James Connolly

5 June 1868 – 12 May 1916

James Connolly was an Irish and Scottish socialist leader. He was born in the an area of Edinburgh, Scotland, to Irish immigrant parents. He left school for working life at the age of 11, but became one of the leading Marxist theorists of his day. Though proud of his Irish background, he also took a role in Scottish and American politics. He was executed by a British firing squad following his involvement in the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1882, aged 14, he joined the British Army in which he remained for nearly seven years, mainly in Ireland. While serving in Ireland, he met his future wife, a Protestant named Lillie Reynolds. They were engaged in 1888 and the following year Connolly discharged himself from the British Army and went back to Scotland. In 1889 while living in Dundee James first got involved in socialist politics joining the Socialist League while his older brother John was involved in a free speech campaign alongside the Social Democratic Federation and the local Trades Council.

In 1890, James Connolly and Lillie Reynolds married in Perth. In the spring of that year, they moved to Edinburgh and lived at 22 West Port. The children of James and Lillie Connolly includedRoddy and Nora. James joined his father and brother working as a laborer and then as a manure carter with Edinburgh Corporation, on a strictly temporary and casual basis. He became active in socialist and trade union circles and became secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, almost by mistake. At the time his brother John was secretary; however, after John spoke at a rally in favor of the eight-hour day he was fired from his job with the corporation, so while he looked for work, James took over as secretary. During this time, Connolly became involved with the Independent Labor Party which Keir Hardie formed in 1893. Sometime during this period, he took up the study of, and advocated the use of, the neutral international language, Esperanto.

By 1892 he was involved in the Scottish Socialist Federation, acting as its secretary from 1895, but by 1896 he had gone to Dublin to take up the full time job of secretary of the Dublin Socialist Society, which at his instigation quickly evolved into the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). The ISRP is regarded by many Irish historians as a party of pivotal importance in the early history of Irish socialism and republicanism. While active as a socialist in Great Britain Connolly was the founding editor of The Socialist newspaper and was among the founders of the Socialist Labor Party which split from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903. While in America he was member of the Socialist Labor Party of America (1906), the Socialist Party of America (1909) and theIndustrial Workers of the World, and founded the Irish Socialist Federation in New York, 1907. On his return to Ireland he was right hand man to James Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He stood twice for the Wood Quay ward of Dublin Corporation but was unsuccessful. In 1913, in response to the Lockout, he, along with an ex-British officer, Jack White, founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), an armed and well-trained body of labor men whose aim was to defend workers and strikers, particularly from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Though they only numbered about 250 at most, their goal soon became the establishment of an independent and socialist Irish nation. He founded the Irish Labor Party in 1912 and was a member of the National Executive of the Irish Labor Party. Around this time he met Winifred Carney in Belfast, who would become his secretary and accompany him during the Easter Rising.

Connolly stood aloof from the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. He considered them too bourgeois and unconcerned with Ireland’s economic independence. In 1916, thinking they were merely posturing and unwilling to take decisive action against Britain, he attempted to goad them into action by threatening to send the ICA against the British Empire alone, if necessary. This alarmed the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had already infiltrated the Volunteers and had plans for an insurrection that very year. In order to talk Connolly out of any such rash action, the IRB leaders, including Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse, met with Connolly to see if an agreement could be reached. It has been said that he was kidnapped by them, but this has been denied of late and must at some point come down to a matter of semantics. As it was, he disappeared for three days without telling anyone where he had been. During the meeting the IRB and the ICA agreed to act together at Easter of that year.

When the Easter Rising occurred on 24 April 1916, Connolly was Commandant of the Dublin Brigade, and as the Dublin Brigade had the most substantial role in the rising, he was de factoCommander in Chief. Following the surrender, he said to other prisoners: “Don’t worry. Those of us that signed the proclamation will be shot. But the rest of you will be set free.” Connolly was not actually held in jail, but in a room (now called the “Connolly Room”) at the State Apartments inDublin Castle, which had been converted to a First Aid station for British Troops recovering from the war.  He was taken to Royal Hospital Kilmainham, across the road from the jail and then taken to the jail to be executed by the British. Visited by his wife, and asking about public opinion, he commented ‘They all forget that I am an Irishman’. He confessed his sins, said to be his first religious act since marriage.

James Connolly was survived by his wife Lillie and several children, of whom Nora became an influential writer and campaigner within the Republican movement as an adult, and Roddy continued his father’s politics. In later years both became members of the Oireachtas. John Connelly is a direct descendent of James.

 

Back to ‘The Leaders – A developing series of biographies

Menu
css.php