Tuesday, February 9, 2016
1916 lives: Passionate words by James Connolly gave hope to many
James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 5 June, 1868.
His parents were Catholic Irish immigrants and, like many of their neighbours, they struggled through life in the slums of the Cowgate, known as Little Ireland.
Connolly received a little education in a local school but by the age of 11 he was working as a printer’s devil for the Edinburgh Evening News.
A little-known fact about him is that he joined the British Army when he was 14 by falsifying his age, and found himself stationed in Ireland. It was in Dublin that he chanced upon Lillie Reynolds, and, despite her Protestant upbringing, the two struck up a relationship and eventually married in Scotland after seven years in the British army.
Connolly’s interest in socialism was stimulated by a freedom of speech campaign in Scotland which was addressed by John Leslie, with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship. He became very active with the Socialist League and a multitude of similar organisations over the years, which resulted in him being black-listed by employers.
Leslie made an appeal for work for Connolly in a socialist newspaper called Justice and it was the Dublin Socialist Club that answered the call and invited Connolly to come to Dublin as their paid organiser.
Connolly and his small family came to Dublin in May 1896, where he reformed the Dublin Socialists into the Irish Socialist Republican Party which one wry commentator in a newspaper described as having “more syllables than members”. He struck up friendships with leading activists, including Maud Gonne and Alice Milligan, who published his articles in Shan Van Vocht.
In one such article, titled ‘Nationalism and Socialism’, published in 1897, he called for a republic that would be a “beacon-light to the oppressed of every land”.
“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.”
Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Day, 22 June 1897, was marked by Connolly and Maud Gonne with protests on the streets of Dublin. Connolly dumped a symbolic coffin into the River Liffey and shouted “to hell with the British Empire”, for which crime he spent the night in jail.
The ISRP decided to establish their own journal in 1898 called The Workers’ Republic. Connolly was the writer, editor, printer, and seller, and whatever meagre income was generated by the paper it went some way to feeding his growing family.
In 1902, an invitation to undertake a lecture tour of the US on behalf of the American Socialist Labor Party, who reprinted a pamphlet of Connolly’s writings, was gratefully accepted. The lecture tour lasted months and he travelled thousands of miles but when he returned to Dublin there was a terrible split in the IRSP.
It would appear that all the money Connolly had raised through selling subscriptions to The Workers’ Republic had been wasted on alcohol by the members. Connolly, as a non-drinker, was understandably livid and resigned from the organisation and eventually decided to emigrate to the US.
He spent seven years in New York, where he eventually secured a decent standard of living for himself and his family. Various jobs included working in the Singer sewing factory, and, at one stage, he was an insurance agent.
In the US, he founded another journal, The Harp, and befriended the famous radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Connolly also became New York organiser for the Workers of the World (Wobblies), the revolutionary Union founded in Chicago in 1905. Connolly would have known such luminaries as ‘Big’ Bill Haywood, Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, Eugene Debs, and Bill Trautmann.
However, much to the upset of his wife Lillie, he returned to Ireland in 1910 for a lecture tour but wrote to her from Dublin to tell her to pack up and come back home.
Connolly’s Labour in Irish History was published in November 1910. Described as a “work of genius”, it is perhaps one of Connolly’s greatest literary contributions and is written in the style of the proletariat who knows his audience.
Jim Larkin, the ITGWU leader, eventually gave Connolly a job as an organiser in Belfast and the family set up home off the Falls Road. Connolly and Larkin were comrades but never friends.
They fought the bitter Lockout of 1913-14 and could claim equally to have been the founders of the Irish Citizen Army, but it was Connolly who turned that militia into a revolutionary army as opposed to a workers’ defence force. Larkin would not have countenanced the use of the ICA as part of the Army of the Irish Republic during the Rising, but Connolly was willing to put aside any small differences of opinion and unite with the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan in 1916.
Everyone knows that Connolly was shot in Kilmainham Gaol, too weak to stand from injuries he received during the fighting in the GPO.
His legacy lies in his writings, passionate words, words which he transformed into deeds and which gave hope to the aspirations of more than one generation and will continue to encourage until his vision of an equitable world is achieved.
Lorcan Collins is author of James Connolly in the 16 Lives series published by O’Brien Press