This week was the 104th Anniversary of James Connolly’s death at the hands of the British State and I thought it would be worth looking into why this man is still seen as a hero to many in both the UK and Ireland, while others say his name with venom on their tongues.
There’s a lot that’s been said about James Connolly; that he was a hero of the international working class, that he was a radical thinker and reformer and a brave man that would put himself in the line of fire before any of the men under him. Yet others view him differently, believing him a traitor, a deserter, a failed rebel, and- worst of all- a Hibs fan. You’ll be hard pressed to find a neutral voice that speaks about the man these days.
Connolly’s story starts in Edinburgh, in 1868. Born in Cowgate to two Irish immigrants, James didn’t have an easy start to life. He was born into poverty, Cowgate at that time being little better than a slum (how things change) and only had formal education at the local Catholic School until the age of 11, when he left school to look for work. At the age of 14 James, like his older brother before him, signed up with the British Army, lying about his age in an attempt to escape the economic conditions he had been born into.
For the next 6 years James served in the Royal Scots Regiment, spending most of his military career in Ireland. This wasn’t an easy time for folk in Ireland (When has it ever been when British troops were marching through it?), especially in the rural communities outside of the city, where the majority of the Irish population at the time lived. Rents were high, and by design of the British more and more Irish land fell into fewer and fewer hands. Most of these landlords were also absentees, not even living in the land that they taxed so heavily. This meant that the money taken out of these communities weren’t reinvested in the hamlets, most of the time this rent money left Ireland all together. By the time Connolly was serving in Ireland the people of the hamlets had had enough of being treated like a tax farm and the Land War had begun.
The Land War was Connolly’s first introduction into Irish politics, and even as a young British soldier, he found himself arguing for the cause of the tenant farmers. This confrontation with the realities of British policy in Ireland might have served as a catalyst not only for his political development but also for his growing bitterness with the British Army. When it came out that his regiment would be redeployed to India, to do much of the same work that he did in Ireland, Connolly deserted, preferring this to acting as a lackey for British landlords.
Though his time in the army was over Connolly left with two important lessons. First of all he learned that he was a good soldier, secondly that he fucking hated the British armed forces.
When James returned to Edinburgh he brought with him his new wife Lillie and they soon tried to settle into a quiet life. James took up a job as a cobbler but patched it after a few months, as he had no talent for the job. It was about this time as well that he again followed in his older brother’s footsteps and became politically active, joining the Scottish Socialist Federation and like his brother before him, he eventually became the party secretary. The party would eventually merge and be absorbed into the Independent Labour Party. Connolly, however, headed back to Ireland, this time to take up a paid role within the Dublin Socialist Club rather than as part of an occupying army. Here he transformed the club into the Irish Socialist Republican Party turning the group from a couple of people meeting in pubs every so often to discuss politics over pints into Ireland’s first socialist party. This party would go on to run in elections, print its own paper and even represent Ireland at the Second International. While the party was never large and would eventually fall into political infighting, it marked an important stage in Irish politics and showcased Connolly’s skills as an organiser.
Connolly would, through a mixture of frustration at his own party and economic need eventually leave Ireland again, this time for America. Here he joined the IWW and was most active in pushing his syndicalist ideology. Syndicalism is a brand of socialism that focuses on workplace democracy and autonomous organisations. Aiming to bring his ideology into action he worked with both the Irish and Italian American communities to agitate for better working conditions, making sure to bring in as many different communities in New York together as part of his internationalist ideology that hammered home the need for a united struggle, across ethnic and nationalist lines. To this end, he founded groups like the Irish Socialist Federation, which aimed to raise class consciousness in immigrant communities through education and material help.
After nearly 7 years in America, Connolly once again returned to Ireland, organising workplaces and- in what was now becoming a lifelong habit- founding yet another political organisation in the Irish Labour Party in 1912. In 1913, in response to the Dublin Lockout, James gathered other former officers and soldiers from the British army and formed the Irish Citizen Army. A small but well disciplined and regimented group of workers who tasked themselves with defending strikers from the Dublin Met. This hardened corps of radical workers eventually formed the nexus of a growing organisation that would expand its aims from simply the improvement of working conditions for Irish workers to an Independent Socialist Republic. Soon, this group would have their chance at this goal, as WW1 broke out and distracted the British Empire.
James was adamantly against this war, arguing it was just imperialism being played out. He didn’t want the sons of England or son’s of Germany dying in a pointless war, and he certainly didn’t want sons of Ireland dying for England’s pointless war. Under a call of “Neither King nor Kaiser” James decided now was the time to organise for freedom. Along with nationalist groups like the Irish Volunteers and Irish Republican Brotherhood, Connolly plotted a rebellion. In the ultimately doomed Easter Uprising Connolly’s organisational prowess came to the forefront again. As Commandant of the Dublin Brigade, he had a massive sway over the entire rising. Not only did he show genius in planning but he again and again put his life at risk to make sure his men were safe. With only 9 men in his garrison actually dying, his efforts were not for nothing. But despite these valiant efforts James himself was fatally wounded. Out of commission while getting treatment for his wound, he nevertheless remained the brains behind the uprising, organising patrols, reinforcements and resupplies even as doctors worked on him.
Eventually the writing was on the wall, and James, along with the other leaders of the rebellion agreed to a surrender. Unwilling to continue a doomed fight that would cost the lives of his men he would say his line “Don’t worry. Those of us that signed the proclamation will be shot. But the rest of you will be set free”.
A few days later, on the 12th of May 1916 the British state executed Connolly by firing squad. So afraid of what he represented they would tie a dying man to a chair, shoot him and then bury him in an unmarked mass grave. This act would turn many who had been neutral on the issue against the British state, both in Ireland and the rest of the world. James Connolly never lived to see his life’s work, but eventually Dublin would be free from British rule, and the role James played as an organiser and his martyrdom were important steps on that long path to freedom.
How do we judge James’s impact? When we look at Connolly’s legacy do we look to Ireland today as a measure of the man? Nationalism, or at least national liberation, was a big part of the man’s outlook on the world. Considering he gave his life for this cause it’s fair to say it was something he held deeply. This is not to say his syndicalist, internationalist ideals meshed with this part of his politics easily. He flirted with Esperanto, a communal European language, and did believe in the need for a universal language. While he did support the reintroduction of the Irish language he viewed capitalism as a far more pressing threat to the Irish than the English language, after all, he said “You cannot teach starving men Gaelic”. Further still he painted Daniel O’Connell, widely held as a hero by nationalists not as a liberator of the Irish but instead an enemy of the working class.
Ireland, at least part of it, stands independent, but you cannot argue that James achieved the syndicalist paradise he had envisaged all those years ago. After his death figures like Éamon de Valera rose to prominence, and left a much deeper impact on the Irish political landscape than Connolly would have liked. Courageous Syndicalism instead was replaced by cynical Conservatism, with the Republic being left to choose between two different cheeks of the same Tory arse in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. A quote that always sticks with me from Connolly is “Nationalism without Socialism is only national recreancy. It would be a declaration that our oppressors had succeeded in inoculating us with their perverted conceptions of justice and morality, and no longer needed an army to force them upon us.”. Looking at Dublin’s transformation into a petty kingdom of landlord despots, it’s hard to imagine Connolly being happy with the state of Ireland today.
James, I would argue, left a far deeper mark on the traditions of the European left. He stands as a rare figure broadly praised by all major branches of leftist tradition, somewhat like Rosa Luxemburg. Lenin, on greeting James’s son after his father’s death, said that he had held Connolly as head and shoulders above the rest of his contemporaries in the European socialist movement, and Glasgow’s own James McLean cited Connolly as an inspiration for his own trade unionist movement.