James Connolly was born in Edinburgh to Irish immigrant parents on 5th June 1868. Joining the British Army at 14, he first set foot in Ireland as a member of the Royal Scots Regiment, stationed first in Cork and then in Dublin. When his regiment returned to England in 1889 he deserted and returned to Scotland where in 1890 he married Lillie Reynolds, who he had met in Dublin. He became involved with left-wing politics in Scotland, moving to Dublin in 1896 to take up a job as paid organiser of the Dublin Socialist Club. He disbanded the Club and reorganised it as the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He founded the radical newspaper Worker’s Republic in 1888. An extended lecture tour in the US starting 1902 saw him become involved with the US Socialist Party and the “Wobblies” (Industrial Workers of the World). He returned to Dublin in 1910, becoming national organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland, and moved to Belfast to organise the newly founded Irish Transport and General Workers Union, ITGWU1.
The ITGWU were central to the 1913 Lockout in Dublin. The Lockout occurred as a culmination of events started when the Dublin United Tramways Company sacked workers for being members of the ITGWU. The Irish Citizen Army was founded that year to defend strikers and union members.
In 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, a war that Connolly saw as “a fearful crime”, one that participating in would be a greater wrong that fighting for “republican freedom”. He met with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was persuaded to lead the Citizen Army alongside them in a future insurrection. The Rising occurred in Easter 1916. The revolt was quickly suppressed, Connolly was wounded, and as one of the leaders was executed2.
Connolly wrote articles on Irish social and political issues as early as the 1890s – his first collection of articles Erin’s Hope was published in 1897. This first pamphlet laid out the thesis that he held all his life: “The Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country”. The Irish working class were “the only secure foundation on which a free nation can be reared” and in so acting, were not acting against the interests of Labour worldwide but working out their salvation on the line best suited to them 3.
Such articles and pamphlets, rather than complex theorising, was his forte. His political philosophy, which is laid out most clearly in his Labour in Irish History (1910) and Labour, Nationality and Religion (1910), combines pragmatism and radical thinking. Connolly avoids dogmatic application of theory, instead taking an eclectic approach to local circumstances and issues. One example of his independent thinking was his refusal to accept that socialism required rejection of religious belief, where an orthodox Marxist would see religion as a sign of alienation. This was the root of his break with the US Socialist Labour Party (4. Duddy (2004) p. 82).
He not only argued this point with socialists but with Christians. Labour, Nationality and Religion is designed as a response to Fr Kane, a Jesuit, who attacked socialism as being completely incompatible with Christianity. Connolly describes socialism and socialist doctrines, but often avoids being prescriptive – for example he describes Marx’s economic determinism while at the same time denying a socialist must agree with that thesis. He highlights the weaknesses in Kane’s assertions: Kane for example acknowledges socialism is not logically the same as atheism, and gives no reason as to why a “real” Catholic cannot be a “real” socialist. Connolly points out that priests regularly deplore the Reformation, the seizing of monastic lands and the breakup of the charitable monastic system. Yet, somehow, they also argue for the right of possession of those who seized those lands. “[T]he Church curses the Protestant Reformation – the child; and blesses capitalism – its parent”. For Connolly the core of socialism is simply, “as we suffer together we must work together that we can enjoy together” 4.
Connolly’s personal religious beliefs and attitude to religion have been hotly debated, given conflicting opinions of contemporaries and conflicting evidence. Connolly’s primary concern was to forge alliances within the working class regardless of religion. “In the end, it remains impossible to know for sure Connolly’s personal opinions on religious belief, given his inconsistency on the matter, up until his execution in 1916” 5.
Connolly also made an excursion into Irish philosophy, by tracing a thread of indigenous radicalism in Irish history (in Labour in Irish History). Starting with the Williamite wars, he cites Swift’s Modest Proposal and Berkeley’s account of the Great Frost to demonstrate the sufferings of the Irish. He discusses the agrarian revolts by Oakboys, Whiteboys and other secret groups, the betrayal of the Volunteers and the United Irishmen’s democratic and universalist manifesto 6.
Connolly compares O’Connell and Feargus O’Connor, (O’Connell’s lieutant and a Chartist), finding firmly in favour of the latter. He goes on to outline socialist leanings within the New Irelanders and in later writers.
Connolly particularly praises William Thompson as a forerunner of Marx and asks, just as people praised the Irish missionaries of the Middle Ages for re-establishing learning in Europe 7:
may we not also take pride in the face that an Irishman was the first to pierce the worse than Egyptian darkness of capitalist barbarism, and to point out to the toilers the conditions of their enslavement, and the essential pre-requisites of their emancipation?
Connolly drew his inspiration from his harsh experience of deprivation, and developed his thought from his self-directed reading of socialist authors. He was executed for his part in the Easter Rising in Kilmainham Jail on 12th May 1916.
James Connolly (1910a) “Labour, Nationality and Religion” (pamphlet – Marxists.org)
James Connolly (1910b) Labour in Irish History (pamphlet – Marxists.org).
Archive of Connolly’s works on UCC Kelt
Eoin Higgins (2014) “Reform to Revolution: The Ideological and Political Evolution of James Connolly” on The Hampton Institute
Brendan McGeever (2016) The Easter Rising and the Soviet Union: an untold chapter in Ireland’s great rebellion in openDemocracyUK (online).
- Thomas Duddy (2004) “Connolly, James” in T. Duddy (ed). The Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 80-83. ↩
- Duddy (2004) ↩
- James Connolly (1897) Erin’s Hope (online) ↩
- James Connolly (1910a) Labour, Nationality and Religion (online at Marxists.org) ↩
- Niall Mulholland (2006) “The Connolly & religion debate” in Socialism Today (online) ↩
- James Connolly (1910b) Labour in Irish History (online ↩
- Connolly (1910b), Chapter 10 (online) ↩