J. Connolly, 1862-1916: creating James Connolly

This is the second of four posts on James Connolly’s early life looking at what helped shape him. The first looked at the 1872 lamplighters strike. This one looks at his brother John. The next post will look at some early writing by Connolly from 1889-1891 (which may not have been recognized up to now).

James Connolly was one of five children. The oldest, Margaret, was born in January 1859 but died as an infant in 1861. The next, John, was born in January 1862, followed by a second girl, Mary who was born in July 1864 but died of rubeola and bronchitis before she was a year old. The two youngest were boys, Thomas born in Campbell’s Close off Cowgate in April 1866 and James born in June 1868 when the family’s address is given as 107 Cowgate, which is where Campbell’s Close is located (the details of each is taken from Paul Gorry’s 2016 book Seven Signatories). Thomas, an apprentice print compositor in the 1881 census (supposedly with the Edinburgh Evening News) rapidly disappears from sight in the 1880s, reputedly having emigrated. No clear candidate for Thomas has yet been found in conventional emigration databases or the likes of United States census returns. John, who joined the British Army around 1878, is the only one of Connolly’s surviving siblings that seems to feature in his later life.

I previously looked at John while trying to disentangle some more clarity on James Connolly’s reputed British Army career. Some biographers have James 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 and I’ve discussed it previously, here). John Connolly 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.

The ‘John Reid’ pseudonym assigned by some biographers to James Connolly is possibly a garbled version of Connolly’s older brother’s military career as John Connolly had enlisted using the name James Reid. Peter McBride, a neighbour in Carrubers Close in the 1870s, a colleague of the Connolly boys’ father, is clearly the individual who is later described as James’ socialist, Fenian ex-soldier uncle. He was still in the army reserve in the 1870s when active during the lamplighters strike in 1872. Some sources claim he had enlisted under a false name. That could be taken to mean, as his daughter Ina later refers to James Connolly’s father’s brother Peter, his real surname was actually Connolly – which he listed as his mother’s name as Connolly on his marriage record. False names for enlistment were obviously common – if Peter did it, so too did John and James Connolly.

John Connolly had served, as James Reid, in the Border Regiment according to the documentation when he re-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. A John Connolly, a private in the 1st Royal Scots assaulted a policeman in Candlemakers Row in July 1878 but there is nothing to suggest whether this is the same John Connolly (it is plausible as he possibly had to use his real name as he was known in Edinburgh). The name ‘John Connolly’ occurs with alarming frequency in newspaper reports of incidents in and around where the Connollys lived in Edinburgh often involving alcohol and violence. Greaves, Connolly’s biographer, suggests John was ‘flamboyant’ with explaining what he means.

John’s ill-health and role guarding prisoners in 1915-16 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.

There is a ‘James Reid’ listed in the Border 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. This fits Johns details. The dates match up so this may mark his departure from full-time service into the reserves. 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). His military file also included documents from when he re-entered the Royal Reserves in Edinburgh for a year up to April 1901 (service number 1597). This adds a new layer of complexity to the John Connolly story, though. The James Reid in those documents was married to a Sarah Jane Reid who lived at 122 Sycamore Street in Newcastle (one of the Border Regiment depots). He appears to have left the Border Regiment in 1894 after a period in the serves (possibly from 1886 onwards), with Sarah Jane Reid also listed for this latter period. This would be consistent with John Connolly’s service dates. However, John Connolly is documented as having married Elizabeth Atchieson in Edinburgh in 1891 with his brother James as one of the witnesses.

The period when John was in the reserve and was based in Edinburgh was when James returned to the town. A lot has been made about James Connolly’s time in Dundee early in 1889. There is very little detail available but Connolly makes his appearance there when John Leslie, an Edinburgh-based socialist, has been summoned to support a free speech demonstration and protests. Leslie brought some additional support from Edinburgh, which could well have included James Connolly. This would mean Connolly was already active as a socialist and really only in Edinburgh in passing (I’ve found some writings from 1889 that suggest he was already articulating socialist views). James publicly features in Edinburgh socialist activity by at least 1891.

John was also an active socialist (not unusual for ex-servicemen) and was central to a dispute over his dismissal by the Council’s Cleansing Department for socialist activity (the same Department which Peter McBride and his father had battled in 1872). But during the hearings it was also alleged that John had been dismissed previously. Unfortunately the name John Connolly is too common in Edinburgh to identify if he is in the individual involved in any of the many other recorded incidents involving a ‘John Connolly’. These include a twelve year old John Connolly being stabbed in the shoulder in October 1872 in Cowgate (which the Connollys surely heard of whether it involved John or not). A man of that name features in a series of public order offences, assaults on women and thefts in Edinburgh. There is a John Connolly involved in other socialist activity up to around 1897-1898 when he seems to slowly withdraw from politics. This would seem consistent with his return to the service during the Boer War (which seems unlikely for a committed socialist).

Obviously there could be an error here and the 1901 re-enlistment includes a file belonging to a different James Reid as the alternative is that John Connolly may have had more than one wife at the same time. And while at least one Greaves suggests that his brother may have been a little flamboyant, ordinarily it would be assumed that the military records are in error here apart from one odd little detail. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Connolly, as the most high profile leader, features in mini-biographies across a range of newspapers. The level of accurate detail is dreadful, some due to misleading information Connolly himself propagated. This is most obvious in the fact that in early May he is simultaneously reported as being from Cork, Belfast, Liverpool and Monaghan. The most accurate summary of Connolly’s life with some quite telling errors was published in the Newcastle Daily Journal on May 2 1916. The text is below:

Newcastle Daily Journal, May 2 1916.

“James Connolly, who was previously reported shot, and is now said to have surrendered with other rebel leaders, was born in Edinburgh on 6th June, 1866, in Campbell’s Close in the Cowgate, the house where he was born being no longer in existence. His parents were Irish, and his father worked as a carter in the service of Edinburgh Corporation for 42 years, when he received a pension.

James learned the tile-laying trade, and later entered the Corporation service as a carter, and became prominent in Labour disputes. As a boy he showed a great deal of intelligence, and was marked among his companions for the ready way in which he grasped things. On Sundays and holidays he would go for long rambles into the country, and so great was his power over the other boys of his own age that they would do anything he asked them.

He received his education first at the Catholic School in Lothian Street and later at the school in Market Street. He married a Dublin girl who was in service in Perth and he had six children, five of whom are still alive. The other child was burned to death through her clothing catching fire. Connolly was at that time in America and his wife was preparing to follow him….

Connolly’s brother John, who has been discharged from the National Reserve, resides with his family at 57, Calton Road, Edinburgh. He has served twenty years in the Army, and two of his sons have been killed at the front, while one is a prisoner of war in Germany.”

Notably here, James Connolly’s date and place of birth is almost correct apart from the fact that it is out by two years – but that would match the likely date he would have given if he joined the British Army under-age. Similarly the address is pretty much correct, given the Connollys moved around quite a bit in Edinburgh (as far as it is possible to tell from street directories, Campbell’s Close was actually located at 107 Cowgate and that might also have been used as its address). The Catholic School referred to in Lothian Street was run by the Sisters of Mercy and admitted girls, so it is possible that Connolly attended the infants school there. The later schooling in Market Street is a little confused as Market Street was one of two Catholic run schools that were merged together as St Patricks in Cowgate by the time James would have attended. However, it would still have been a separate school when John Connolly attended. It is tempting then to see John Connolly having sufficient links to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne that it becomes the place where the most accurate details of James Connolly’s life get published in 1916 (at least until another explanation is found).

Next up – James Connolly’s earliest political writings, rediscovered.


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