On June 5th, 147 years ago, James Connolly was born. Although he later became an Irish symbol of Republicanism, he was not born in Ireland – and in many ways, he did not fit in the Republican movement. He was born in Scotland and was a devout socialist who was profoundly engaged in the causes of Labor and Equality first and foremost. He was certainly an enemy of the state and an energetic agitator, but many of the tenets he adhered to and espoused, were not quite in line with his partners in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Since today is his birthday, here are some little things that you may or may not know about Mr. James Connolly.
- The area of Scotland that he was born in was nicknamed Little Ireland and it was a pitiful slum. Over 14,000 Irish people were crammed into this small area of Edinburgh – packed like sardines into tenement housing and horrible poverty where diseases and viruses ran rampant. His mother passed away relatively young, because she suffered from chronic Bronchitis that couldn’t be treated effectively due to the hardships that the family suffered. James used to daydream that his home would be burned to the ground while he was working, just to be free his obligations and the neighborhood.
- His incredible writing and his brilliant speeches and ideas were skills that were largely self taught. Connolly only attended school until the age of 10 before going into the workforce to help his family financially. In the area that he was raised in, this was common. Those who were lucky enough to attend school at all were usually pulled from it at a very early age. In spite of this, he was able to hold his own amongst the scholars, poets, and leaders that he later surrounded himself with – and many would say his intelligence and eloquence far surpassed some of theirs.
- He joined the British army at age 14 and was enlisted for nearly seven years. He spent almost the entire time in Ireland, seeing for himself what the English forces and corrupt landlords inflicted on the native Irish. This resulted in a serious conflict of interest – he formed a deep hatred for the army, even as he was still a member of it. He was determined to turn his training against the institution and began looking for a way out. He made the jump after he met and fell in love with a Protestant Irishwoman that he married in his early twenties. Being married to a Protestant was also unusual in the company he later kept.
- He lived outside of Ireland for much of his life. He was born and raised in Scotland and after he married, he moved to America for many years. He was heavily involved in Socialism and workers’ rights – never straying far from the Irish cause – but he did not always live in Ireland. When he returned, he was a founding member of the Irish Labour Party and he quickly became involved in politics and agitation. He formed the Irish Citizen Army in response to the Larne gunrunning in the North and was one of the few leaders to enlist the help of men and women equally. His Citizen Army grew publicly at the same time that the all male Irish Volunteers were training for a rebellion, and this was cause for great concern in the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. Ultimately, they asked him to join forces with them in order to curb the attention his parades and drills were garnering from the authorities.
- During the Easter Rising of 1916, Connolly proved himself to be the most inspirational of the leaders. Even as he lay wounded, Patrick Pearse called him “the guiding brain of our resistance“. The training that many of the fiercest women who took part in the uprising received can be at least partially attributed to his Citizen Army. His soldiers—male or female—were what mattered most to him and he was sure to honor them before he was executed. During his court-martial he said, “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. 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.”
- Unlike many of the other leaders of the Easter Rising, Connolly was not devout in any way. The few religious ceremonies he took part in as an adult were his wedding and his confession, absolution and last rights that were given by a priest immediately before he was shot. It is rumored that right before the shots rang out, he whispered, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do“. His execution was the last of the leaders’ deaths and was so upsetting that it caused international condemnation and outrage. Three months after his death, in spite of his lack of piety while he lived, his wife and family were received into the Catholic church along with all the other families of the executed leaders.