James Connolly was born in poverty in the Edinburgh slum of Cowgate in 1868 to Irish parents. His father, John, was a manure carter for the Edinburgh Corporation and his mother, Mary, a domestic servant.
Cowgate was part of a “little Ireland” ghetto in Edinburgh, politically dominated by the Irish National League (linked to the pro-Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party) and the influence of the local clergy. Some Irish workers found a niche in the local garment trade, and their relative advantage over poorer Scottish labourers generated a cross-class national solidarity with the Irish middle-class, reinforced by the anti-Irish racism and sectarianism of the period.
Connolly was largely self-educated, learning to read by the light of embers, using charred sticks as pencils. Too poor to continue into secondary education, Connolly left primary school with the basic skills enabling him to continue his own private study, eventually developing into a well-read working-class autodidact and a prolific writer. In 1878-9 Connolly entered the workforce aged ten or eleven, working in a print-works, then a bakery, and a tiling factory. Although it seems strange in retrospect, it was common for young Irish nationalists to join the British Army, both for work and also to “learn the use of arms”. Like his eldest brother John, Connolly joined the British Army. Little is really known about this period of his life, and he was later reluctant to talk of it, though his time in the army did appear to leave Connolly with an abiding hatred of militarism.
In 1888, while his regiment was stationed in Ireland, he met Lillie Reynolds in Dublin, a domestic servant from a Protestant Wicklow family. They moved to Perth and married in 1890. By the time Connolly returned to Scotland, politics was changing in Edinburgh. Hitherto, its large professional middle class, small industrial base, and preponderance of skilled trades made it an unpromising area for socialist advance. Connolly himself wrote in an early piece of journalism that the population was “largely composed of snobs, flunkeys, mashers, lawyers, students, middle-class pensioners and dividend hunters. Even the working-class portion of the population seemed to have imbibed the snobbish would-be respectable spirit of their ‘betters’, and look with aversion upon every movement running counter to conventional ideas.” However, the organisation of semi- and unskilled workers made progress throughout the 1880s, including on the Leith waterfront.
This was the period of “New Unionism”, where unskilled workers, firstly amongst young women in the Bryant and May match factory in east London, and then in the nearby gasyards and docklands, fought for higher wages and shorter hours, going far beyond the old traditional craft unions, laying the basis for the modern trade union movement. Edinburgh was no different, and local disputes gradually became part of wider struggles.
In the winter of 1890-1, the local trades council became involved in an ultimately unsuccessful Scottish railway strike and began to soften on their opposition to the demand for an eight-hour day. The old guard, however, eschewed political action of any sort. Others were in the business of nudging the Liberal Party to accept “labour men” as candidates.
When Connolly first entered socialist politics, he joined the Socialist League in Dundee in 1889. The Socialist League was formed in 1884 when William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Belfort Bax, supported by Friedrich Engels, walked out of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was Britain’s first Marxist organisation, and had been founded by the former Tory Henry Hyndman. As a historian of the early British socialist movement, Walter Kendall, has written, “Hyndman’s party, despite sectarian faults, instilled for the first time a Marxist tradition into the advanced ranks of the British working class.”
The rebels objected to Hyndman’s authoritarian manner and excessive personal control of the party and its press, and the Socialist League had a more libertarian character. However, some in the Socialist League had an ultra-left bent, rejecting electoral activity of any sort. Others were anarchists. A subsequent faction-fight with the anarchists in the League consumed the organisation, leading many to drop out, and others to rejoin the SDF by the early 1890s. In Scotland, however, the Socialist League and the SDF did joint work in support of the miners in 1887 and increasingly held joint meetings. They eventually merged, and Connolly continued his involvement in the reunified Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF).
The SSF was mainly a socialist propaganda organisation, carrying out open-air meetings and circulating the few Marx texts available in English at the time. One of the mainstays of the group and an early influent on Connolly was Léo Melliet, a revolutionary socialist and veteran of the 1871 Paris Commune. Connolly himself attended the 1895 Paris Commune commemoration, and wrote in 1899 that “the Commune, if it had been successful, would have inaugurated the reign of real freedom the world over – it would have meant the emancipation of the working class… Long live the Commune!”
As an active member of the SSF, Connolly threw himself into a routine of regular meeting and a public gathering each Sunday. He thus undertook the pioneering work of introducing socialist ideas to the working-class public, of “making socialists”. At the same time, Keir Hardie was agitating for the idea of independent labour representation in politics, and the creation of an Independent Labour Party. Preparatory committees were created for this purpose. The SSF’s policy was, quite rightly, to “work alongside” Hardie’s movement and try to “imbue it with socialist principles.”
In Edinburgh, the SSF and ILP branches founded a Labour Federation for joint electoral work. In practice, however, there was “a tacit division of labour between the two organisations and much joint membership. While the SSF preached and taught, the ILP prepared the way for an electoral organisation and won increasing influence in the trade union movement.”
The new ideas, of socialist politics and independent labour representation, began to have an effect on the local labour movement. In 1890, only six members of the Trades Council voted to accept the affiliation of the Labour Federation. The following year it was up to ten votes, and in 1893 the Trades Council agreed to participate in a joint May Day demonstration with the socialists calling for the eight-hour day.
As a result of speaking from the platform on the demonstration, Connolly’s brother John was dismissed from his job in a case of victimisation and had to seek work elsewhere. Connolly became the SSF secretary, and soon afterwards was elected to the position of secretary of the Edinburgh ILP.
The first decisive influence on Connolly’s view of Irish politics was John Leslie, a veteran of the Edinburgh SSF. Leslie was forced to develop his views on Irish nationalism when in November 1893 the ILP decided to challenge the Liberal candidate in Edinburgh. As Irish nationalists generally called for a vote for the Liberals due to their support for Home Rule, the forces of the INL and the Catholic Church were ranged against the socialists, and Leslie was denounced as a traitor. Developing a theme later present in Connolly’s writings, Leslie argued that purely political independence was insufficient, denying that “the Alpha and Omega of the Irish Question consists in the hoisting of the green and gold banner above the old Parliament House in Dublin.” Rather, “the cause of Irish misery is not to be found in the incorporation of the Irish Parliament in that of England, (although such incorporation undoubtedly tends to aggravate the evil), but is to be found in the fact that the means by which Irish people must live are in possession of a class, which class will not allow the people to use these means unless by so doing a profit will accrete to this class.”
This emphasis can be found in some of Connolly’s earliest writings on Ireland. In his famous 1897 article ‘Socialism and Nationalism’, Connolly wrote: “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country…” Corresponding with Keir Hardie about the possibility of an ILP candidate standing in Edinburgh Central, Connolly denounced both wings of the Irish Parliamentary Party (it had split in 1890 over leader Charles Stewart Parnell’s involvement in a divorce case) as “middle-class parties” which instrumentalised social issues to build support for Home Rule.
Connolly argued that British Labour should bypass the bourgeois nationalists and form a relationship with the nascent Irish labour movement. In 1894, Connolly ran in St Giles ward of the Edinburgh Corporation as a socialist candidate. He was denounced by the nationalists and by the Church and responded in turn against the “crew of hucksters who have seized the National League.” Connolly wrote of the Irish working-class electorate: “Perhaps they will learn how foolish it is to denounce tyranny in Ireland, and then vote for tyrants and the instruments of tyrants at their own door. Perhaps they will begin to see that the landlord who grinds his peasants on a Connemara estate and the landlord who rank-rents them in a Cowgate slum, are brethren in fact and deed…Perhaps they will observe how the same Liberal Government which supplies police to Irish landlords to aid them in their work of exterminating the Irish peasantry also imports police into Scotland to aid Scottish min owners in their work of starving the Scottish miners.”
In a bitter campaign, Connolly came third, with 263 votes. The Liberals won 1,056 votes against the Tories’ 497, with a Catholic independent scoring 54. Connolly reasoned that many workers voted Liberal to keep out a Tory Unionist, and concluded that: “They will now have twelve months in which to meditate on the difference between the Liberal Tweedledee and the Tory Tweedledum” Explaining his decision to run as a socialist and not a Labour candidate, Connolly expressed the orthodox Social-Democratic view that: “The return of a socialist candidate does not mean the immediate realisation of even the programme of palliatives common set before the electors. Nay, such programmes are in themselves a mere secondary consideration of little weight, indeed, apart from the spirit in which they will be interpreted. The election of a Socialist to any public body is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.”
Due to his electoral activity, Connolly soon found himself out of work again, and attempted to tough out the cold winter by setting himself up as a cobbler. Connolly had many talents, but unfortunately running a business was not one of them. He did, however, try a novel approach, placing the following add in the Labour Chronicle: “Socialists support one another. Connolly, 73m Buccleuch St. repairs the worn-out understandings of the brethren at standard rates. Ladies boots 1/6. gents 2/6.”
It was not to be. The cobbler shop failed, and Connolly considered emigrating to South America. He was only dissuaded when Leslie promised to place an appeal in the SDF paper Justice to find him work in the labour movement. “I know something of Socialist propaganda,” wrote Leslie in the paper, “and have done a little in that way myself, and I know the movement in Edinburgh to its centre, and I say that no man has done more for the movement than Connolly, if they have done as much…he is the most able propagandist in every sense of the word that Scotland has turned out. And because of it, and for his intrepidity, he is today on the verge of destitution and out of work…is there no comrade in Glasgow, Dundee, or anywhere else who could secure a situation for one of the best and most self-sacrificing men in the movement?”
The reply came, not from Glasgow or Dundee, but from the Dublin Socialist Club. Connolly was delighted, and set sail for Dublin in May 1896. He travelled with his wife Lillie, his three daughters, and his library of books. Leaving Edinburgh an orthodox Social Democrat, with insights on Ireland influenced by Leslie, Connolly would arrive in Dublin seeking to apply the skills of his Marxist apprenticeship to the complex problems of Britain’s oldest colony.