The following is a transcription of an account written by Nora Connolly O’Brien of Belfast 1911-1916, talking about her father James Connolly, his execution and her own republican activities. It was published in 1966 in the 1916-66: Belfast and nineteensixteen commemorative booklet issued in Belfast by the National Graves Association and edited by Jimmy Steele (who added a couple of notes).
The text is reproduced in full including a ‘tailpiece’.
Nora Connolly O’Brien
Nora Connolly O’Brien was the eldest daughter of James Connolly one of the signatories to the Proclamation of the Republic 1916 who was executed in Kilmainham Jail, May 12th, 1916. Mrs O’Brien played a very prominent part in Republican activities in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. She founded the 1st girl Sluagh of Na Fianna Eireann in Belfast and also Cumann na mBan, and was with the Belfast Contingent of the Irish Volunteers at Coalisland 1916.
In this little booklet we are able to publish an interview which she recorded for us, of those stirring days in Belfast from 1911 to 1916. –Ed.
“We came from the United States to Dublin in December 1910. In the following year, we all moved to Belfast, where Daddy and I got a house in Glenalina Terrace – a house on the Falls Road, between St James Road, and Clondara Street, and facing the City Cemetery. The house afterwards became well known to all the Fianna lads and girls.” They used ask each other “Are you going up to Glenalina.”
My father was appointed organiser of the Transport and General Workers Union, and he had to go to Dublin in 1913. He was there most of the time. During the big strike he was arrested as he defied a Proclamation and spoke at a proclaimed meeting. He was the first Republican in refusing to recognise the Court, saying that the King of England had no right in Ireland. He was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, and he went on hunger-strike. When he was released, he came home to Belfast. He was expected on the 6 o’clock train. I remember mother went to meet him and I stayed behind to look after the others at home – eventually I made my way to the station, and when I got there, the place was crowded with people – thousands of them. I wondered what had happened so I pushed my way to the front, said to a man. “What are all the people here for?” “We are here to meet General Connolly.” he said. When I told my father about it later, he was thunderstruck, he wasn’t expecting such a reception.
When he got outside the station he was put on a side-car and the crowd followed him down past the City Hall, Royal Avenue, York Street and Dock Street to the Transport Workers’ Union H.Q. The crowd wouldn’t go away until he spoke to then.
He was terribly pleased with the Belfast people and the workers adored him. Often I heard the mill girls singing: –
“Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.
You left old Baldy sitting in his chair
Crying for Mercy: Mercy wasn’t there:
Cheer up Connolly, your name is everywhere.”
My father loved the spirit of Belfast, and he was always proud to let people know he was a Northman – “I’m a Northman,” he used to say.
Regarding Na Fianna, we were always terribly proud of the fact that there was a Girls’ Sluagh of Na Fianna – the only one in Ireland. We had Ceilidhte, language classes, route marches, drill parades, and first-aid. When it began to look as if things might happen – I took a special course in first-aid, with special reference to wounds. I then taught the boys, and girls, and also the Volunteers.
When Cumann na mBan was organised in Dublin, I wrote a letter to all the newspapers, rented a hall and advertised a meeting, to organise the Cumann in Belfast. We had a very successful meeting – some of the names of those who joined were, Roisin Braniff who became City librarian in Dublin; Bridie Farrell one of the Ulster players; Agnes Ryan who later married Dinny McCullough; Lizzie Allen and many others. One thing about Belfast people, they were very reliable and you could always depend upon them, and get them to do anything.
We also, in Belfast, the older members of Na Fianna formed the Young Republican Party for the purpose of public organising, speaking, recruiting etc. I designed a Banner with the Golden-Sunburst, letters of Y.R.P. in white ribbons and bordered with a green fringe – thus we had also our Tricolour. We held our meetings at the Central Library, Royal Avenue, Hamill Street, and a few at the Custom House Steps. We had a box with four collapsible legs which acted as a platform.
We would preach Republicanism to the young, and we were very proud when Patrick Pearse in an editorial in his paper, quoted our activities as an example for the younger people of Ireland to follow – we were terribly proud of our efforts. In winter we had meetings in the Freedom Hall, which I think was in King Street. Countess Markievicz used to speak at these meetings. She was always very proud of Na Fianna in Belfast.
I remember one meeting we had, under the auspices of all the Republican groups. It was held in St Marys’ Hall and it was an Emmet Commemoration, and Pearse delivered the lectures. Pearse delivered a magnificent oration, and so good was he, that he roused the whole people, as I never saw them roused before, and at the end of his speech, the entire hall rose as one man, and gave him a terrific ovation. I never experienced anything like it.
During the big strike in Dublin, we also held meetings explaining the reasons of the strike and collecting money for the strikers. The police never bothered with us, except to keep an eye on us, but the Hibs gave us an awful lot of trouble, trying to stop our meetings and pulling us off the platform, but Na Fianna were always very active and carried on with their work.
The Cumann na mBan held their meetings in King Street, and the Betsy Gray Sluagh of Na Fianna held their meetings in Willow Bank Huts.
The Fianna used to hold their Ard-Fheis in Dublin every year during the Twelfth of July holidays. Delegates got their expenses which were small then, but a large crowd of Fianna boys and girls who were not delegates, used to go to hear the debates etc.
Somebody then discovered that we could get a boat with a six month return ticket for 5/-. So about 30 of us used to go in uniform and with pipers with us, we could leave Belfast at 8 p.m. and arrive in Dublin at 6 a.m. the next morning. We would dance and sing all night on the boat. Then we would camp out for a week at the Three Rock Mountain where Madame Markievicz had a cottage.
The Howth Gun Running happened during the Sunday we happened to be down for an Ard-Fheis – we have a lot of help that day, and later in the day, my sister Ina and I helped to remove some of them safely to Dublin. For this we received two of the rifles which we managed to bring back to Belfast with us.
In those days Republicanism was not very popular, and were class as outrageous people and in Belfast we were called “The Hillsiders.”
However we felt that we were moving towards something, and we began to hope that we would be able to play our part in something we had always hoped for.
When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, it was the Fianna officers who trained and drilled them although they became members of both, we always insisted that our boys were only “on loan“ to them. They were a great type of active boys in Belfast, both in the Fianna and the Volunteers. It is a great pity and something that I always regret that they did not get the chance to fight.
Both the Volunteers and the Fianna were mobilised for the 1916 manoeuvres. Previous to the mobilisation order, I was down in Dublin when my father told the citizen Army, “We have been playing at soldiers for a long time, but now the time has come when we will have to be soldiers in earnest – the day has been decided upon” – my father then told me that the date of the Rising had been settled. He asked me would I stay with him, so I had to make my choice between Dublin and Belfast. I told him I would stay with the Belfast crowd. “I’d rather be with you, but after all I’ve been working with them, teaching and instructing them and though I’d rather be with you. I think my place is with them,” so I made my choice.
When I came back to Belfast I saw Dinny McCullough and I told him that I knew the Day had been settled and that I had an ambulance group well-trained in first-aid. I would pick out the girls most suitable for this work and we would go along with the Volunteer contingent. McCullough wasn’t at all anxious for us to go – I thought it was really stupid of him, because we had worked very hard once we knew that the day was near at hand and apart from teaching the girls and volunteers first-aid, we had also made up first-aid kits that could be sewn in their coats – in fact we made hundreds of them and we were able to send quite a lot of them to Dublin. However McCullough wasn’t too keen on the suggestion but eventually he consented and told me to choose six or seven girls. I choose my sister Ina, who was well trained in this kind of work; Bridie Farrell who was an older woman nearer my father’s age and one who wouldn’t be considered a youngster; Lizzie Allen, Kathleen Murphy, the two Corr sisters and a girl called O’Neill. It was arranged to meet in Coalisland on Easter Saturday (i.e. the Saturday of Holy Week) and in addition to bringing our first-aid equipment with us, I instructed them to bring three or four days’ rations.
We went off early in the afternoon on Saturday, and the station was packed – you would have thought all Belfast was going away. We put ourselves in different queuesm and got our tickets and made for the carriages.
Members of the young Ireland pipe band came after us and got into the carriages next to us. They were more like soldiers than pipers. They had groundsheets over their baks, bandoliers over their shoulders, bayonets at their hips and they had tricolour ribbons on their pipes.
We arrived at Coalisland and put up at the Hotel where we had tea. Then I got my first case – one of the lads had accidentally shot himself in the finger – it was the only flesh wound which I attended to immediately.
We were only a short while there when I was sent for, and given a verbal message from the commandant to say that there was going to be no fighting in the North and that I had been given my choice of going back to Belfast or Dublin. I asked the messenger why I had been given the choice, did he think there was going to be fighting in Dublin; he replied that he thought so. I said “It is awfully queer that he should send word to me.” I asked one of the volunteers standing beside me if he could vouch for the messenger. He did so. I then repeated the message to the volunteers, which the messenger had given me – the volunteers were thunderstruck at the news. I said “If there is going to be no fighting in the North, I am going to Dublin but I will see the girls and give them the same choice.”
I told the girls the message which I had received and I sad, “Ina and I are going to Dublin and you have your choice.” They all voted to go to Dublin with us. As we rushed to catch the last train, another Belfast batch of Volunteers arrived, so I hurriedly told some of them the message I had received, and I told them to make enquiries about it.
Did this hurried visit to Dublin by Nora Connolly and her group, and, the story they brought with them change the whole course of Irish Revolutionary history? Did it influence the leaders to come to a final decision regarding the staging and timing of the Rising? The leaders seemed to take a very serious view of the story, so much so, that they were aroused out of their beds by James Connolly and summoned to a special conference. –Editor
We arrived in Dublin at 6 o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and went straight to Liberty Hall, to see my father. There was a heavy guard of Citizen Army men on the Hall. Eventually I was taken to see my father who was in bed. When I told my story, he said, “This is very serious, is it true?” I said “Well I have six girls with me and you can send for each one of them and question them separately as to what happened, don’t depend on my story.”
“You see Nora,” he said, “We got a message that 50 men could not be got to leave Belfast.” “50 men?” said I “there are over 100 Belfast men already in Coalisland.”
My father sent for each of the girsl as I suggested, and all repeated the same story. Calling the officer of the guard, Connolly asked for six men to conduct each of the girls on a special message. To his daughter he said, “I am sending each of you to a different leader, tell him, what you told me, and tell him to ask you any question he wishes and then tell him to come and see me immediately.”
Each of went to the leaders assigned to us, I went to Sean McDermott, the others to Pearse, Clarke, McDonagh, Plunkett and Ceannt. We all arrived back and reported to my father, all the six leaders followed us immediately. I gave all of them their breakfast on that last Easter Sunday morning.
My father came back from this fateful and momentous meeting, one that was to mean so much for the Ireland of the future, for the Free Republican Nation.
The girls were all sent back to Madam’s house to get a good sleep. I stayed on at my fathers request. Everything around was a hive of activity. Citizien Army men moved around openly armed. You just felt that something was going to happen. A crowd, mostly women and girls stood outside. My father sent for me. “It is alright now, Nora, it is decided for tomorrow. Go up and have a rest and all of you report to Liberty Hall at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning (Easter Monday). Pearse will write and give you dispatches to deliver to the North.” My father then gave me a little revolver and ammo. He said “ You don’t know what the position will be tomorrow and you might need these. The place may be over run by police and soldiers.” He also gave me a paper bag of money saying “That will help you carry on for awhile.”
Then he came with a paper and he opened it out and told the girls to read slowly and carefully and to try and memorise as much of it as possible. “I cannot give it with you, but you can let the people in the North know that you saw and read it and that it will be posted up all over Dublin at 12 o’clock tomorrow, Easter Monday.” It was the proclamation of the Irish Republic.
As we were waiting for Pearse to come with the despatches, Tomas McDonagh came along and jokingly said to us:-
“Here we are,” he said, “on the brink of a revolution and a fine strapping bunch of girls like you, all anxious about getting out of Dublin before we strike.”
Then Pearse came along and he gave me the dispatches and then very solemnly he bade us good-bye. “May God bless you and take care of you.” He said. Then we went off to catch the train. We knew we would not reach Coalisland until after 12 o’clock and we also realised that the Rising was timed to start at 12 noon in Dublin. When we brought the news into Coalisland, there was no one there only a bunch of local lads. The Belfast Boys had been demobilised on Easter Sunday and had gone home.
I sent Lizzie Allen on to Belfast with one of the dispatches, and my sister, Ina, on to Dr McCartan and the others to other centre. I had to stay on and wait, but the local O/C had mobilised his unit and they were staying in a barn with rifles and haversacks. They were quite a crowd of lads, he brought me out to see them. We waited and still no word came. They would not do anything, unless they could mobilise them all, and , it is not so easy outside the City.
I was terribly worried. The local O/C was in a quandary he could not keep his men tied up over Monday. It was alright if there had been a crowd, but their absence from home would be noticed. He decided to send them home late on Easter Monday night. Just with that there was some excitement. A Belfast boy, Seamus Dempsey, had arrived. They thought he was bringing news, but Seamus had got fed up with them doing nothing in Belfast so he had made his way back to Coalisland – hence that was another disappointment.
Late that night the local O/C demobilised his men, and told them to take their goods with them, and as soon as he got word, he would ring the Church bell and when they heard it, they would know that the time and word has arrived.
I waited another day and even the girls hadn’t come back, so I decided to make my way to McCartan’s house and see what had happened to Ina and if there was nothing doing I would make my way back to Dublin.
So I arrived at the heel of a raid on McCartan’s house, and the soldiers and police were just leaving it as I arrived. I remember how mad I felt when I heard that they had found a large dump of ammunition in the turf stack, the one place where anyone in the country would look for them. McCartan was not at home and his sister wasn’t at all friendly. She thought, I should not have come there at all, drawing attention upon them.
McCartan was sent for and I remember there were a couple of Belfast boys sitting at the fire, Rory Haskins was one of them, they had not gone back to Belfast. McCartan arrived and said it was impossible to do anything, as all the men were demonbilised and had gone back home. I said, “They were in a terrible hurry to demobilise them, there was no need for any of them to go back until Monday, so why chase them back on Saturday night. I heard in Coalisland that you chased them on the double.”
I was very angry, very indignant, terribly upset because I didn’t know how much this would upset all the plans that were made. McCartan was very apologetic and mentioned how difficult it would be to get them all back.
“No,” I said, “nothing left for the men of the North to do now, but to pray for the men of Dublin, they’ll fight and die and win Freedom for them, while they are sitting on their hunkers.”
I remember I was mad and awfully upset, so I asked if he knew where Ina was. He told me she had gone to the Walshes of Clogher. I asked if it was far and his sister said, “No, it’s not far.” Dr McCartan said, “You’ll be alright here and you can go on to Clogher in the morning.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ll go to Clogher and get Ina and we’ll go on to Dublin. I’ve wasted too much time on the North as it is.”
Ina and I made our way back to Dublin. We caught a train back to Dundalk, after that we had to walk because civilians were not allowed to use the train to Dublin. Barricades were up all over the place. After an eventful journey, we arrived in Dublin – footsore, tired, and weary, on Sunday. Margaret and Kathleen Ryan told us of the Surrender, and the arrest of the leaders including Daddy, who was also seriously wounded, and also my brother Roddy who was only 16 years old. We then made our way to Madame’s cottage where my mother was stopping. Outside a newspaper shop on a Daily Sketch was a picture of my father with the caption “Dead Rebel.” I said to myself, ” Well thank God, it is too far out for anyone to have brought Mother a copy of that Sketch, at least she would still think he was not dead,” but this was not so, we were to learn later, that someone had brought her a copy of the paper.
The news was not true of course, and we told her he was only wounded and a prisoner. The next 12 days or so were the days of anguish and heartbreak, waiting and hoping. Day, after day, came news of the executions, and we wondered when they would stop; would Daddy be executed in his wounded condition? When we did get in to see him, Daddy had not much hope.
One of the first questions Daddy asked me, was, “What happened in the North?” “It was no use, Daddy, the men were all dispersed and couldn’t be brought together again. I did my best, I waited and waited. When I saw there would be no fighting there I made my way back to Dublin, but the fighting was over when I arrived here. I had no chance, Daddy, I did nothing.”
“I think my little woman did as much as anyone,” he said, as he drew my head down to his breast.
At 12 o’clock on Thursday night, 11th May, 1916, we saw him for the last time and as I kissed Daddy, he held me close to him and said, “I’m proud of you Nora girl.”
After we had left in the early dawn of Friday, 12th May, they took my father down to Kilmainham, strapped him to a chair and executed him. Sean McDermot was executed the same morning.
When I went up to Belfast again, the spirit was rising again and they were all terribly sore and annoyed that they had been rushed back, that they hadn’t got the chance to fight. If they had known what had happened and the real facts, they would not have left Coalisland, but being soldiers they were under orders and had to obey them.
McCullough and McCartan in my opinion were to blame, but I gathered later that the messenger who gave me McCullough’s order on Holy Saturday night, had also brought McNeill’s countermanding order to them.
That’s Easter 1916 in my memory.
One night later in 1916, I was up in Belfast in the old Ard-Scoil, I think and the news of the Battle of Jutland came through – a naval Battle between Germany and England, in which England lost 15 ships – a ship for every man who was executed in Kilmainham. A big Donegal man came over to me and he says, “Isn’t that good news, isn’t that good news?” I said, “Yes.” “Ah” he say, “pray, you never know what would happen.”
Well the next time, I came up, word came through that Kitchener was lost and as soon as my fired saw me, he shouted, “Ah, ah, you’re the girl who knows how to pray.”