Nora Connolly O’Brien
Nora Connolly O’Brien
noraconnollyobrien.jpg Nora Connolly O’Brien was born in 1893 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the second daughter of James Connolly and his wife Lillie. From an early age Nora was involved in labour and Irish republican activism, and in 1916 she acted as a messenger between the leadership of the Rising and the volunteers in the North.

Nora died in 1981, having spent her life committed to the promotion of socialist republican politics. In the excerpt below from her memoirs, Nora talks about her father’s final days and the courage and inspiration that James Connolly gave to her and continues to give today.

During the rising, my father had not been content to sit in an office and give orders. He used to go and see that the orders were being carried out. That was how he got wounded. His ankles were shattered, and he had been shot in the arm. After the surrender, he had been brought to Dublin Castle. There he was placed in the officers’ ward, with a room to himself. He was given the full credit of his rank, and the British soldiers never forgot to call him the General, or the Commandant-General. The ordinary soldiers called him the General, and made it plain that the hope of the ordinary police and soldiers was that he would not be executed. Many of the soldiers knew something about my father. This was because Redmond has got a lot of Irishmen into the army during the war.

By the time he was placed in this hospital ward, he had already lost so much health. There had been no doctors in the GPO building. There was one student who was in his last year at medical school, and he did the best he could after my father had been wounded. There was also an officer of the British Army Medical Corps in the GPO, whom we had arrested. The medical student, whose name was Ryan, went to this prisoner and asked him for help. At first the Medical Officer said he could not do anything, but Ryan said, ‘Even if you can’t do anything, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it all while you give me the orders,’ and he reminded him of the oath of Hippocrates that doctors take when they become doctors. So the officer went down and gave instructions, but nothing he said did any good.

By the time my father reached Dublin Castle, he was a dying man. Gangrene had set in, and he had little chance of living. He could not even sit up, and was unable to lift more than his head from the pillow, and his shoulders a little bit. The gangrene began affecting his whole body.

The surgeon who was attending my father sent over to London for some medicine he had heard of which he hoped would stop the spreading of the gangrene. The surgeon took a strong liking to my father. It was the same with everyone who met him - they all loved him. The surgeon and my father discussed poetry, and different writers - one would say a poem, and the other would quote a poem in opposition to it, and one would make a joke and they would laugh. And they would discuss different writers, and books they had read, and what their opinion of this writer was, and their opinion of that. And all this time my father was dying every minute, dying every minute.

There was a very young Royal Army Medical Corps officer whose job it was to sit all day long in my father’s room. I often wondered what this young RAMC officer must have been thinking. I can imagine that he must have been saying to himself, ‘But this man is dying! And look how he is going on - saying poems, making jokes, and laughing!’ It was mind over body, and I have a feeling that the poor young soldier must have been in a terrific tension - that he had never seen anything like it.

My mother and I and all our family had moved out of Belfast a few days before the rising. We were planning to move to Dublin. We did not want to attract attention, so we packed all our things in cases to pretend we were just going on holiday. During the fighting, my mother and the younger children stayed in a cottage belonging to Madame Markievicz just outside Dublin. When it was all over she received a note from Dublin Castle saying that she should come to visit James Connolly in the hospital there. She went down and visited him on her own, taking only Fiona, the youngest in our family.

When she reached Dublin Castle, my mother was searched to see that she was not bringing a knife or any drug or anything else for my father to commit suicide with.

‘That’s proof you don’t know James Connolly,’ said my mother. ‘Otherwise you wouldn’t dream of suggesting that in order to avoid a little pain -’

‘A lot of pain, Mrs Connolly,’ said the nurse who was searching her.

‘Well, it doesn’t matter how bad the pain is,’ said my mother. ‘He’d never commit suicide. He bears all he has to bear. As long as there is life in him, he’ll be fighting all the time’.

When the nurse had finished searching her, she said, ‘I’ll not do this again next time you come’.

‘Oh, I can come again?’ asked my mother.

The nurse thought she would probably be allowed to.

On her way out from this visit, a photographer took a picture of her and Fiona outside Dublin Castle, which was later printed in, I think, the ‘Daily Sketch’. They were both angry when they saw it, as they were looking very unkempt, and the photographer had just called them out and taken the photo without their permission.

Next my father was court-martialled. I later had the story of what happened from the nurse. My father could not go and attend the court, so the members of the court all went to his hospital room. The whole lot just marched in.

The officer in charge of the court martial told my father, ‘Sit up! You know what this is’.

My father did not say a word.

‘I told you to sit up!’ the man said.

The young RAMC said to them, ‘But the man is dying!’ The young man must never before have dared to dream of standing up in front of all those high officers. When they kept yelling at my father to sit up, the young man had to tell them twice that he was dying.

‘Well, prop him up, then!’ the officer said.

In fact they knew of the gangrene and that my father had not many days to live, but they were going to court-martial him anyway, as he was the leader.

So then they called out for the nurse, who was standing outside the room. And they ordered the soldiers to bring pillows and mattresses so that my father could be propped up to hear his court martial there and then. When they had finished, they asked him if he had any requests to make, and he asked to see my mother and me.

By this time, I had come back to Dublin from the North. I was given two visits, both times together with my mother. Our last visit was only an hour or so before he was taken across from Dublin Castle to Kilmainham to be shot.

Dublin Castle has a double staircase in the main entrance hall, with a long landing between the two. On every step of the stairs when we went in there was a soldier with a rifle and a bayonet. There were soldiers on the landing also. Those on the landing had the little square cushions that used to be used in the army as mattresses - they were called ‘biscuits’. They had had their night’s rest on these ‘biscuits’ on the landing. My mother and I were taken to the top officer there - the Intelligence Officer, who wanted to make sure we were not part of a plot to steal James Connolly from them. All the soldiers were on duty as we went in, to prevent an abduction attempt, with their bayonets fixed all the time. The officer told us not to give my father any news. Apart from Surgeon Tobin, the surgeon who was looking after my father, and Father Aloysius, we were the only ones who were allowed to see him. In this way they hoped to keep him in ignorance of what was happening, so that he would not be able to have any influence outside.

The officers’ ward, where my father had been placed, consisted of a corridor with little rooms along it for when an officer fell ill. They would not let an officer go among the ‘common people’ at all! Each officer who was ill used to have a separate room to himself.

My mother and I sat in this room, one each side of the bed. The only other person in the room was the young RAMC officer, and he sat with his back to us during our visits, just reading a book or looking out of the window.

My father was lying in bed with a cage over his feet to keep the bedclothes off his shattered ankles. He told us about the court martial, and asked me for news from the North. I had to tell him that the men had gone home, and that there had been no fighting, and I began to cry. But he told me he was very proud of me.

‘But I’ve done nothing, nothing,’ I said. ‘I’ve just carried messages’.

‘Never mind, Nora,’ he said. He told me that if I had not come down with the message from the North that the Northerners were ready to fight, it would not have been possible to persuade the Dublin leaders to go ahead with the rising. ‘Only for you, Nora, we couldn’t have done anything,’ he told me.

Although we were not supposed to be giving him any news, I gave the news of the executions to him anyway. He gave me the opening that gave me the opportunity, by asking me to give a message to Skeffington.

I said, ‘Skeffington has been murdered by a drunken soldier’. And then I went on, ‘There’s only you and MacDermott left. They’re all gone’.

And that was the greatest shock he ever got in his life. He had not heard from anybody about the executions. He had heard the shooting, but had not realised what it was.

I said that surely they would never shoot a wounded man.

He said he had never believed that. ‘I remember what they did to Scheepers in South Africa,’ he said. He seemed to assume that I knew who Scheepers was, but I did not, and I never found out, though I asked many people. It was only this year that I was told that Scheepers was a hero of the Boers in their fight against the British. His commando unit blew up British railways and bridges, and his fearlessness made him the hero of his men. Falling ill, he was left behind at his own request at a farmhouse, where he was captured by the British. He was court-martialled before he had recovered, and shot while he sat in a chair.

My mother was crying, and my father begged her to stop. He said she would unman him if she continued to cry.

‘But your beautiful life, James,’ she said, ‘not your beautiful life!’

At one point my father patted my hand and drew it under the blanket. I felt him put a stiff bit of paper into my hand.

‘Take this out of here,’ he whispered. ‘It’s what I said to the court martial. I was asked what I had to say for myself, but I did not say it for myself, I said it for Ireland. Get it out, Nora, get it out!’

I had no trouble getting it out, because I cupped it in my hands when they searched us going out.

In the end we were told that our time was up to go, and we had to leave him for the last time. Mama was on the side of the bed nearest the door. She could not move. She was like a statue, and seemed rooted to the floor. The nurse and the officer came and helped her out of the door. I was on the other side from the door. I walked slowly round the bed, looking at the face I would never see again.

As I reached the door, my father called me back and I went back to the bed. He put his arm round me and pulled me down to him and hugged me, and whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t be too disappointed, Nora. We shall rise again’.

He did not want me to drop out of the fight. He knew it would go on after he had gone.

And then I had to go out. Those were the very last word that he said to me before I was taken away - ‘We shall rise again!’

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