This may come as a shock to many people but James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist and republican, had served in the British army (but then, so many Irish people did join up, it’s hardly a surprise). This post looks at some of what we know about Connolly the British soldier.
James Connolly’s legend appears to becoming easily the most durable of all the leaders of the Irish Republic in 1916. Perhaps a reason for that is that his life provides an intersection with so many long-standing themes in Irish public life: immigration, poverty and disadvantage, Irish-British relations, the Irish in Scotland, class politics, gender equality, imperialism, socialism, Irish republicanism and service in the armies of the British empire.
In many ways discussion of the last of those topics has tended to be fairly fraught. The range of motivations which brought individuals into service – patriotism, a sense of duty or adventure, poverties, political affirmations, colonial subjects gambling their lives for some degree of pensionable future financial security – are often woven and interlaced into contemporary debates on politics and identities. And Connolly obviously gained from that experience, despite being born into crushing poverty and with little education, immediately after his military service his early letters are well read, highly literate and educated. Oddly enough, in his case, that military service is one of the least known and most obscure episodes of his life.
While various Connolly biographers like Greaves and Nevin sketch out what they believe to be the details of his military career, practically all of it is based on speculation and supposition. None of the details of his military career are clear, which is not out of keeping with our real knowledge of his early life in general. The actual documentary evidence of his early life is confined to the record of his birth in Edinburgh on 5th June 1868 and an entry in the 1881 census (Connolly’s trade is given as ‘apprentice baker’). Connolly doesn’t appear again until a letter to Lillie Reynolds on April 7th 1889 (Lillie and Connolly were later to marry). Due to the work of Greaves and the likes of Nevin, it is now commonly accepted that Connolly’s letter to Lillie was written just after he deserted the British Army.
This, at least, appears to be supported by a throwaway reference in which Connolly describes Lillie as ‘the girl he left behind him’. This paraphrases the refrain of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, was considered the parting song of choice for British Army regiments as they marched away for overseas service. This may be the closest thing to a direct reference by Connolly to his British Army career in his own writings (Connolly, even when writing under a pen name, never seems to have directly mentioned his military service).
I’ve laid out the conjecture about Connolly’s military career elsewhere based on the information pieced together by Desmond Greaves and Donal Nevin. The versions given of Connolly’s army career include tantalising possibilities that he was deployed during sectarian violence in Belfast, participated in evictions, served in India and even participated in wargames in Dublin in the 1880s (which may have informed the Irish Republic’s military strategy in 1916). That an unknown portion of their reasoning is flawed is exposed by the details given about Connolly’s elder brother, John, who had also served in the British army. It was claimed that James had followed John into the King’s Liverpool Regiment but John had actually served in the Border Regiment. He had re-enlisted in the Royal Scots during the world war and was guarding prisoners of war at a camp in Scotland in 1916. John, I think, is the intended audience for James’ opening remarks in his last statement before his execution: “I do not wish to make any defence, except against the charge of wanton cruelty to prisoners.” John had Bright’s Disease, acquired while guarding prisoners, and died just over a month after his younger brother.
For my part, I had tried a different route into uncovering the details of James Connolly’s military service. The only fixed point to navigate towards appeared to be Connolly’s desertion in early 1889. While we don’t know the false name he reputedly used as a soldier, deserters get listed in the Police Gazette, so the issues for early 1889 were scoured for likely candidates in the various regiments he is claimed to have seen service with between 1882 and 1889. None of those listed closely matched Connolly’s details (you can see the most likely here).
Oddly, the earliest actual source referring to Connolly’s military service is a caustic anti-Larkin newspaper, The Toiler, published in 1913 and 1914. Connolly is repeatedly referred to as an ex-militia man by the paper. Despite the abrasive tone, many of the incidental details about Connolly appear to be accurate. The 4/10/1913 issue states that Connolly was ex-Monaghan militia and had taken the Queen’s bounty more than twenty-odd years ago but later deserted. He is repeatedly described in editions of The Toiler as an ex-militia man. He also gets a more detailed profile elsewhere in the paper. He is stated to have joined the militia ‘early in life’ and, after getting a training, he deserted them, lived as a tramp and then got a job as a carter in Edinburgh (13/6/1914). It reports that while some say he was born in Monaghan or Belfast, the author believed he was born in Scotland, likely Glasgow as he was bow-legged (which it claims is typical of Glasgow due to a lack of lime in the drinking water). Another profile (31/10/1914) says that he was born in Monaghan, joined the militia ‘at an early age’ and then deserted and went to Scotland where he worked as a street sweeper in Edinburgh. While some of these details are correct, others (like being born in Monaghan) are untrue, but as Connolly himself often listed it as his place of birth it may have come from Connolly himself. Oddly, another article in the same issue clearly labels Connolly as a ‘Scotsman’.
Despite it’s hostility to Connolly, the various details in The Toiler suggest access to a source with some knowledge of Connolly’s early life (such as pieced together by Greaves and Nevin). It strongly implies that, despite the various suggestions of Greaves and Nevin, that Connolly had actually been a member of a militia regiment and that identifying his military records may hinge on finding a suitable candidate who deserted from one in early 1889. I think the trick is still to find more records of deserters from 1889 and take it from there (maybe in regimental administrative archives). The search goes on.
You can read other posts about James Connolly here: