James Connolly’s time as a British soldier, some new evidence

James Connolly, signatory of the 1916 proclamation, is widely accepted to have served as a British soldier in Ireland. Remarkably little is known about this period of his life and its impact on his political formation and views. It is assumed that he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, although direct documentary proof has yet to be found. However, new evidence about his brother’s service and the King’s Liverpool Regiment in Ireland suggests that Connolly could have been on duty as a British soldier during sectarian violence in Belfast, evictions in Meath and prison protests on Spike Island. He also took part in war games that tested the British governments deployment plan for the army in the event of war in Dublin.

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Connolly as a young man, not long after leaving the army.

Some biographers have Connolly joining the same regiment as his older brother John who had enlisted underage, using a false name, in 1878. John’s regiment is (variously) given as the Royal Scots or the King’s Liverpool Regiment and the suggested false name is usually ‘John Reid’ (much of this is teased out in Donal Nevin’s  James Connolly: a full life). However, it is possible to recover a bit more information about John Connolly as he re-enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots (see WO/363, service number 20308), during World War 1. John was discharged due to ill health in February 1916. The reason given was Bright’s Disease, brought on through exposure to bad weather while guarding German prisoners at Stobs Camp in the Scottish Borders in 1915.

This photo shows the exposed positions from which sentries guarded the prisoner of war section of Stobs Camp during World War 1 (the original is online here).

This may, in part, explain why James Connolly’s last statement (smuggled out of his cell by his daughter Nora) begins, “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” Given that he followed John into the army and then to Dundee, it would seem that he was close to his older brother. Concern at his brother’s reaction may even have influenced how James framed his own last words. John never recovered his health. He died on 22nd June 1916 and is buried in Edinburgh’s North Merchiston Cemetery.

His military records show that John had not served as ‘John Connolly’ but as ‘James Reid’ and his files note that he had previously spent sixteen years in the army, which he states was with the Borders Regiment. There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the regiment in WO/121, service number 1524, who joined on 9th July 1878 and was discharged in Dublin (due to ill health) on 9th March 1886. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service. Like his false name, John’s age was consistently recorded as two years younger than it was, due to his enlistment underage as James Reid. He does correctly list his wife’s surname as Connolly in his army documents, though. John had medals for his service in Afghanistan and Egypt (1882). He also re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597) before re-enlisting in December 1914.

As the Border Regiment was not awarded either the Afghanistan or Egypt 1882 medals, this seems to be where John completed his service or joined the reserve rather than where he served full-time. Of the other regiments mentioned, the Royal Scots did receive the former award (for the campaign in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880) while the King’s Liverpool Regiment received both. While it confirms some truth to the various rumours around the Connolly brothers’ military service, it doesn’t really bring us any closer to complete certainty on the regiment in which James served.

If John served as ‘James Reid’, is that the confused source of the false name ‘John Reid’? Or does it even open the possibility that, when enlisting James followed John in using the name ‘Reid’ and swapped first names with his brother? No records appear to be available for a John Reid in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. But this may simply be down to the surviving records or extent of digitisation since only the records of some soldiers named in the battalion in newspaper reports in the 1880s can be found, most cannot be identified. Whether John Reid was the name or not, it may be possible a soldier can be found to match up with his putative army service in the records of the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment (possibly with a service number between, roughly, 200 and 260).

The earliest reference to Connolly’s military service appears in the anti-Larkin newspaper The Toiler in 1913 which claimed he had served in the Monaghan militia, deserted and went to Scotland. Since Connolly had lived in Edinburgh, not Monaghan, he wouldn’t have served in the Monaghan militia (he is listed in the census in Scotland in 1881). The strongest argument for him serving in the Liverpool Regiment appears to be Nora Connolly’s assertion that he was going to be demobbed in Aldershot in February 1889 when he left the army while her mother was to take up a post in London (in her account in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors). This is consistent with the dates that 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment moved from Dublin to Aldershot between 15th and 18th of February 1889 (see Aldershot Military Gazette 23rd February 1889). Connolly’s father, John, had a serious accident in February 1889, which may have precipitated his return to Scotland rather than to serve out his remaining time and complete his discharge in Aldershot. However going to assist his father seems less plausible when, by April he was living in the main area of Irish immigration in Dundee, Lochee where he was to begin his involvement in socialist politics.

Connolly arrived in Dundee in 1889 not long before he wrote what seems to be the first of his surviving letters to his future wife, Lillie Reynolds, from Mrs Boyle’s, St Mary Street in Dundee and dated April 7th (see MS 13,911/1, where it is dated as 1888). In the letter he mentions how “It was only across the street from here a man murdered his wife and they are all discussing whether he is mad or not, pleasant, isn’t it?”. Bridget Redmond was murdered by her husband, Joseph, in their grocers shop on St Marys Road on the 30th March. According to the Dundee Advertiser, both were Irish immigrants and Joseph was a retired soldier from the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Press reports in the likes of the Dundee Courier state that he had been taken to an asylum on 6th April, the day before Connolly wrote the letter. Redmond’s trial later was told that he had delusions about being threatened by Irishmen in Dundee into joining the Land League and that he had suffered from sunstroke while in the army in India.

Redmond

The images, from Dundee Advertiser 2nd April 1889, showing where Bridget Redmond was killed (James Connolly lived across the road at the time).

The circumstantial evidence for Connolly having served in the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment seems solid enough. Desmond Greaves quotes a story told to him in which Connolly reminisced about being on guard duty in Haulbowline, in Cork, on the night when Myles Joyce was executed in Galway for the Maamtrasna murders on 16th December 1882 (Connolly reputedly was able to show his knowledge of the local geography during political activity there in 1911). The 1st Battalion had moved to Ireland in 1882 to replace the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards (who were bound for Egypt). When it’s 480 men assembled in Liverpool to cross to Ireland onboard the Batavia, contingents came from Plymouth, Bradford, Fleetwood, the Isle of Man and Tynemouth. By the end of August, though, an additional 45 men had been sent from the regimental depot in Warrington. It is possible that Connolly joined at any of these locations and came either in July or August (meaning he was just four or five months short of his seven years’ service in February 1889). Connolly had just turned fourteen on 5th June 1882.

The battalion’s arrival in Cork, with companies based in Youghal, Haulbowline and Carlisle Fort coincides with a number of news reports of soldier beaten up by locals in Cork and Youghal. Shortly after Myles Joyce’s execution, in January and February 1883, 400 convicts from Spike Island prison, adjoining Haulbowline, were used as labour on works and staged a protest that ended up requiring the Royal Marines and military to be called out. Even if the 1st Liverpool Regiment wasn’t called out, it was surely a topic of conversation. This was James Connolly’s introduction to the British garrison in Ireland. The battalion relocated to the Curragh in September 1884 (some companies being rotated to Castlebar). It then moved to Dublin in September 1885, first Linen Hall Street and Ship Street, then Beggars Bush. While in Dublin it took part in manoeuvres and war games around the city.  This included a war game where flying columns left Beggars Bush to intercept invading flying columns at locations outside the city. In 1916, it was probably assumed that this was the defensive plan the British army would expect to have to deploy, rather than an attempt to seize the centre of the city itself. So Connolly may well have taken part himself in practise deployments of the British army’s defensive plan for Dublin.

The most regular feature of the Liverpool Regiment’s posting in Ireland was the performances of its regimental band. It began performing publicly in August 1882 and continued through to 1889, playing at events such as regattas, sports days (including one under GAA rules in Ballsbridge on 30th July 1886), army parades, the Cork Industrial Exhibition (in 1883), banquets, the Rotunda, RDS, the Grand Promenade, Phoenix Park and many more. Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) was a recurring venue from 1887, and it may have been on a trip out to see the regimental band play that Connolly famously met Lillie Reynolds, both of them having missed the same tram.  The regimental band also played at the visit of various dignitaries, such as the Viceroy, the Earl of Carnarvon in January 1886. In June 1887, the whole regiment provided a guard of honour (presumably including James Connolly) for Queen Victoria’s on her arrival and during her visit.

Not that the regiment’s period in Ireland was all band performances and guards of honour. Indiscipline and violence were never far away, with soldiers regularly appearing before the courts for attacking locals at the various postings, or as the victims of attacks (one drunken sergeant was reportedly seen shouting “Three cheers for Parnell!” and making ‘insulting comments about the Queen’ in February 1886). A Sergeant Carrigan shot himself in the head in Youghal Barracks in August 1884. There are also hints at the conditions inside the battalion in December 1888, when a Major Whitely had his house attack over conditions in the battalion. There was an inquiry into the condition of the barracks hospital and loss of stores around the same time.

For the individual soldiers, there was the recurring possibility of being posted overseas. Throughout 1882 to 1889, drafts of recruits and reserves were regularly processed through the 1st Battalion en route to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion on service in India. There are recurring claims that Connolly also saw service in India and it is conceivable that he somehow was added to one of the drafts that went out (if his brother John was on active duty in India that might have been sufficient incentive for him to go).

Ironically, if Connolly didn’t serve in India, the battalion’s duties over 1886 and 1887 may have contributed just as significantly to the formation of his political views. In the summer of 1886, the Liverpool Regiment was deployed on the streets of Belfast during serious rioting that saw over thirty deaths. It was reported in the Dublin Daily Express on August 12th that 379 men from the regiment were in Belfast (making it quite likely that Connolly was present). In October 1887, a company from the battalion was deployed to carry out evictions at Lord Masserene’s estate in Collon. While bailiffs and RIC constables removed the tenants, the soldiers were face-to-face with those opposing it as they formed a cordon to prevent the hostile crowds from intervening to prevent the evictions taking place. The soldiers had boiling water, gruel and mud thrown at them as well as much verbal abuse (eg see the account in the Dundalk Democrat, 29th October 1887). This may not have been the only occasion on which the regiment took part in an eviction. If the Bridget Redmond murder is anything to go by, the Land League was still a topical issue among Irish immigrants in Dundee in 1889.

If these events, or Indian service (or both), were contributing to Connolly’s political awakening, it was to be accompanied by increasing reports that the Battalion was to move from Dublin. This began in May 1887, with first Newry then Tipperary proposed (any move was formally suspended in August). Then in January 1888 it was suggested that the Battalion would now return to England (as a preliminary to a move overseas). By March the destination had been announced as Preston then the move was suspended again, only to be re-confirmed, without a destination, in April. This speculation would seem to overlap with James and Lillie meeting and may provide some sort of context to a decision to make an early break with the regiment rather than complete his service.

Just to expand slightly on the earlier point – Connolly would have acquired a service number between (roughly) 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and a soldier of that number should be listed in Regimental Defaulter Book in February or March 1889.

Unfortunately, Connolly did not leave any (known) account of his own army service or motivations for joining. Donal NevinClearly, from his own literacy and vocabulary, and even his letters from as early as 1889, he did acquire some education while in the army. Instead, the closest we may have to his own judgement on the value of his army service may be hidden in a story told by his daughter Ina in her own witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. Ina has Connolly giving his view of the value of serving in the army to a woman they knew whose son had ran off to enlist:

“Well”, said my father, “didn’t you ask for it, pumping the child’s head with the glories of the British Empire. What more can you expect?”.

“But he is so young” implored the mother. “What can I do? Won’t you help me? I thought of you, the first person I must go to; you never encouraged anyone to join up in the Boer war; surely the same applies now?”

“Not exactly”, replied my father: “there is no war on now and by the time he serves his three years he will be out of their reach by the next war. At least, I hope so, and if I can be of any service to you, I will do my damnedest to keep him at home then. You just remember these words and keep me to this promise for the next war and see how I’ll help you then”.

No, she could not see that long ahead.

“I will buy him out; the money will be well-spent. I can’t bear to think of him in the British army”.

At this father went over to her and put his hand on her shoulder saying: “Many a good man was in the British army; there is nothing wrong in being well-trained and it is in the British army the soldier gets a good training. It’s getting out of the army in time of peace and putting your knowledge to the advantage of your country is what I call a good soldier. You try, and no doubt you will succeed in buying him out, but the average youth that is Inclined to run away from home and join the British army will do so again if he is brought home against his wishes. The training and mixing with other youths, older than himself, will develop him and let him see the other side of the picture. Take my advice and leave him where he is at present”.

The story concludes with Connolly responding to this question from Ina:

“Well, why leave him in the army if you think it is wrong?”

– by saying:

“But I did not say being in the army was wrong. It was his mother who tried to insinuate that. My remarks were to let him make the best of it and learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage he can when he comes out. A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community”.

The story may actually be a deliberate set-piece dialogue created by Ina to allow him to summarise his views rather than an accurate retelling of an actual conversation. That last phrase, ‘A well-trained soldier will always find his allotted place in the community’ maybe should be taken as Connolly’s own opinion on his time in the British army for now.

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