When heckled on a street corner about how he knew so much about revolution, James Connolly did not hesitate to respond that: “My business is revolution!”
This insight offers the thread by which to understand the nature, and essential continuity, of Connolly’s career, binding the Red to the Green.
As a trade union leader he fought for a social and economic revolution; as a socialist he fought for a political revolution. It was a struggle that led him from the Edinburgh slums to Dublin, to New York, to Belfast and – finally – to the flames of the GPO.
He was a man of big ideas and high ideals, who as his old friend and comrade, Cathal O’Shannon, put it, aimed through his every word, thought and deed to secure “the advancement of the working class to power.”
Few Labour leaders had such a sense of purpose. Few Labour leaders had seen and learned so much. He had experienced, first-hand, the poverty and vast disparities of wealth that underscored both the industrial revolution and Fordist production; he had organised among new immigrant communities on the Dublin docksides and in the sweatshops of Manhattan; and he left behind him – through the paragraphs he contributed to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic – a legacy enshrined at the heart of the modern Irish state, that emphasises economic equality, the rights of women and civil liberties.
Yet, it is his role in the 1916 Rising and the heroism of his death, tethered, wounded and reviled, in the courtyard of Kilmainham Jail, that continues to define him a century on.
Because of the Rising, Connolly and Pearse can be sidelined, re-imagined, excoriated or sanitised: but they cannot be ignored. Furthermore, because of the continuing inequities and inequalities at the heart of our society, Connolly’s message continues to have a potency and an immediacy that the other voices of Easter Week may have lost due to marked changes in Irish culture and society.
He remains a hope to the poor and the marginalised; and a waking nightmare to the acquisitive and to the exploitative super-rich. That is why, amid the politics of commemoration, Connolly the natural rebel remains a difficult and uncomfortable figure.
That is also why he, of all the signatories of the Proclamation, has recently been singled-out for the most savage and unremitting criticism for his decision to leave Liberty Hall, one last time, and to put himself at the head of the Irish Citizen Army in the battle for Dublin.
If we can dismiss him as no more than a murderous fanatic, we can dismiss his words and denigrate his dreams of a world made better for all.
Yet, this is to overlook what actually took place in Easter 1916. Connolly and Pearse were perfectly clear in their own minds that the Rising was an insurrection conducted by the conventional forces of an Irish Republic, that they themselves had called into being as an expression of the popular will.
Both men were scrupulous in their adherence to the rules and conventions of war, and did their level best to ensure that British Army prisoners were not abused or ill-treated by the insurgents.
Indeed, it was the failure of the British government to accord the same status to the rebels, and the extra-judicial executions in the wake of the Rising, that turned public opinion decisively in favour of the insurgents and made possible the eventual realisation of the Republic in the South.
Throughout Easter Week, Connolly had fought a soldier’s battle.
He was everything and everywhere: Commandant and frontline combatant; heartening his men, raising barricades, leading sorties and directing volleys. Moreover, the Irish Citizen Army under his command, comprising the most loyal and committed of his adherents in the trade unions, had distinguished itself in the fighting to an extent that transcended mere numbers.
The Rising had validated Connolly’s decision “to fight the way I want, not the way the enemy wants,” and the sense that this – far from being a gesture or a ritual sacrifice – was a blow in an ongoing war against capitalism and imperialism.
His injunction to his men to “hold on to your rifles” until economic as well as political liberty had been won – reveals his view of freedoms that had not only to be achieved but constantly defended, and daily improved upon.
Certainly, as he lay wounded in his hospital bed, Connolly’s foes still felt him to be a threat.
William Martin Murphy, Dublin millionaire, strike-breaker and slum landlord, could not – and would not – forget his part in the Dublin Lockout, or that the Starry Plough of the Citizen Army had flown, in triumph and defiance, from his own hotel building during the Rising, while his businesses and tenements burned.
Thus, each day, Murphy’s newspapers demanded the harshest of sentences for the captured rebels and, even as the public mood swung against the executions of their leaders, continued to press for Connolly’s death lest “the worst of the ringleaders” should live to fight another day.
Murphy crossed the Irish Sea and lobbied hard at Westminster in order to ensure that Connolly, in particular, would not be spared.
Thus, when we think of ruthlessness in 1916, let us not think of it solely in terms of the exchange of fire between enemy combatants, brave young men and women committed to their respective causes: but of its cold-blooded variety, conducted not upon the battlefield but in the boardroom, the gentleman’s club and the debating chamber.
It was concern for moderation that led Arthur Henderson, on behalf of the British Labour Party, to do nothing to oppose Murphy’s calls for vengeance.
Perhaps, when seeking to commemorate Connolly, today on the day of his execution, we should remember his own clarion call on behalf of the entire Labour movement – both national and international – then as now, let us “Be moderate, we only want the earth!”