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James Connolly
James Connolly directed military operations in the GPO during Easter Week. Photo: National Library of Ireland, EPH F339

James Connolly

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 1868. The youngest of three boys born to poor Irish Catholic immigrants, the family were raised in the slums of Edinburgh, an experience that profoundly shaped Connolly’s lifetime detestation of poverty and its causes. After attending primary school in the Cowgate area of Edinburgh, James was employed in several jobs before, following his older brother John’s example, he joined the British army. He spent much of his short army career in Ireland and it was here he met Lillie Reynolds, a Wicklow Protestant and domestic servant, who he married in Scotland in 1890. They had seven children together, six daughters and a boy.

Following marriage, Connolly went to work, like his father, as a carter and became involved in trade union organisation and the socialist movement. He was influenced again by the example of his brother John, already involved with the rising swell of trade unionism, but also, despite his lack of formal education, by his voraciously deep reading on such subjects as history, socialism and economics. Among those who personally influenced the young James Connolly were Keir Hardie, the miner’s leader turned MP and founder of the Independent Labour Party. Another was John Leslie, with whom he shared an Irish immigrant background: Leslie founded the Scottish Socialist Federation in 1889 and in 1894 published a pamphlet, The Present position of the Irish Question.

In 1896, having lost his job as a carter and struggling to provide for his family, Connolly moved to Dublin, taking up an offer to act as paid organiser for the Dublin Socialist Club. For the next seven years, he lived in the city’s slums, developing his political thoughts on issues of socialism and nationalism, launching the Irish Socialist Republican Party (IRSP) and propagandising in the pages The Workers' Republic, a paper he both published and wrote extensively in. As the establishment of the IRSP suggests, Connolly had come to the belief that only an independent republic, not home rule, could deliver the socialist future the Irish working class required; and yet disillusioned with by the slow rate of progress, he left for America in 1903, again to work as a promoter of socialism and trade union organisation, most notably with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which launched in 1905.

Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910, the same year he published two of his most important and influential works, a polemic on Labour, Nationality and Religion and his Marxist historical analysis, Labour in Irish History.

Back in Ireland, Connolly worked as an organiser in Belfast for the Jim Larkin founded Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), where he encountered the sectarian divisions among catholic nationalist and protestant unionist workers. Connolly was instrumental in encouraging the formation an Irish Labour Party in 1912, while the following year, he was consumed by the events of the Dublin Lockout. In the wake of the defeat of the Lockout and Larkin’s departure for America in 1914, Connolly became the dominant personality in Irish radical politics: not alone did he take over as the acting general secretary of the ITGWU, he assumed the editorship of the Larkin’s Irish Worker newspaper, while he retained the command of the Irish Citizen Army, the militia he founded in November 1913 to defend the Dublin workers.

If the outcome of the Lockout was a blow to Connolly’s socialist vision, so too was the outbreak of the First World War, which raised the prospect, he wrote, of Europe’s working class being slaughtered for the ‘benefit of kings and financiers’. Connolly never abandoned his belief in socialism, but it was now supplanted as a priority by the need for a national insurrection against British rule in Ireland. A leading opponent of recruitment, Connolly was, by the end of 1915, threatening to mount an armed rebellion with his small ICA if nobody else was prepared to take action. By then, the IRB’s Military Council had already made secret preparations for a Rising and fearing that Connolly would scupper their plans, they persuaded him, in January 1916, to join forces with the Irish Volunteers. Connolly was co-opted onto the Military Council and contributed much to the planning and execution of the Rising the following Easter. He also helped shape it legacy, his influence apparent in the socialist and egalitarian aspects of the Patrick Pearse-drafted proclamation. 

Connolly led 200-250 members of his Irish Citizen Army out during Easter week 1916 and, as commandant general of the Republic’s forces in Dublin, he directed military operations from the General Post Office (GPO), where he fought alongside Patrick Pearse and his son, Rory. He remained in charge even after suffering a serious injury to his ankle and remained in the GPO until surrendering on April 29th. After court martial he was executed, due his injuries, seated on a wooden box in Kilmainham Jail on 12 May 1916. Survived by a wife and six children (his eldest daughter had died in 1904), he was buried at the cemetery in Arbour Hill military barracks.

Dr Fearghal McGarry explains how James Connolly gets involved with the Easter Rising. 

Further Reading:
Lorcan Collins, 16 Lives: James Connolly (2012)
James Connolly, Selected Writings, 1868-1916 (1988)
Donal Nevin, James Connolly: A Full Life (2005)
Desmond Greaves, James Connolly: Socialism and Nationalism (1976)
Nora Connolly O’Brien, James Connolly: Portrait of a rebel father (1975)
‘A Chronology of James Connolly’s life’ in Trade Union Information, April 1968, issued by the ICTU


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.