“James Connolly was a great man!”
I can still hear my Mayo grandmother telling me that.
It was the first time I can recall hearing this man’s name.
A few years later on the 50th anniversary of the Rising I remember seeing a depiction of his execution.
I think it was on the cover of a commemorative long playing record
The painting on the album sleeve showed him strapped to a chair as he proudly faced the British firing squad.
The reality of his death was much more obscene, much more shameful for those who shot him.
It is accepted among historians of the Easter Rising and the aftermath that on May12th 1916 James Connolly was close to death.
His leg wound had gone septic and he was dying from the infection.
As the British army truck bounced along cobbled streets towards Kilmainhaim prison the officer in charge feared that the Irishman from Edinburgh might die en route to his execution.
As soon as he was carried inside the stonebreaker’s yard at the gaol he was shot without too much ceremony.
They didn’t carry him to the far end where there were sandbags erected and the rest of the signatories of the Proclamation had been executed.
Connolly was the last.
In the fifty years since I sat at my grandmother’s knee in Westport I haven’t acquired many heroes.
It is not a bad strategy because you don’t have the trauma of learning that they weren’t that heroic in the first place.
James Connolly was, and remains, my hero.
He was correct to strike for Ireland in Easter Week.
He made sure that ideas of social justice would be written into the DNA the new Republic along with Pearce’s cultural nationalism.
As a twenty year old I sat in a modest house in Bray and listened to an old lady with a faint Scottish accent tell me about her father.
Nora was determined, even in her advanced years, that the ideas of James Connolly would not be lost.
Here now in the Republic of Direland (a wholly owned subsidiary of the IMF) his warnings, penned before the dawn of the 20th century, of the futility of political independence without economic autonomy appear more prescient with every passing week.
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization 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.”
[Shan Van Vocht (socialist newspaper) January, 1897]
Like many Marxists of his generation he discounted the importance of culture.
Had he lived there would have been a fascinating comradely debate to be had between the Irishman from Edinburgh and Antonio Gramsci.
James Connolly scoffed at those who signed the Ulster Covenant telling him that their children would laugh at it.
He totally underestimated the ability of a toxic belief system to lure the organised working class of Belfast into a fascist subculture and hold it there for generations.
With the “material base” of the shipyards largely gone the strutting xenophobia of Carson and Craigavon lives on in an underclass that worships Johnny Adair.
We can only judge people by the mores of the day.
By any objective criteria Connolly was head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries in terms of his vision and his courage.
“We are going out to be slaughtered” he told William O’Brien on the morning of the Rising.
Unlike the polo playing butchers of the Somme, General James Connolly was in the thick of the action from the start.
Early on in Easter Week he was wounded outside the GPO as he checked on barricades.
Bedbound with a leg wound that turned gangrenous he ordered that he be carried out into the middle of the building as the British shells smashed the building.
Even in his weakened state he wanted to be among the volunteers so that he could lead them, General Melchett he wasn’t.
He started to sing the “soldier’s song” in order to rouse the spirits of his men.
The entire beleaguered garrison belted out the words of the song that would be later translated into Irish and become the national anthem of the Irish state.
[Note for historical illiterates: The words “God bless the Pope” did not figure in any version of the soldier’s song.]
In his last meeting with his wife Lily he told her that people would probably forget that he was an Irishman.
For the great internationalist and syndicalist it was still important to him that his people remembered that he was one of their own.
We have not forgotten.
James Connolly was a great Irishman.