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James Connolly: The Irish Lenin

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.

Read on to learn about the life and times of James Connolly.

Read on to learn about the life and times of James Connolly.

James Connolly's Early Life

Unlike most of his Marxist contemporaries internationally, James Connolly was from a working-class background, born in the socially deprived Cowgate area of Edinburgh of Irish parentage on 5 June 1868. He left formal schooling at the age of 11. He worked in a variety of lowly paid labouring jobs, one being a carter that gathered the open sewage from the Cowgate ghetto, also known locally as 'Little Ireland' due to its prevalence of Irish immigrants. Economic hardship drove him into enlisting in the British Army and posted to Ireland during the Land War against absentee landlords and evictions of tenants. It gave him a visceral hatred of the British Army that lasted his entire life, both personally and politically.

Around the time he met his future wife, Lilly, he deserted the British army just as he was to be posted to India. By this time Connolly had become involved in the nascent Socialist movement in Scotland. Self-educating himself, he became a Marxist. One of his first recorded articles when still in Scotland, 'Party Politicians – Noble, Ignoble and Local' was published in the Labour Chronicle (Edinburgh), on 1 December 1894.


James Connolly's Move To Ireland and Emigration to The USA

During his involvement in Scottish Socialism, James Connolly was secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation. With a growing family he took a job with the Dublin Socialist Club, which was later to morph into the Irish Socialist Republican Party, like today's Irish Republican Socialist Party, they viewed the struggle for Irish national liberation and socialism as inseparable. It is in James Connolly's article entitled the 'Irish Socialist Republican Party' written in 1896 that the internationally known words of Connolly's first appeared:

"The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees;

Connolly goes on to state the objectives of the Irish Socialist Republican Party:

"Establishment of AN IRISH SOCIALIST REPUBLIC based upon the public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange. Agriculture to be administered as a public function, under boards of management elected by the agricultural population and responsible to them and to the nation at large. All other forms of labour necessary to the well-being of the community to be conducted on the same principles".

An opponent of Britain's Boer War, Connolly joined with other socialists and more traditionalist Republicans in opposing it. Sadly, economic hardship forced Connolly to emigrate to the USA like so many of his contemporaries in search of employment with no concrete offers of work awaiting him.

Yes, for all those anarchist LARPers, et al, James Connolly was certainly a 'Tankie' as they wouldd denigrate him.

Yes, for all those anarchist LARPers, et al, James Connolly was certainly a 'Tankie' as they wouldd denigrate him.

James Connolly in the USA and the DeLeon Controversy

During his time in the USA, James Connolly became a member of the Socialist Labor Party of America (1906), the Socialist Party of America (1909) and the Industrial Workers of the World. Although never a truly one-dimensional syndicalist, as a Marxist he saw the value in mass movements of the proletariat.

Most notable was the Conolly-DeLeon Controversy. The controversy or disagreement was complex, with Connolly harshly critical of DeLeon's brand of syndicalism and the dearth of his vigour for real political action, and his creeping reformism. It is quite voluminous but can be read in full here.

In one of Connolly's own defences he slates De Leon's disregard for scientific socialism and his creeping reformism:

"I say to you in all candour that although I have been fifteen years in the socialist movement, I have seldom if ever met a more slip shod examination of a grave economic problem than that which our editor has treated us to in this case. No, comrades, when Marx said the worker could not get more than the value of his labour he did not base his statement, upon the increase of prices he has just denied he did not base it upon the truth of a statement he had just proven to be an error nor, upon the occurrence of a phenomenon he has just demonstrated did not occur. The reason why the worker cannot get more than the value of his labour I have just explained to you, and to allow you to judge which explanation is that of Marx, I will quote to you the resolutions which Marx gave at the end of his lecture as the summing up of his arguments.

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages'


James Connolly Returns To Ireland

James Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910. On return to Ireland Connolly became involved with Jim Larkin's trade union and was one of the main founders of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) during the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913, becoming Europe's first Red Army. Its original purpose was to defend trade union members and strikers against the brutality of the Dublin police whose antecedents for such activities are well-documented and brutal. In Connolly's 'Arms and the Man' in 1913, he states:

'But whilst the Government twirled its thumbs rather bored at the spectacle, something was happening in other circles on which the Government had not counted, and which the same Government could not afford, or did not think it could afford, to view with equanimity. That something took shape and form on the day on which we announced that the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union proposed to organise and drill a Citizen Army of its own.'

The Irish Citizen Army drilling outside Liberty Hall: Europe's First Red Army

The Irish Citizen Army drilling outside Liberty Hall: Europe's First Red Army

Preparations for the Rising

Connolly was no romantic when it came to warfare, it could be said that with the imperialist powers at war in Europe, he believed in the old Republican adage that 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity.' Certainly, Connolly's ICA was planning a rising irrespective of the traditionalist Republicans Irish Volunteers leaders' plans or lack of them.

As it happened the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood led by old Tom Ceannt and PH Pearse had been planning a rising for Easter 1916 and took Connolly into their confidence.

On the 24th of April 1916, as the Easter Rising began, Connolly was made Commander of the combined Dublin Brigade, in effect leader of the Easter Rising, not least due to his militancy and military background.

Two days previous to the beginning of the Easter Rising during a drill of the Irish Citizen Army, what could be described as a dry run was enacted. In the Workers Republic of 22nd April 1916 entitled: 'Labour and Ireland - Dublin Working Class, amid Great Emotion, Hoist and Salute the Flag of Ireland' it states:

Those who witnessed that scene will never forget it. Over the Square, across Butt Bridge, in all the adjoining streets, along the quays, amid the dense mass upon O’Connell Bridge, Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street corners, everywhere the people burst out in one joyous delirious shout of welcome and triumph, hats and handkerchiefs fiercely waved, tears of emotion coursed freely down the cheeks of strong rough men, and women became hysterical with excitement.

As the first burst of cheering subsided Commandant Connolly gave the command, “Battalion, Present Arms”, the bugles sounded the General Salute, and the concourse was caught up in a delirium of joy and passion.

In a few short words at the close Commandant Connolly pledged his hearers to give their lives if necessary to keep the Irish Flag Flying, and the ever-memorable scene was ended.

Damage caused to Dublin by the British warship HMY Helga, which pounded the city during the Rising.

Damage caused to Dublin by the British warship HMY Helga, which pounded the city during the Rising.

The Easter Rising and Its Aftermath

The events of the Easter Rising of 1916 are well-documented. A small but committed force without a so-called 'mandate' took on the brutal might of the British empire against all odds. In fact, the Republicans caused more enemy fatalities than the British.

The Irish Republicans fought bravely and held out with mostly small arms against the might of the British Empire that included the barrages from the 12-pounder guns of the HMY Helga that wrought terrible damage to central Dublin.

Connolly was seriously injured, possibly with only a few days to live according to the British doctor who examined him prior to his execution. The Republicans held out for a week before the order to surrender was given.

The leaders of the Easter Rising were all sentenced to death by a military court-martial, including Willie Pearse simply because he was Patrick Pearse's brother.

James Conolly was held in Dublin Castle rather than Kilmainham Gaol by the British, not through any humanitarian reason on behalf of the British military under the command of General John 'blood and guts' Maxwell, but because he was not expected to survive until the execution date.

A Soviet depiction of the badly injured James Connolly in the GPO.

A Soviet depiction of the badly injured James Connolly in the GPO.

A seriously injured James Connolly being carried through the streets of Dublin

A seriously injured James Connolly being carried through the streets of Dublin

James Connolly’s Last Statement as Given to His Daughter Emma on the Eve of His Execution

To the Field General Court Martial, held at Dublin Castle, on May 9th, 1916:

I do not wish to make any defence except against charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners. These trifling allegations that have been made, if they record facts that really happened deal only with the almost unavoidable incidents of a hurried uprising against long-established authority, and nowhere show evidence of set purpose to wantonly injure unarmed persons.

We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland, was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war. We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.

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 forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.

I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth and to attest it with their lives if need be.

Commandant-General, Dublin Division,
Army of the Irish Republic


The Murder of James Connolly

On the 12th of May 1916 James Connolly, barely alive, was ferried to Kilmainham Gaol for his execution. So badly injured was James Connolly that he had to be tied to a chair before the execution squad. It is 'reported; by the Capuchin priest, Father Aloysius Travers, who heard Connolly's last words that he stated,

"I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights"

James Connolly's lifeless body, coffinless, was buried in a mass grave that contained the rest of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising. James Connolly died as he lived, a Marxist revolutionary. His actions and those of his men were praised constantly by VI Lenin.

The most famous Soviet encounter with the Rising was Lenin’s. As Connolly’s army took the General Post Office in Dublin and raised the Irish tricolour, Lenin was in the throes of writing his theory of imperialism and national self-determination. Sensing that events in Ireland were confirming his new perspective, Lenin embraced the Rising as a decisive “blow against the power of English imperialism”. He was therefore aghast when fellow Bolsheviks like Karl Radek denounced the Rising as a “putsch” carried out by “petty-bourgeois” nationalist dreamers.

At first, many Dubliners were opposed to the Rising but once the executions and internment of combatants began, public opinion took a cataclysmic shift. The Rising proved a catalyst in the Irish Dialectic and provided the impetus for the Tan War.

Patrick H Pease's earlier words at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in 1915 proved prophetic at the conclusion of the bloody executions,

"They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace".

Original parchment account of James Connolly's last visit with his wife Lilly and daughter Nora, written by Nora

Original parchment account of James Connolly's last visit with his wife Lilly and daughter Nora, written by Nora

James Connolly’s Last Visit With His Wife Lilly and Daughter Nora

After being transferred to Kilmainham Gaol for execution the next day, his wife Lilly and his daughter were allowed to briefly visit him in the prison. The following is Nora Connolly's account of their brief visit:

“My mother and I . . . were driven to Dublin Castle,” Nora said. “On entering we were directed to a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs were six soldiers with fixed bayonets, and on the floor about a dozen more were lying on mattresses.

“We passed through the soldiers and entered an enclave where there were two soldiers with fixed bayonets. They stood aside to let us enter the door. When we entered my father was lying in the bed with his head turned to the door.”

It is clear from Nora’s testimony that her mother still hoped that her husband’s life might be spared. She was shocked when he told her that he was to be executed. Connolly told his wife, “Well, I suppose you know what this means.” Lillie responded, “Not that James, not that.”

Nora continued:

My father said, ‘Yes, for the first time I dropped off to sleep. And they wakened me to tell me that I was to be shot at dawn.’ ”

Lillie said, “Your life, James, your beautiful life.”

Well, Lillie,” he answered, “hasn’t it been a full life, and isn’t this a good end?”

VI Lenin with Roddy Connolly (James Connolly's son) at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Petrograd, July 1920

VI Lenin with Roddy Connolly (James Connolly's son) at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Petrograd, July 1920

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Liam A Ryan