Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

James Connolly – Black 47

James Connolly

Performed by Black 47. Written by Larry Kirwan, lead singer of Black 47. You can listen to the original recording here and buy it from iTunes here. You can see a live video here.

If you don’t know the song or the person, in a brief listen you’ll learn that James Connolly rose to prominence as a union organizer and socialist leader in Ireland and became one of the key figures in the Easter 1916 Uprising that sparked the Irish Revolution and led to independence from England.

It’s almost quaint to hear a rock song about a historical figure who died nearly 100 years ago. It would be akin to a song about Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin. Yet the Black 47 song is no relic and no sentimental ballad about romanticized times. It’s a powerful anthem performed with great fervor and conviction, a tale of a mission and a man’s very personal plight, a tribute to one of the men who gave rise to an Independent Ireland, yet the whole point of the song is that Connolly’s work and dream didn’t die when killed by that firing squad at Kilmainham Jail.  With horns, sax, crashing guitars and fist-pumping vocals, “James Connolly” calls to life the memory of the man and his cause and manages to both inspire and challenge.

Here’s Larry Kirwan, lead singer of Black 47 and the man who wrote the song on what he wanted to accomplish:

With [1916 Irish socialist hero] James Connolly, I hated the old standard song “The Ballad of James Connolly.” As a socialist myself, I resented that he had been railroaded by tears-in-the-beer nationalism. I thought that Connolly would have resented that, too. I always have to find a way to enter [the person’s] spirit, as it were. With Connolly, it was quite simple. What must he have felt-knowing that he was going to be executed-about leaving his family fatherless and penniless? Once I found that chink in the armor, the rest was just a matter of diligent and knowledgeable songwriting.

Kirwan succeeds with a brilliant turn of songwriting that frames a first person, almost hallucinatory last request with a third person description of the events from the Easter 16 uprising. The song opens in the midst of the rebellion:

Marchin’ down O’Connell Street with the Starry Plough on high
There goes the Citizen Army with their fists raised in the sky
Leading them is a mighty man with a mad rage in his eye

O’Connell Street runs through the heart of Dublin and the Starry Plough was the flag of the Irish Citizens Army, which Connolly led.  Connolly came out of the union and socialist movement and the flag represented Ireland’s ability to control its destiny from the plough to the stars (Sean O’Casey titled one of his plays after both the flag and the idea).  The Easter 1916 Uprising, which began on the Monday after Easter (April 24), ran for six days. In addition to Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Brotherhood, a nationalist group led by Patrick Pearse and Sean McDermott, also led the effort. While most Irish songs celebrate the unity and heroism of the Easter 1916 leaders, they were not a well-organized or unified group. Connolly distrusted the Nationalists as being weak. They were a bunch of dreamers, poets and speechmakers; he was a bare-knuckles pragmatist.  In fact, Connolly refused to work with the Irish Brotherhood until a rumored meeting with Pearse and McDermott over three days in early 1916. Rumor has it that the Irish Brotherhood kidnapped Connolly to give them time to convince him of the need to work in unison. Others claim that Connolly told the Brotherhood that he was ready to start the uprising and if they did not come along, they’d be left behind. (Larry Kirwan has written a play, Blood, about the supposed kidnapping and meeting of Pearse, McDermott and Connolly.)

The chorus that follows rouses the band and the audience and makes plain both Connolly’s leadership, but also his cause:

“My name is James Connolly – I didn’t come here to die
But to fight for the rights of the working man
And the small farmer too
Protect the proletariat from the bosses and their screws
So hold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your dream
Of a Republic for the workin’ class, economic liberty”

Not many songs get away with singing seriously about the “proletariat” and “economic liberty,” though step into Paddy Reilly’s on Manhattan’s Second Avenue or any other venue to hear Black 47 play this song and you’ll see the audience jamming their collective fists in the air to these lines. The British would call him a terrorist, yet he’s the hero here. There’s no denying or minimizing Connolly’s willingness to take up arms for his cause. Kirwan’s theatrical tendencies serve him well here as the music rises with the claims the song makes in Connolly’s name.

We get more of the story as the song moves forward and we hear from Connolly again:

Then Jem yelled out “Oh Citizens, this system is a curse
An English boss is a monster, an Irish one even worse
They’ll never lock us out again and here’s the reason why
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die…..”

It is not enough to replace the British overlords with Irish overlords, the system must change. These populist principles were not ones espoused by Pearse and McDermott and not ones that show up on the earlier ballads about Connolly.

The Easter 1916 uprising ended with the rebels holed up in the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street. Surrounded by the British Army, badly injured and running out of supplies, by any measure, the uprising had failed. The rest of the country did not take up arms against the British and much of Dublin seemed more annoyed at the inconvenience than anything else.

And now we’re in the GPO with the bullets whizzin’ by
With Pearse and Sean McDermott biddin’ each other goodbye
Up steps our citizen leader and roars out to the sky
“My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die…

The leaders were captured and taken to Kilmainham Jail except for Connolly. Shot so many times, he barely survived the battle and the British doctors predicted he would not live more than 24 hours. They took Connolly off to a hospital to patch him up so they could shoot him.

Here’s where the song takes a different tack. Where the opening verses march to a militaristic rhythm with high energy and potency, the tone changes as we hear from Connolly as if calling out from his deathbed. He speaks to his wife, Lilly, with thoughts of their children on his mind:

Oh Lily, I don’t want to die, we’ve got so much to live for
And I know we’re all goin’ out to get slaughtered, but I just can’t take any more
Just the sight of one more child screamin’ from hunger in a Dublin slum
Or his mother slavin’ 14 hours a day for the scum
Who exploit her and take her youth and throw it on a factory floor
Oh Lily, I just can’t take any more
They’ve locked us out, they’ve banned our unions,
they even treat their animals better than us
No! It’s far better to die like a man on your feet
than to live forever like some slave on your knees, Lilly
But don’t let them wrap any green flag around me
And for God’s sake, don’t let them bury me in some field full of harps and shamrocks
And whatever you do, don’t let them make a martyr out of me
No! Rather raise the Starry Plough on high, sing a song of freedom
Here’s to you, Lily, the rights of man and international revolution”

Kirwan is letting Connolly have the final word on his memory, decrying the efforts to defang him, to strip him of his dedication to the cause of workers. Pearse wrote lovingly of his desire to die for Mother Ireland, but not Connolly. He came to win and wanted to keep fighting. Much of the song’s success comes from railing against the efforts to wrap Connolly’s memory in some hackneyed green flag.

The song ends with Connolly marching forward (think Joe Hill):

We fought them to a standstill while the flames lit up the sky
‘Til a bullet pierced our leader and we gave up the fight
They shot him in Kilmainham jail but they’ll never stop his cry
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die….

But to fight for the rights of the working man
And the small farmer too
Protect the proletariat from the bosses and their screws
So hold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your dream
Of a Republic for the workin’ class, economic liberty”

The British won that battle, but lost the war. To teach the Irish population a lesson, they kept Pearse, McDermott, Connolly and the others alive so they could execute them. The British turned them into martyrs and Ireland loves her martyrs. The time from the end of the Easter 1916 Uprising until the executions gave them men time to write letters, particularly form Pearse, and essays for publication that fanned the embers of support into flames of rage. The shooting of the wounded men turned the public against the apparently barbaric British.

Connolly spoke eloquently in his actual last statement, given to his daughter Nora the day before his execution (read it here) and his heroic resistance made him a shining hero. The British lined the others up and had them killed by a firing squad. Connolly was too weak to stand, so the British took him by stretcher from the hospital to Kilmainham Jail. They strapped him to a chair so they could shoot a kill him. The last killed, the shots that slay him proved to be the shots that started the Irish revolution and led to the British defeat.

Black 47 won’t change the world and they haven’t given rise to a new revolution, one built not on who was in charge, but how they lead. Nonetheless, this song brings to life not just the ideas of James Connolly, but a sense of the man himself and maybe it plants a few seeds.

Not only is this one of my favorite Black 47 songs, but it also helped us name our second son, James Connolly Cronin. As parents will do, we batted back and forth a host of names, not quite agreeing and not quite falling in love with any one name. One night we had Black 47 on the stereo at our apartment in Greenpoint and when we heard this song, a song we both liked and had heard plenty of times live and on record, it just clicked. It helped that my mother’s family were the Connolly’s, and she and her four sisters were a feisty bunch that would inspire any child, but it was the Black 47 song that gave us the idea and sealed the deal. Who wouldn’t want their child to carry the name of a man so committed to the cause of workers and every day people, one so willing to fight and not become distracted by fame, pity or comfort?

Our James Connolly recently turned seventeen and is making his way in the world, figuring out who he is and how best to lead his life. Whether grappling with school, writing his rap lyrics or playing football, I like to think that he has a few thumbprints of James Connolly, our citizen leader, on him.

You can find much about James Connolly and Black 47 on the web. Go see the band live (check their website for tour dates). They play regularly in New York City and as fairs and festivals across the country all year long, but particularly in the summer.  You might want to check out Roddy Doyle’s novel, A Star Named Henry, for another fictionalized take on Connolly.

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