John Daly: A firebrand with the courage and wit to stick to his message, no matter the cost
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
For the week that's in it, a barstool mate posed this question a few evenings back: "Who would you have preferred to fight beside in the GPO during those fateful days of Easter 1916?"
A fair enquiry, right enough, and similar to the old soldier's deliberation on the ideal buddy in a foxhole while waiting for overwhelming attack.
James Connolly was my immediate choice, for all sorts of reasons. For starters, he had a way with words.
"Revolutions do not start with rifles; start first and get your rifles after. Make up your mind to strike before your opportunity goes," he said in 1914, a sentiment with ample application to the world of today. Measuring only a stocky 5ft 4in, he was no Michael Collins - but knew how to rouse even the most reluctant soul. James Larkin was a master at drawing a crowd, it was said, but Connolly knew how to hold one. In what could be taken as a neat summation of 700 years of colonial rule, he once declared: "Ruling by fooling is a great British art, with great Irish fools to practise on."
Born into extreme poverty as the son of famine emigrants, he was certainly no 'smoked salmon socialist'. At odds with injustice wherever he found it, Connolly was that rarest of commodities found on our little island - a firebrand with the courage and wit to stand firm on his message, regardless of the cost.
"If the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave," he declared in a homage to female emancipation long before it was fashionable.
In a 1972 interview on the 'Dick Cavett Show', John Lennon revealed that Connolly's phrase was the inspiration for his song, 'Woman Is the Nigger of the World'.
For a man who rose above his own impoverished origins, Connolly's driven need was always focused on the poor - attacking the Catholic Church for its lack of support during the Dublin Lock-Out, or a social system that forced the poor to line up in shame at soup-kitchens. "A free Ireland will control its own destiny from the plough to the stars," was the limitless scope of his ambition.
Did he realise the Rising was a one-way ticket to the firing squad? Most likely, but a necessary sacrifice as the only means to a bigger picture. "Ireland may yet set a torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bone and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord."
As the Commandant-General of the Dublin Brigade, Connolly was the accepted military leader of the Rising - a man Michael Collins declared he "would follow to the gates of hell".
The heat of battle was a domain he relished, in everything from preparing barricades on Sackville Street to organising optimum angles for his snipers inside the GPO: "Men are instructed to keep their fire under control, to fire on small bodies. In all cases, wait for word from a responsible officer before commencing to shoot."
Wounded twice, he was forced to command his dwindling forces from a blood-stained mattress as the shells and bullets rained down in a chaos of destruction.
Proving he could meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same, his diary entry the day before surrender reads: "A morning in bed, a good book to read, and an insurrection, all at the same time. It's revolution de luxe."
On the night before his execution, Connolly was visited by his wife Lillie - the woman who constantly inspired his rarely witnessed romantic side.
"This is a letter written by me to the nicest girl between here and anywhere," he wrote her during their courtship.
"To tell her that her mistakes, her wilfulness, her troublesomeness only make me love her all the more and to have possession of this delightful bundle of contradictions all to myself."
As the first glimmers of dawn filtered in, and their last moments together drained through the hourglass, she said: "Your life, James, your beautiful life."
He held her hand and replied: "Well, Lillie, hasn't it been a full life, and isn't this a good end?"