Nora Connolly (1893-1981) was an Irish republican socialist and the daughter of the martyred revolutionary leader James Connolly.
Born in Edinburgh in 1893 as the second of seven children, Nora had a turbulent childhood. Her family moved several times. It settled temporarily in Dublin in 1896. Then in 1904 it followed James Connolly to New York state after his emigration to the United States of America the previous year.
Nora grew up at a time when the lack of child labour laws permitted American capitalists to exploit children in steel factories, foundries and textile manufacturers. Nora laboured in a sweatshop producing hats and luxury garments for the rich, while her father involved himself in socialist and syndicalist politics.
Before long, Nora also got involved in political life. She attended union meetings with her father and from 1908 helped him edit and sell The Harp newspaper, founded as the organ of the newly-founded Irish Socialist Federation in New York.
In 1910 James Connolly returned to Dublin to become an organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI). Nora and the rest of the family followed in early 1911, soon moving to Belfast, where James took up a position in Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union (IGTWU).
In Belfast, Nora threw herself into the political arena. She joined the Gaelic League and the republican women’s paramilitary organisation Cumann na mBan, playing a key role along with Countess Markiewicz in the Howth gun-running to provide arms to the Irish Volunteers in 1914.
Later that year she became a recruiter for the Irish Citizens Army (ICA), a workers’ militia set up to defend strikers from the police during the Dublin Lock-Out in 1913.
As an activist with the ICA, Nora was involved in the preparations for the Easter Rising in April 1916, liaising with republicans in America such as John Devoy in New York. During the Rising itself, she carried messages between her father and other leaders stationed at garrisons across the city and transmitted dispatches from Padraig Pearse to the Volunteers in Belfast.
After the Rising and the execution of her father, Nora remained active in the republican movement and worked for the ITGWU in Dublin. Along with her brother Roddy, she was among those who formed the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) in October 1921.
Nora was on the side of the party that stressed the need to continue to organise clandestine Communist Groups to influence the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the trade unions. She thought that open, legal work through the CPI was futile because of the context of guerilla warfare during the Irish War of Independence. This position led to the subordination of the communists to the Irish republicans.
After the Irish Civil War broke out in 1922, Nora was a strong supporter of the anti-Treaty side and was imprisoned for her involvement in the struggle.
After the CPI wound itself up in 1924, Nora was involved in an attempt to unsuccessfully wrest Comintern affiliation away from the increasingly erratic Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker League (IWL) in 1927. In 1934 she became a member of the Republican Congress — a regroupment of left-wing IRA leaders such as Peadar O’Donnell including the re-founded and wholly Stalinised CPI.
However, Connolly drifted from an identification with Moscow, retaining her connections with the IRA. By 1936 she was in the Irish Labour Party and wrote to Leon Trotsky in Norway, offering to supply him with information on Irish revolutionary movements.
Between 1957 and 1969, Connolly served three terms in the Irish Senate for the bourgeois nationalist party Fianna Fail. Shortly before her death she addressed the 1980 national conference of Sinn Féin.
The life of Nora Connolly embodies the complex inter-relations between the struggles for national and social liberation which have tied the left in Ireland in knots throughout the twentieth century.
Whilst some parts of Connolly’s legacy are ambiguous or highly problematic, there can be no doubting her commitment to the causes in which she believed and for which she fought bravely over many decades.