The man was all shot through that came today
Into the barrack square;
A soldier I – I am not proud to say
We killed him there;
They brought him from the prison hospital;
To see him in that chair…
His wounds were opened out and round that chair
Was one red lake;
I swear his lips said ‘Fire!’ when all was still
Before my rifle spat
That cursed lead – and I was picked to kill
A man like that!
-Liam Mac Gabhann
On this day one hundred years ago, James Connolly, socialist and republican, being unable to stand was instead tied to a chair and shot in Kilmainham jail.
When news of this leaked, it evoked disbelief, anger and pity among the general population.
But Connolly was no naïve revolutionary. He was a military man, having served in the British army and since acted as Commandant of the Irish Citizen’s Army and Commandant General of the Dublin Division during Easter Week. He was a soldier and he died, unafeared, a soldier’s death. Foreseeing his own death in the cause of Irish freedom he said;
“As a Socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve for our motherland her rightful heritage – independence”
In order to achieve his twin aims of an Ireland that was free and equal for all, he was ready to die. But Connolly was no starry-eyed romantic, rather he was guided by the starry plough and the very real and untapped power of the workers of Ireland united as one.
Connolly read the work of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels and having spent a number of years in America, was very influenced by the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “The Wobblies” as they were also known.
At the outset of World War I, Connolly made known his opposition to the war which he saw for what it was- an imperialist’s squabble over control of their colonies, workers being used as pawns in a rich man’s game. These phony calls of imperialist nationalism would eventually lead millions of working class men to their slaughter in the fields of Europe, many of them Irish. Instead Connolly urged his fellow trade unionists not to let workers be ill-used against each other in this patriot game. He realised the real potential of the workers on all sides to work together and instead overthrow their masters. His sentiments on the subject probably best summed up in that rallying cry,
“The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!”
AN IRISH SOCIALIST AND REPUBLICAN
Having discouraged workers’ involvement in such patriot games as “nationalism” of big powers in World War I, Connolly’s ardent republicanism in Ireland might then seem incongruous. How could Connolly discourage Nationalism and support the cause of Irish nationalism? He rightly distinguished between the nationalism of the oppressed and that of the oppressor.
One of Connolly’s central achievements was his understanding of the Irish struggle for independence in the context of the British colonialism of the day. In his 1897 pamphlet, “Socialism and Nationalism”, he explained this philosophy.
“If you remove the English army to-morrow 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.”
Connolly understood well that rather than being mutually exclusive the causes of socialism and republicanism in Ireland, an oppressed country, were in fact absolutely dependent on each other.
“The Cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour”.
Before the ill-fated rising he warned that partition in Ireland would have a regressive impact on the cause of social justice on the whole island of Ireland.
“Such a scheme…would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.”
Connolly had a habit of being prophetic. In the divided Ireland of today, the highest child poverty rates in the UK are to be found in the city of Belfast while the sovereignty of the Republic has effectively been sold to Brussels and the government’s power to provide for the social and economic welfare of its own citizens has been ceded to a foreign power. A new form of colonialism in the 21st century. This further explains how the socialist Connolly was such a committed republican, prepared to die for a 32 County Workers’ Republic.
In his short life, Connolly published a number of books and pamphlets on the questions of nationalism and socialism.
Connolly had a number of children with his wife Lillie and at least two of children became active in socialist republican politics, Nora and Roddy. Nora was a member of the Belfast Fianna and helped found Cumann na mBan. She was also heavily involved in preparations for the 1916 rising, travelling to American to meet John Devoy and smuggling Liam Mellows back to Ireland following his deportation to England. She remained an active republican all her life, taking part in the War of Independence and being imprisoned by the Free State government during the Civil War.
“WOMEN ARE THE SLAVE OF THE SLAVE” -Connolly
Connolly, being influenced by other prominent socialists at the time, was a fervent feminist. Female volunteers were accepted as full members and combatants in Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Indeed, Countess Markevicz was in full command in the College of Surgeons/Stephens Green during Easter Week with Michael Malin as her second.
The campaign for universal suffrage was in full flow during Connolly’s years in Ireland and Connolly was a strong supporter of the cause. Of him Frances Sheehy-Skeffington said,
“Mr. James Connolly… is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men…He has done more, by speech and writing, than any other man to bring about that strong feeling of sympathy for the suffragist cause which now exists among the Irish Labour Party.”
Connolly was not afraid either to tackle the issue of women’s liberation with the Catholic Church exposing the Pope for denouncing the women’s suffrage movement a view which can only have been very unpopular at the time.
THE TIPPERARY CONNECTION
Connolly was no stranger to Tipperary and founded the Labour Party with Larkin at the Irish Trade Union Council Congress in Clonmel 1912 which was held in the Workmen’s Boat Club in Irishtown and in the Town Hall.
The Labour Party which he and Larkin founded was an-All Ireland 32 County Labour Party representative of trade unions North and South. The 26-county Labour party of today is but a ruin, due to the damage done by leaders who rejected the Connolly position.
His influence and that of the early labour movement in general was particularly powerful in Munster where the message of equality and fairness spoke to thousands of factory workers and farm labourers in particular. During the War of Independence in the years that followed the rising, Ernie O’Malley wrote of the “red brigandage at large in Munster” where land seizures and take-overs of creameries were common-place. One such take-over took place at the creamery on Suir Island in Clonmel, the “Clonmel Soviet” in the last week of April, 1922.
Connolly’s vision of a future Ireland was an equal Ireland. An Ireland where every person was equal, man and woman, worker and factory owner, where no-one was above anyone else.
A simple idea but a revolutionary one. And an idea which is not universally popular even in the Ireland of today because it changes the status quo.
But the spirit of Connolly lives on in initiatives like the Right to Change movement which we at Workers and Unemployed Action are proud founder members of.
At Workers & Unemployed Action we remember Connolly today and every day. He is the guiding light in our everyday work and the driving force behind each and every campaign we wage for a more equal and just Ireland.
Rest in peace James Connolly.