A lovely account of James Connolly by a man who knew him well. It originally served as the introduction to a 1950s edition of Labour in Ireland. As this edition is not readily available, I have transcribed it and posted it here. Further information and PDF download at the bottom.
Nobody who ever met James Connolly could fail to carry away the impression that he was an exceptional man. Nobody who ever talked to him on a serious matter could fail to be convinced that he was a man possessed of the essential qualities of greatness. And at this distance of time, when it is possible to arrive at a conception of some, but not the full measure of his life-work and achievement, to estimate the effect of his thought his writings and his actions on history, it can scarcely be denied that in Connolly there was more than a touch of genius.
In stature and in appearance the living Connolly would not have suggested to the casual observer that there were any outstanding qualities or merits in the man. He was short, rather squat, broadly and sturdily built, with unusual breadth of shoulders. But a close examination revealed that what Francis Sheehy-Skeffington called his bullet head carried a countenance and eyes that could belong only to a man who gave himself to hard and accurate thinking, to boring as it were right into the centre of a problem, and to judging and weighing a man or a measure with a penetrative analysis that left no room for doubt of its thoroughness.
These qualities of Connolly’s were seen at their best in his private conversations, in committee work, in public speech, and his writings. Few men indeed reflected their real selves so clearly in their writings as Connolly did, and even now, those who had the honour of knowing him intimately, can hear the very accent of him as they re-read the articles and books he wrote.
It would not be quite accurate to say that he spoke slowly. But he was not a rapid speaker and he always spoke with great [x] deliberation and carefulness. And he was never hesitant or halting, although he had had in early life to conquer, by sheer force of will, a natural impediment in speech. This gave to his pronunciation of certain words an uncommon peculiarity ; and this actually helped to emphasise the feeling of deliberation and of carefulness which his spoken words conveyed.
To hear a lecture or speech of Connolly’s was a memorable experience. But it was much more than that ; in a very real sense it was part of a good working-class education. Since 1910, when I first heard him, I have heard every prominent speaker in Ireland, most of the big Labour men in Great Britain, and some of the best speakers among the Continental Socialists. But somehow or other Connolly’s addresses had something in them different and apart from any I have heard anywhere. He was not exactly a great orator, although he could rise to oratory too. But he had a method, a style, a manner that exactly fitted and adorned the splendid material he used in his speeches. He was never slipshod, never flamboyant, but always earnest, simple and informative. He spoke as one who had carefully thought out what he was going to say, and before saying a single word he had obviously chosen just the right words that would convey his meaning and his message. His sentences came then freely and naturally enough, and every word told effectively. And in a single speech his was master of all the styles every aspect of his subject required. But he never played to the gallery. He always had respect for the intelligence of his audience, and he invariably suited the form of his address and the manner of presenting his argument to the particular audience before him. The result was that from Connolly you got a cogent, coherent and reasoned statement of a case, presented in the clearest manner, illustrated by the most telling allusions, with the argument marshalled in the coldest and calmest fashion, yet warmed with the burning fire of sincerity and sympathy. And it was always chock-full of good [xi] stuff, as informative and as educative as his writings, but never put in a school-masterly way and never above—nor yet below—the heads of those listening to him.
The effect of Connolly’s oratory was remarkable. If it did not arouse the wild and whirling enthusiasm evoked by the outburst of a demagogue, it created enthusiasm of a different kind. It compelled assent as well as respect, it carried conviction and it aroused enthusiasm of the more lasting kind, a quiet, enduring enthusiasm which forced the hearer to act on Connolly’s side rather than cheer his words. Need I say that to secure that effect his public speech had enough of the element of passion to stir the heart as well as the head? But it was passion that was kept under control, and all the time emphatically the product, not of rhetoric, but of conviction and a red-hot sincerity.
It has been said, and with a certain amount of truth, that there was an aloofness about Connolly, a coldness which did not attract, a something which did not permit him to be known intimately by the generality of people—in short that he was difficult to know. So far as that was true, it was, I think, because he was essentially the thinker as well as the man of action. He was never the hail-fellow-well-met kind of person, and he never professed an over-flowing geniality which, with most of those who display it, is generally on the surface. But to speak of Connolly as cold and aloof is to speak only half the truth. To those who knew him he was the most intimate of friends and colleagues, and if once you penetrated his outward mask of reserve you found as warm-hearted a man, as genial a companion, as close a comrade, as sympathetic a confidant as man could desire. That is certainly the impression he left on me, whether I regard him as personal friend, or as associate in public and national affairs, or as mentor and comrade in trade union activity, in political council, in industrial struggle and conflict. Above all he gave you a feeling of confidence, not only in his judgment, not only in his knowledge, not only in his principles [xii] but in himself as man, as friend, as leader, and it was a confidence for which he gave you reasoned, reasonable, and convincing foundation. Some of that confidence he conveyed to his audience, whether a small committee or a public meeting, critical or uncritical. And if you were worthy of it—but only if you were worthy of it—he made you his own confidant, unbared himself to you and, as even those who heard him once only at public meetings will remember, he had an excellent seasoning of humour for even the most serious things he said or did.
As a leader Connolly’s outstanding qualities were his foresight, his dogged courage and determination, and his basing of his every act of life on what might be called his working class outlook and philosophy. To say that is not to say that Connolly’s head was in the clouds in the vulgar sense of that expression. Far from it, for indeed his feet stood firmly on the solid earth and no Irishman of his generation was more realist than he. But he had high ideals and big aims, and his principles were definite and fixed. They had become part of himself at a comparatively early age, and were developed and expanded in later years. But in the fullness of his manhood there was nothing academic about his philosophy. It was practical and realistic, and, while he did not abandon any jot or tittle of his principles, he never hesitated to fit his action to the circumstances of the time and the position in which he found himself. In this respect he very nearly approached the ideal of leadership—he was in the van and actually led, because he knew where he was going and why he was going there, and he took steps to carve out his own path. On the way to his goal, he knew he would meet with obstacles and difficulties, but they must be surmounted, and if to surmount them called for time and patience and occasionally for a step or two backward, Connolly would not hesitate, but would suffer the delay, not gladly indeed, but recognising that rebuffs of this kind must be met and endured. But all the [xiii] time he kept in marching order ; and his eye was fixed steadily on the ultimate goal. Someone—I think it was Jim Connell, the author of “ The Red Flag ”—said that Connolly seemed to care little whether other people agreed with him or not, but that he took care that he was right, whatever other people might think or do. That gives a true impression of Connolly and it is of the very essence of leadership. He used to put it in another way. Irishmen, he would say, have plenty of physical courage but they lack moral courage. Connolly’s moral courage was as much a part of himself as his physical courage, and it is a quality without which there is no real leadership.
Connolly’s philosophy of the Labour movement, I have said, was definitely working-class. He was of the working class, and his aim was the advancement of the working class to power. He made no bones about that, he was quite frank about it, and he never turned aside from it. His every thought, his every word, his every act was never for a moment divorced from the hard, and often hellish, realities of the life of the working class.
“ The working class,” he said, “ can think and speak only in language as hard and definite as its life. We have no room for illusions in our struggle, least of all for illusions about freedom.” Hence he was the ruthless enemy of humbug, hypocrisy, pretence and, as he said, he was a bigot in his opposition to these shams. But this bigotry was reasoned and deliberate. It was not the result of mere blind prejudice, it was a product of knowledge of the facts of life, of the realities, “ hard and definite,” of the conflict between classes.
That was why he recognised that the political strength of Labour depended on its industrial strength. “ Without the power of the industrial union behind it,” he said, “ Democracy can only enter the State as the victim enters the gullet of the serpent. Therefore political power must, for the working classes, come straight out of the industrial battlefield as the expression of the organised economic force of Labour ; else it cannot come at all. [xiv] With Labour properly organised upon the industrial and political field each extension of the principle of public ownership brings us nearer to the re-conquest of Ireland by its people ; it means the gradual resumption of the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish—the realisation of Freedom.”
James Connolly was born in 1868 of Co. Monaghan parents and was reared in Scotland. In 1896 he came to Ireland and in Dublin founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and its organ The Workers’ Republic. After some years in the United States he established the Irish Socialist Federation in New York in 1907 and a monthly The Harp in 1908.
Returning to Ireland in 1910 he joined Cumannacht na hÉireann, the Socialist Party of Ireland, became a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and in 1911 was appointed the Union’s Belfast Secretary and Organiser for Ulster. He took an Active part in Dublin’s big Labour war in 1913-14 and in October 1914 became Acting General Secretary of the Union and Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army.
In 1915 he issued a new weekly series of The Workers’ Republic and through it and arming and training the Irish Citizen Army he campaigned vigorously for insurrection.
Co-opted a member of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1916, he signed at Easter the Proclamation of the Irish Republic with the six other members of the Provisional Government. As Commandant General of the Dublin Division of the Army of the Republic he directed the insurgent operations in the city. Seriously wounded, he was court-martialled after surrender, and was executed by a British firing squad on May 13, 1916, in Kilmainham Jail.
Transcribed from the original publication, to which it formed the introduction. The biographical note at the end of the document followed the author’s attribution. Page numbers are in square brackets. The original spelling and punctuation have been preserved. —JB
Original bibliographic information:
O’Shannon, Cathal. “Introduction”, Labour in Ireland. Fleet Street, Dublin at the Sign of the Three Candles. n.d. (ca. 1950).
Download PDF: James Connolly, Cathal O’Shannon.