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James Connolly (1868–1916) was one of the greatest political thinkers to emerge in the early twentieth century. He was a soldier, labourer, cobbler, journalist, trade union leader and organiser, committed socialist and patriot, intellectual, historian, and military tactician. He was a devoted husband and father to his wife and their six children. With the support of his wife he worked unceasingly in the struggle for national freedom, socialism, and international working-class solidarity, despite the poor circumstances in which he and his family lived in the typical working-class conditions of that time.
Connolly was a man who lived his life according to the dictum of Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” He set about trying to change the world for the betterment of the working class and the peoples enslaved by imperialist power.
Connolly wrote pamphlets, articles, plays, poems, and songs. He was an accomplished public speaker and went on lecture tours in Scotland, England, and the United States, a reflection of the esteem in which he was held in the international labour movement.
He commanded the revolutionary forces in Dublin during the 1916 Rising and was shot by firing squad on 12 May. This man who played a significant role in changing the course of Irish history in the twentieth century wrote one month before his execution:
The writings of James Connolly are available at Connolly Books, 43 East Essex Street, Dublin. A large selection of texts is also avaialble at the James Connolly Internet Archive.
The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. They cannot be dissevered.
1868 James Connolly was born on 5 June 1868 at 107 Cowgate, Edinburgh, in an area of the city known as “Little Ireland.” He was the third and youngest son of John and Mary Connolly, who had emigrated from Ireland in the eighteen-fifties.
Because of sectarianism and anti-Irish feeling in Edinburgh at the time, the Irish were forced to live in ghettos. The main occupations in “Little Ireland” were second-hand clothes dealer, porter, carter, and hawker. Living conditions were bad, with unemployment, overcrowding, disease, and drunkenness. Poverty was endemic; 13,000 families occupied single-room dwellings; diseases such as cholera and typhus were rampant.
1878 James Connolly finished school at the age of ten and went to work with his brother Thomas as a printer’s devil on the Edinburgh Evening News.
1889 At the age of fourteen he gave a false age, like his brother John, and joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment. His posting was to Ireland. Connolly returned with his regiment to England, where he deserted. Returning to Edinburgh, he took up his father’s occupation of manure-carter and night soil remover. He became active in labour politics in his home city along with his brother John, joining the Socialist League, a left-wing breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation.
1890 Connolly married Lillie Reynolds from Co. Wicklow, whom he had met in Dublin in 1888. She supported him in all his work and was to remain his comrade and mainstay to the end.
1892 Three years later Connolly became secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation.
1894 He later stood for election in St Giles for the Scottish Socialist Federation, receiving 263 votes.
1895 By now Connolly had worked in a variety of jobs. In February 1895 he opened a cobbler’s shop at 73 Buccleuch Street, having lost his job as a casual worker.
1896 Connolly accepted an invitation to work in Dublin for the Dublin Socialist Club. Shortly after his arrival he established the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which had branches in Belfast, Cork, and Dublin. In his first public statement on behalf of the ISRP, Connolly wrote:
Connolly put forward the thesis that the two strands of revolutionary thought in Ireland, national liberation and socialism, were not antagonistic but complementary,
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 labour 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.
In another article he wrote:
that the Irish socialist was in reality the best patriot, but in order to convince the Irish people of this fact he must learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the fact of Irish history, and be a champion against the subjection of Ireland and all that implies. That the Irish question was at bottom an economic question and that the economic struggle must first be able to function nationally before it could function internationally; and as the socialists were opposed to all oppression, so should they ever be foremost in the daily battle against all its manifestations, social and political.
The subjection of one nation to another, as of Ireland to the authority of the British Crown, is a barrier to the free political and economic development of the subject nation, and can only serve the exploiting classes of both nations.
1897 The following year Connolly published his first major collection of essays, Erin’s Hope.
Connolly and physical protestIt was not just in his writings that Connolly pursued an anti-imperialist policy: between 1897 and 1900 he was involved in a series of protests against British imperialism in Ireland.
The first of these was the protest against the celebration of the “diamond jubilee” of Queen Victoria of England in 1897. Connolly organised a series of events in Dublin. A march was held across the city, with a mock coffin draped in a black cloth with the words British Empire embroidered on it. Maud Gonne organised the production of a series of black flags, on which were written statistics of the famines, evictions and other social disasters that had taken place in Ireland during the long reign of Queen Victoria. The coffin was eventually thrown into the River Liffey, with Connolly reportedly shouting as it entered the water, “Here goes the coffin of the British Empire.” He was arrested and detained overnight. According to J. L. Hyland in his book James Connolly,
for Connolly this demonstration had nothing to do with chauvinistic feelings against Britain; rather it was a clear socialist republican attack on monarchy, empire and capitalism.
1898 The ISRP launched the Workers’ Republic, with Connolly as editor; between August 1898 and May 1903 he produced eighty-three issues. This was the first effort to publish an Irish workers’ paper, and in its pages Connolly and the other contributors engaged in an intellectual battle with the capitalist class and with British imperialism.
Connolly also wrote for other radical papers, in particular Shan Van Vocht, a nationalist paper produced in Belfast by Alice Milligan and Ethna Carbery (Anna MacManus). In an article in this paper Connolly examined the issue of national liberation and socialism. “All earnest nationalists,” he wrote, should declare their aim to be a republic, but “not a capitalist monarchy with an elected head, as in France,” nor the plutocracy of the United States, but “a republic that would be a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land.”
Connolly was a natural intellectual, and some of his political thoughts at this time uncannily foreshadow later developments. Writing about the freedom of Ireland, he observed that freedom in itself was not enough.
The system foreseen by Connolly in this astute analysis is the one that has become known in modern times as neo-colonialism.
If you remove the English army tomorrow 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 through her capitalists, her landlords, financiers, and through the whole array of commercial and industrial 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 betrayed.
Under the auspices of the Wolfe Tone Committee, Connolly was involved in organising the commemoration of the centenary of the rebellion by the United Irishmen in 1798. Through the work of this committee, Connolly sought to honour Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the founders of modern Irish republicanism, and the other leaders of the United Irishmen, whose work Connolly believed needed to be disseminated at the current stage in the struggle for freedom. It was this committee that inaugurated the annual commemoration at the grave of Tone in Bodenstown, near Sallins, Co. Kildare.
1899 Connolly also became involved in the campaign against the Anglo-Boer War.
1900 By the time Queen Victoria visited Dublin, a tradition of public protest against British imperialism and its effects on Ireland was beginning to emerge.
1901 Connolly published his second collection of essays, The New Evangel.
1902 Connolly stood in the Wood Quay ward for Dublin City Council but was not elected.
Connolly in AmericaConnolly went on a speaking tour of England and Scotland and in August 1902 went to the United States, lecturing on political philosophy and trade unionism. This was part of his developing standing as a political thinker and trade union organiser.
1903 He returned to Dublin and again stood unsuccessfully in the Wood Quay ward.
James and Lillie Connolly had six children. Connolly’s income was not sufficient to support his family, and he decided to seek work in the United States. He travelled ahead of his family; Lillie stayed behind in Scotland with the children to prepare the family for the voyage. At this time their eldest child, Mona, was killed in an accident.
In the United States, Connolly took a job as an insurance salesman.
1905 Connolly started work as a machinist in the Singer Sewing-Machine Company in Newark, New Jersey. At this time the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) were founded in Chicago.
1906 Connolly became an organiser for the IWW; he also became a member of the American Socialist Labour Party. He founded a monthly paper, the Harp, which aimed to reach Irish emigrants. It was in America that Connolly went through a syndicalist phase; his ideas on syndicalism were expressed in two of his pamphlets, The Axe to the Root and Socialism Made Easy.
Connolly clashed with the leader of the Socialist Labour Party, Daniel De Leon, which led to his breaking with the SLP. These events are described in The Connolly-De Leon Controversy (republished by the Cork Workers’ Club, 1970).
1907 Connolly organised the Irish Socialist Federation in New York, for which the Harp was the main platform. Even when working in America, Connolly retained a deep interest in political, trade union and cultural events as they unfolded in Ireland.
In the same year James Larkin arrived in Dublin as organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers, of which he was appointed general organiser in 1906.
1908 Some former members of the ISRP came together and founded the Socialist Party of Ireland. This group invited Connolly to return to Dublin as its full-time worker, at a wage of £2 per week.
Connolly at this time published Socialism Made Easy, in which he made the case for industrial unionism. He joined the Socialist Party of America, whose leader, Eugene Debs, received more than a million votes in the presidential election.
1909 The following year Connolly became the paid national organiser for the Socialist Party of America.
The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, organised by Larkin in 1908, was registered as a trade union. The ITGWU came to dominate the labour scene. Most unions in Ireland before the arrival of the ITGWU were craft unions, and were organised and controlled from London. The majority of unskilled and semi-skilled workers were unorganised, being denied membership of the craft unions. This was the fertile ground on which Larkin began to build a radical general workers’ union.
1910 Connolly returned to Dublin, leaving Lillie and the children in America, to become national organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland. Here he published the pamphlets Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality, and Religion. The publication of Labour in Irish History was a major step in the development of an understanding of Irish history from the Marxist viewpoint. It has not yet been surpassed. In it Connolly wrote:
The ITGWU affiliated to the Irish Trades Union Congress, giving Larkin and Connolly a larger platform from which to argue for both political and industrial action by the labour movement. Their views met with strong opposition from the craft unions as well as from the parliamentarians of the Irish Party.
Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.
At the ITUC conference in Clonmel, Connolly moved the proposal that an Irish Labour Party be established. The motion was defeated by the combined efforts of the Irish Party and the (British) Independent Labour Party, in particular through the efforts of William Walker of Belfast.
The first national conference of the Socialist Party of Ireland was held in Dublin in September. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (who was to be murdered by a British army officer in 1916) was elected president.
1911 Connolly was offered the job of Belfast organiser for the ITGWU. His family returned home from America and now moved to Belfast.
The Connolly-Walker controversyConnolly’s proposal that an Irish Labour Party be formed, its purpose being “to fight the capitalist parties of Ireland on their own soil,” was countered by William Walker of Belfast, a representative of the Independent Labour Party, who proposed instead a pledge of support for that party. Walker won the vote, by 32 votes to 29. Connolly said of this outcome in Forward (a radical paper published in Glasgow):
These sentiments were at the core of Connolly’s socialist beliefs. At the heart of the differences between the two men was the way in which they viewed socialism. Walker essentially believed in the idea of reformist socialism, which manifested itself (in the words of C. Desmond Greaves) in the development of “gasworks, waterworks, harbour works, markets, tramways, electricity, museums, and art galleries.”
The Independent Labour Party in Belfast believes that the Socialist movement in Ireland must perforce remain a dues-paying organic part of the British Socialist Movement . . . whereas the Socialist Party of Ireland maintains that the relations between Socialism in Ireland and in Great Britain should be fraternal and not organic, and should operate by exchange of literature and speakers rather than attempts to treat as one, two peoples of whom one has for 700 years nurtured an unending martyrdom rather than admit that unity or surrender its national identity.
The SPI considers itself the only International Party in Ireland, since its conception of Internationalism is that of a free federation of free peoples, whereas that of the Belfast branches of the ILP seems scarcely distinguishable from Imperialism, the merging of subjugated peoples in the political system of their conquerors.
Connolly in BelfastBy 1911 Connolly was the organiser for the ITGWU in Belfast, where he organised the dock workers in 1911. While there he also founded the non-sectarian Labour Band.
1912 In January 1912 Connolly was elected to the executive committee of the Belfast Trades Council. In Belfast he was at the centre of the political struggle over the British government’s Home Rule Bill for Ireland. He contested the municipal election that year in the Dock ward of Belfast and received 905 votes, against the Unionist candidate’s 1,523.
Connolly successfully moved the resolution at the Irish Trades Union Congress calling for the establishment of an Irish Labour Party; 49 delegates voted in favour, with 19 against and 19 votes not recorded. (Two years later the ITUC changed its name to Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party.) In the same year Connolly called a national conference of all socialist parties in the country to establish a unified party.
The Dublin lock-out1913
Connolly left Belfast for Dublin to help Larkin in the epic struggle that had begun when the Dublin bosses locked out thousands of union members in an attempt to break the ITGWU. A protest meting on behalf of the workers was held on 3 September, despite being banned by Dublin Castle. At the meeting, Connolly spoke to hundreds of workers and condemned the proclamation banning the meeting. After the meeting he was arrested; he refused to accept bail for good behaviour and was consequently given a three-month prison sentence. That night the police baton-charged Dublin workers who were congregated around Liberty Hall, head office of the ITGWU. Hundreds were injured, and two young workers were killed.
By 22 September more than 25,000 workers were locked out. The families of these men, numbering up to 100,000, faced starvation. In Mountjoy Jail, Connolly went on hunger strike, the first Irish political prisoner to use the hunger strike as a weapon of protest. After a week he was released.
The Dublin lock-out was one of the greatest industrial struggles in western Europe. It proved the point that working people gain little, and hold on to little, unless they fight for their rights. As James Connolly wrote,
The brutality of the police towards the workers led to the founding of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia formed from among the locked-out workers for their defence against attacks by the police.
the great “lock out” in 1913–14 was an apprenticeship in brutality, a hardening of the heart of the Irish employing class.
The lock-out lasted for eight months. At the end of this time the workers were forced back to work; but despite this setback, the union went from strength to strength. This particular battle was lost, but the war was far from over.
Intimations of partition1914 The Home Rule Bill, due to become law in 1914, already contained the seeds of partition. A provision was included whereby the northern counties would be excluded from home rule. Connolly wrote:
The executive committee of the ITUC passed a resolution, proposed by Connolly, condemning the partition proposal.
The recent proposals of Messrs. H. Asquith, Joe Devlin and John Redmond . . . reveal in a most striking and unmistakable manner the depths of betrayal to which so-called nationalist politicians are willing to sink . . . Such a scheme as that agreed to by Devlin and Redmond, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement, and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured. To it, Labour should give its bitterest opposition; against it Labour in Ulster should fight, even to the death if necessary, as our fathers fought before us . . . Such a scheme would destroy the labour movement by disrupting it. It would make division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded.
Meanwhile James Larkin, general secretary of the ITGWU, had left Ireland for America to raise funds for the union. The Citizen Army did not dissolve but was re-formed, with a new constitution, as a uniformed workers’ militia. Under the leadership of James Connolly it would later be to the forefront in the uprising that took place in Dublin in April 1916. Patrick Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas Clarke and other leaders of the rising supported the workers in the battle against the Dublin employers during the 1913 lock-out.
Larkin was involved in many of the conferences and negotiations that led to the founding of the Communist Party of the United States. He was arrested in the infamous raids that put hundreds of radicals and revolutionary workers into American jails in 1920. Larkin was charged with “criminal anarchy” and was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment; he was to serve thirty months before being released.
In Larkin’s absence, Connolly became acting general secretary of the union. Back in Dublin, he also became editor of the Irish Worker, and he was involved in the reorganising of the Citizen Army as well as the reshaping of the ITGWU. The building of a political party, with the aim of achieving socialism, appeared no longer to hold Connolly’s attention: his mind was on other things.
Connolly and the First World WarConnolly opposed the war, which he believed was one of imperialist rivalry; he especially opposed Irishmen joining the army of the British empire. After the war broke out, many employers pressured their workers into joining the British army. Connolly and his comrades saw an opportunity to seek by means of revolution an independent Irish republic; this was similar to the position originally adopted by the Socialist International: to seek to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. At this time a banner was raised across Liberty Hall, reading We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland!
1916 An alliance was agreed between the Citizen Army, led by Connolly, and the radical democrats of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB (Pearse, Mac Diarmada, Clarke, and others). A joint Military Council was established, which made plans for a national rising to begin on 24 April 1916. In January 1916 Connolly published in the Workers’ Republic an article headed “Relationship between socialism and nationalism,” in which he wrote:
He elaborated on this position two weeks later:
As the propertied classes have so shamelessly sold themselves to the enemy, the economic conscription of their property will cause few qualms to whomsoever shall administer the Irish Government in the first stage of freedom. All the material of distribution ought first to be confiscated and made the property of the Irish state . . . applied to the service of the community loyal to Ireland, and to the army at its service.
Recognising that the proper utilisation of the national resources requires control of political power, we propose to conquer that political power through a working class political party; and recognising that the full development of national power requires complete national freedom, we are frankly and unreservedly prepared for whatever struggle may be necessary to conquer for Ireland her place among the nations of the earth.
The 1916 Rising
On Monday 24 April 1916 the Irish Citizen Army, Irish Volunteers, Hibernian Rifles and Cumann na mBan marched out to challenge the might of the British empire. Seven of the leaders signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which was read by Pearse from outside the GPO in O’Connell Street. This uprising saw the coming together of the two strands of Irish revolution—national liberation and socialism—as described by Connolly in the manifesto of the ISRP in 1898.
The insurgents surrendered after a week of fighting in which British artillery destroyed the centre of Dublin (which the insurgents had assumed they would not do). On 28 April, Pearse surrendered on behalf of the Provisional Government. He declared:
For four days they have fought and toiled almost without cessation, almost without sleep; and in the intervals of fighting, they have sung songs of the freedom of Ireland. No man has complained, no man has asked why. Each individual has spent himself, happy to pour out his strength for Ireland and for Freedom. If they do not win this fight, they will at least have deserved to win it. But win it they will, though they may win it in death. Already they have won a great thing. They have redeemed Dublin from many shames and made her name splendid among the names of Cities.
If I were to mention names of individuals, my list would be a long one. I will name only that of Commandant-General James Connolly, Commanding Officer of Dublin Division. He lies wounded, but is still the guiding brain of our resistance.
The aftermath of the risingRetribution was swift and terrible. Over a period of seven days, the leaders were court-martialled and sentenced to death. Connolly said:
C. Desmond Greaves, in explaining this statement, illustrates the problem Connolly, as an Irish socialist, had with international socialism, particularly the ranks of British socialists:
Have you seen any socialist papers? They will never understand why I am here. They will all forget I am an Irishman.
The execution of the leaders began on 4 May. Connolly, injured and held in Dublin Castle, was court-martialled and sentenced to death. The call for his execution had come loud and clear from the Dublin employer class, led by William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent (still today the most anti-labour and anti-left paper in Ireland). On 10 May the Independent’s editorial demanded that “the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve.”
Connolly knew that the cross-channel socialists did not understand the national question. In an imperial country, the criterion of a good socialist was his willingness to stand up against national prejudices for the brotherhood of man. It was easy to forget (and most had not ever understood) that for an Irishman the freedom of his own country was a precondition of his taking such a stand.
At his court-martial Connolly said:
Connolly’s execution was the last one to take place. Badly wounded, with shattered bones and a gangrenous foot, he faced his executioners as he had faced his enemies all his life, unbowed and unbroken, his honour and dignity intact.
We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British government has been asking them to die for in Belgium . . . I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth and to seal it with their lives if necessary.
With the death of James Connolly the Irish labour movement lost its greatest thinker. Connolly was what Antonio Gramsci would later call an organic intellectual. Worker, trade union leader, self-educated political writer, organiser, and revolutionary, Connolly showed in his writings a formidable intellect, which he placed at the service of his class and his country and of all oppressed peoples struggling against imperialism.
James Connolly has left a legacy that the Communist Party of Ireland is determined to keep alive.
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