James Connolly: Irish Rebel and Feminist Firebrand
By Bernadette Kelly

Published here with permission from Freedom Socialist Newspaper
where it first published in their July-September 2003 (Vol. 24, No. 2) issue

I was raised to be proud of my Irish heritage. But, looking back, I realize I learned very little about actual Irish history. For many Irish Americans, St. Paddy's day celebrations were about all the connection we had.

One name I did hear growing up, from my grandfather, was that of James Connolly. But it was another 20 years before a friend in radical politics gave me a book by Connolly and I really discovered this man - someone any Irish American, or any human being, could be proud of.

James Connolly was born in 1868 to Irish immigrant parents in Edinburgh, Scotland. He died in 1916, executed by the British for leading the famous Easter Rising in Dublin. During his 48 years, he lived in Scotland, Ireland and the U.S. In all three countries, he devoted his life to fighting for the working class and all oppressed people.

Most Americans have never heard of James Connolly, even though he was deeply involved in one of the most active periods of U.S. labor and socialist history. Connolly was at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), along with Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Eugene Debs and other radical luminaries. He saw international solidarity as an indispensable tool for labor to defend itself against capitalism.

Connolly was a man ahead of his times in many ways. His clear feminism is one of these.

During Connolly's heyday, the battle for female suffrage was coming to a head in England, Ireland and the USA. In Ireland, many of the male nationalist leaders fighting to end English rule opposed suffrage, or refused to take a stand on it, because they feared alienating their supporters. Even some great movement leaders like James Larkin feared that women of the middle and upper classes would use the vote against the working class. In those days, the issue of votes for women, like abortion today, was too hot for some to handle.

But Connolly saw suffrage as a human right, regardless of how women chose to use it, and steadfastly supported it. In raising his voice for the vote for women, he never forgot that the working class was made up of two sexes, and that poor and working women needed this right far more than their better-off sisters. Said Connolly, "It was because women workers had no vote that they had not the safeguards even of the laws passed for their protection because these were ignored. They had women working for wages on which a man could not keep a dog."

And this revolutionary not only thought that women should fight side by side with men, he actively encouraged it. As he said so eloquently, "None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter."

At that time, even more so than now, women speakers in the labor movement were a rarity. Once, after addressing a solidarity meeting for women textile workers, Connolly surprised his daughter Nora by announcing her as the next speaker. Nora had been laboring tirelessly behind the scenes for this cause, and her father obviously thought that if she was good enough to organize, she was good enough to speak.

Of the 220 members of Connolly's Citizen Army who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, 27 were women. That very fact sparked an irreversible radicalization in Irish women's consciousness and expectations. An overwhelming British force crushed the revolt, and Connolly and several others were executed. Constance Markievicz, a unique female leader in the Citizen Army, was sentenced to life in prison.

Connolly's commitment to women's rights was part of the soul of that rebellion. This shines through in the "1916 Proclamation," which declared a guarantee of equal rights for both Irish men and women as one of the aims of the Rising. For Connolly, Irish freedom from British rule and women's emancipation were inseparable. As he put it, "Of what use to such sufferers can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish State if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood. As we have shown, the whole spirit and practice of modern Ireland, as it expresses itself through its pastors and masters, bear socially and politically hardly upon women."

As the nationalist movement in Ireland became more conservative, Connolly fell out of fashion, and for decades many of his writings remained unpublished. But now, happily, you can find them on the web - including the stirring chapter "Women's Rights" from his book The Reconquest of Ireland. And many of his books, such as Labour in Irish History, are still in print.

Connolly wrote about Irish history because he knew that both lessons and comfort could be drawn from the stories and struggles of those who went before us. If you want help understanding these "interesting times" we live in, my advice is to become acquainted with Connolly. It beats the heck out of drinking green beer.

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