The Easter Rising and James Connolly

By Brian Durrans

2016 has been the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland. The historical significance of the Rising has been well described elsewhere, but it might be worth complementing such accounts with both a wider and a narrower view. On the wider view, the methods used to put it down and to punish its perpetrators were meant to deter future rebellions, not just in Ireland but across the Empire. It is no tribute to the British colonial occupation of Ireland - Britain's oldest colony - to recognise that more have died and suffered even worse at British hands or from British policies, in other parts of the former Empire.

On a narrower view, its leaders were punished. More narrowly still, the way in which one leader in particular was treated sums up in human terms what 'putting down' the Rising actually meant. And whether we focus on the suppression and misrepresentation of the political event of the Rising or on one or two of its leaders, we also need to consider wider and narrower consequences of both.

For those at the receiving end, it is no comfort to know that others have had it worse. Far fewer died, for example in the Irish potato famine in the 1840s than the up to 30 million who died in the late 19th and early 20th century India from the same colonial policy of exporting food rather than leaving it for its producers to eat, yet its impact on the smaller population of Ireland was still devastating. Of the many more men and women who took part in the Rising and who were tried in secret with no defence counsel allowed, 88 men were sentenced to death.

 The work of deterring anyone who might have a similar idea would previously have involved public hangings and leaving the corpses for passers-by to see and reflect upon; but although worse was being done to British, Irish and other soldiers in the battlefields of the First World War, in the city life of the time such a task was better entrusted to the press. Most publicity therefore focused on the leaders who, over a period of ten days between 3rd and 13th May 1916, were executed individually by military firing squad, one in Cork, fourteen in Dublin.

Roger Casement

 The sixteenth leader, Roger Casement, the Irish-born former British diplomat whom the British state had decorated for his exposés of the scandalous mistreatment of indigenous Peruvians and of Belgian atrocities in the Congo, was hanged for treason in London at Pentonville Prison on 3 August. Opposing the colonialism of others was one thing; opposing that of your employer, especially if it involved tactical collusion with Germany with which Britain was then at war, was quite another. In a sadly effective PR coup, Casement's reputation was also trashed by the selective publication of pages from his diaries which, whether or not genuine, seemed to justify the additional charge of homosexuality, then not only illegal but unlikely to allow any accused a fair trial, as that of the non-insurrectionist Irish playwright and writer Oscar Wilde had proved only twenty-one years before in 1895. Then as ever, the ruling class tried to keep such matters confidential to protect a friend but an enemy can expect to be thrown to the wolves. Casement's remains were buried in Dublin; but northwest London's Irish community can commemorate his patriotism at his mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery.   

 As for the fourteen men who were killed in Dublin, as each met his end, others waited in the wings, one day more of them, another day fewer, and some days, and then finally, none at all. There is no comparison of course at the level of sacrifice or irreversibility, but the phasing of the executions calls to mind the wave-like anti-Corbyn resignations from Labour's Front Bench in June 2016 in the sense that both were designed to demoralise opponents. The Dublin executions certainly helped sour opinion against insurrection but at the unavoidable price of reminding at least some that colonial occupation was still a problem to be overcome.    

James Connolly

One of the last two leaders of the Rising to be executed in Dublin, and one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic made on 17 April, was the union organiser, patriot and internationalist, James Connolly, the foremost theoretician of independence with an unmatched understanding of the relationship between class, religion and nation in Irish conditions.

Because he confronted his executioners not standing but sitting on a chair, his detractors called Connolly a coward. In fact, he had been so seriously wounded before being captured that the pain alone, or the morphine from his family doctor, made it impossible for him to stand. Yet at dawn on Friday 12 May 1916, in the barracks of Stonebreaker's Yard in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol, the supposed 'coward' refused a blindfold.

I recently discussed all this with an Irishman I recently met, a Protestant trade unionist as it happens, who expressed no sympathy for the republican cause. He neither excused nor condemned Connolly's execution on moral grounds but declared it to have been a political mistake, the biggest the British could have made.

One of Connolly's biographers, Samuel Levenson, quotes substantial evidence from Britain and the US that supports this view, including from the US journal, The Nation, which speculates that the decision might as much as double Irish support for independence.[1] But whether or not the execution of Connolly or the others had this unintended effect, as a matter of fact there was no further Rising in Ireland. In the meantime, of course, old-style colonialism has almost everywhere been unrooted by what Harold Macmillan called "The Winds of Change". And more recently the Good Friday Agreement, may open up a new route, in uncertain conditions, to an independent future for the Irish people, picking their way through shifts in Ireland's relationships with a post-Brexit Britain and EU.

Yet however that works out, the Rising remains an indelible part of its history. This Lenin plainly understood when interpreting it six months later in October 1916. He saw it as the expression of different kinds of oppression (national, religious, class, anti-royal, anti-landlord)  from which a genuine social revolution could eventually emerge, without in the meantime writing-off the Rising as a putsch or mistakenly identifying it as that revolution itself.[2]

Connolly's execution

Like the Swedish-American union activist Joe Hill, Connolly was affiliated to the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. They died in a similar way, too, Hill in Utah less than 6 months before, and the famous words of The Ballad of Joe Hill - "takes more than guns to kill a man, says Joe, and I ain't dead" - might equally apply to James Connolly himself. Although Hill had a civil trial and was made to wear a blindfold, he too was already wounded and tied to a chair. Also, both said or are imagined or reported to have said the word 'Fire' just before the triggers were pulled. Giving your killers the go-ahead may seem pointless but in reality, or as reported, it's a last chance to assert your agency and both undercuts the authority of the officer in charge and boosts your posthumous reputation, so why would you not say it or imagine your hero to have said it?

Irish poet and journalist Liam MacGabhann (1908-1979) was only seven or eight at the time of the Rising. In his mid-twenties he published a book of radical poems, one of which – Connolly[3] - revisits Connolly's last moments from the point of view of a soldier in the firing squad. MacGabhann captures the qualms such a person might experience, but if romantic poetry revels in moral dilemma - the back of the hand on the fevered brow - he offers neither personal blame nor absolution but political understanding. In one line, even in a single word, the rifleman's only hope of escaping the guilt of complicity is by identifying at least its immediate cause. Which line or word that is, I'll leave for you to spot.

Liam MacGabhann explained that the poem is based on comments made by the son of a Welsh miner who was part of the firing squad that Friday morning and who later asked Connolly's relatives to forgive him.

Connolly by Liam MacGabhann

The man was all shot through that came today

Into the barrack square;

A soldier I - I am not proud to say

We killed him there;

They brought him from the prison hospital;

To see him in that chair

I thought his smile would far more quickly call A man to prayer.


Maybe we cannot understand this thing

That makes these rebels die;

And yet all things love freedom - and the Spring

Clear in the sky;

I think I would not do this deed again

For all that I hold by;

Gaze down my rifle at his breast - but then

A soldier I.

They say that he was kindly - different too,

Apart from all the rest;

A lover of the poor; and all shot through,

His wounds ill drest,

He came before us, faced us like a man,

He knew a deeper pain

Than blows or bullets - ere the world began;

Died he in vain?


Ready - present; And he just smiling - God!

I felt my rifle shake

His wounds were opened out and round that chair

Was one red lake;

I swear his lips said 'Fire!' when all was still

Before my rifle spat

That cursed lead - and I was picked to kill

A man like that!


[1] Samuel Levenson, A Biography of James Connolly: socialist, patriot and martyr. London, etc., Quartet Books, 1977, p.329.

[2] Levenson 1977, p.330.

[3] Liam McGabhann, Rags, Robes and Rebels, Dublin,, Eibhlian Press, 1933

James Connolly

Roger Casement's tomb in Kensal Green Cemetry, Kensington, London.