The prehistory of James Connolly

One of the most fascinating figures involved in the 1916 rebellion in Ireland is James Connolly. Born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, Connolly was hugely influential as a socialist commentator, writer and practitioner, both in Ireland and further afield. Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, despite his significance Connolly’s early life and formative influences are largely unknown and obscure. Oddly neither the historical nor physical world of those years of Connolly’s were seemingly a major focus of research as part of the ‘decades of centenaries’. This post is a (very) long read but it gathers together various stories of Connolly’s early life based on research previously posted on the TF blog. They include formative episodes like the lamplighters strike of 1872 and Connolly’s career as a British soldier.

The 1872 Lamplighter Strike

In August 1872 the Edinburgh lamplighters went on strike over pay and conditions. Lamplighters were the men (invariably) who lit and extinguished the street lights, among other duties – they were sometimes called ‘Leeries’. Almost immediately after the strike began, a Peter McBride and three other lamplighters were made an example of by the town council, seemingly as ringleaders. In the end, the four were fined for breach of contract but within a week or so the strikers demands were met (the account below is mainly taken from The Scotsman during August 1872, except where indicated).

To start with, the lamplighters worked seven days a week on a ‘beat’ where they had to light and extinguish all the lamps as well as some other tasks. The lights sometimes had to be extinguished as early as 3:40 am after extinguishing others at midnight. A worker also had to issue a four week notice to leave their post or miss a day, while they could simply be let go. And typically many of Edinburgh’s thirty lamplighters were let go in May each year and some rehired each September although the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning in 1872, Mr Patterson, claimed they were issued with four weeks’ notice if being let go in May (these details came out in McBride’s trial, see press on 17 August 1872). The terms and conditions of their employment appeared to be completely weighted in favour of the Lighting and Cleaning Committee of the town council.

There were also tensions over lamplighters being obliged to train new ‘hands’ with the trainers potentially being laid off in May and then replaced with the trainées in September. Lamplighters had to sign a contract confirming their working conditions. Peter McBride had done so in September 1866. However, as he pointed out in court, McBride and others hadn’t been asked to sign up to those conditions since 1866 or each year after regular breaks in their employment and there was no copy posted up anywhere that the lamplighters could read.

Not that the lamplighters’ pay demands appeared out of the blue. In mid-July 1872, immediately before the lamplighters’ strike, the one hundred and forty Council ‘scavengers’ in Edinburgh had gone on strike (‘scavangers’ was the term used for dustmen and street cleaners). After around a week the scavengers strike committee met with the Council and their requested pay increase of 2s was met. A number had initially been prosecuted for going on strike and given two days to return to work before being penalised. But the agreement with the Council specifically included protection for those prosecuted or dismissed during the strike. The agreement that concluded the strike was made on 20 July 1872 (see North Briton, 24/7/1872). The lamplighters seem to have originally have submitted a collective request for improved pay and conditions of 2s per week in a petition to the Council as early as mid-July 1872, possibly in tandem with the scavengers. Lamplighters had been typically paid 3-4s more per week than the scavengers. The lamplighters’ request was referred to Patterson and his Committee who dismissed it as ‘informal’ despite being in line with the similar to requests for pay raises that were being met by council.

An Edinburgh lamplighter at work (1928, photographer unknown)

As a group, the lamplighters then ‘formally’ wrote to the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning on 5 August with their request for improved pay and conditions and threatened to go on strike on 13 August. They quickly withdrew the strike threat after being advised that the Lighting and Cleaning Committee would discuss their request. But by Friday 9 August, though, an issue had arisen over a lamplighter, George Leslie, refusing to train new ‘hands’. That day the lamplighters re-instated the threat to strike on the morning of the Tuesday (13 August) if their request for improved conditions was not met or if any of them were punished over the threatened strike action. The timing of the strike threat was not incidental. Queen Victoria was to be in Edinburgh during the threatened strike. According to the Glasgow Herald (14/8/1872), it was difficult to say whether the royal visit or the lamplighters strike was exciting the most interest among the public.

The Lighting and Cleaning Committee then met twice on the Monday (12 August) but refused to even consider the pay demands only considering the terms on which lamplighters could resign. Instead some of those involved were dismissed and a policeman sent to their house to instruct them not to extinguish the lamps on the Tuesday morning and to return their tools to the Committee. Those dismissed included Peter McBride and at least three others, Charley Riley, John Fegan and George Leslie (these were the four charged and brought to court on the Friday, 16 August). The lamplighters then posted placards around Edinburgh advising the public of the strikes and their petition to the Council for an increase in wages. A reference to the placard in The Scotsman on the Wednesday implies that the strike was being directed by a committee (possibly made up of the four dismissed lamplighters).

In response to the dismissals, strike action then began on the Tuesday morning and, without lamplighters, the Council had to suffer the embarrassment of leaving the lamps burning all day while Queen Victoria was in town. The lamplighters’ petition was discussed by the Council that day. Before dismissing it, the Council debate was interrupted by at least one member of the public, an old woman dressed in mourning clothes who demanded the right to address the council (what she said wasn’t reported). The police also had to prevent ‘public-spirited citizens’ from extinguishing the lamps on the Tuesday. With a strike taking place, there would be no lamplighters to put a flame to them again that evening and the town streets would be left in darkness. But on Wednesday, the Inspector of Lighting and Cleaning, Mr Patterson, advised the council that he had hired new ‘hands’ to cover every ‘beat’ of those on strike. He had also instructed the Sherriff to issue the warrants against McBride and the others for ‘desertion of service’ under the Master and Servant Act.

Attempts to simply replace the lamplighters were resisted. On the Tuesday evening, Patterson had already dispatched some new lamplighters to try and re-light some of the lamps leading to confrontations and violence. Presumably these were lamps that had been extinguished that morning, either by the ‘public-spirited citizens’ or lamplighters who hadn’t gone out on strike (as yet). A carter named George Thomson received ten days in prison for trying to prevent a lamp being lit on the Tuesday evening in Cockburn Street while Alexander Clunas was fined 5s for intimidating a lamplighter on High Street. In both cases the lamplighters were new ‘hands’ and Thomson and Clunas had tried to dissuade them from breaking the strike.

Previous lamplighter strikes had taken place in Glasgow (1855), Blackburn (1867), Limerick (1870) and Brussels (1871) and strike action in general was not uncommon in August 1872. On 14 August, for instance, The Scotsman and other papers reported strikes in Glasgow (miners), Dundee (shoemakers) and Hawick (spinners), while compositors were also out on strike. The Scotsman even sued a London compositor that it had hired as a strike-breaker for breach of contract when he refused to break the strike (eg Shepton Mallet Journal, 6/9/1872). It is also notable that new lamps had just been tested in Glasgow in July-August 1872 which took less time to light the globe. Trials suggested an eighty-five minute route could now be completed in fifty-five minutes. It was being proposed that the cost of introducing the new globes would be offset by reducing the number of lamplighters by a quarter. The report was submitted to the Council in Glasgow just after the strike but the trials must have taken place before the strike began and knowledge of the results may well have spread to the lamplighters in Edinburgh (eg see Glasgow Herald, 27/8/1872). Notably a lamplighter strike also followed in London later in 1872.

As with the posting of handbills to explain the strike action, the lamplighters were also ready for the court action against McBride, Riley, Fegan and Leslie on the Friday. That day, a letter was published by The Scotsman, from ‘a lamplighter’. It was entitled ‘Duties of Lamplighters’ and read:

Sir, as the public generally imagine that the duties of a lamplighter only consist of cleaning, lighting and extinguishing a certain number of lamps, would be so kind as to give space to the following correct statement of the duties which a lamplighter is compelled to perform? 1st. In addition to cleaning, lighting and extinguishing our lamps, which is considered sufficient work for any man when it is borne in mind that, for eight months in the year, we have to turn out at 12 o’clock each night to extinguish half the lamps, we are compelled to water the streets in dry weather, which every one is eye-witness to. 2nd. To work with the blacksmith, tinsmith and joiner; and, in fact, any other work that our inspector may send us to.

I am, etc Lamplighter.

In court on Friday 16 August, Peter McBride was found guilty for his role in the strike and fined £5 plus a guinea costs (his weekly wage was 19s) or, in default, ten days in prison. The others received similar sentences. The Council though, by the next Wednesday, was reported to have revisited the petition the previous day and authorised that the pay and conditions requested by the lamplighters be accepted.

Peter McBride, who seemed to be regarded as the ringleader of the strike, lived in Carrubers Close. McBride was also a Sergeant in the Army Reserve, having joined the 26th Foot, the Cameronians in 1855. He and his wife were later recorded running a coffee stand in 1881 when both their birthplaces are recorded as County Monaghan. McBride had spent nearly four years in Bermuda while in the British army, leaving full-time service in 1865 shortly before he began working as a lamplighter in Edinburgh in 1866. The address he lists as his intended residence is Corrybreany, Ballybay, presumably Corrybranan on the southern side of Ballybay in County Monaghan. His sons, Robert, Thomas and John, were likely playmates of James Connolly’s older brothers John and Thomas as they were around the same ages. The Connollys lived next door to the McBrides in Carruthers Close in 1871 and John Connolly, James’ father, was himself a lamplighter. John must have been on strike with the lamplighters too (this may well be the strike that various James Connolly biographers mention). Legend has it that Connolly and McBride both lost their jobs soon after the strike, which is consistent with later census records.

What is more, several biographers mention Connolly’s ‘uncle’, giving the names variously as ‘Peter’ and ‘McBride’. He is claimed to have walked many paths along which his nephew James followed: this ‘uncle’ was a socialist and (reputedly) a Fenian who had joined the military under a false name. Some remembered an older uncle who was a socialist and Fenian who seemingly introduced Connolly to left wing activism in Edinburgh from 1890. James Connolly’s daughter Ina also mentions (in a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History) an ‘uncle’ Peter in Edinburgh, his father’s brother, who came over to Belfast and tried to get James to come to Monaghan to sign over a family farm to him, an event she dates to 1912.

Peter McBride’s marriage record names his parents as Robert McBride and Margaret McBride, née Connolly. His military records provide no next of kin information but he gives his address as Corrybranan, Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. The dates of his military service are consistent with dates for other ex-servicemen who joined the Fenians (and Edinburgh had ‘green scares’ in the 1870s over a mobilized ‘Irish’ vote and ‘Fenianism’). His socialist and syndicalist credentials are shown by the 1872 strike. He is very much the almost mythological figure conjured up by James Connolly’s biographers. Was he just a neighbour of John Connolly’s? A fellow lamplighter? Another Monaghan lad he met in Edinburgh?

McBride enlisted in Edinburgh in 1855, roughly when Connolly first arrived in the city. John Connolly’s mother was named Mary and his father John (or Owen). Perhaps Peters mother was John Connolly’s mother’s sister (‘uncle’ being meant as an older male relative rather than, strictly, as a brother of your mother or father). Maybe McBride’s ancestry was entirely fictional and he was indeed John Connolly’s brother (there is a lesson there I’ll come back to in a future post). Ina Connolly also gives her father Ballybay roots – but Corrybranan has no obvious candidates to match McBrides father or mothers name in Griffiths Valuation or the Tithe Applotment Books, so that is yet to be confirmed.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as it is now clear that the socialist ‘uncle’ Peter, possibly a Fenian too, was a very real figure rather than a romantic device concocted by Connolly’s later biographers to explain his political formation. McBride’s (and John Connolly’s) involvement in the strike was surely retold down the years and it may have been a family story regularly heard by James Connolly, who was only 4 in 1872, as a template for successful industrial action. However, both Peter McBride and John Connolly rapidly lost their jobs as lamplighters after the strike, so they may well have borne the real cost of a successful action for workers.

The Other J. Connolly: James’ brother John.

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.

Antique print of Campbell’s Close. where James Connolly was born (the street is now gone). The poverty of the Close is clearly hinted at by the figures at the entrance and contrasted by the grandeur of the architecture.

I originally looked at John Connolly 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 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 had enlisted using the name James Reid. Peter McBride 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. Peter also included a (potentially) fictional parentage on his army records.

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 Edinburgh in July 1878 but there is nothing to suggest that 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’ later 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’ without explaining what he means (is that a euphemism for having alcohol problems)?

Carrubers Close where the Connolly’s and McBrides lived in the 1870s.

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 later 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. It’s not clear what is going on here with Sarah Jane and Elizabeth but this may also be the ‘flamboyance’ Greaves noted.

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 1891 that suggest he was already articulating socialist views). James publicly features in Edinburgh socialist activity by at least that year (1891) and possibly earlier.

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).

James Connolly, British Soldier.

It probably still comes as a shock to many people that James Connolly, revolutionary socialist and republican, had served in the British army. That is despite the fact that so many Irish people did join up. Connolly’s military career is shrouded in mystery, though.

James Connolly’s legend has perhaps been the most durable of all the leaders of the Irish Republic in 1916. A reason for that is that his life intersects 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).

Connolly’s early letters to Lily have quite an extensive vocabulary (for someone who reputedly left school so early). Clearly Connolly’s military career afforded him an opportunity to improve his literacy significantly. It’s not clear if this should be taken to imply that he was largely in an administrative role or unit.

The Girl I Left Behind Me
Extract from Connolly’s letter to Lillie Reynolds from April 7th, 1889 (original in the National Library).

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).

police gazette.png
Front page of Police Gazette, February 26th, 1889, showing format of deserter lists.

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. Records of deserters from 1889 many finally uncover a likely candidate.

Some newly discovered early James Connolly letters.

Connolly may well have deserted the British Army in 1889, returned to Scotland and lived first in Dundee before then returning to Edinburgh and marrying Lily Reynolds by around 1891. The reason why he was living in Dundee is not clear (no offence to Dundee). Despite the imprecise factual basis for the details of his life before 1893, we can at least date his arrival in Dundee through some private correspondence mentioning current events to Lily in April 1889. We also know, from their marriage records on 30 April 1890, that he was living at 22 West Port, Edinburgh.

Typically Connolly’s brother John is said to have already been active in socialist politics when he (James) deserted and that James followed his elder brother’s path into political activism, taking over from him as secretary of the Socialist Democratic Federation in 1893 (this is the general outline often given by biographers).

At this point that narrative appears to be at odds with what can be identified in contemporary newspaper reports. The first clear sight of John Connolly in politics is in 1893 when he was dismissed from his post as a ‘scavenger’ by Edinburgh Council. This followed his involvement in industrial action over working hours. In the subsequent references to it in the press (over May-June 1893), Edinburgh Council report that he had been sacked previously by the head of the Council’s Cleaning Department for some unstated infraction and was re-employed without the head of Department’s knowledge. Seemingly his visibility during the strike brought his re-employment to the head’s attention and he was sacked again. His infraction could, of course, be his socialist activism but John Connolly does not appear to be named as involved in socialist activities in contemporary press reports. A John Connolly was arrested and charged with rioting in Greenock during a railway strike in 1890 but it is unclear if it is the same John Connolly.

The aftermath of that railway strike does give us our first glimpse of James Connolly the political activist, though. At a public meeting of the ward Labour committee in South Bridge in Edinburgh, in February 1891, James Connolly put a resolution to the floor and spoke against his local MP. This seems to be his the earliest public address and writing by him, albeit relatively brief.

This is from The Scotsman, 17 Feb 1891:

Public meeting under auspices of Ward Labour Committee in Labour Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh to comsidr parliamentary representation. John McKenzie of the Edinburgh Trades Council, was in the chair and noted the poor attendance. James Connolly, carter, moved this resolution:

Resolved that the meeting record its most emphatic conviction that Mr William McEwan, the present member of Parliament for the Central Division of the City of Edinburgh, is no longer, if he ever was, a fit and proper person to represent the working classes of the Division in Parliament ; that it recognise in his letter to the Chairman of the Central Liberal Association a conspicuous absence of any comprehension whatever of what was really involved in the late struggle between the railway companies and their employees ; that the recent railway strike has been productive of at least one unmixed good – viz., the shattering of the superstition that in our present industrial society, based upon monopoly on the one hand, and wage servitude on the other, there is, or ever can be, any true identity of interest between capital and labour ; that recognising this fact, this meeting pledges itself to secure, if possible, the return to Parliament for the Central Division of Edinburgh of a labour candidate at next general election : and that for the candidate it be made an indispensable condition of his candidature that he fully and freely recognises the antagonism of interests between the monopolizers of the means of production and distribution and the wage workers, or, in other words, that he expresses his belief in the existence of the class war.

The report goes on to say that Connolly stated that the resolution expressed the conviction of every honest man in the locality on the matter. Mr John Smith, a mason, seconded the motion. John Leslie, a labourer, also supported the motion and drew attention to how McEwan was also an apologists, if not supporter, for the Plan of Campaign in Ireland which ‘in policy and practice, was illegal.’ The latter point was to highlight McEwan’s inconsistency in opposing industrial action in Scotland on the grounds it was illegal, while supporting ‘illegal’ land agitation in Ireland. This is perhaps a nod towards McEwan trying to build electoral support among Edinburgh’s Irish community. Did Connolly sense the Irish in Edinburgh were being played for their votes? When Connolly himself began to get involved in electoral politics in Edinburgh in 1893-1894 he identifies himself as Irish during hustings, no doubt trying to do the same and elicit support from the Irish community.

It is possible that Connolly’s primary motivation in moving the resolution was that the John Connolly arrested over the railway strike was indeed his brother. This could be the origin of the stories about his brother John getting him into politics. Certainly John Leslie, who also spoke on his resolution, was to be a long time collaborator of Connolly’s and was instrumental in getting him into politics. Leslie was Connolly’s predecessor as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. Notably the SDF openly derided the Liberal’s (McEwan’s party’s) claim to speak for labour interests.

Leslie may be related to the George Leslie who was involved in the 1872 Lamplighters strike. Like John Connolly, he is hazily sketched out in various biographies and is hinted to have been a Ribbon man. It may be that the ‘John’ that biographers feature in some episodes in Connolly’s life in the mid-1890s is occasionally mixes John Leslie and John Connolly up or blends them together. Certainly he was an active socialist by at least 1889 when he first begins to feature in the press as secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. During protests and clashes with the authorities in Dundee over ‘free speech’ Leslie was asked to come from Edinburgh and being some ‘sinews’ to support the protests. Intriguingly this was at the end of March 1889, just as James Connolly arrived. Was Connolly one of Leslie’s ‘sinews’? Leslie’s action in Dundee appeared to be to calm matters down rather than have an outright confrontation with the authorities.

Connolly’s next identifiable writing appeared as a published letter on 8 August 1891 in the Dundee Weekly News. It was followed by further letters in October. The ideological position he gives aligns fairly neatly on that of the SDF.

The next appeared on 24 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – the meaning of Socialism is not in the least obscure, and it is only the misrepresentations of our enemies which make it so. Common property is the means of production and distribution – i.e. the land and instrument of labour – is Socialism as accepted by all schools of Socialistic thought. The industries of the country to be held and managed by the workers, and production and distribution of all goods to be arranged to supply the wants of all, instead of, as at present, to make a profit for a few – all classes of labour to be equally rewarded. The labour of the architect requires greater skill, but it is also less protracted and disagreeable, and performed amid pleasanter surroundings than the labour of the hod-carrier, and without the labour of the hod-carrier the most sublime conceptions of the architect would remain mere valueless drawings on paper. A colliery manager is absolutely useless without the labour of the colliers, and the labour of the collier is of little use to dwellers in cities without the coal-heavers, who bring the coal to our doors. All are equally necessary; therefore all should be equally rewarded. – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

With a further letter on 31 October 1891 (Dundee Weekly News).

Sir – Labour is the source of all wealth. Capital itself is produced by labour, and is useless without labour, and capital in private hands is simply the stored up unpaid labour of the workers kept back by a capitalist fraud. Wages are only a part of the fruits of labour, the remainder is retained by the capitalist in the name of profits, and is utilised by him to create fresh capital and enable him to live in clover off the labour of others. The two cases I have quoted are instances of this general rule, which remain unaltered whether the dividend is 20 or 4 per cent. The fact that capitalists often fail does not alter the amount wrongfully taken from the workers. What one loses another gains. If capitalist A fails it is simply because B, C, D, E and F, his rivals in business, have taken his trade from him, and will therefore receive greater profits, because of the ruin of their rival. The matter is of as little interest to the workers, as a class, as the similar question of how thieves divide their plunder can be supposed to be to the unfortunate victims from whom it was stolen – I am, etc, JAMES CONNOLLY

Collectively, the letters show Connolly’s articulate grasp of socialism and confident voice. As far as we know, Connolly left school very young, but the fluent writer visible in his 1889-1890 letters to Lily Reynolds and these early letters suggests an education and reading well beyond ten years of age. Without his actual military records, we must assume some of that education was while serving in the British Army. His socialistic convictions also seem well developed by 1891, suggesting he was no mere arriviste, calling to mind his capacity to advise Kier Hardie on the Irish socialist scene in 1893. As with Peter McBride and John Connolly, John Leslie is a significant figure to help understand Connolly’s political formation.

About which we still appear to know so little!

You can read other posts about James Connolly on the blog here here:

They told me how Connolly was shot in the chair…

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking

Learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage: Irish republicans in the British Army

Nora Connolly O’Brien on her father, Belfast and 1916


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