A History of Ireland in 100 Objects
James Connolly's shirt, 1916
This undershirt was worn by James Connolly in the General Post Office in Dublin during Easter Week of 1916. The blood is from a flesh wound he received on the upper arm. (He was far more severely wounded in the leg.) Because of these wounds Connolly had to be strapped to a chair in order to be executed by firing squad for his role in the abortive insurrection.
Connolly, born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, had been a key figure in the ferment of radical agitation that led up to the Rising. He was an organiser for the Irish Transport General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and helped found the Labour Party in 1912. He was at the forefront of a campaign against the Boer War and of protests at Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1900. He was imprisoned during the Dublin Lockout in 1913, when the city’s employers shut out workers who would not leave the ITGWU.
Able and charismatic as he was, however, Connolly might have remained a largely marginal figure. The Irish parliamentary party, reunited under John Redmond, remained by far the dominant force in nationalist politics. But the Great War changed everything. Redmond’s support for the war left a space for revolutionary nationalism to occupy. A relatively small breakaway from the Irish Volunteers came under the control of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which secretly planned a rising with, it hoped, German support. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, did likewise.
In the event just 1,200 rebels, with no effective German aid, occupied public buildings in Dublin for six days. The main casualties were civilians, 230 of whom were killed, compared with 132 soldiers or policemen and 64 rebels. Yet official reaction – the executions of 15 rebel leaders and mass arrests of nationalists – helped to turn the dead rebels into martyrs. The continuing horrors of the war and the threat of conscription further undermined Redmond’s position.
In the 1918 general election Redmond faced a resurgent Sinn Féin, a reconstitution of a small, nonviolent nationalist party that had been mistakenly blamed for the Rising. Sinn Féin took less than half the vote but won 73 of the 105 Irish seats.
These MPs seceded from Westminster and established the first Dáil, which met in Dublin in January 1919 and declared an independent republic. The Dáil, however, was increasingly pushed aside by what was now known as the Irish Republican Army, which began a campaign later that month with the shooting dead of two policemen in Tipperary.
The conflict lasted until a truce in July 1921, with the IRA using guerrilla tactics and the government responding by sending in irregular units, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, whose often atrocious behaviour further alienated much of the population. In the meantime, the government proceeded with the establishment in 1921 of a six-county Northern Ireland. Partition was unaffected by the treaty that established the Free State as a self-governing entity within the British Empire.
Supported by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, but opposed by Éamon de Valera, the treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922 by 64 votes to 57. The defeated minority revolted, leading to a short but bloody civil war (927 died, including 77 prisoners executed by the new government).
It was not the birth that Connolly and his comrades had imagined for an Irish state. But most of Ireland did, at last, have an independent government.
Thanks to Lar Joye
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie