Happy birthday Mr Connolly

He was born into a country that despised him for what he was.

It was 1868 and the Irish were the loathed Gastarbeiters of Victorian Scotland.

James Connolly first saw the light of day 150 years ago today.

However, in the overcrowded slum that was Cowgate in Edinburgh, there was very little of that shining on a newborn face.

His parents from County Monaghan were dirt poor.

It was 1966 when the story of this remarkable man flickered onto my radar.

I suppose that I processed the image of Connolly in a chair facing a firing squad as well as any eight-year-old could have under the circumstances.

I was no stranger to depictions of war and violence as my room was well provisioned with copies of The Victor.

However, this seemed different.

My maternal grandmother only needed to know one thing as she scuttled about the house making sure everything was just so.

“They shot him in a chair”.

For her, this seemed to be the main issue.

The eight-year-old me knew that my granny seemed to know what was important.

I studied the record sleeve that had the depiction of James Connolly’s last moments of life.

The bit I didn’t get was that this was a good man (my granny had said so) but the British were shooting him.

Yet that wasn’t how it was in my war comics in my bedroom.

However, a child can only process information as a child and I went back to the serious business of playing.

I was a twenty year old in 1978 when a man took me to a house in Bray.

By that time I had no doubt in my mind about who the British wanted to shoot and why.

I had travelled south that day from Belfast.

The graffiti on the wall there had sent out a message to the Brits:

“78 not bate”.

James Connolly would have approved.

The IRA were anything but beaten.

In that house in Bray, I sat for an hour or so with a lovely old lady.

She had a gently lilting Scottish accent.

Her name was Nora.

She was the last family member to speak to James Connolly.

I sat and listened as she spoke about her father who the British had shot in a chair.

I listened and listened…

One word that you would not use to describe Nora Connolly O’Brien or her father was “plastic”.

As I said, the attitudes towards the Irish in Scotland that were extant 150 years ago are still there.

In the 40 years that have elapsed since that afternoon in Bray James Connolly’s vision for this island has been a constant reference point for me.

He knew that simple political separation, though vitally necessary, would not free the Irish working class from oppression.

From Bunreacht na hÉireann to the bank bailout his writing seems eerily prescient 150 years after his birth.

The cause of labour and the cause of Ireland are still entwined.

There is still much to be done, but we are getting there.

Happy birthday Mr Connolly.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion