of returning to Ireland became reality. He returned after being invited to become national organizer for the newly-formed Socialist Party of Ireland. Soon after his return he published a number of pamphlets, one of which, Labour in Irish History, was a major step in the development of an understanding of Irish history from a Marxist viewpoint.

By now possessing an unshakable belief that any hope of revolution lay with the trade union movement, Connolly joined with Larkin in his Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Connolly moved north to Belfast to organize for the ITGWU, hoping to smash down the barriers of religious sectarianism and unite the working class in the shipyards around which the city was built.

He had little success.

In 1913 he moved back to Dublin to join Larkin in the massive struggle which began after the Dublin employers locked out thousands of workers in an attempt to break the increasing influence and strength of the ITGWU.

A protest meeting of the workers, which had been banned, was held regardless and after the meeting, broken up by baton-wielding police, Connolly was arrested. He refused bail for good behavior and was sent to jail for three months. In jail he immediately went on a hunger strike and was released after one week.

Connolly’s first task upon his release was to form a workers’ militia. Never again, he vowed, would workers be trampled into the ground by police horses or beat down with police batons. He called the new militia, around 500 strong, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The day after the formation of the new force, Connolly spoke at a meeting.

“Listen to me, I am going to talk sedition. The next time we are out on a march, I want to be accompanied by four battalions of trained men.”

When Larkin left on a fundraising tour of the United States in 1914, where he was destined to be arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for his political activities, Connolly became acting general secretary of the ITGWU. The same year, watching as millions of workers went off to be slaughtered in the First World War, he was devastated.

“This war appears to me as the most fearful crime of the centuries. In it the working class are to be sacrificed so that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth. Nations are to be obliterated, progress stopped, and international hatreds erected into deities to be worshipped.”

All over Europe even socialists succumbed to the poison of patriotism, joining the war efforts in their respective countries and thus heralding the end of the Second International in which various socialist parties and figures representing Europe’s toiling masses had vowed to rail against the war and the slaughter of worker by worker. Only Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Serbs, and the Irish remained true to resolutions made at the Second International. Connolly said:

“I know of no foreign enemy in this country except the British Government. Should a German army land in Ireland tomorrow, we should be perfectly justified in joining it, if by so doing we could rid this country for once and for all the Brigand Empire that drags us unwillingly to war.”

The British Government attempted to buy off Irish sentiment in support of outright independence from the Empire with a Home Rule Bill, which promised devolved power equivalent to a state legislature. The bill wouldn’t come into effect until after the war was over, and it was contingent upon Ireland heeding the call and her men enlisting to go and fight in Europe. The bill split the Irish national liberation movement into those who supported it as a step towards outright independence and those, like Connolly, who were totally against it.

“If you are itching for a rifle, itching to fight, have a country of your own. Better to fight for our own country than the robber empire. If ever you shoulder a rifle, let it be for Ireland.”

It was now that Connolly’s position shifted with regard to physical force. Previously, he had wanted no part in it, eschewing it as reckless and contrary to the orthodox Marxist doctrine of a mass revolution of the working class, whereby consciousness precedes action. But with the retreat of the European socialists, and the failure of the trade unions to act against the war, Connolly despaired of ever achieving the society he had dedicated his life to without armed struggle.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was planning just the kind of insurrection which Connolly had in mind. Connolly had taken a dim view of the IRB and its leaders up until then, viewing them as a bunch of feckless romantics. However, when he heard their plan at a meeting -- which was to mobilize 11,000 volunteers throughout the country -- and that a large shipment of arms was on the way from Germany, he agreed to join them with his own ICA volunteers.

Connolly was respected enough by the IRB leaders, in particular Padrig Pearse, to be appointed military commander of Dublin’s rebel forces. Pearse, a school teacher, was certain that they would all be slaughtered. He was imbued with a belief in the necessity of a blood sacrifice to awaken the Irish people, and he was no less committed to his cause than Connolly to his. As a consequence, they soon developed a grudging respect for one another.

Alas, the plan for the Easter Sunday insurrection went awry. Rebel army volunteers deployed out with Dublin received conflicting orders and failed to mobilize, leaving Dublin isolated. After postponing the insurrection for one day due to the confusion, the Dublin leadership decided to press on regardless. Connolly assembled his men outside their union headquarters, known as Liberty Hall. By now he knew the chances for success were slim. He turned to a trusted aide as the men formed up and, in a low voice, announced:

“We’re going out to be slaughtered.”

With Pearse beside him, Connolly marched his men to their military objective, the General Post Office building in the center of the city. They rushed in, took control of the building, and barricaded themselves in to await the inevitable military response from the British.

Connolly, Pearse, and one of the other leaders of the insurrection, Thomas C. Clarke, marched out into the street to read out the now famous proclamation of the Irish Republic. In it, at Connolly’s insistence, the rights of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland, religious liberty, and freedom were asserted.

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious to the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

After beating off the British Army for four days, during which Connolly inspired the men under his command with his determination and courage, in the process suffering serious wounds to the chest and ankle, British reinforcements and artillery arrived from the mainland to begin shelling rebel positions throughout the city. The leadership, realizing the hopelessness of their situation, and in order to prevent the deaths of any more of their volunteers in a losing fight, reluctantly decided to surrender.

In the aftermath all the ringleaders were executed, with Connolly saved for last. Due to his wounds, he was tied to a chair in the courtyard of Kilmainham Jail, where he was shot by firing squad. At the court martial held in his cell two days prior, when allowed to speak, he’d said:

“Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes the Government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress. I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irishmen and boys, and hundreds of women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest to it with their lives if need be.”

When news of the Rising was released, many European socialists dismissed it as a putsch of little or no great consequence. However, Lenin refuted those criticisms in his article, “The Results of the Discussion on Self-Determination.”

“Those who can term such a rising a Putsch are either the worst kind of reactionaries or hopeless doctrinaires, incapable of imagining the social revolution as a living phenomenon.”

Today a statue of James Connolly stands pride of place in the centre of Dublin. A brass engraving of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic also sits pride of place in the window of the General Post Office headquarters, where Connolly made his stand for the liberty of his nation and his class during four fateful days in April, 1916.

His legacy lives on.

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