Nora Connolly O'Brien  (1893 - 1981)

Nora Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1893, the second of seven children born to James Connolly and his wife Lillie Connolly (nee) Reynolds. Nora family relocated numerous times during her early childhood years.  Their first move was in 1896 when the family's moved to Dublin  where James Connolly was offered a job as paid organizer for the Dublin Socialist Society. Numerous other moves followed up through 1916 when James connolly was executed.

At the turn of the 20th century life in Ireland under British rule was difficult for the working poor. As James Connolly was an avowed socialist and a vocal  advocate for the working poor, qualities not well tolerated by the ruling elite, his chances of providing for his large family in Ireland were practically non existent. In 1903, disillusioned and faced with few, if any options, he emigrated to the United States. In 1904, after having found a job and a place to live he sent for his family who joined him in Troy in upstate New York.

Troy at that time was known as the Collar City due to its history in shirt, collar, and other textile production. As was the custom with the children of the working poor, Nora had a job hauling a cart around the town picking up shirt collars from seamstresses and delivering them to shirt factories.

In 1905 the Connolly's moved to New Jersey where, in 1907, Nora's youngest sister, Fiona, was born.

Nora came of age during the second  industrial revolution in the United States, a very difficult period, particularly, for children. The lack of child labor laws in the United States, as elsewhere, allowed unscrupulous and uncaring business moguls  to exploit young children as cheap labor for their steel factories, foundries and  textile manufacturing facilities. These children were considered and valued as an abundant, compliant, and easily managed work force. Nora was one of these children who labored in a sweatshop that produced hats and other finery for the wives and mistresses of (quoting Mother Jones) indifferent lords and barons of industry.

Although the Connolly's struggled to make a living; the children were lucky in that they had James Connolly as their father. He was highly intelligent, a prolific writer and a highly respected labor leader who instilled in his children a desire to learn, to toil and to work for a better world.

Toward the end of 1907 or early in 1908 the family relocated to the Bronx in New York. For the remainder of her time in the United States Nora spent as much time as possible with her father attending union meetings and helping him edit and sell the Harp Newspaper which he published  in 1908. She also accompanied  her father to meetings with John DeVoy and other Clan na Gael leaders. Clan na Gael would later send money to Connolly in Ireland to finance the Easter Rising  of 1916.   

In the early months of 1911 Nora and the rest of the family rejoined James Connolly in Dublin where he had returned too earlier to become the national organizer for the newly-formed Socialist Party of Ireland. Later that year the family moved to Belfast when Connolly was appointed Belfast organizer for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union founded by Jim Larkin.

In Belfast, Nora became increasingly involved in the political arena. She joined the Gaelic League and the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan. According to Margaret Ward in Unmanageable Revolutionaries, “Nora Connolly was the principle organizer of the branch, and was determined to ensure that the women were given the same opportunities as the men.” She also joined the girls’ branch of Fianna Eireann, a boys' organization founded in 1909 by Countess Markiewicz,  whose objective was, "to educate the youth of Ireland in national ideas and in reestablishing the independence of the nation". Nora, together with her sister, Ina, and Countess Markiewicz, whom the sisters had befriended ,petitioned the organization to grant equal access and opportunities to girls.

1914 was a defining year for Nora. In July of that year she was a key player in the Howth gun running project that provided arms to the Irish Volunteers that were later used in the  Easter Rising of 1916. A stockpile of the arms unloaded at Howth were temporarily stored at a nearby cottage owned by Countess Markiewicz. Nora and her sister, Ina, and some Fianna boys were staying at the cottage at that time. The Fianna boys were responsible for transporting the arms from Howth to the cottage. In order to distribute the stash as quickly as possible the Connolly sisters were selected by the Countess to deliver a consignment to Belfast, a task fraught with danger and severe consequences if captured, nevertheless, a task they completed successfully. 

Later on that year Nora became a recruiter for the Citizen Army when her father, James, succeeded Jim Larkin as it's Commandant. The Citizen Army was established by Larkin and James White to defend sticking and demonstrating workers from the heavy handed excesses of the Royal Irish Constabulary. In referring to those who flocked to the cause Nora wrote in her memoirs, "They came, their faces black with coal dust, some powdered with cement or grain, up from the ships, out from the dockyards, machine shops, factories, deserting carts, lorries, vans."

By this time Nora had come to the attention of the British authorities for her political as well as trade union activities and for helping her father publish the The Irish Worker newspaper.  When the newspaper was closed down in October of 1914 they revived The Workers' Republic that published  articles on guerrilla warfare as well as articles critical of the inaction of the The Irish Volunteers.

Nora played a key role in the Easter Rising of 1916. She was given organizational responsibility by her father with respect to the role of the Citizen Army. She was also in contact with John DeVoy in New York who was providing much needed funding. With the help of her brother, Barney, she arranged for the safe return of Liam Mellows to Dublin after his escape from Reading Jail in England.

(During the week of the Rising Mellows led approximately 700 IRA Volunteers in abortive attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary stations at Oranmore, and Clarinbridge in Co. Galway and took over the town of Athenry). 

On Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, the date of the Rising, Nora journeyed to Belfast to join  and the Citizens Army only to be told on arrival that on the orders of Eoin MacNeill there would be no fighting in the North. In her book 'Unbroken Traditions" Nora said of MacNeill; "He was not the type to which revolutionists belong. His mind was of the academic order which must weigh all things, consider well all actions and count the cost. A True revolutionist must never count the cost, for he knows that revolution always repays itself, though it cost blood and though it life be lost and sacrifice made."

After been informed that there would be no fighting in Belfast Nora returned to Dublin with other members of Cumman na mBan in time to carry messages from her father to other leaders stationed at various garrisons throughout Dublin. She also carried dispatches from Padraig Pearse to the Belfast Volunteers.

After the surrender on April 30, the leaders of the Rising including her father James Connolly, were arrested, court martialed, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.

Although devastated by the loss of her father, Nora, nonetheless, journeyed to the United States to inform Clan na Gael on the situation in Ireland and to participate in a lecturing with other women who had fought in the Easter Rising.  During the tour the women also collected funds for the republican cause that was gaining in strength and recruitment throughout Ireland since the execution of the leaders of the Rising.

On her return to Ireland in 1917 she was informed in Liverpool that she was forbidden to return to Ireland.  Needless to say she did manage to find a way back.

Back home Nora worked for the Irish Transport Union in Dublin and campaigned on behalf of Sinn Fein in the 1918 Election Campaign. She married Seamus O’Brien in 1922.

During the Civil War she sided with the anti-Treaty forces. In 1923, when Margaret Skinnider, the Paymaster General of the Irish Republican Army was arrested, Nora took her place as Paymaster-General. She was imprisoned spending time in various prisons including Kilmainham Jail where her father was executed.

Despite all the hardship and tragedies she experienced in her early years, Nora remained a lifelong Republican and a passionate trade unionist. Shortly before her death on June 17, 19S1, she attended rallies in support of Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers. She will be forever remembered as a key figure in Irish history.  Perhaps the ultimate tribute came from her father, who told her the night before he died, “You have done all you can.”  

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


Name:        Glasnevin Cemetery                                      PHONE NO.      011 353 1 830-1133

ADDRESS:   Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Ireland

GRAVE LOCATION:  CL 64 Saint Patrick's section



Photo courtesy of Matt Doyle

Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                         Posted 04/06/2012