Preface of James Connolly: Portrait of a Rebel Father (1935)
AMONG the sixteen men who were executed after the failure of the Irish Insurrection of 1916 there was no nobler or more heroic figure than James Connolly. It was not necessary to share the faith for which he died in order to realise what a magnanimous and valiant man was lost to the world on the day on which, wounded and unable to walk, he was carried from his bed on a stretcher and propped up in a chair to face the firing-squad. Criticism was silent in the presence of that last tragic picture; and, when it became known that the man about to die, on being asked by the priest who attended him: “Will you say a prayer for the men about to shoot you?” had replied: “I will say a Prayer for all brave men who do their duty,” Connolly’s heroic end became a legend to be treasured for all time.
In some ways Connolly differed conspicuously from most of the famous Irish patriots both of the past and of his own time. He was a working-class leader and a Nationalist in almost equal Proportions. He was at once as patriotic as Garibaldi and as revolutionary as Lenin. The great nation of the poor commanded his loyalty no less than the historic Irish ration that traced its idealism back through the centuries. For him there was nothing paradoxical in this. He saw the cause of the workers and the cause of Ireland, not as separate causes, but as the same cause.
His politics, no doubt, were largely influenced by his early life in working-class Scotland. Born near the Ulster town of Ballybay in 1870, he was only ten years old when his family moved to Edinburgh, where his father worked as a municipal dustman. Connolly himself was contributing to the family income by the age of eleven by working in a bakery from six in the morning till late at night. We learn from a passage in this book of his misery at the time, and how, when he set out for work in the morning, he used to long for the bakery to be burned down before his arrival there. For a time he also had a job as a printer’s devil on an evening newspaper. “He was,” writes Mr. W. P. Ryan in “The Irish Labour Movement,” “under the age at which the law allowed youths in such a position, but … he was mounted on a stool behind a ‘case’ whenever a factory inspector appeared, and thus looked as tall and passable as the law required.”
As he grew older, Mr. Ryan tells us, he was in turn tramp, navvy, and pedlar; and, by the time that he married at the age of 27, he had become, like his father, a dustman.
The way in which he contrived to educate himself during these years gives evidence of his passionate earnestness and strength of will. He loved books of all kinds—novels, poetry, and history—from an early age; and, he was taken by his Fenian uncle to Socialist gatherings, his new interest sent him to the books of the economists, and he was before long a disciple of Karl Marx. The young convert then set out to train himself as a Socialist speaker; but, as one job after another slipped from him, it looked for a time as though he would have to abandon politics and emigrate to South America. He was urged by a friend to go back to Ireland instead, find work there, and organist an Irish Socialist Party.
We realise from Mrs. Connolly O’Brien’s vivid and moving narrative something of what he and his family suffered during the early stages of his struggle to spread a new and far from popular gospel in southern Ireland. We see him, exhausted by his work as a navvy, tramping the streets in leaking boots as an unemployed man, with nothing to support his courage but the love of his heroic wife and children and the flame within.
There have been few revolutionary leaders, imagine, in whose life the affections of the home played a greater part. Poverty was there—poverty sometimes so overwhelming that it became a question whether there was anything else in the house left to pawn—but it is difficult not to think of that devoted family as being happy beyond the common lot. There was laughter as well as anxiety in the air. The family in Little Women, indeed, did not live in an atmosphere richer in human kindness than did the family of this dangerous agitator.
Mrs. Connolly O’Brien’s book is particularly attractive because of the way in which she blends the story of his beautiful private life with his daring and determined public life. As the title of the book suggests, it is the father as well as the rebel that she sets out to paint.
Rebellion is in the wind, however, from the beginning of the story—rebellion against a world in which the poor and the weak suffer at the hands of the rich and the strong. Luckily for Connolly, unlike many idealists, he found in his family a happy mirror of his own enthusiasms. We get the impression at times from his daughter’s book of the young people’s throwing themselves into the work of agitating and assisting in strikes as gaily as if they were taking part in a birthday party. This gaiety, this high-spiritedness, is, of course, common enough among those who have committed themselves to great causes. It is a mark of the exaltation of the self that has become merged in a purpose greater than the self. It is the emotion felt by those for whom the Promised Land is not only more real than reality, but is already coming into view in the far distance with its rivers and green fields.
Like Arthur Griffith in the Sinn Féin movement—Griffith who was at times a severe critic of Connolly and his Labour activities—Connolly struggled on through dark years, indifferent to failure, and indifferent to poverty, confident of the journey’s end that he might not even live to see. He was denounced by priests from the pulpit—for he was that unusual thing, a Catholic as well as a patriotic Marxian—and he listened to the denunciations from his seat without resentment. Ireland as a whole seemed indifferent to his ideals, but Connolly was the sort of man who would have gone boldly forward if he had been in a minority of one. He was always in a minority while he lived: he was still in a minority when he died. He sacrificed his life, like others, indeed, in 1916, because he believed that it was only by dying that the minority could win over the majority to the cause in which it believed.
Of those last days that led up to the Easter Week Insurrection Mrs. Connolly O’Brien has written an unforgettable narrative. Here even those who have no sympathy with the Insurrection or who regard it as a crime or an act of madness, will see the insurgents as the insurgents saw themselves, and will come to understand their spirit. As events recede into history, men of all shades of opinion can recognise heroism and self-sacrifice on whichever side of the battle they appear; and, when a man fearlessly and selflessly gives his life for an ideal, he takes his place in the eyes of his fellows among the heroes.
Connolly, I think, would have been an important figure in Irish history even if he had not been executed in 1916. His book, “Labour in Irish History,” would alone have been enough to keep his name in the memory of his fellow-countrymen. We should not have known so much of his greatness of spirit, however, if he had not undergone that last agony. Those who read this book will always remember him as the tender-hearted and indomitable man, lying wounded in his bed in Dublin Castle, laying his hand for comfort and consolation on the head of his sobbing wife, to whom he had just broken the news that he had been sentenced to be shot at dawn. “ ‘Don’t cry, Lillie,’ he pleaded. ‘You’ll unman me.’ ‘But your beautiful life, James,’ Mama sobbed, ‘your beautiful life.’ ‘Hasn’t it been a full life, Lillie?’ he said. ‘And isn’t this a good end?’ “ Then when the weeping mother had been taken from the room, the daughter ran back from the door and kissed him. He held her to his breast. “I’m proud of you, Nora girl,” he said. Those were his last words to her on earth. His daughter has here repaid love with love and pride with pride in a book that has been written from the depths of her remembering heart.