James Connolly – Irish socialist leader.

Today in Irish History: 12 May 1916 – James Connolly is executed by firing squad at dawn while strapped to a chair at Kilmainham Gaol.

James Connolly (Irish: Séamas Ó Conghaile; Born 5 June 1868 – 12 May 1916) was an Irish socialist leader.

Dublin Lock Out, James Larkin and the Citizen Army

Whilst in Ireland Connolly was right hand man to James Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In 1913, in response to the Lockout, he, along with an ex-British officer, Jack White, founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), an armed and well-trained body of labour men whose aim was to defend workers and strikers, particularly from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

Though they only numbered about 250 at most, their goal soon became the establishment of an independent and socialist Irish nation. He founded the Irish Labour Party in 1912 and was a member of the National Executive of the Irish Labour Party.

The Easter Rising

On the 24 th April 1916, the Easter Rising occurred, Connolly was Commandant of the Dublin Brigade, and as the Dublin Brigade had the most substantial role in the rising, he was de facto Commander in Chief.

Following the surrender, he said to other prisoner:

‘Don’t worry, those of us that signed the proclamation will be shot. But the rest of you will be set free.’

The man on a stretcher covered in a white sheet and surrounded by six members of the Citizen Army and British soldiers, is James Connolly, taken on the evening of April 29, 1916.

Historical accounts suggest that Connolly was carried by his comrades from the rebel leaders Moore Street headquarters to the British Army headquarters at the National Bank on the corner of O’Connell Street and Parnell Street.

Citizen Army Officer Liam Tannam recalled:

“We were then brought to the centre of the road and ordered to march in the direction of the Parnell Monument….We were surrounded by 30/50 (British) soldiers with fixed bayonets. Of course, Connolly was being carried by the four men…As far as Citizens Army Officers are concerned, they were taking Connolly to treat for surrender terms, but these were rejected and then they were held prisoner.”

British Court Marshall and Charges

The outcome of the Court Marshall had already been determined, because he had been one of the signatories of the Proclamation and British Prime Minister Asquith had already signed off on the executions:

“There are two other persons who are under sentence of death—a sentence
which has been confirmed by the General [Maxwell]—both of whom signed the Proclamation and took an active part…in the actual rebellion in Dublin…in these two cases, the extreme penalty must be paid.”

The execution of Connolly would constitute a clean-sweep of those who had put their names to Ireland’s Proclamation.

The Court-martials of James Connolly (Prisoner #90) at Richmond Barracks, May 9, 1916 –:

CHARGE: 1. “Did an act to wit did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the Defence to the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy.”

CHARGE: 2. “Did attempt to cause dissatisfaction among the civilian population of His Majesty”

PLEA: Not Guilty (both charges)

VERDICT: Guilty. Death (first charge): Not guilty (second charge)

Connolly faces British Justice and Executed

After his capture, the Irish employer classes wanted him executed as much as the British. Due to his Marxist views and qualities of leadership, Connolly was as much of a threat to wealthy Irish employers as he was to the occupying British. This was due to the fact the he was as motivated by the abolition of capitalism as he was by the freedom of Ireland.

William Murphy

As the clamour grew for leniency from a growing number of citizens, it was shot down by William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent and enemy of Connolly and Larkin from the Lockout, who wrote that clemency would be seen as government weakness.

Connolly was taken to Royal Hospital Kilmainham, across the road from the jail and then taken to the jail to be executed by the British. Visited by his wife, and asking about public opinion, he commented

‘They all forget that I am an Irishman’.

He was so badly injured from the fighting (a doctor had already said he had no more than a day or two to live, but the execution order was still given) that he was unable to stand before the firing squad.

Instead of being marched to the same spot where the others had been executed, at the far end of the execution yard, he was tied to a chair and then shot.

Execution yard

The cross marks the spot where Connolly faced British Justice.

Fr McCarthy who was present at Connolly’s execution gave the following account;-

“The prisoner, who was in a bad condition, elected to stand like the rest but
failed. He was then tied to a chair but slumped so much that he overbalanced. Finally he was strapped.. and placed in a reclining position against the wall.”

“The blood spurted in the form of a fountain from the body, several streams
shooting high into the air, the possible explanation of this may have been the tightening of the straps around the body.”

Chair sketch

This sketch was from military archives and was done by the officer presiding over Connolly’s execution.

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