Scotland

The Edinburgh revolutionary who led the Easter Rising

  • 28 March 2016
  • From the section Scotland
James Connolly

James Connolly is the most famous revolutionary socialist and trade union leader Edinburgh ever produced but he is a controversial character in the city of his birth. That is because he was one of the main leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

It is seen now as a founding moment for today's Irish Republic but at the time the rebellion seemed like an unpopular and reckless failure.

A tiny force of about 1,250 rebel Irish Volunteers in Dublin, including Connolly's Irish Citizen Army, declared war on British rule at the height of World War One, at the same time as hundreds of thousands of Irish troops were serving abroad with British Forces.

On Easter Monday 1916, the rebels occupied key buildings such as the General Post Office in Dublin.

The British counter-attacked with machine guns, artillery and naval bombardment.

The city centre soon began to look like a front-line town in Flanders.

By the end of Easter Week, 262 civilians caught in the battle had been killed, as well as casualties among the rebels and British army.

When the rebels finally surrendered, the badly-injured Connolly was taken prisoner along with the others. The news was a worldwide sensation.

You have to look hard to find him commemorated in Edinburgh, down in the Cowgate, where he was born in 1868.

Today it is the haunt of stags, hens and student drinkers but Connolly knew it as "Little Ireland", one of the poorest slums in the city.

The plaque that marks his birth is next to a row of pubs, mounted on a dirty pillar of the arch of George IV Bridge.

Image caption A plaque commemorating James Connolly can be found in Edinburgh's Cowgate

The late Ian Bell, of the Herald, told his son Sean Bell, also a journalist, about being taken there as a child in 1968 to see the first plaque put up.

It was soon pulled down by those who disapproved of Connolly's loyalties.

Yet Connolly was an unlikely republican hero.

He had moved to Ireland in 1896, at the age of 28, when he was invited to become paid organiser of the Dublin Socialist Society.

However, he emigrated to the US in 1903 and returned to Ireland in 1910 to find the political environment more receptive to his ideas.

Before the Rising he was best known for leading a Dublin strike in 1913.

According to Kirsty Lusk, of Glasgow University, who studies the Rising: "Connolly saw the Easter Rising as a first step towards a socialist revolution.

"He warned his soldiers during the battle to hang on to their weapons when everyone else stopped fighting, because they were fighting for something more, and raising a green Irish flag over Dublin Castle wouldn't change things for the working classes.

"He bound together ideas of national identity and socialism, suggesting that socialism was the original national state of the Irish people, while capitalism was brought in by an alien government, and that through national liberation there would be also liberation for the working classes."

Connolly may also have influenced some of the more radical parts of the proclamation of the Irish Republic: promising votes for women and to treat all children equally regardless of religion.

He was a feminist with progressive social values but he had also just helped lead a rebellion in which British soldiers, some on leave from the front, had been killed.

That same proclamation hailed the Germans as Ireland's "gallant allies".

Image copyright PA
Image caption More than 450 people were killed during the rising in Dublin in April 1916

The Scottish newspapers were horrified.

The Scotsman sensationally revealed that Connolly not only had a soldier brother living in Edinburgh, recently discharged from the army after a serious illness, but claimed: "Three of his brother's sons were in the army. Two of them have been killed in action and the third is a prisoner of war in Germany."

Connolly, the newspaper implied, had betrayed not just his home country but his own relatives.

That Edinburgh brother was John Connolly, Sean Bell's great great grandfather.

Genealogical research and family inquiries reveal the newspaper reports were heavily embroidered - there were no dead or PoW sons in the family.

John Connolly had indeed served in the Royal Scots and was a corporal at the time of his death, yet this did not save his family from harassment.

His daughter Kate, Mr Bell's great grandmother, told of being chased home from school and her sister Mary spoke in a 1960s TV interview of her horror of going to the newsagents to find her uncle reported as executed.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Spectators lined Dublin's streets on Sunday for a military parade to mark the centenary

The family faced a barrage of media misinformation.

According to Kirsty Lusk, Connolly was "killed" several times in newspaper reports.

She said: "It is reported that he's killed in the General Post Office, he's killed again shortly afterwards in Dublin Castle and he dies of his wounds, and then he's finally executed."

His actual death was by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol on 12 May 1916.

Connolly was so badly wounded, he could not stand up to be shot.

The Easter Rising was initially deeply unpopular and many Irish organisations wrote to the Scottish papers denouncing it.

But the subsequent executions of Connolly and the other leaders changed many minds.

His Edinburgh brother John survived him by little over a month, dying of acute nephritis on 22 June.

He is commemorated in North Merchiston cemetery on the World War One soldiers' memorial - the same army that shot James Connolly buried his brother with full military honours.

But it is worth remembering that in Easter Week, more Irish soldiers died at the front in Flanders than were killed on both sides in the Rising.

What seem like bright dividing lines now were not so clear then.

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