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James Connolly and the 1916 Easter Rising

Liam McNulty By Liam McNulty Published on March 14, 2016

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James Connolly (1868-1916) was the pre-eminent revolutionary socialist leader of his day in Ireland, a prominent trade union organiser, and the founder of the Irish Labour Party.

However, today Connolly is best known for his key role in the Easter Rising in 1916, and a signatory to the Proclamation which declared Irish independence from Britain, triggering a chain of events culminating in the War of Independence (1919-21) and the Civil War (1922-23).

Immediately following his execution as part of the Rising, Connolly’s socialism was played down, and he entered the pantheon of Irish nationalist heroes as a republican with a particular interest in ‘social justice’. Yet, we cannot understand Connolly, or his involvement in the Easter Rising with an understanding of his political background, and how he approached the question of Irish self-determination from a revolutionary socialist perspective.

Born into poverty in the Edinburgh slum of Cowgate to Irish parents, James Connolly entered the workforce at around the age of ten, and was largely self-educated. Cowgate was known as the ‘Little Ireland’ ghetto in Edinburgh, and the young Connolly was influenced by the struggle of Irish tenants against the Anglo-Irish landlord class which raged in the late 1870s.

Seeking work, Connolly joined the British Army, serving in the largely Irish King’s Liverpool Regiment. In 1882 the regiment moved to Cork and remained in Ireland for several years, where he met his wife, Lillie Reynolds.

Deserting the army when asked to serve in India, the couple returned to Scotland to marry, and Connolly got his first taste of socialist politics. In Britain in the late 1880s, the two main organisations were the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Socialist League, which in Scotland merged together to form the Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF).

The SSF was mainly a socialist propaganda organisation, carrying out open-air meetings and making available the few texts by Karl Marx available in English at the time. Connolly threw himself into a routine of regular meetings and a public gathering each Sunday, undertaking the work of introducing socialist ideas to the working-class public.

At the same time, Keir Hardie was pushing for the formation of an Independent Labour Party (ILP) to provide a working-class alternative to the two main parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals.

While the ILP was influenced largely by Christian socialist and radical liberal ideas, and sought gradual change through reform, Connolly at this time already considered himself a revolutionary. In 1894, when he came third in an election to the Edinburgh Corporation, Connolly wrote that rather than simply seeking reforms, the “election of a Socialist to any public body is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.”

Connolly’s activism made it difficult to find work, and after a brief failed attempt at opening a cobbler’s business, he began to consider emigration. As luck would have it, his friend, the respected Edinburgh socialist John Leslie, secured him a job as an organiser for the Dublin Socialist Society and Connolly set sail for Dublin in May 1886.

The Dublin that Connolly settled in at this time was deeply impoverished. In the working-class slums, tuberculosis and overcrowding were rife, and trade unions were weak, concentrated largely in luxury trades, catering only for skilled workers.

Connolly’s first task was to unite the various socialists in one organisation. Accordingly, the Dublin Society Society immediately became the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), which also established small branches in Cork and Belfast. It soon established Ireland’s first Marxist newspaper, The Workers’ Republic.

Like many socialist parties in Europe at this time, the ISRP adopted a programme which contained a number of ‘minimum demands’ such as nationalisation of banks and industry and universal suffrage with the ‘maximum’ demand of socialism, to be realised through winning a majority in parliament.

However, while British socialists were content to limit themselves to echoing the Irish parliamentary party’s demand for Home Rule within the British Empire, the ISRP was unique in its call for a fully independent Irish republic.

Thus, from early in his political involvement, Connolly linked the causes of national and social freedom: “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social. The national ideal can never be realised until Ireland stands forth before the world as a nation, free and independent. It is social and economic, because no matter what the form of government may be, as long as one class owns as private property the land and the instruments of labour from which mankind derive their substance, that class will always have it in their power to plunder and enslave the remainder of their fellow-creatures.”

At this time, a cultural revival was underway in Ireland, with the rediscovery of Ireland’s history, literature and the Gaelic language. While warning that “you cannot teach a starving man Gaelic”, Connolly recognised the movement’s hostility to British imperialism and sensed an opportunity to work with some of its key activists.

One such issue was the triumphalist celebrations of Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897. In Dublin, Connolly joined with the English-born Irish nationalist and women’s suffrage activist Maud Gonne to organise a counter-demonstration, which culminated in a black coffin marked ‘Britsh Empire’ being thrown in the River Liffey.

Connolly was also active in celebrating the centenary of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, and his involvement in protesting the Boer War brought him into contact with a young Arthur Griffith, who would later found the Sinn Fein organisation and take part in the negotiations for Ireland’s independence after the War of Independence.

Connolly’s involvement in Irish republican concerns was matched by a growing interest in international socialist debates. In 1900, the socialist movement was gripped by controversy when the French socialist Alexander Millerand accepted a post in the French government alongside General de Gallifet, who had been the butcher of the Paris Commune in 1871 and now served as Minister of War.

Connolly was vigorously opposed to an attempt by the German socialist leader Karl Kautsky to declare it merely a different in tactics, writing in the pages of the SDF paper Justice that: “Millerand could still logically claim to be considered a good socialist, differing only in tactics from the socialists of the world, who agreed with him in principle.”

As a rebel within the ranks of the international socialist movement, Connolly found himself in agreement with the ideas of Daniel De Leon, an American-based socialist and leader of the principled but dogmatic Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Connolly helped young activists in Scotland to establish a branch of De Leon’s SLP, and was invited to take part in an America-wide speaking tour in 1902.

Two years later, struggling again to find work, Connolly decided to move to the United States, where he joined the SLP and became involved with a revolutionary new trade union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Turning to migrant workers, the hitherto unorganised, and the unskilled, the IWW proclaimed a vigorous revolutionary trade unionism which declared that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common” and fought often violent struggles with the bosses.

Industrial unionism, uniting all workers in a given industry rather than dividing them by trades, greatly excited Connolly and he foresaw this form of workplace organisation as preparing “within the framework of the capitalist society, the working form of the Socialist Republic”, marking him out from socialists who put the stress on top-down state control.

Industrial unionist ideas were also taking form in Ireland at this time, with the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in 1909 under the leadership of James Larkin. Connolly missed Ireland, and made arrangements to return in 1910 to work an organiser for the union. He immediately threw himself into the struggle, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast against the employers in a strike which famously involved a Non-Sectarian Labour marching band.

The height of Connolly’s trade union activities would come in 1913, with the Dublin Lock-Out. Employers were terrified of this new militant trade unionism, and wanted to break the ITGWU. William Martin Murphy, the millionaire owner of several Dublin businesses, including newspapers, hotels and the trams, led the city’s employers in locking out their workers, declaring that they could only return to work if they signed a declaration repudiating the union.

Connolly and Larkin led mass picketing to stop the employers replacing union members with strike-breakers. In response to violence from the police and the employers, Connolly and an ex-British Army captain Jack White formed the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA) as an armed militia for the union. It was amongst the first such bodies in Europe.

However, with the workers starving, and the British unions unwilling to call a strike in sympathy, the dispute had to be called off after several months. It was a huge blow to the union and one which would affect Connolly deeply.

While this battle raged, a constitutional crisis was reaching a head. The Liberal government, re-elected in December 1909, was forced to reply on Irish nationalist MPs for its majority in the House of Commons, and in return pledged to introduce a Third Home Rule Bill to give a measure of self-government to Ireland.

However, backed by a section of the Conservative Party, Unionists in Ulster began to mobilise against Home Rule, denouncing it as “Rome Rule” and declaring their intention to form a Provisional Government were it ever enacted. Half a million Protestants in Ulster signed a Solemn League and Covenant to this effect in September 1912, and in January 1913 was formed an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which soon procured arms and began to drill.

Before this display of force, Connolly and many republicans had assumed Home Rule would pass, especially since the Liberals had removed the House of Lords’ power to veto it. He had written optimistically in 1911 that “there is no economic class in Ireland today whose interests as a class are bound up with the Union”, and envisaged a scenario in which an Irish Labour Party would find itself in opposition in a future Home Rule Parliament.

However, Unionist intransigence and the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 delayed the implementation of Home Rule. The outbreak of the war, which the socialist movement had pledged in solemn resolutions to oppose with a general strike, came as a huge blow to Connolly.

He wrote despairingly that “civilisation is being destroyed before our eyes; the results of generations of propaganda and patient heroic plodding and self-sacrifice are being blown into annihilation from a hundred cannon mouths.”

For Connolly, the war changed everything. Amidst the carnage and slaughter he thought now that "even an unsuccessful attempt at socialist revolution by force of arms, following the paralysis of the economic life of militarism, would be less disastrous to the socialist cause than the act of socialists allowing themselves to be used in the slaughter of their brothers.”

He hoped that “starting thus, Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.”

Believing the old adage that “England's problem is Ireland's opportunity”, Connolly looked around for forces he could ally with. From his earliest years as a socialist in Edinburgh he had been deeply suspicious of the Irish parliamentary nationalists, and in 1910 he had published his seminal Labour in Irish History, analysing the failure of the Irish middle-class in history to fight consistently for Irish freedom. “Only the Irish working class,” he wrote then, “remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland."

At the same time, the more radical republican activists in the secretive Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) had pledged to stage an uprising before the war’s end. Many of them, including Patrick Pearse, had come to the workers’ side during the 1913 Lock-Out. They were worried that Connolly and his ICA would go it alone and stage an uprising, with Pearse writing that Connolly “will never be satisfied until he goads us into action and then he will think most us to moderate, and want to guillotine half of us.”

So the IRB co-opted Connolly, after some convincing, into their plans in early 1916. With the failure of the European socialists to stop the war, with the Irish workers’ movement still reeling from the 1913 Lock-Out, and with the Irish Labour Party only in its infancy and the socialist forces in Ireland weak, Connolly decided to go along with the plans of the IRB, despite his reservations.

Yet he warned his comrades in the ICA: “In the event of victory hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”

During the Home Rule crisis, Irish nationalists had responded by forming the Irish Volunteers. The movement split upon the outbreak of war over Irish parliamentary leader John Redmond’s support for the British war effort, and the IRB intended to use the anti-war rump of Volunteers to carry out a rising. Overtures were made to Germany to secure arms and the date was set for Easter Sunday.

However, crisis struck when the arms shipment from Germany was intercepted. When the more moderate Volunteer leadership became aware of the IRB’s plans, the orders for manoeuvres on Easter Sunday were called off at the eleventh hour.

The resulting confusion meant that the date was moved to Easter Monday, and the numbers much diminished. Only 1000 turned out that morning, and the leadership marched with a small contingent to seize the General Post Office on Sackville Street to begin the Rising.

It was this last-minute confusion which provides the context for Connolly’s remark on that morning to the socialist William O’Brien that they were “going out to be slaughtered.” It has become common to see the Easter Rising as a deliberate attempt to enact a “blood sacrifice”, a view which owes much to the writings of Patrick Pearse and the posthumous commentary in the poems of William Butler Yeats.

Yet the rest of the IRB leadership did not agree. Connolly angrily dismissed the notion of sacrificial bloodshed as the talk of a “blithering idiot”, and the initial plans for the rising were far more advanced than eventual rising in Dublin would suggest.

Though they fought bravely, the Easter rebels faced the overwhelming might of the British Empire and decided to surrender after five days of fighting to prevent further casualties. Though reaction to the Rising was mixed, it was the British decision to execute the rebels which tipped Irish opinion against the government.

Connolly, along with Seán Mac Diarmada, was amongst the last of the rebel leaders to be executed. So wounded was he from the fighting that he was carried out of the General Post Office on a stretcher, and had to be tied to a chair to face the firing squad in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol.

Yet Connolly had no regrets. On the night before his death, he reflected to his wife: “Well, Lillie, hasn’t it been a full life, and isn’t this a good end?”

To his daughter Nora he gave his last public statement: “Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

So how are we to judge Connolly? Writing at the end of 1915, he proclaimed: “We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class; we cannot conceive of a subject Ireland with a free working class.”

Connolly fought in the Easter Rising for the cause of Ireland freedom, yet he did it for his own reasons, consistent with decades spent as a revolutionary socialist, and a partisan of the labour movement. With independence achieved, Connolly’s struggle for the working-class goes on and provides a continuing source of inspiration. 

London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.

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