One of the remarkable things about James Connolly is how his life provides an intersection with so many long-standing themes: immigration, poverty and disadvantage, Irish-British relations, the Irish in Scotland, class politics, imperialism, socialism and Irish republicanism.
Another critical area, in which so many of these issues, and others, converge is in service in the armies of the British empire. A range of motivations brought individuals into service. Patriots mingled with those compelled by a sense of duty or adventure, others by poverties: disadvantaged urban communities, impoverished rural communities, immigrants seeking financial or political affirmations, colonial subjects speculating on an exchange of years of their lives for some degree of pensionable future financial security. All of these journeys meet within Connolly’s life. Oddly enough, in one of the least known and most obscure episodes, his military service.
Back in July 2017, I had a look at what is known about his British Army service. Pretty much nothing of the details of his military career are clear. This is not out of keeping with our real knowledge of his early life. He fleetingly appears in some documentary records in Edinburgh such as his birth on 5th June 1868. He is listed as an apprentice baker in the 1881 census (again in Edinburgh) with his parents and older brother Thomas (a trainee print compositor). His eldest brother John had already left home with the British Army by this date. Thomas’ later life is completely obscure. The historical Connolly literally re-emerges in a letter to Lillie Reynolds on April 7th 1889 (they were later to marry). The commonly held belief is that Connolly’s letter to Lillie was written just after he deserted the British Army.
This appears to be supported by a throwaway reference in the April 7th letter to Lillie as ‘the girl he left behind him’. This paraphrases the refrain of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, considered the parting song for eighteenth and nineteenth British Army regiments as they left for overseas service. This may be the closest thing to a direct reference by Connolly to his own British Army career in his own writings.
Consensus had it that James had followed his eldest brother John into the British Army and his biographer Desmond Greaves identified his regiment as the King’s Liverpool Regiment, which is to some extent supported by later biographers like Nevin.
The difficulty here is that Connolly is believed to have served under an assumed name so it is not simply a matter of finding a soldier named ‘James Connolly’ in the relevant regimental records. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, a reported anecdote told by Connolly suggested he was stationed in Haulbowline in December 1882 (indicating he had joined underage). Based on the date of his letter to Lillie, his departure from the British Army was believed to be in the period shortly before the letter was sent (i.e. just before the start of April 1889). This gives his period of service as the second half of 1882 through to (roughly) March 1889, a time period that matched the period in which the King’s Liverpool Regiment was stationed in Ireland (the basis of Greaves argument). Connolly’s service number, presuming he had joined roughly between his 14th birthday (although giving his age as 16) and December 1882 would be between 200 and 260 in the 1st Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
Fortunately, his desertion in early 1889 gives us another fixed reference point to use to identify him. Deserters were listed in the Police Gazette with their name, regiment, service number, age, a brief description and information where they deserted. Since Connolly deserted in February or March 1889, he would feature (under his assumed) name, in one of those issues.
Over the course of February, March and April 1889 the following were reported in the Police Gazette as deserters or dismissed from the King’s Liverpool Regiment for misconduct (their service numbers are included in brackets):
Police Gazette, February 12th: John Keating (2151), Peter Murphy (2730), James Calligan (443), William Clare (2557), Patricks Collins (1468), Martin Connolly (254), Dean Walter (1474), Patrick Gorrie (1087) and William Henderson (1259).
Police Gazette, February 19th: William Miller (2672), George Omerod (2705).
Police Gazette, February 26th: Charles Burke (2715), James Sears (2697);
Police Gazette, March 12th: Alfred Clark (2762), John Doherty (2732), Thomas Noon (2768), John Wilson (no number).
Police Gazette, March 19th: Herbert Coughtrey (1518).
Police Gazette, March 26th: Ben Aspinall (2577), John Curtis (2636).
Police Gazette, April 9th: W.H. Wakeman (no number).
Police Gazette April 16th Tim Kelly (2588), Joseph Stedman (2680), Frederick Wilson (2579), William Purcell (no number).
Police Gazette, April 30th Thomas Burns (2666), Charles Evans (2592), Thomas Quinn (2627).
This includes only one candidate with a service number between 200 and 260, conveniently enough sharing the same surname: Martin Connolly (254). Martin Connolly is listed in the Police Gazette as having deserted from the Reserve of the King’s Liverpool Regiment at Warrington. His personal records indicate that he served in the 4th Battalion of the Regiment (it’s reserve battalion). The Police Gazette records his age as 30, height as 5 foot 6 ½ inches, hair brown in colour and eyes grey. His attestation forms, though, indicate his age as 20 when he signed up in 1885, his height as 5 foot 7, his hair colour as black and his eyes brown (perhaps highlighting how unreliable some of the Police Gazette and attestation form data can be). These latter details (even if not consistent) are at odds with information recorded about James Connolly. The RIC recorded Connolly’s height in Kenmare in 1898 as 5 foot 4 and his hair colour as black. Various people identified him as having light blue or grey eyes. All of these details seem to indicate that ‘Martin Connolly’ is not James Connolly.
A review of the attestation records for the other King’s Liverpool Regiment deserters, where available, invariably show they returned to the service after 1889, or otherwise did not fit with the rough outlines of Connolly’s life. This raises significant questions about Greaves identification of Connolly with the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The information on his military service used by Greaves is largely in the form of second- and third-hand anecdotes, even Connolly’s daughter Nora appears to be quoting Greaves when she mentions his desertion in 1889. The claims about his military service include that he enlisted under a false name, John Reid, and in the same regiment as his brother, John, purportedly the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots. Anecdotes include the story about being on sentry duty in Haulbowline in December 1882 and also that he made reference to serving in India. There is no direct evidence to support either (as yet).
The earliest actual source referring to his military service is an anti-Larkin newspaper, The Toiler, published in 1913. It mentions Connolly in a couple of issues, claiming that he had joined the British militia twenty years or so ago, rumoured to be the Monaghan Militia and that he had deserted.
Given that the references in The Toiler are the earliest reference to Connolly’s military career, it is worth giving them some further consideration. The ‘Monaghan Militia’ was the 5th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. While the reference is intentionally derogatory, it may be referencing Connolly’s reputed family connection to Monaghan (he did, incorrectly, list Monaghan as his place on birth in the 1901 and 1911 census). However, that family connection may have had some role in his route into the British Army. A plausible basis for The Toiler claim is that he may have used family connections in Monaghan to join the Royal Irish Fusiliers. A number of deserters from the regiment are indeed listed in the Police Gazette including John Donnolly (2312), William Freeman (3035), John Kelly (2969), John Walker (676), Thomas Dawson (3110), Fred Wm Malyon (2625), Francis Kelly (3131), Thomas Flanagan (3076), John McSourley (2905), Thomas Webb (no number), Loughlin Ward (2088), Robert Green (3041), Thomas Dougherty (3045), William McDonald (3087) and Robert Simpson (813). But again, none appear to provide a sufficient match to Connolly’s details to suggest that it might be the false name he adopted for his military service.
Aspects of the other anecdotal claims about Connolly can also be tested against the list of deserters to try and identify him. Firstly, there is the false name: John Reid. A John Reid, service number 2089, had deserted at Mullingar on 31st January 1889, while serving in the Royal Irish Rifles. A labourer claiming to be from Armagh, he roughly fits the description of Connolly, being reported as 21½ years of age, 5 foot 6 in height with brown hair and grey eyes. Reid, though, enlisted in 1887 and served well into the 1890s and so is clearly not Connolly. A review of other men enlisting under the name John Reid does not immediately identify a suitable candidate for Connolly.
The ‘John Reid’ pseudonym is possibly a garbled version of Connolly’s older brother’s military career. John Connolly was four years older than James and had enlisted, under age, in 1878 using the name James Reid. He had served in the Border Regiment according to his documentation when he enlisted in the Royal Scots in the first world war, although his medal and decorations are not entirely consistent with those awarded to the Border Regiment. Either way, confusing James and his brother John seems to be the origin of the ‘John Reid’ claim for Connolly and the association with the ‘Royal Scots’ regiment.
The information on those listed as deserting from either the Border Regiment can also be cross-referenced against Connolly’s details to look for possible candidates. The Border Regiment deserters were John Rushton (no number), J. McIntosh (2009), who was discharged for misconduct), Thomas Cook (1856, reserve) Joseph Howells (1827, reserve), Percy Seymour (2165, reserve), W. Anderson (1414), Cosgrove T. (726), D Lundy (489), Arthur Copping (2730), Charles Fry (2223), H Ashby Carwood (2672), John Coulthard (2213), Thomas Hall (2620), Robert Little (2721) and Robert McCole (no number). None of these could plausibly be identified with Connolly.
The last of the anecdotal claims linked Connolly to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots. A review of the Royal Scots deserter listed in the Police Gazette, identifies Peter Devine (2557), John Bartlett (2970), Frank Newton (2566), Albert Hartwell (3043), Charles F White (2917), John Monaghan (2286), AM Woolidge (1395), William G Hunt (3212), James McAuley (2741), Thomas Clegg (2905), Thomas Moody (3129) and James Scott (2713).
The only possible candidate is James Henry, who deserted the Royal Scots at Aldershot on 11th February 1889. Henry came from South Leith in Edinburgh and listed his occupation as ‘carter’. His physical description as 5 foot 4 in height, with dark brown hair and grey eyes, roughly matches Connolly as does his age in 1889 (20). Even the name (James Henry) is attractive as a false name. James Henry’s service number (2580), suggests he enlisted in the Royal Scots in 1887. Without further documentation, unless he had transferred from another regiment, it would seem unlikely that he had enlisted in 1882 as James Connolly is purported to have done. However, in the absence of further information to formally exclude him as a candidate, he appears to be the most plausible of the listed deserters to be Connolly.
Today, the 150th anniversary of Connolly’s birth, it seems that the exact details of his military service are still, and will continue to remain, elusive!