James Connolly, Belfast Branch Secretary from 1911 and Acting General Secretary of the Union from October, 1914, until his execution on May 12, 1916, was born of County Monaghan parents in 1868 and reared in Edinburgh, Scotland.
As a boy in the Scottish capital he learned the hard facts of industrialism through grim experience in earning his living as a printer’s devil on an evening paper, getting the sack because he was under age, and moving on to a bakery and various other poorly paid jobs.
Through a Fenian uncle he learned something of Irish nationalism and Irish revolts from 1798 onward and in his company attended street meetings and became interested in socialism as expounded by John Leslie and other speakers for the Social Democratic Federation. In that way he was brought up in the dual tradition of alliance in Scotland between United Irishmen and Scottish Reformers in the 1798 period, between Young Irelanders and Scottish Chartists in the 1840s, and between Fenians, Irish Land Leaguers and Scottish Land Nationalisers and Socialists in the 1870s and 1880s. That tradition and that alliance of revolutionary socialism and republican nationalism coloured his whole life and directed his work.
In his youth in the SDF he taught himself to address open air meetings and to debate, and after employment in various jobs, periods in Glasgow and other cities and an election in which he stood as Socialist candidate for St. Giles Ward in Edinburgh, he was associated with James Keir Hardie in the Scottish Labour Party. In the early part of 1896 on the suggestion of John Leslie he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin. With the help of a £50 loan from Keir Hardie he established ‘The Workers’ Republic' as the organ of the ISRP and began to develop in the paper and in pamphlets his policy of linking the social emancipation of the workers with the Irish aspiration for national independence.
In Dublin he and the ISRP took an active but distinctly working-class part in the centenary commemoration of the United Irishmen of 1798 in conjunction with Republican organisations and established fraternal relations with the Socialist Labour Party in the United States with its propaganda of Industrial Unionism.
Through this American connection he undertook a speaking tour in the States and went from Dublin to Scotland to preside at the foundation of the Socialist Labour Party there in 1903 on the model of the American organisation.
In 1902 and 1903 he contested Wood Quay Ward as a Socialist candidate for Dublin Corporation, his candidature in the latter year being endorsed by Dublin Trades Council to which he was a delegate from the United Labourers’ Society.
Later in 1903 he took his family to America, worked at a variety of jobs there, organised for the SLP, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party, and founded the Irish Socialist Federation and its monthly organ, “The Harp.’ Throughout his stay in America he kept in contact with William O’Brien and other old comrades in Dublin, and followed with keen interest the significant progress in Ireland of the new movements of those years in politics, trade unionism, co-operation and cultural activities as in the Gaelic revival.
With a watchful and critical eye still on events at home Connolly saw the promise of great industrial and political achievement in the foundation of the militant Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in January, 1909, and of Cumannacht na hEireann, the Socialist Party of Ireland, a few months later. The links with his first years in Dublin had not been altogether broken and in the new resurgence of Irish Ireland the seeds planted in the 1798 centenary celebrations by him and other Separatists were beginning to bear fruit in the first decade of the century.
Out of this came the decision in 1910 to invite Connolly to return to Dublin and become Organiser for the SPI. The invitation was issued by the Committee of which William O’Brien was Secretary and after its acceptance Connolly anticipated his arrival by sending to O’Brien for printing the text of his work, “Labour Nationality and Religion,” written in reply to the Lenten Discourses delivered that year against Socialism by Father Robert Kane, S.J.
Connolly reached Ireland with his family in July, 1910, became a member of the ITGWU and as Organiser for the SPI went on a speaking tour of Belfast, Cork, Cobh and other centres. In a manifesto issued about that time by the SPI he declared: “We mean to make the people of Ireland the sole and sovereign owners of Ireland, but leave ourselves free to adapt our methods to suit the development of the times.” In that he expressed the aim and the principle upon which he acted through the years from 1896 to 1916.
Connolly had taken up residence in Belfast in 1911 and at the request of supporters of the Union he was appointed Branch Secretary there during a strike of seamen in that and other ports.
His successful leading of a strike of the men on the low docks and vigour in organisation of new members placed the Belfast Branch on a firm footing for the first time and gave him and the Union a front position in the labour movement in the northern city in spite of the peculiar difficulties of the religious and political disturbances prevailing in Belfast.
Along with the Union Branch, at 122 Corporation Street, he established in York Street, Belfast, the Irish Textile Workers’ Union for the women workers in the linen mills. In this, the Secretary was Mrs. Marie Johnson, wife of Thomas Johnson, afterwards Secretary of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, first leader of the Labour Deputies in Dáil Eireann and a Senator, and subsequently a member of the Labour Court. Mrs, Johnson was succeeded as Secretary by Winifred Carney, who, in the Rising of 1916, was Secretary to Connolly and the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. After the surrender she was interned in England until Christmas 1916.
As one of the Union’s delegates to the annual meeting of the Irish Trade Union Congress of 1912 at Clonmel, Connolly moved the resolution establishing the Irish Labour Party and he was a member of the Parliamentary Committee, or Executive, of the Congress until his death in 1916.
Under Connolly’s leadership the Union in Belfast was an active force in the political Labour movement, as well as in trade unionism. Another of his achievements was the unification of Socialist groups in Belfast and in Dublin in a new organisation, the Independent Labour Party of Ireland. And in Belfast as in Dublin he was a strong supporter of the militant sections of the Suffragette campaigners for votes for women.
In 1913 he was a candidate in Dock Ward for Belfast Corporation and in a characteristic election address declared boldly for socialism and national independence for Ireland. And in the inflamed atmosphere in the North created by the Home Rule Bill of 1912 and the rise of the Carsonite Ulster Volunteer Force in armed opposition to it, he spoke and wrote with great power against the partition of Ireland and the intriguery and treachery of politicians of both the Carsonite, or Orange, and the Redmondite-Devlinite varieties.
When the great onslaught of Dublin employers was launched in August, 1913, to crush the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union under an iron heel and to break for ever the weapons of the sympathetic strike and tainted goods, Connolly was called from the Belfast office to Dublin and threw himself into the fight with all his strength and resource of voice and pen and brain.
On his arrest in the early days of the lock-out he defiantly refused to recognise the Court and on his imprisonment in Mountjoy Jail, he compelled his release by going on hunger strike.
Some of his best writings went into the articles he wrote during the struggle and the statements he prepared in the name of the Dublin workers’ spokesmen.
At the outbreak of war in August, 1914, he declared his resolute intention to enter into armed insurrection before hostilities ceased and prepared to co-operate to that end with those men he considered had a similar purpose in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. That decision he began to put into effect some two months later when he became Acting-General Secretary of the Union and Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army on the departure of the then General Secretary, Jim Larkin, to the United States.
At the same time, as he worked for insurrection through the following year and a half, he brought the Union in Dublin back into effective action on the industrial field, secured recognition for it by employers who had repudiated it in 1913, closed the ranks that had been shaken, conducted wage demands, negotiations and strikes and by careful husbanding of scanty assets and marked ability in administration restored the confidence of members and won for the Union the respect of friends and even of some opponents.
In 1915 he installed a printing press in Liberty Hall and printed on it the volume entitled “The Re-Conquest of Ireland” and a new, and insurrectionist, series of the weekly ‘The Workers’ Republic’ in succession to ‘The Irish Worker’ which had been suppressed in December, 1914. Liberty Hall became an arsenal of the ideas and the material of revolution.
The rest of the Connolly story is written in the preparation and the carrying out of the Rising of Easter Week 1916.
The final decision to fight on Easter Monday was taken in Liberty Hall on the Sunday by the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The Proclamation was printed in Liberty Hall; and from Liberty Hall Connolly marched with his colleagues to the General Post Office.
In the week’s fighting Connolly was Commandant-General directing the operations of the Dublin Division: “the guiding brain of our resistance” as P. H. Pearse, Commander-in-Chief and President of the Provisional Government, said in his last dispatch the day before the surrender.
Connolly, is his own last dispatch on the same day, paid this tribute :
“Let us not forget the splendid women who have everywhere stood by us and cheered us on. Never had man or woman a grander cause, never was a cause more grandly served.”
Severely wounded on the Thursday and in great pain, he was taken on a stretcher to Dublin Castle after the surrender on Saturday, was court-martialled in bed in hospital there and was executed, propped in a chair, in Kilmainham Jail, on May 12th, 1916.
This article first appeared in the Special Golden Jubilee Issue of ‘Liberty’ in May, 1959.