The Life and Times of James Connolly 

The Life and Times of James Connolly 

C. Desmond Greaves 

This book, first published in 1961, is rightly regarded as the definitive biography of Ireland’s greatest labour leader. Author C. Desmond Greaves skilfully combined academic research with interviews with Connolly’s surviving associates to produce the story of James Connolly’s political life and public activity. This ended when, unable to walk after being shot in the leg during the failed Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916, he was executed by a British firing squad on Friday 12 May 1916. His execution, and those of fifteen others, was to shock the labour movement across the world. In Ireland the subsequent public revulsion at the deaths turned those who had taken up arms into heroes amongst the large mass of the people.

Connolly was born to Irish parents in Edinburgh on 5 June 1868. His father, John, was an unskilled labourer and mother Mary a domestic servant. The family lived in abject poverty within the Irish colony in the city and James started work at the age of ten or eleven. By fourteen he was already politically conscious with a keen interest in the Land League, which aimed at restricting the privileges under British rule of landlords in Ireland. 

A lack of a regular income saw James follow his older brother John into the British Army. He joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, which counted as an Irish one as its uniform was dark green. It was as a raw militiaman that Connolly first saw Ireland in 1882. He was to remain seven years and his time there coincided with the most progressive phases of the land agitation actions, including the use of boycott tactics by local people against landlords who threatened to evict their tenants. 

When Connolly arrived back in Scotland he married Lillie Reynolds, a Protestant, on 13 April 1889 and the pair settled in Edinburgh at a time when Britain’s status as the workshop of the world began to come under threat from its international competitors. An industrial depression ensued, but the ‘new unionism’ that followed successful strikes by unskilled workers, such as the dockers in London in 1889, saw the labour movement grow immeasurably. (1) 

Socialism was also winning converts. Connolly, who became a temporary worker at the Edinburgh Corporation Cleansing Department, joined the Socialist League, which was a breakaway from the Social-Democratic Federation. Both were loose informal unions of quasi-independent socialist clubs. Many people held joint membership and both organisations stood for the complete separation of Ireland from Britain. 

Connolly took up the challenge of studying socialism by attending meetings and reading extensively. He began writing and undertook an apprenticeship in public speaking. His regular spells out of work forced him to try and find alternative employment. However, attempts to found a small shop and later become a cobbler proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, he increasingly began to stand as a socialist candidate in local elections before taking up full-time work as a political propagandist/organiser. When this failed to regularly pay the bills of his expanding family, Connolly was glad to accept the invitation by the Dublin Socialist Club to become its paid organiser in 1896.

Connolly helped found the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which was based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. The party’s manifesto had socialism as its objective and included abolition of private banks and universal suffrage. Connolly had combined his belief in Irish independence with a programme for working class rule. The rest of his life – with all its twists and turns and increasing political maturity that saw him abandon syndicalism – was to be dedicated to these two aims, which he saw  as inseparable. 

Whilst he supported the movement for Irish Home Rule, which sought to reduce the UK’s political control over Ireland, he stated: “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 you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs”.

In 1903, Connolly, following a successful tour there the previous year, emigrated to the United States, where he again found it difficult to find work. He joined Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party and became one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which sought to bring about revolution by creating one great union combining all trades in one organisation. 

Connolly became an IWW organiser, being able for the first time to devote his energies to work he passionately believed in. He was a tour de force organising tramwaymen, dockers, garment workers and many more. Successful strikes were organised.Yet by 1908, Connolly, boosted by James Larkin’s successful uniting of Catholics and Protestants during the transport strike in Belfast the previous year, was keen to return to Ireland. He did so in 1910 and in Dublin he proposed the establishment of an Irish Labour Party including the trade unions. 

Socialist ideas were to grow rapidly in Ireland in 1909-10. Two of Connolly’s new works Labour, Nationality and Religion and Labour in Irish History were well received. Connolly joined the Irish Transport Workers’ Union (ITWU) in Belfast and with seamen and dockers in revolt over their pay and conditions he became Belfast organiser of the Union. 

Connolly sought to unite Protestants and Catholics, doing so successfully amongst mill-girls in the autumn of 1911. He was though unable to prevent Sir Edward Carson’s appeal to the vast majority of the Protestant working class to oppose, if need be by military means, the Home Rule Bill that was then making its way under the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith through the House of Commons. Carson, the former-solicitor General and leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster unionist Party between 1910 and 1921, demanded that the nine county province of Ulster in the north of Ireland be excluded from the Bill.

In 1913, Connolly played a major role in the great Dublin lock-out that commenced when owner William Murphy informed his employees at the Dublin Tramway Company that they must quit the ITWU or lose their jobs. The struggle, at the end of which virtually the whole of the working class in Dublin was engaged, is, like throughout all this book, graphically detailed by the author, who, in addition, provides an understanding of the main characters and organisations and the political and economic forces they represented. 

The heroic resistance in 1913, during which was developed the Irish Citizen Army to defend strikers against the police-protected armed strike breakers, was to last eight months. It was broken when, due to starvation, the tramway workers returned to work. They were also forced to sign the Murphy Pledge but they retained their union membership and paid their fees openly. No workers were sacked and because of the solidarity actions of their own workers then many of the weaker employers were at the brink of bankruptcy and did not dare repeat the challenge to an undefeated labour movement. The battle had been drawn. 

Later in 1914, the tensions  between the major imperialists over who should have control of resources in Africa, where between 1870 and 1914 the percentage of the continent directly controlled by the European imperial powers had risen from 10 to 90 per cent, finally burst and World War I commenced. From all parts of Ireland many joined up to fight for Britain. Connolly was never going to do so stating: ”For the sake of a few paltry shillings, Irish workers have sold their country in the hour of their country’s greatest need and greatest hope”. He declared: “We have no foreign enemy except the Government of England…We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland”. The road to the Easter Uprising was set. 

On 18 July 1915, Connolly held a massive anti-conscription meeting in Dublin and warned that there would be attempts to introduce conscription although, in fact, the campaign he organised against it meant the Government held back any plans they may have had.

Connolly then began dreaming of a plan of action that would see the Citizen Army, whose discipline was tightened up for the military conflict ahead, start the uprising against British rule and be backed by the much larger Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which unbeknown to Connolly was planning its own uprising. The IRB, which was dedicated to establishing an ‘independent democratic republic’, was founded in 1858 and its counterpart in the USA was known as the Fenian Brotherhood. Subsequently, members of both wings became referred as ‘Fenians’.

Meanwhile, Connolly kept up a constant barrage against the World War, its savagery and its political and economic consequences. Trade union branches were established in many industries, bringing him into conflict with others that sought Irish independence but not with the working class in control afterwards. 

On 16 April 1916, Connolly said: “The Irish working class is the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared”. 

Discussions that took place in January 1916 between the IRB and Connolly established the date when the Uprising would take place. The former was, though, split with Eion MacNeill, who in 1913 had formed the Irish Volunteers, which included the IRB, opposed to an armed uprising as he believed there was little chance of success in an open conflict with the British Army. 

When MacNeill learned of the imminent revolt he used every means, except informing the authorities, to get people not to participate. It meant that when the Uprising began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, the numbers on the IRB side, led by Patrick Pearse, were considerably reduced down to around 700 with just 120 Citizen Army men. Connolly knew there was no chance of success especially as plans by (Sir) Roger Casement to land a shipment of German arms in County Kerry had gone badly wrong. 

The rising saw key Dublin locations seized and an Irish Republic proclaimed. The British Army then brought in thousands of armed reinforcements plus artillery and a gunboat. The rebels were gradually surrounded and bombarded with artillery and on 29 April, Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender. Almost 500 were killed in the Uprising. Most were civilians who died as a result of British military actions, which included heavy shelling that left many parts of inner city Dublin in ruins.

 A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested in the aftermath of the failed uprising. Most were subsequently released without charge. 90 people though were sentenced to death and fifteen were executed at Kilmainham Gaol by firing squad between 3 and 12 May. 

Connolly, unable to walk because of a shattered ankle, was tied to a chair before being the last to be shot. His death was celebrated by a gleeful William Murphy. 

However, the executions, combined with news of the subsequent atrocities that were carried out by the British military in the aftermath of the Uprising, was to cause general outrage amongst a significant section of even the Irish public that had not supported Connolly and Pearse. Backing was to swing towards support for the Irish rebels of 1916. 

Desmond Greaves shows how most socialists internationally struggled to comprehend why Connolly had helped lead an Uprising against British rule in Ireland, especially one that was doomed when it started. Some even belittled Connolly’s actions. 

Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, who was to lead two successful revolutions within the following eighteen months, was one of those who did understand why Connolly had moved, stating, “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it…the misfortune of the Irish was that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured”.

The book ends with an epilogue in which the author declares that: “James Connolly was one of the first working-class intellectuals. He was one of the most tireless and dedicated socialist workers who lived”. 

  1. THE GREAT DOCK STRIKE OF 1889 by Unite Education

Note on women’s contribution to the Easter Uprising. 

One weakness of Desmond Greaves work is the absence of the history of women’s contribution to the Easter Uprising. Now, as part of the centenary celebrations, Dublin City Council has published a book detailing 77 of the women who participated, totalling an estimated 280.

They include Constance Markiewicz – who later became the first women to be elected to (the British) Parliament – who was married to a Polish count and advised women to “buy a revolver”.

Annie Norgrove was a 17-year-old Protestant. Her gas-fitter father was an active trade unionist. She joined the Irish Citizen Army during the 1913 Lock-Out and spent the days of the Rising avoiding sniper fire to ferry water to the insurgents. 

Richmond Barracks 1916 We Were There – Women of the Easter Uprising by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Dublin City Council, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.