May 12th marked the centenary of the death of James Connolly by firing squad after the Easter Rising in Dublin. Pauline Murphy looks at one aspect of his legacy
Years before he faced the firing squad in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly faced the wrath of a conservative mob in a small harbour town in the south of Ireland.
The Socialist trade union leader was in Cobh in County Cork in March 1911 to address an open air meeting regarding the introduction of school meals for children from a poorer economic background. Connolly argued that this worth while initiative could be funded through a special rate at the cost of the church and local business. Of course this was not warmly welcomed by the church hierarchy or business leaders.
The provision of the school meals act was introduced in 1906 across the United Kingdom but was not extended to Ireland even though those in power in Westminster considered the island as part of the kingdom. Feminist and Republican activist Maude Gonne McBride first launched a campaign to extend the act to Ireland before Connolly joined the cause of feeding the impoverished youth of Ireland.
This was a time in Ireland when poverty was rife and the child mortality rate was the highest in Europe. Many teachers witnessed their pupils on the brink of utter starvation and with it came a weakness which prevented them from fulfilling a days’ worth of school work. In 1910 Maud Gonne McBride established the Dublin Ladies School Dinner Committee which ensured over 400 children from the city’s slums had at least one full meal a day.
Connolly saw the failure of extending the school meals act to Ireland as yet another example of John Bull trying to starve the poor of Ireland, those poor wretches who were considered unworthy and often disloyal.
Connolly hoped his speech in the garrison town of Cobh might convert the sailors and soldiers from British imperialism to socialist ideals. Connolly was once one of those in an imperial uniform in that town when as a young man he joined the Kings Liverpool regiment and was shipped to Cobh in 1882 for a stint.
As Connolly took to the platform a group had gathered and began heckling and throwing stones. A local councillor, who also happened to own the local laundry where the women workers were paid under three shillings a week, led the mob which attacked Connolly. This councillor represented a rather large swath of Irish society who in 1911 were nationalistic in their political outlook to a certain point but had a divine loyalty to the right wing values of the Catholic church.
What Connolly was advocating for that day in Cobh was not popular with bourgois nationalists or the Catholic church. The church deemed this charitable suggestion as ‘demoralising’ for the under classes and this reason was peddled by both church and business who stated it was the responsibility of the family to feed their children and not the state.
As bottles, sticks and stones rained down on Connolly and his fellow Socialists who took to the platform that day in Cobh, they managed to escape from the mob and fled to the nearby Rob Roy hotel where they were giving refuge. The crowd were left to tear up and dismantle the platform as Connolly was then escorted by police from the hotel to the train station and put on a steam locomotive out of town.
1911 proved to be a turning point in the social politics of Ireland. Nationalist politics was broken into several different factions but a more radical political setup was beginning to emerge in the form of Sinn Fein and within seven years became the dominant political party in the Ireland.
1911 also saw a shift in working class attitudes with socialism slowly generating momentum in towns and cities across Ireland. Women workers at Jacobs Biscuit Factory in Dublin went on strike for better pay while foundry workers in Wexford found themselves locked out by their employers when they joined Connolly’s trade union, The Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Irish working class militancy would become a united force in the face of capitalism during the 1913 Dublin lockout, but like conservative constitutional nationalism, the labour movement also fell victim to the rise of Sinn Fein and republicanism in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Today in Cobh a striking black granite plaque adorns the wall outside the Rob Roy bar where Connolly had to seek refuge from a conservative nationalist mob in 1911. After that incident Connolly did not hide his distaste for the garrison town, which he called ‘a nest of parasites feeding on parasites!’ Harsh words indeed for what is today quite a pleasant harbour town but over 100 years ago it, like many other towns across Ireland, hung heavy with an air of ideological conflict.