Markievicz on James Connolly
JAMES CONNOLLY AS I KNEW HIM
by Constance Markievicz
My friendship with James Connolly came about through the Fianna in Belfast after his return from America in 1910. He worked for a while as organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland, and in 1911 took up the post of Ulster organiser and secretary for the ITGWU. He and his family settled into a nice little house, high up on the Falls Road with clear open spaces around it, the mountains in front, and a green field sloping down behind it.
He was full of life, full of work, and full of hope, and he had the happy knack of making friends of the best of those men and women he came across in his day’s work. Soon he was the inspiration, friend and helper of every little group struggling towards freedom in Belfast, the Fianna among them. His daughters, Nora and Ina, were two of the pioneers of the Fianna girl scouts who, in spite of endless opposition, organised and held together a great group of young girls, training them on the same lines as the boys, in separate branches, but absolutely equal and having equal rights and privileges in the organisation with the boys.
And so it happened that when I was up in Belfast to lecture to the Fianna, the girls brought me to the Connolly house and we all became great friends. Afterwards I came to look upon their house as my Belfast home, stopping there whenever I was up North. Theirs was a delightful home. Mrs Connolly was a charming hostess. I remember pleasant and interesting evenings passed there, listening to James Connolly and his friends talking, and I trying to learn all I could.
The conversation covered a very wide ground – history, politics, economics, social systems, class distinctions, culture, revolutions; and everything discussed led back to the same question – how can we work out Ireland’s freedom? Where can we find guidance in the past? What is at the back of the tyranny and sufferings of the present day, and where lies the inspiration to guide us as the future unrolls itself? Keenly aware of my own ignorance, I listened and learnt, asked questions and found help and guidance; and started to read the books recommended to me and tried to fit myself for the work I had started on.
Connolly on hunger strike
By the time the labour war of 1913 broke out I was sure of my stand and joined up with the workers in the fight. When Connolly was arrested he at once decided to hunger-strike: in the end he was released rather suddenly, in a very dangerous state of health. When I returned to Liberty Hall that evening I found that Ina and Mrs Connolly hadn’t brought him there. His convalescence was very slow, and he never was really as physically fit as before but, directly he could speak, before he could sit up, he was working, interviewing his comrades and pushing on his policy and reading. He was writing when most people would have been occupied in getting well. Such was the indomitable fire in the heart of this man that nothing could quench it. To work for the cause, sweeping aside all personal suffering, as well as all pleasure, comfort, ambition, was the rule of his life.
Connolly’s treatment of women
When he began to organise the Irish Citizen Army, he brought me along, treating me, as he got to know me, as a comrade, giving me any work that I could do, and quite ignoring the conventional attitude towards the work of women. This was his attitude towards women in general; we were never, in his mind, classed for work as a sex, but taken individually and considered, just as every man considers men, and then alloted any work we could do. When he appointed Commandant Mallin as his first staff officer, he appointed me as his second, with the rank of lieutenant.
From the time of the strike till just before the rising he stayed with me for months at a time, his wife and children coming back and forward from Belfast to see him. He felt that his papers were not safe in a lodging or a hotel, he told me, and so he arranged to make his Dublin home in Surrey House. During the time of the strike we had a crowd of little girls on the run for “murdering scabs” hiding with us. The police were not so keen on searching people’s houses in those days, so they were quite safe. He fathered them all, and they adored him for his sympathy and generosity. Some he brought up to Belfast and left with Mrs Connolly, who succeeded in getting jobs there for them.
Every day I saw proof of his wonderful brain and his great character. He was the big power behind the strike. It was his strength the workers leaned on – his brain they trusted.
Coming on to Easter Week his difficult task was to bridge over the gulf between the Volunteers and the ICA, which fools on both sides were busy seeking to widen. Some labour men branded the Volunteers as a middle-class, capitalist army, all for show, which never would fight; while some of the Volunteers looked down on the ICA as a mob of undesirable and wild scalliwags, who wanted to fight in season and out of season, more especially at the wrong moment, before anyone else was ready.
Then, too, Connolly would not allow his men to belong to the IRB, and stopped every attempt of the latter to recruit among the men of the ICA, saying that he would not have dual control, but that a man was free to join whichever he liked. This feeling became so fierce that eventually some of the IRB in the Volunteers kidnapped Connolly. The section who did this we used to call the “not yets”, some of whom were largely dominated by Bulmer Hobson, the friend of MacNeill. Connolly was held prisoner by armed guard for four days, when certain tactics we adopted procured his release.
But this unpleasant incident never influenced Connolly in his subsequent work with the Irish Volunteers, and he was always on the best of terms with his fellow martyrs, the signatories. He was constantly in Tom Clarke’s little shop, and many a message I carried there for him, while Pearse and Plunkett, who often used to pass our way, used to drop into my house to see him. For a considerable time before the Rising, the Provisional Government used to meet in an office in Liberty Hall, some slipping in through the shop on Eden Quay, others at the front, and the rest up the laneway and in at the back.
The Easter Rising
A few weeks before Easter he put a stretcher bed into a small room in Liberty Hall, and he kept an armed garrison on duty day and night, so determined was he not to be caught away from his men and interned, and so prevented from striking a blow. If they had attempted to arrest him, he would have fought. He wanted to fight with a chance of winning, of course, but he was ready to go out and fight and die, as Robert Emmet died, as he believed that Ireland’s only hope of ultimate freedom lay in keeping the tradition of fighting alive by raising the flag of revolt each time England was in difficulties.
We were mobilised for 8 o’clock on Easter Sunday morning. I bought a paper on my way down to the hall, and, to my horror, read Mr MacNeill’s countermanding order. I rushed upstairs into Connolly’s room, where I found Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott with him, all three greatly moved. I asked what had happened and was told “MacNeill has cut the ground from under our feet.” Later on, when someone was trying to defend Mr MacNeill for his treachery by saying that he was afraid to risk so many lives on a hopeless venture (hopeless by reason of the sinking of the Aud) Connolly said: “There is only one thing I am afraid of, and that is preventing a man or woman from fighting and dying for Ireland if they want to.”
I never saw him happier than on Easter Monday morning when he came downstairs with the other members of the Provisional Government of the Republic. We parted on the steps of Liberty Hall for the last time. He was absolutely radiant, like a man who had seen a vision. The comrade of Tone and Emmet, he stood on the heights with them, his spirit one with theirs.
The rapture that comes only when the supreme sacrifice is made intentionally and willingly in a man’s heart was his. The life of the flesh was over for him; the spirit life had begun. And I like to think of him, radiant and smiling, still “fighting and hoping”. Ours to follow, taking our places on the vast battlefront against Empire, storming, as he would have us, every enemy citadel, whether political, social, educational, economic or military, storming on, having no halting point in our campaign till the Republic of the workers is a living reality.
The Nation, March 26, 1927
Posted on August 28, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Republicanism post-1900, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Markievicz on James Connolly.