James Connolly’s encounter with Mother Jones in New York

Our thanks to US Labour activist Saul Schniderman and Si Kahn for supplying an interesting article written by Professor L.A.O’Donnell from 1987 on the role of Irish emigrants who were active in the US Labour movement. Entitled “Irish Yeast in the Trade Unions” it was published in Talkin’ Union No 16 in September 1987 and makes reference to Mother Jones and James Connolly as well as Jim Larkin and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The 1987 article as it appeared

The source for the description of the meeting with Mother Jones in 1908 in the Bronx is “Rebel Girl”, the autobiography of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  Among the speakers at the 2019 summer school will be Lorraine Starkey who will discuss the life and work of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Irish Yeast in the Trade Unions

By L.A. O’Donnell

Irish immigrants escaping to the United States from famine and oppression in their native land came, not only to nourish their hunger, but also out of thirst for freedom and independence. Mostly poor, they filled the ranks of unskilled labor but quickly began organizing to protect their rights as workers and advance their wages and working conditions. From Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor to George Meany of the AFL-CIO, Irish-Americans fought the good fight to secure their human rights and further the cause of social justice.

Powderly

Terence Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor

Irish-Americans in the labor movement did not forget the cause of independence for their native land either. In 1920 they campaigned successfully for a resolution at the AFL convention demanding independence for Ireland. As recently as 1981, the Pennsylvania AFL-CO expressed “vigorous support for the cause of freedom in Northern Ireland” in a resolution adopted at its convention.

In Irish history, the movement for independence and the union movement were closely entwined. James Connolly and James Larkin were Ireland’s outstanding labor leaders as well as champions of Irish independence.  Connolly was executed for his important role in the Easter Week Revolt of 1916. Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, largest in present day Ireland. Connolly collaborated with him in his efforts to get the union firmly established.

Both men were born in Irish ghettos outside Ireland. Connolly in Edinburgh, from which he escaped at age fourteen by joining the British army for seven years, Larkin in Liverpool from which he escaped by going to sea. Both of them were gifted organizers who put their talents to work on both sides of the Atlantic.

James Connolly

James Connolly

Each of them spent considerable time in the United States attempting to raise money and campaigning for labor organizations and other causes. They found most trade unionists in America a good deal less radical than they themselves were. Connolly came over for a four month speaking tour in 1902 at the invitation of the Socialist Labor Party. He returned a year later for a seven year stay.

During his stay in America, Connolly brought his family over and scrounged a bare living at various jobs including one at Singer Sewing Machine in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  He was actively engaged in the Socialist Labor party until he tangled with its guiding genius, Daniel DeLeon, the “Socialist Pope”.  At one time he worked for the IWW organizing longshoremen on the New York docks.  His efforts were instrumental in the expulsion of DeLeon from the IWW. At the time he lived in the Bronx.

E. Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addressing strikers at Patterson, New Jersey in 1913

In the Bronx, the Connolly’s were neighbours and close friends of the Flynn family whose best known daughter was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – then still a teenager, but soon to become a famous rouser and organizer for the Wobblies. At an outdoor rally on a warm summer evening in 1908, Connolly, the Flynn girl and her husband listened to a fiery old Irishwoman scold her audience for failing to help the Western miners in their strike.

The speaker was Mary Harris “Mother Jones.”  Her tongue was so sharp, and she described the bloodshed and violence so vividly that Flynn – then pregnant – fainted. Connolly, luckily, caught her as she was about to fall. Mother Jones interrupted herself long enough to command “get that poor girl some water” and continued her scold. Jones was a United Mine Workers organizer and close friend to many labor leaders but particularly John Fitzpatrick, head of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Terence Powderley. Thereafter she took a maternal interest in James Connolly and Elizabeth Flynn, (a young trade union radical born in New York of Galway parents in 1890).

Mother Jones J. Fitzpatrick

Mother Jones with John Fitzpatrick, Chicago. From collection of George R. Rinhart

Returning to Dublin in 1910, Connolly became associated with James Larkin in establishing the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In 1913 he was involved along with Larkin, in the great labor dispute of that year which reached its climax in the “Bloody Sunday Riot of August 31. The dispute dramatized the poverty, disease and overcrowding of slum dwellers in Dublin and convulsed the city entirely.  Connolly assumed leadership of the Transport Workers Union when Larkin left for America in October of 1914, ostensibly for a short fundraising trip, but one that actually kept him out of Ireland for nine years – the last four of which were in Sing Sing prison serving a sentence for “criminal anarchy” until pardoned by New York Governor Al Smith.

When James Larkin arrived in New York in 1914, haggard and exhausted from the 1913 upheaval he immediately called upon the Flynn’s, announcing simply, “James Connolly sent me.”  Thereafter, he was a frequent visitor to the Flynn household, delighting to drink tea with the family since he, like Connolly, was a teetotaller.  But Larkin did much more than drink tea in the United States. Until 1919, James Larkin actively engaged in the work of the IWW, especially in its efforts to oppose World War 1. His socialism and his hatred for Ireland’s subjugation combined to make him a passionate opponent of the war. He was a thundering, explosive and unpredictable public speaker who could bring a crowd to its feet at will.  He travelled all around the country demanding justice for the poor and an end to the war. For his efforts he was tried and imprisoned for “criminal anarchy.” Upon his return to Ireland in 1923 he discovered his union was in the hands of charismatic leaders who thwarted his attempt to resume leadership of it.  He died in 1947.

Lockout 1913

Scenes from Dublin’s “Bloody Sunday” during the 1913 Lockout.

In the course of the 1913 upheaval in Dublin, Larkin’s union organised a force to defend workers against police attacks. Though numbering only in the hundreds, it was called the Irish Citizen Army and Connolly’s experience in the British military was drawn upon to train it. Though small, the ICA played a significant role in the Easter Rising of 1916, making up much of the soldiery which occupied the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell St).  At the time Patrick Pearse, although proclaimed President of the Provisional Government and Commander in Chief, deferred to Connolly’s superior military knowledge and experience and permitted him to direct the operation. Connolly proved a decisive tactician but was able to hold out only one week before surrendering to the overwhelmingly superior numbers of British forces. In the action Connolly had sustained a bullet wound in the ankle which then grew gangrenous.

Leaders of the insurrection numbering over one hundred were methodically tried and sentenced to death for treason by the British. Connolly was the fifteenth to be executed in Kilmainham Prison (14th actually) after having been received back into the Catholic faith, shriven, given communion and last rights. His wife, Lillie and daughter Nora visited with him on the eve of his execution and found him calm, without illusions and resigned to his fate – perhaps anticipating release from a life of poverty and frustration.  Seated on a box before the firing squad because of his wound, he met his death on Friday, May 12th 1916 and entered the pantheon of martyrs for Irish freedom.

Public opinion in Dublin and throughout Ireland had seriously mixed feelings about the uprising in view of the many Irish sons who had enlisted in the British army and the belief that the rising was conducted by a small number of radicals. When, however, English authorities began systematically executing its leaders – especially the wounded Connolly – the tide of opinion shifted dramatically, and momentum for independence became irresistible.  Sobered by the response, the British halted all executions after Connolly’s. But it was too late.

Note: The late L.A. O’Donnell was professor of economics at Villanova University, USA and author of  Irish Voice and Organized Labor.  He wrote many articles on labor and economic history, emphasizing the contribution of Irish immigrants. He died in 2011. 

Saul Schinderman published 17 editions of this magazine from 1981-1988. He continues to publish Fridays Labor Folklore regularly which details items of interest in the labour movement in the USA. Copies of Saul’s regular publication are available at;
We are also including an article by Professor Rosemary Feurer of the Mother Jones Heritage Project entitled  Get off your Knees”: James Connolly, Jim Larkin and Mother Jones in the fight for a Global Labor Movement. This paper was presented at the 2014 Spirit of Mother Jones summer school on Friday 1st August.

The Irish Citizen Army and the Road to the 1916 Rising

Members of the Irish Citizen Army outside Liberty Hall, Dublin

Members of the Irish Citizen Army outside Liberty Hall, Dublin

The Spirit of Mother Jones festival will include a series of lectures exploring the  origins and role of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers army, in the Easter 1916 rebellion.   The venue for the lectures will be the Firkin Crane, Shandon, Cork.  Date and Time: Friday, 31st July 2015 at 3.30pm. 

The 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic refers to just three organisations, one of which is The Irish Citizen Army (ICA). On Easter Monday morning 1916, over 200 members of the ICA, men, women and boys marched into a revolution in Dublin led by James Connolly.

The Irish Citizen Army comprised almost 30% of those who actually turned up for the Rising on that Monday morning and represented an internal mobilisation of almost 80% of the available and active membership. Some 50 including Connolly, who had played a central role in planning the actual military attacks,occupied the General Post Office. The remainder of the ICA played an active part in some of the fiercest fighting witnessed during the week in places such as St Stephen’s Green, College of Surgeons, City Hall and Dublin Castle.

James Connolly

James Connolly

Copies of the 1916 Proclamation itself was printed by the ICA at the Co-Op Stores at No 31 Eden Quay, alongside Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Considerable quantities of the weapons, bombs and explosives used later in the Rising were stored in Liberty Hall, even the flag which flew over the GPO was created there.

Many of the active participants in the Rising had spent the Easter weekend in and around Liberty Hall, and marched from there to seize various buildings. Liberty Hall itself was bombed by the British initially as they immediately understood that the rebellion had been organised from there, the building was wrecked during the attack.

Sean Connolly of the ICA fired the first shot of the Rising, which killed Sergeant James O’Brien at the gates of Dublin Castle. In a strange twist of faith, Connolly himself was the first casualty on the rebel side when he was killed by a sniper an hour later. At the very end, Elizabeth O’Farrell of the ICA was with Padraig Pearse at the formal surrender of the rebels near the GPO, while she also carried the orders and dispatches which confirmed the cease fire and surrender elsewhere in Dublin.

Dr. Leo Keohane's book on Jack White

Dr. Leo Keohane’s book on Jack White

Yet they were pushed to the margins of history soon afterwards and virtually disappeared from the narrative of Irish history for a considerable time, even during the 1966 commemorations. Who were these working class men and women, so many of whom were killed or injured in the Rising or imprisoned or impoverished in its aftermath?

By any standards The Irish Citizen Army was central to the 1916 Rising itself. It provided thecatalyst which set off the explosion leading to eventual Independence. Its origins among workers in the 1913 Lockout, its first Commandant ….. a Boer War hero, its voice unique and its participants brave, its discipline and ideological stance which set it apart in Ireland even in a period of dissent and conflict.

The Irish Citizen Army by Ann Matthews

The Irish Citizen Army by Ann Matthews

 

The Army was led by one of the greatest socialist agitators and thinkers of the 20th Century. Yet why is its legacy so uncertain, why is its central contribution considered a curiosity of history and why were its beliefs swamped by the conservative ideology which followed?

Earlier on the 1st August 1915, by order of James Connolly, the Irish Citizen Army had also gathered initially at Liberty Hall to participate alongside the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in the funeral procession for the Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, (born in West Cork and a “Freeman of Cork City” who had died on 29th June 1915 in America) to Glasnevin Cemetery.

 

Led by the James Fintan Lawlor Band, The Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers marching side by side put on a hugely impressive show of force accompanied by the trade union movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Cumann na mBan as they marched north to the Cemetery.

Liberty Hall in ruins after the 1916 Rising

Liberty Hall in ruins after the 1916 Rising

In the climax to his oration at the grave, Padraig Pearse threw back his head sharply…..….”but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

Standing nearby, Connolly could see the Rising as a reality.

 

Almost 100 years to the day, on Friday evening 31st July 2015 at 3.30pm, the Cork Mother Jones Committee will hold a series of lectures at the Firkin Crane entitled “The Irish Citizen Army and theRoad to the 1916 Rising”.The lectures and discussion will explore the origins, the progress and the eventual participation of this workers’ army in the 1916 rebellion. How important was its contribution, the role of James Connolly, what caused its subsequent political isolation and relative obscurity in Irish history?

Under the chairmanship of Theo Dorgan, poet and author, those participating include;

Dr Ann Matthews, author “The Irish Citizen Army” Mercier Press 2014.

Dr Leo Keohane, author “Captain Jack White, Imperialism, Anarchism &The Irish Citizen Army” Merrion Press 2014.

Scott Millar, author and journalist with Liberty, the newspaper of SIPTU (formerly the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, founded by Jim Larkin)

 

 

 

“Get off your knees” – the Rosemary Feurer lecture 2014

At the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2014 an important paper was delivered Professor Rosemary Feurer of Northern Illinois University.  Prof. Feurer, who had also spoken at the inaugural festival in Cork in 2012, examined the parallel activities of Mother Jones and the great Irish socialist leaders James Connolly and “Big Jim” Larkin, in particular looking at the similar paths they followed, both geographical and philosophical and conclusions they reached.

You can download the full text of Prof. Feurer’s lecture by clicking on the link below:-

Get Off Your Knees Feurer

 

 

Rosemary Feurer

Rosemary Feurer in Cork, August 2014 with the banner of Women Against Pit Closures from the UK Miner’s Strike 1984

Rosemary Feurer is Professor of History at Northern Illinois University.  She co-directed “Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman”.  Author, she writes extensively on labour history.  Rosemary is Administrator of www.motherjonesmuseum.org website and Mother Jones Lives.  She attended the inaugural Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in Cork in 2012 and delivered the above lecture at the same festival on August 1st, 2014.   You can download the full lecture by clicking on the link below:

 

James Connolly in the USA

A new exhibition which has just opened at the Irish Consulate in New York, throws interesting new light on Irish socialist leader James Connolly’s years in the United States between 1903 and 1910.

Connolly in NYC

James Connolly addresses a May Day rally at Union Square, New York City, 1908. Source: US Library of Congress

 

The exhibition follows Connolly through a series of newspaper clippings, posters, pamphlets, photos and his own writings in the Harp, newspaper of the Irish Socialist Federation.

This story is featured in today’s (28th September) Irish Times – you can read the full story here.

 

Launch of Connolly Book

Cork Concert Adv0002 (1)An exciting new songbook written over a century by James Connolly will be relaunched in Cork next week along with a CD featuring the songs from the book.

“Songs of Freedom – the James Conolly Songbook”, edited by Mat Callahan with a preface by writer and poet Theo Dorgan and a Foreword by Connolly’s grandson James Connolly Heron will be launched on Wednesday, 2nd October at 6.30pm at Cork City Library.  The launch will be followed with a Concert at the Pavilion, Carey’s Lane (off Patrick Street) (Admission €10).

This is a not to be missed occasion for socialists, music aficionados and historians.  See attached poster for full details.

James Connolly song book

A songbook, edited by James Connolly in 1907, is to be republished for the first time in over a century and will be launched separately in a number of locations. The Cork launch will take place on Wednesday, 2nd October 2013 at Cork City Library with a concert from 9.00pm at the Pavilion, Carey’s Lane (off Patrick Street). Full details on the advert below.

Cork Concert Adv0002 (1)