James Connolly: A Biographical Essay by Tony Nicoletti

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Plums of soot from chimney stacks paint the sky slate grey, as quite cobblestone roads glisten in the twilight of dawn. The clanking and clanging of iron rims on a wooden handcart shatter the silence, a slim figure of a man slowly emerges from the shadows. One of his fists is clenched tightly, and the other, wrapped firmly around the handle of a spade. His beady eyes scan the road with pin point precision. Homing in on his target he levels the shovel towards the ground and with great finesse, scoops up a large pile of manure, heaving it over his shoulder and into the small wooden handcart behind him. Carefully placing the spade back inside the cart he removes a handkerchief from his inside jacket pocket and wipes the sweat from his brow. Adjusting himself by the belt, a young James Connolly, unhurriedly, moves along to the next pile of manure on the road.

Image result for james connollyJames Connolly, Irish Patriot, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He lived in abject poverty in what where some of the worst slums in Europe. Poverty was rife and hostilities towards the Irish refugees there was at times, volatile. Connolly, like his father before him, had made his business by collecting horse manure from the streets of what were known back then as ‘Little Ireland.’ A name giving to this section of Irish diaspora, direct decedents of an Gorta Mór, who, having made their new home here, were trying to evade economic hardships back in Ireland.

It was widely believed that James Connolly was born in Monaghan, Ireland, but this turned out to be untrue as recent evidence suggests that he was, as a matter of fact, born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Connolly had only a basic primary education, he left school when he was just fourteen years of age. He joined the British army at a very young age too and was stationed in Ireland for a short time. In later years Connolly would go on to condemn the British Armed Forces and express his disgust at what he described as ‘economic conscription’ where he saw many young men forced to join the army in the face of starvation.

Fighting at the front to-day there are many thousands whose whole soul revolts against what they are doing, but who must nevertheless continue fighting and murdering because they were deprived of a living at home, and compelled to enlist that those dear to them may not starve.
(Connolly – 1915)

James Connolly with his wife, Lillie and daughters Mona, and Nora, c. 1895

James Connolly arrived in Dublin from Scotland with his wife Lille and their three children sometime in May 1886. They rented a single room in a tenement slum at number 75 Charlemont Street, directly across from where Tom Kelly Flats are situated now on Dublin’s Southside. Like Connolly’s original place of birth, these were some of the worst slums in Europe; at the time Dublin was in serious decay, overflowing with poverty, death and disease.

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No.72 Charlemont Street. The last remaining tenement house on the road. Connolly lived at No.75

Connolly was an avid socialist and spent some time in the US working as a union organiser for the Industrial Workers of the Word, or the ‘Wobblies’, as they were more commonly known. He formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) while living in Charlemont Street and began publishing socialist material in his newspaper the ‘Workers Republic’.

Connolly is most notably recognised here in Ireland for his role as co-founder and organiser and Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), and as co-founder and Commander of the fighting arm of the workers militia; the Irish Citizens Army (ICA).

The Great Lockout of 1913 was a turning point in Irish history. Epic street battles ensued as workers were baton charged by the Dublin Metropolitan Police force (DMP), resulting in the deaths of some of the workers. In response to this Connolly co-founded the Irish Citizen Army, whose aim it was, to protect the locked-out striking workers from being attacked by the DMP.

During this period and the years thereafter, Connolly saw how starvation was being used again as a tool against the working man.

The great lock-out in 1913-14 was an apprenticeship in brutality – a hardening of the heart of the Irish employing class – whose full acts we are only reaping to-day in the persistent use of the weapon of hunger to compel men to fight for a power they hate, and to abandon a land that they love. (Connolly – 1915)

In the long drawn out years that followed, worn-down and tired, the workers finally conceded to the capitalistic economic embargos wrought upon them by the hands of men like William Martin Murphy.

Only three years later another epic historical turning point would unfold changing the course of Irish history for future generations to come.

In the years up to 1916, Connolly wrote many publications. He had a very unique style in that he wrote short, concise pieces. It was an art itself and very effective. He had a way with words and could sum-up the mutual feelings at the time in society into compact, hard-hitting prose.

Connolly was under no illusion that an insurrection was on the horizon. Many times the Irish rose up in arms against British occupation and this time was no different. But Connolly, unlike some of the other leaders, didn’t see this as he put it, an opportunity to simply ‘replace the crown with the harp’ (Connolly – 1899).

Connolly wanted more for the people, he wanted a reorganisation of society based on socialism and explained the futility of armed rebellion without it. But nevertheless, Connolly would lead a small band of ICA men to the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916, alongside the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan and strike a blow for Irish freedom.

Connolly was a fearless leader. During the fighting, he was hit in the ankle by a bullet. Badly wounded and with gangrene quickly setting in, he asked to be brought back out to Central Command where he continued commanding his troops in battle while laid-out on a stretcher inside the headquarters of the republican revolutionary forces, the General Post Office (GPO).

With civilian casualties mounting, on April 19th, 1916, Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, under the white flag, delivered the surrender letter that would end all hostilities on Easter week, bringing the Easter Rising to an end.  

Connolly, for his role in the revolution, was executed. He was brought from Dublin Castle to Kilmainham Gaol, strapped to a chair, and shot. They buried him, unceremoniously, in an unmarked quicklime grave in Arbour Hill.

James Connolly lived a hard life faced with severe poverty and destitution, yet he was charismatic, full of life, a powerful orator and a skilled tactician and agitator. He showed us a way to a better place, a place where we all become masters of our own destinies, owners of our cities and collective custodians of our natural resources.

The Proclamation of 1916 remains unfulfilled. And although Connolly is gone the legacy he left behind lives on in the hearts and minds of those who seek a better Ireland through the fulfilment of the ideals of the men and women of 1916, for all or for none!

 

Tony Nicoletti.

 

Bibliography:

Collins, L. (2012) 16 Lives: James Connolly. Dublin: O’Brien.

Come Here To Me (2009) James Connolly’s Dublin Addresses
Available at: https://comeheretome.com/2009/12/23/james-connollys-dublin-addresses/ 

Connolly, J. (1915) ‘Economic Conscription’, Workers’ Republic.

Connolly, J. (1899) Let Us Free Ireland!, Workers’ Republic.

Connolly, J. (1900) The Coming Generation, Workers’ Republic.

Cox, C. (2016) ‘Elizabeth O’Farrell: The woman airbrushed from history’, Independent, 2nd February.

D’Aarcy, F.A. (2016) Connolly, James. Available at: http://dib.cambridge.org/.

Fionn, A.S. (2013) AN GORTA MÓR (THE GREAT FAMINE).
Available at: https://ansionnachfionn.com/tag/an-gorta-mor-the-great-famine/. 2016.

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