Padraic Colum, leading figure of the Irish Literary Revival then living in New York’s left wing bohemian circles, penned these marvelous memories of James (and Nora) Connolly and socialist-pacifist and feminist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington at their executions by the British for Emma Goldman’s ‘Mother Earth.’ While much of the left at the time was ambivalent to Ireland’s Easter Rising, ‘Mother Earth’ immediately embraced it.
‘On the Death of James Connolly and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’ by Padraic Colum from Mother Earth. Vol. 11 No. 4. June, 1916.
WHEN they took Francis Sheehy-Skeffington from the street, shot him to death in a barrack-yard and buried him as gunmen bury their victim —when they took James Connolly out of his bed, and, propping him against a wall did the like by him, the British militarists in Ireland knew well what they were doing— they were killing the two men who were the coolest, the most intelligent, and the most resolute enemies of oppression alive in Ireland. And when they shot Connolly to death, it seemed as if they had shot the heart and brain out of the Irish proletariat.
James Connolly and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had in the highest degree the quality of devotion—of heroic devotion. Skeffington had devoted himself to the idea of liberty—he was for the oppressed nationality, the oppressed class, the oppressed sex, the oppressed man. No Irishman fought the battle for liberty at so many points as did this eager, buoyant man. James Connolly was more exclusive in his devotion. He gave himself to the cause of the workers of the Irish cities. With a will and an intelligence that would have brought him to the easy chair and the good bank account, he refused to leave his comrades, the semi-skilled workmen of Ireland. It was to show their position in the past and the present that he wrote his fine study in economics, “Labor in Irish History.” It was to help their cause that he returned from America. He put all his will and all his fine and trained intelligence into an effort to make a social order in which the Irish worker would have food and house-room, knowledge and fine thought, with some ease of mind for his wife and a happy growth for his children.
When an outsider called at the office of “The Irish Worker,” while James Connolly was in charge, he found there a heavy, earnest man who regarded him with deep- set eyes that had in them the shrewdness of the North- of-Ireland man. When this earnest heavy man stood up to speak to a crowd of impoverished Dublin workpeople, his deep-set eyes had flashes in them. The man was a fighter. All his blows were as shrewd as mother-wit and an intellectual training could make them. He spoke as one who had made all preparations, who had the resolution to go on, and who knew what terms would mean victory for his people. He spoke, as I always thought, like the Chief of a General Army Staff. I was not astonished when I saw that he had the command of the little Army of the Irish Republic.
He knew history and he knew economics, but he knew, too, that the militant force that was necessary in the Irish cities could not be built around abstractions. “This Union,” he said, speaking of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union, “has from its inception fought shy of all theorizing or philosophizing about history or tradition, but, addressing itself directly to the work nearest its hand, has fought to raise the standard of labor conditions in Dublin to at least an approximation to decent human conditions. To do this it has used as its inspiring battle-cry, as the watchword of its members, as the key-word of its message, the affirmation that ‘An injury to one is the concern of all.’ The problem of the Irish workers had been shamefully neglected by the politicians. James Larkin and James Connolly created an organization that gave the workers solidarity—a thing difficult to do in Dublin, where there are few specialized industries and where general or unskilled labor bears a greater proportion to the whole body of workers than elsewhere, where the workers are often engaged in totally dissimilar industries. But the Irish Transport Workers’ Union was created—a memorable thing in the history of Ireland. Then after the capitalists and the government authorities made a frontal attack upon the Union in 1913, James Connolly with another, a man of military experience, founded a defensive force for the Union—the Irish Citizen Army. In March last, when Irish nationalist journals were being suppressed and their type was being broken up by the authorities, the rifles of the Irish Citizen Army turned back the force that was sent to obliterate Connolly’s paper “The Worker’s Republic.”
In James Connolly’s household, between husband and wife, and father and children there was a wonderful comradeship. He had eight children, most of them girls and all of them young. I knew one of his children— Nora—for a longer time than I knew Connolly himself. This child had been wisely and finely trained. She has the spirit of the Spartan with the mind of the Gael. She knows as much of song and story as the most fortunate peasant child; she knows what forces are in the way of freedom for her country and her people; she has all the spirit of class and national solidarity. With her bravery and her training she was well prepared to enter the combat.
Now that heavy, earnest man, that brave and clear- minded fighter has been shot to death, it is hard to think that the loss to Ireland is not irreparable. I find it difficult to believe that we will see in our time a man who will give the Irish workers such brave and disinterested service—who will give, as Connolly gave them, his mind, his heart, his life. He made a discovery in Irish history, and the workers of Ireland will be more and more influenced by what he wrote when he said “that the conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the re-conquest of Ireland must mean the social, as well as the political, independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland. In other words, the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish.”
I shall remember Francis Sheehy-Skeffington as the happiest spirit I ever knew. He fought for enlightenment with a sort of angelic courage; austere, gay, uncompromising. Since he wrote his student pamphlet on Woman’s Suffrage he was in the front of every liberalizing movement in Ireland. He was not a bearer of arms in the insurrection—he was a pacifist. But because they knew that his courage and his enlightenment made him a guide for the people, they took him on his way to his home where his wife and child were, and shot him in a barrack-yard without even the form of court-martial The matter will be inquired into, says Premier Asquith! But Skeffington is dead now, and the spiritual life of Ireland has been depleted by as much of the highest courage, the highest sincerity, the highest devotion as a single man could embody.
Mother Earth was an anarchist magazine begin in 1906 and first edited by Emma Goldman in New York City. Alexander Berkman, became editor in 1907 after his release from prison until 1915.The journal has a history in the Free Society publication which had moved from San Francisco to New York City. Goldman was again editor in 1915 as the magazine was opposed to US entry into World War One and was closed down as a violator of the Espionage Act in 1917 with Goldman and Berkman, who had begun editing The Blast, being deported in 1919.
PDF of full issue: https://archive.org/download/mother-earth/Mother%20Earth%20v11n04%20%281916-06%29%20%28c2c%20Harvard%20DSR%29.pdf