Unlike his famous namesake, this James Connolly sadly lived and died in relative obscurity.

If we rely on newspaper reports of the time for any details, initially they got them all wrong. James was first said to be aged 37, a Labourer and father of five from Gardiner Street (very close to the Custom House). Or a 63 year old Quay Labourer.

Home So Near, Yet Too Far Away

The truth was that on the morning of 25 May, James Connolly had been, as usual, at work on the Liffey quays at or near the Custom House. Some time after the Auxies arrived, James was hit by a single bullet at the nearby Beresford Place-Gardiner Street junction. He was on his way home to his wife at 26 Lower Gardiner Street for lunch (or dinner as known to old Dubs). An uninvolved passer-by, ‘collateral damage’ in an urban conflict. James was shot in the back, close to the heart. Brought to King George V Military Hospital, he was dead on arrival.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Maryanne must have heard the shot which killed her husband echoing up the street. How could she have known? (OSI Maps)

His widow Maryanne attended the Military Inquiry into the Custom House deaths held in the hospital on 27 May. She had to identify the body and testified “… my husband James Connolly was 50 years old. He was a quay labourer working for Heiton [a long-time Dublin builders’ providers]. He never mentioned politics and as far as I know had nothing to do with them”.

The inquiry verdict was “accidental death, shot by some person or persons unknown”. In all probability James Connolly was a victim of the armoured car’s machine gun fire sweeping the streets around the Custom House. The papers reported very little on his death.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

A view of Tara Street looking north, showing James’s employer’s depot.

An Eye-Witness Account?

There was, however, one piece in the Irish Independent the day after the Burning which may give an insight to how Mr Connolly died.

“An Inland Revenue official said that while they were lying down at Messrs. Brooks, Thomas and Co.’s premises one poor man, a workman, who did not hear the challenge to halt, was instantly shot a few yards from where he [the eye-witness] was lying on the road…..”

The unnamed official was quoted directly [NOTE: Graphic description included]: “We were huddled together, and the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying were frightful.

While I was on the ground, lying behind a colleague, one poor man, an aged man, a labourer, was shot, and died only a few feet away after one of the bursts of machine-gun fire.

I could see his face twitch, and was watching his hands close and open and quiver as he died. He was shot in the breast – his breast was torn away with bullets – and the blood was pumping out in big spurts, but we dared not move to try and assist him.

The description provided does fit with the medical evidence of a large exit wound in the front of the victim’s chest.

This witness also told of seeing two wounded Auxiliaries being attended to under the railway bridge. So his account is plausible. It is also a notable story, as the man said firing broke out again after the gun battle was over and some minutes after the staff had vacated the building and been herded towards Brook Thomas’s on Abbey Street. No evidence about the circumstances of James Connolly’s shooting was given to the military inquiry.

James Connolly-DC  Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Death Certificate for James Connolly

A Man of No Property

The majority of ordinary working men like James didn’t feature in those days. Unless they died in a work accident or were in court on some charge. “Lucky enough” to have any job, they’d no property. Certainly no tax, voting or employment records. Not even an entry in street directories. The press said absolutely nothing about his funeral.

There are death and burial records for James, so we know his wife was Maryanne, their address at his death, his occupation and grave location. But little else with absolute certainty.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

James Connolly’s entry in burial register

As far as can be determined James was a Dubliner who married Maryanne Austin (a widow née Murphy) at St Nicholas of Myra Church, Francis Street, Dublin in 1892. Maryanne’s first husband Thomas, a Labourer aged 30, had died in 1890. She and James both lived in 11 Golden Lane at that time and undoubtedly were to move home several times over the years as was the way of life for the majority of inner city families back then.

There is a hint that James was actually a bit older than 50 when he died. According to the most likely census record in 1911 (for 5 Middle Gardiner Street), he was then aged 46, had been married 20 years and the couple had lost their only child. It is not possible to definitely identify them in the earlier census.

It seems the unfortunate James left behind no family but his widow. And probably little if anything of material value. He does not have a marker on his resting place in a common grave shared with five other unrelated people in the so-called “Poor Ground” of Glasnevin’s St Paul’s Section (plot QB76). Even the building where he lived on Gardiner Street is gone, replaced by apartments. Fate seems to be conspiring to hide most traces of him!

Widowed a Second Time

Subsequent life for Maryanne Connolly remains uncertain but, without her breadwinner, it was surely not easy. At the time of James’ death they lived in ‘Tenements’, so the landlord still had to be paid as did food, clothing and living expenses. On top of that came her husband’s funeral and burial costs. As the illiterate widow of a ‘labouring man’ in those times, she didn’t have any golden parachutes let alone a welfare safety net. You’d wonder if Heiton’s, as James’ employers, helped in some way. Perhaps her neighbours chipped in with a bit of their hard-earned cash. Maybe she had some relatives to help too.

There is no trace of the woman receiving any compensation for her loss. She probably didn’t even know how to make such a claim. Two things are certain, however. Maryanne is long deceased and was not buried with her late husband. 

At this remove almost a century later, all we can do is acknowledge and respect the memory of James Connolly as an innocent casualty at the Burning. And try to keep alive the names of this particular Dublin couple who lived, loved, worked and died in Dublin.

RIP James & Maryanne.

Des White