This Week in Labor History, vol. 6: James Connolly
by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
James Connolly, the Irish socialist, nationalist and labor leader, was executed 104 years ago, on May 12, 1916. His death helped transform a failed, week-long rebellion into a rallying cry for Irish independence from the British Empire, and he’s remembered as one of the heroes of the Irish republican movement. Connolly, however, is notable among the sixteen rebels who were executed for their part in the Easter Rising, in that he was a labor organizer and agitator for an economic and social revolution, not simply for political independence.
Though he’s known as an Irish revolutionary, James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and spoke with a Scottish accent. His parents were among the millions of Irish emigrants in the time of the Great Famine, and they settled in the Edinburgh neighborhood of Cowgate, which was quickly becoming known as “Little Ireland.” Connolly’s father was a manure carter—he shoveled animal waste from the streets of Edinburgh into a cart for removal. The work was unglamorous but so essential that, when the carters threatened to strike in 1861, their demands were met by 10AM the next day. Though he was a curious student and was an avid reader throughout his life, Connolly left school at the age of 11 to help support his family. He worked cleaning ink off of presses in the printing shop where his brother was an apprentice; he apprenticed at a bakery, but the fumes overwhelmed his twelve-year-old lungs and he had to quit; then he found a more comfortable but monotonous factory job, which he worked until he was 14.
In 1882, at the age of 14, Connolly falsified his name and age to join the British Army. He was shipped to British-controlled Ireland, where the movement for Home Rule—democratic self-government in domestic politics, rather than direct rule by the government in London—was reigniting nationalistic sentiments across the island. Connolly was stationed in his parents’ home country for seven years, where he came to sympathize with the plight of his countrymen, who were subject not only to British imperialism but also to poverty, cruel rural landlords, and exploitative bosses. Here, the roots of Connolly’s specific brand of politics were planted. He saw the need for an Irish republic, but he also believed that a movement for independence would be in vain without an accompanying movement for land redistribution and economic democracy. He would later write on the need for more than a change in political leadership:
If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed (Shan Van Vocht, 1897).
In 1889, he went AWOL from the army and returned to Scotland, where he quickly became involved in the local labor movement. He bounced around the cities of Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh, working as a manual laborer—including as a carter, the dirty but essential profession his father had held for many years—and leading strikes, demonstrations and organizing efforts, often alongside his older brother John. He was never steadily employed, which caused constant hardship for him, his wife and his children. A friend in the Scottish labor movement found him a full-time organizing job with the Dublin Socialist Club, so the Connolly family moved to Ireland’s capital.
James Connolly had always self-identified as an Irishman, even if some skeptics denounced him as a foreign agitator. From the start of his time as Secretary of the Irish Socialist Republican Party—the reorganized Dublin Socialist Club—he led demonstrations for independence as well as for labor and socialist causes. Along with Maud Gonne (an Irish nationalist, suffragist, actress, and muse for WB Yeats), Connolly led a mock funeral procession, carrying a coffin with “British Empire” scrawled across its side, during a parade to honor Queen Victoria. They held signs recounting the horrors of the Great Famine, which was made immeasurably more severe by what can most generously be described as indifference from the English crown. When British police stopped Connolly, he threw the coffin into the River Liffey, told the police, “to hell with the British Empire,” and was arrested. Demonstrations like this showing commitments to national liberation served to bolster Connolly’s credentials as an advocate for independence, and to legitimize the ISRP as an ally to the more radical independence organizations, including the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
It was not just out of political expediency that he aligned the ISRP with movements for Irish nationalism and independence; he was a true believer in national liberation for what he considered to be his country. Though he was a proponent of a universal language, he also supported efforts to revive the Irish language (also called Gaelic) because he saw the imposition of English as a result of exactly what the workers’ movement and the national liberation movement opposed: the English imposing political and economic domination, and Irish politicians appeasing them. He sought a “workers’ republic”—he even named the ISRP newspaper “Workers’ Republic.” Connolly’s rhetorical linkage of “Socialism and Nationalism” was helped along by the semi-mythical notions the Irish people had of the island’s social, political and economic organization before the first English invasion in 1170: land ownership was clan-based, not individualized, a sort of proto-collectivism that roughly resembled some radicals’ ideas of agrarian socialism and was viewed fondly by a significant amount of everyday Irish citizens. (Though it’s true that land ownership was based on one’s clan, the structure of ancient and medieval Irish society had a complex hierarchy that was far from the egalitarian dreams of people like Connolly. But it was a useful framing device.)
As he came into his thirties, Connolly became a captivating public speaker. He toured Scotland and England, rousing urban workers and gaining support for the various labor and socialist parties that he was affiliated with. His reputation as a speaker and his prowess as a writer ended up getting him an invitation to speak in New York City, which ultimately led to a seven-year stint in the United States where he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Labor Party of America.
After returning from the US, he attained a high position in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, a position that put him at the center of the Great Lockout of 1913-1914 (which probably deserves its own edition of “This Week in Labor History”… check back in August). For “incitement” at a labor rally that led to the lockout, and for telling a court that he didn’t recognize the British government in Ireland, Connolly was sentenced to three months in jail. The lockout and the events surrounding it had involved a great deal of violence against demonstrating workers, especially by the Dublin police, which drove Connolly and a former British military officer to form the Irish Citizens Army (ICA), an armed force intended specifically to protect striking workers.
Though it was created as a defense for trade unionists, less than three years later the ICA ended up taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising. James Connolly’s title was Commandant-General of the Dublin Brigade, second only to the nationalist poet Patrick Pearse. Michael Collins, who would become the leader of the Irish army in the war of independence two years later, said of Connolly: “I would have followed him through hell had such action been necessary. But I honestly doubt very much if I would have followed Pearse—not without some thought anyway.”
Connolly’s national pride and his belief in the possibility of a workers’ republic are what made him a national hero for the Irish, but in 1916 they were his downfall. The rebels who seized government buildings beginning on Easter Monday held out until the end of the week, but public sentiment wasn’t behind them, and the forces of the British Empire proved too much for the few hundred insurrectionists. When they had suppressed the rebellion, the authorities condemned sixteen of its leaders to death, including Connolly. He had been badly injured in the week’s fighting, so he was not housed with his comrades in Kilmainham Gaol—an infamous prison associated with political prisoners throughout the nineteenth century—but in Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule in Ireland, for medical treatment. He was still not well on May 12, two weeks after the Rising, when he was brought to Kilmainham Gaol for his execution. He couldn’t stand on his own, so he was tied to a chair to be shot. He was 48 years old.
The cruelty of the Empire’s execution of the rebels at Kilmainham Gaol, especially the hobbled Connolly, helped to shift public opinion in favor of the Rising, and by 1921 Ireland had achieved near-independence from the United Kingdom (though it came with some civil-war causing caveats).
James Connolly never saw the workers’ republic he had fought for, and the republic that exists today doesn’t reflect his vision for a just, independent Ireland. Yet he did help set Ireland on a path to independence, its first successful rebellion in its seven hundred-plus years of occupation, and his legacy has inspired generations of workers in Ireland and abroad.
Collins, Lorcan. 16 Lives: James Connolly. O’Brien Press, Dublin, Ireland.
McEvoy, Dermot. Real Irish New York. ch. 3. 2020. Simon & Schuster, New York NY.
Connolly, James. “Sinn Féin and the Language Movement”. The Harp. Apr 1908.
Connolly, James. “Socialism and Nationalism”. Shan Van Vocht. Jan 1897.
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