James Connolly

On June 5, 1868, a boy was born of Irish parents in the section of Edinburgh, Scotland known as Little Ireland. That boy would become one of the most beloved leaders of his time, and one of Ireland’s greatest patriots; his name was James Connolly.

The drastic class distinction and poverty caused by anti-Irish discrimination in 19th century Scotland was a heavy influence on young James. Working as an apprentice printer at the age of 10, he became an avid reader, and by the time he was 14 had read most of the literature of Michael Davitt’s Land League on its war against the landlords in Ireland. It is no surprise that he grew extremely nationalistic, and citing the Fenian example of enlisting to learn military tactics, he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment. He was sent to serve in Ireland which was then entering the Gaelic Revival and there was no shortage of historical and nationalist oriented material for Connolly’s hungry young eyes. Stationed in Dublin, he became aware of the close parallel between his Edinburgh environment and the pitiful conditions of the Dublin working class. Taking a note from history, he swore that as the Land League had successfully organized farmers against landlords, he would organize workers against the managers of industry.

After his discharge, he returned to Edinburgh, and began organizing labor. He was eventually blacklisted in Scotland, and was invited to be a labor organizer in Ireland where his knowledge of Irish history made him one of the most popular speakers of the Gaelic Revival. His popularity was so great he was invited on speaking tours of Scotland and England, and in 1902 was invited to America. He toured the U.S. lecturing labor unions and rally’s, and eventually settled in Troy, New York. He started a monthly paper called The Harp to enlist Irish-American support for the labor movement, and filled its pages with news from Ireland. This news brought Connolly closer to Irish affairs, and he realized where his heart had always been. He returned to Ireland, and settled in Belfast in 1910 to help organize the Irish Transport Workers Union.

In August, 1912 Connolly was called to Dublin where one of the greatest labor struggles in the history of western Europe – the Great Dublin Lockout – had begun. Management, in an attempt to break the union, locked the workers out of their jobs. Violence was rampant, and Connolly was instrumental in forming a force to protect the workers from management-controlled police; thus the Irish Citizen Army was born. Though the lockout ended in favor of management, the workers had made it so costly that it would never again be used against organized labor.

Convinced that ties with England were hampering the labor movement, Connolly began to preach open rebellion. Unknown to him, Padraic Pearse and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were already planning such action. Connolly’s newspaper articles were so militant that IRB leader Tom Clarke was afraid Connolly would unknowingly tip their hand. On Jan 19, Connolly left for lunch and disappeared. For 3 days his kidnapping so infuriated the labor movement that his followers almost started a rebellion without him. On the third day, Connolly returned, and remained silent concerning his whereabouts. It was later said that he had been taken by the IRB to be briefed on the coming rising; Connolly was now a member of the IRB Military Council.

He had pledged the support of the Irish Citizen Army, and was thereafter a leading figure in the march toward rebellion. When the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was drawn up, it was Connolly who made the final revision, and it was Connolly who had it printed in the basement of Liberty Hall – his union headquarters. On Easter Monday 1916, Connolly addressed his Citizen Army for the last time. “There is no longer a Citizen Army and a Volunteer Force,” he said, “there is now only the Army of the Irish Republic.”

The date of the Rising was set, and despite several mishaps during the week prior, like the capture of Roger Casement, the loss of an arms shipment, and Volunteer leader Eoin MacNeill’s cancellation of mobilization orders, Connolly was determined to prevail. Yet, when William Smith O’Brien asked Connolly, as they left Liberty Hall on that fateful morning, “Is there any chance of success?” Connolly replied, “None whatever.”  At 11:35 AM he led his men into the streets of Dublin, and the pages of history. In one bloody week it was over.

Despite a wounded shoulder and a shattered ankle, Connolly remained (in Pearse’s words) “the guiding brain of our resistance to the end.”  With the Irish surrender, Connolly was taken to Dublin Castle as the executions of the leaders began. Day by day, one by one, the noblest men in Ireland were murdered by an English firing squad. On May 12, after 13 had been killed, Connolly was brought into the stonebreaker’s yard at Kilmainham Jail to face the firing squad. In death Connolly would become an even greater inspiration than he had been in life. Within two months, he and the other leaders would take their place with Tone and Emmet; and the Irish people, their fury finally aroused, would pick up the cause left to them, and carry it through the War of Independence. In her book The Fractured Emerald, author Emily Hahn wrote, “It was probably the manner of Connolly’s death that at last nauseated the public: his wound had been allowed to gangrene and he was in such a bad way that the soldiers had to carry him out on a stretcher and prop him up to receive the bullets.”

Padraig Pearse

Patrick H. Pearse was a poet, lawyer, playwright, linguist, educator, author, and military leader. Born on Nov 10, 1879 in Dublin, his father’s firm belief in liberty (as evidenced by the name he gave his son) left a deep impression on young Patrick Henry. During his formal education at the Christian Brothers School he attained honors in Gaelic each year, and at ages 16 and 17, wrote prizewinning books in the language. He was amply encouraged in his pursuit for he had come to manhood during a period of intense Irishness known as the Gaelic Revival. Pearse joined the Gaelic League whose prime purpose was the revival of the national language, but its impact on the rise of nationalism was far more significant. Years later, Pearse wrote, The Irish revolution really began when the 7 original Gaelic Leaguers met in O’Connell Street. The germ of all future Irish history was in that room. In 1896, the Gaelic League was 3 years old, Pearse was 16, and the end of his life was still 20 years away. Despite a heavy schedule of studies, he was a member of the Gaelic League’s governing body and President of the New Ireland Literary Society as well. He began to write the ancient language in modern form, discarding the traditional format of the sagas and using the form of short stories, plays, and novels. His pioneering contributions were so significant that the Encyclopedia of Ireland notes that, He brought Irish literature into the 20th Century. In 1901 he was accepted to the Bar. In one of his few cases, he defended a client who had been fined for putting his name on his cart in Gaelic – a crime in British-controlled Ireland. Though commended for an ingenious, interesting, and instructive defense, he lost the case. He never practiced law again, and described the profession of an Irish lawyer in an English court system as the most ignoble of professions.

More and more Pearse’s writings came to reflect the nationalist influence of the Gaelic Revival. In 1908 he founded St Enda’s College as a bilingual secondary school. He became an outstanding orator, and spoke at many nationalist functions. Tom Clarke, the veteran Fenian who was attempting to rejuvenate the IRB, heard Pearse and invited him to deliver the 1913 oration at the graveside of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown – an annual event of considerable Republican significance. Pearse publicly identified himself with the nationalist cause when he began his speech, We have come to the holiest place in Ireland. In that same month he began contributing articles to the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom. By the end of 1913, Pearse was not only a member of the IRB, but of the newly formed Irish Volunteers as well, and he rose to prominence in both organizations. He became the principle speaker for the Volunteers and its Director of Organization, and, as such, had authority to issue orders on behalf of Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.

He was part of a 3-man IRB committee set up by Clarke, with Joseph Plunkett and Eamonn Ceannt, to draft a plan for a military insurrection. This committee later became the Military Council with the addition of Sean MacDiarmada, James Connolly, and Thomas MacDonagh.

It was as a member of this group and the Supreme Council of the IRB that Pearse ordered the Volunteers to assemble for training maneuvers on Easter Sunday, 1916. He was the indispensable link between the two groups. Tom Clarke’s IRB was the agent of the rising, but with no more than 2,000 members it needed the umbrella of the Volunteers. Hence the deception of MacNeill and the key role of Pearse. It was Pearse’s conviction that a blood sacrifice was essential to stir his generation of Irish to action. He maintained that the Gaelic Revival had bred a new generation of revolutionaries and forged the weapon that could topple the crown. All that was needed was one significant, bold action to arouse the people to a sense of their rights and put that force into motion. He was willing to initiate that action at the risk of his own life. On Easter Monday, he led his men into a rising to test that theory, even though he was acutely aware that he would not survive.

In 1915 he wrote, We must be ready to die, even as Emmet died, so that others may live. He told his mother just before the rising, The day is coming when I shall be shot, swept away, and my colleagues with me. After his surrender, he wrote from his jail cell, This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me choice – a soldiers death for Ireland and freedom. True to Pearse’s estimation, his execution and the execution of the other leaders set the Irish population into a seething rage that lit the fuse for the War of Independence. The groundwork of Pearse was the foundation of Irish freedom.

Some 6 months before his execution Pearse wrote to those who did not share his vision, in a poem he called The Fool:

The Lawyers have sat in Council, the men with the keen long faces,
and said This man is a fool, and others have said he blasphemeth;
and the wise have pitied the fool who strove to give a life to a dream
that was dreamed in the heart and that only the heart can hold.
O Wise Men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true,
What if the dream come true and millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart?

The Easter Rising

The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. It was yet the latest in more than a dozen attempts by the Irish to break the chains of bondage imposed on them by the Crown since the Normans first invaded in 1171. At least a dozen times in the previous seven centuries the Irish had organized military opposition and several times they had even tried parliamentary reform – all to no avail. With the dawn of the twentieth century, a new generation inherited the nationalist tradition of the past and was determined to keep faith with that tradition and try again.

To understand the significance of the Rising, one must start with the Gaelic revival early in the century. A literary movement, it sparked a renaissance in Ireland’s cultural heritage – language, history and arts. It planted the seeds of nationalism which led to a demand for Home Rule – a separate parliament for Ireland to govern herself. The government in Westminster depended on the Irish members of Parliament to ensure their power, so they acquiesced and promised Home Rule. However, loyalists in northern Ireland, who felt they would be a minority in an all-Irish Parliament, vowed to fight Home Rule if it were imposed. They formed a loyalist paramilitary militia called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 and became the first to import arms on a large scale as a force of 100,000 were armed and trained. In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed by members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to counter UVF opposition to Home Rule. However, they were only a poorly armed force of about 10,000.

The key to what happened next was an American citizen from Long Island, New York. His name was Thomas J. Clarke. An unrepentant veteran of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary society in Ireland, he was imprisoned for anti-Crown activities. Released after charges of torture were upheld he was exiled from Ireland. He fled to America in 1898. He settled in New York and became active in Clann na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement. He was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy – the most powerful figure in the Clann at the time. Highly respected for the suffering he endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members. He became an American citizen and in Sept, 1906, retired to Manorville, Long Island. Though prematurely aged at 48, Clarke was not put out to pasture.

In December, 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had become inactive due to age and apathy. As the trusted link between the Irish exiles of Clann na Gael and the IRB in Ireland, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the IRB and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action. He infiltrated the Volunteers, brought a young schoolteacher named Padraic Pearse into the brotherhood and recruited a young cadre to become a military council to further the goal of Irish freedom.

Home Rule was passed by Parliament, but with the outbreak of WWI, implementation was postponed; then, Northern politicians moved an amendment to exclude six counties of Ulster from the provisions of Home Rule and establish a separate state. John Redmond, head of the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that loyalty shown to the Crown at this crucial hour would result in the Crown acting favorably on behalf of Home Rule at the wars end, so he committed the Volunteers to serve in the British Army. This split the Volunteers and those who opposed service in the British Army reorganized under Eoin MacNeill.

IRB members within the Volunteer movement felt betrayed, and began to plot a rising. They were Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Kent, Sean MacDermott, led by the old Fenian, Tom Clarke. James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, a force organized to protect workers from police during labor disputes, was brought in on the plans. They set a date for a rising on Easter Sunday because of the symbolism of Christ’s rising from the dead and because all the military would be off on holiday. Orders were issued for training maneuvers throughout the country. When Volunteer Roger Casement was captured trying to land arms in Kerry on Good Friday, MacNeill learned that the maneuvers were to be an actual rising and countermanded the orders in the public press, determined to keep the Volunteers as only a balancing force to the UVF. Clarke rescheduled the rising for Monday, but was unable to get the word to the Volunteers outside Dublin. The military council decided to rise anyway, believing that the rest of the country would rally when they heard of the fighting in Dublin.

The patriots marched into Dublin on Monday and the British immediately cut all communication lines out of the city. The word never got out. The rising was confined to Dublin, and for five heroic days, the insurgents held out against the might of the British Empire. In the end, battered by shot and shell, they surrendered. By the time the rest of the country found out what had happened, it was over. Then the British did a very stupid thing.

They separated the leaders from the mass of prisoners who had surrendered, lined them up against a wall, and murdered the noblest leaders Ireland had produced in that generation. Connolly, who had been wounded in the fray, was taken out on a stretcher, and propped up against a wall to receive the bullets. That foolish act of revenge brought the Irish nation to their feet as one angry mass against the Crown. The seeds planted by the Gaelic Revival burst forth in a nationalist fury that led to the War of Independence, and the ultimate treaty with the British that led to the modern Republic of Ireland. Although six counties in the north were left to the Crown, most of Ireland was free. As we know the struggle for the Erin’s remaining green field continues yet, but whether or not the current peace leads to the promised unification of Ireland, the men of Easter Week who gave their lives that Irishmen might control their own destiny must never be forgotten. Remember them in your prayers on April 24.

Throughout the hardship of seven centuries
brave Irishmen struggled and fought
remember the price already paid
and don’t let it be for naught!