James Connolly was executed by firing squad on 12 May 1916 for his participation in the Easter Rising. In the early hours of that morning he bade farewell to his wife Lillie and daughter Nora. He remarked, 'Hasn't this been a full life, Lillie, and isn't this a good end?'
It was indeed a full life. Connolly was forty-eight at his death. From the age of twenty-one he was an active Socialist. He had also matured into a theorist of stature whose writings sought a synthesis between socialism and nationalism. Connolly visited Salford in 1901 and in 1902.
It is important to appreciate the background to the visits. In 1896 Connolly had moved from his native Edinburgh to Dublin to become a paid organiser for the Dublin Socialist Society. Within two years his characteristic energy had wrought changes. He wound up the Socialist Society, formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party (IRSP) and founded a newspaper, The Workers Republic. The paper was partly financed by a loan of £50 from Keir Hardie. Although they would differ sharply on their interpretation of the Irish Question, they retained a mutual regard. In 1897 Connolly had published his first major set of essays, Erin's Hope, and in 1901 published a second set of essays, The New Evangel. He now recognised his abilities as a Socialist propagandist and orator. In 1901 he advertised his services as a speaker in the Social Democratic Federation journal, Justice.
There were probably two reasons for this course. The first was financial. His remuneration as ISRP organiser was precarious. His family responsibilities were increasing. Lillie had given birth to their sixth child, Roderick, in February 1901. The second reason concerned an issue at the heart of Socialism. This was the potential for reformism in the movement to blunt radicalism. In 1899 the French Socialist, Millerand, had taken office in a coalition cabinet that included General Gallifet who was instrumental in the massacre of the Paris Communards in 1871. The Second International had criticised the circumstances of the Millerand case. However, a compromise resolution introduced by Karl Kautsky had evidently left open the possibility of Socialists entering future coalitions.
Connolly had made his position clear on class collaboration in 1898. "The section of the Socialist army to which I belong, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, never seeks to hide its hostility to those purely bourgeois parties which at present divert Irish politics."1 In a letter to Justice in May 1901 he stated that "the presence of Millerand in the French cabinet is an injury to Socialism all over the world". Connolly was eager to have the opportunity to combat reformism in Britain. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), however, was divided over the Kautsky resolution. The Birmingham and Southampton branches refused to invite Connolly. Dan Irving, leader of the Lancashire SDF, arranged Connolly's tour. In addition to Salford Connolly spoke at the Oxford, Reading and North London branches.
We are indebted for our information on Connolly's visits to Salford to two articles by Joseph Deighan, published in the Irish Democrat in June and August 1954. They are particularly important because of the reminiscences of people who met Connolly during his lecture tours.
Connolly arrived in Salford in July 1901. He stayed at the home of George Moores at Whit Lane, Pendleton. Moores was miner in the Pendleton pit, which, states Deighan, was "notorious throughout Britain as the hottest and most difficult for getting coal". Moore's daughter recalled her curiosity about "the strange visitor who sat reading and writing during most of the day, seemingly undisturbed by the horse-drawn lorries or the clatter of clogs outside on the cobbled pavement".2 On the 6th July the local press announced: "Mr. James Connolly, editor of the 'Workers Republic' will speak twice next Sunday at Broad Street Baths and Trafford Road on the subject of 'Socialism and War". This was a courageous theme. Britain was in the throes of the Boer War and Connolly's condemnation of the British military campaign was unequivocal. He plunged into the tour with characteristic energy.
The main venues for the meetings on both of his speaking tours in Salford were outside the Broad Street Baths and a location on Trafford Road, near Salford Docks and adjacent to the old Salford Racecourse. The latter was a very popular spot for Socialist orators. August Bebel, Karl Liebknecht, Bernard Shaw, H.M. Hyndman, Harry Quelch and Will Thorne spoke to large audiences there in the years before the Great War. It was possibly the popularity of the site that prompted the Salford authorities to eventually fence it off and prevent its further use as a meeting place.
Connolly had potentially hostile opposition from at least two organisations in Salford. The first was the Young England Patriotic (and anti-Socialist) Association. How far, if at all, they attempted to impede his meetings is not clear although some meetings were lively. The second potential source of opposition could have developed from the local supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Connolly regarded the IPP as "essentially a capitalist party...Its chiefs do indeed 'recognise that there is a labour question', but they recognise it only in order to side-track and postpone indefinitely its discussion".3
He had urged Keir Hardie and British Labour to support Irish Socialists and not the IPP which was composed of businessmen and landlords to whom Irish Socialists were opposed. Indeed the week of his arrival in July 1901 the local IPP organisation at a meeting in Gardenwell Street Salford passed the following resolution: "We hearby express our confidence in the Irish Parliamentary Party, and our admiration of the ability, courage and discipline which have marked the work of its members during the session, and we pledge ourselves to aid them by every legitimate means in our power of obtaining the restoration to Ireland of her native parliament".4 Thirty new members were reported to have joined at the end of this meeting. During both of his Salford visits Connolly, wisely, abated his public criticism of the IPP.
By September 1901 his first tour was ending on a positive note. Connolly had encouraged the formation of a branch of the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Pendleton, and, once again, the Salford Reporter noted his success: "The Socialists are at present showing unwonted activity in Salford. Frequent propaganda meetings are held in the open air, and the membership of the various local organisations is, we understand, being greatly augmented. This week a series of meetings held under the joint auspices of the West Salford Independent Labour Party and the South Salford Social Democratic Federation have been held at various places in the borough. The speaker has on each occasion been Mr. J. Connolly, Editor of the 'Workers Republic', whose visit in July aroused considerable interest".5
His final lecture themes on the 1901 tour were on 'Labour and Revolution' and 'Capitalist Paradoxes'. In the former he indicated that 'revolution' did not mean violent social upheaval but "an organic change in any system of thought or action as would replace an old and outworn system by a newer and better system". He noted Britain's declining economic position and the damaging impact this would have on the working class. They could only safeguard themselves from ruin by "organising on the lines advocated by the Socialist Party for the abolition of the capitalist system and the initiation of that revolutionary change in the structure of society for which every Socialist stands". The 'Paradoxes of Capitalism' was an analysis of the anomalies in the existing social order "using merciless satire and grim illustration".6
In July 1902 Connolly was back in Salford, again on familiar venues - outside Pendleton Baths, Broadway and Trafford Road. One lecture 'Socialism and Republicanism' was given to an attentive audience but, as the Salford Reporter noted, "questions and answers were more interesting in furnishing definite statements on various questions embraced in the Socialist propaganda".7 Connolly dealt skilfully with such issues as contemporary purchasing power, the impact of Socialism upon the creative mind and Socialism and Imperialism.
In the audiences at these meetings was a young Sam Makin, a weaver of Pendleton, who in old age in the Deighan articles, recalled Connolly vividly as "the most effective propagandist alive at that time". Another attendee was Joseph Toole, a future Labour Lord Mayor of Manchester who had a similar opinion: "Connolly was one of the most convincing speakers I have ever heard in my life, a man with a great passion for the cause of the labouring classes, and probably a greater passion for the cause of Ireland."8 One can get a sense of this from one of his last Salford speeches. He ended with a brief but impassioned peroration asking the workers to organise and agitate for that better social order which those who thought with him saw would spring out of the economic system they called Socialism (applause)9
The Social Democratic Club on Trafford Road held a farewell for Connolly on the 23 August 1902. Shortly after he sailed to America for a lecture tour at the invitation of the American Socialist Labour Party. He returned briefly to Dublin in 1903 and, after internal problems in the Irish Socialist Republican Party, he resigned from it. In September of that year he emigrated to America where he remained for seven years.
He returned to the North West in November 1913 to speak at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in an appeal for funds for the Dublin Lockout families. He had retained his capacity to hold an audience. So packed was the hall that Connolly came out to address an overflow crowd in Southgate. Unfortunately he did not have time to renew his Salford acquaintances. The onset of the Partition crisis and the implications of the Great War were to preoccupy him for the remainder of his life. Perhaps on the eve of his execution Connolly recalled that happy evening in Salford in 1902 when "upwards of one hundred people assembled to give Mr. Connolly a hearty send-off and with toasts, songs and music a very enjoyable evening was spent"'.10
1. J Connolly, Socialism and the Irish Nation, (1897), Collected Works, vol. I, New Books Publications, Dublin, 1987, p.316.
2. J. Deighan, 'James Connolly in Salford', Irish Democrat, June 1954.
3. Connolly, Workers Republic, (March 1901), Collected Works, vol.I, p.356.
4. Salford Reporter, 6 July 1901.
5. Salford Reporter, 7 September 1901.
7. Salford Reporter, 12 July 1902.
8. J. Toole, Fighting Through Life, London, 1935, p.75.
9. Salford Reporter, 12 July 1902.
10. Salford Reporter, 30 August 1902.