James Connolly Heron:
Remarks to the City Hall Launch of Áras ÚI Chonghaile on Wednesday 20 March 2019:
Chairperson, Thanks to the Committee for the invitation to this launch of a most important visitor centre in a city and in an area very close to the hearts of those of us fortunate to be related to a person still held in such high esteem at home and abroad. One hundred years on - Edinburgh, Belfast, New York, Chicago and Dublin - still hold the footprints of a remarkable journey for its time marking what was for James Connolly and his family, in his own words - ‘a full life’.
It is a great honour to be here on what is a very special occasion - an historic day.
Lord Mayor, Members of the Áras Uí Chonghaile Project, friends and comrades,
‘REMEMBER ME IS ALL I ASK AND IF REMEMBRANCE PROVES A TASK – FORGET’.
So wrote Nora Sullivan, republican prisoner in a Kilmainham Gaol prison autograph book.
That golden generation - the men and women of 1916 - didn’t talk of themselves. They didn’t talk themselves up. Perhaps they felt no need. They had served the cause and we are the direct beneficiaries of their struggle, courage, their bravery and sacrifice. For those of us so privileged to have known them they didn’t appear to resent us that. They fought to free Ireland from oppression, slavery and conquest against all odds and we are forever in their debt. We didn’t tell them that, of course - perhaps WE felt there was no need. We trust now that they knew it. We have not seen their like since - we may never see their like again.
My grandmother Ina Connolly became visibly upset whenever she spoke of her father. The effect of a brutal execution carried out at the dawn of a bright May morning passed on to a later generation. It was a struggle for her to write of that loss without breaking down. And so the questions that one might have asked were left unanswered for fear of causing upset. That is a regret now - the missed opportunities. The questions not asked yesterday sometimes come back to haunt us today. Such is life.
Perhaps that is the case with every generation. But we should be mindful of it - in the words of the song - teach your children well.
Driving my grandmother around Dublin and crossing the River Liffey to visit friends or family she would without fail pass comment on the skyscraper that is Liberty Hall - at the time our first and only skyscraper - the spiritual home of the trade union movement. A much maligned building at the time as the city’s first tower she held a counter view on its appearance and merits . ‘Oh If only Daddy could see Liberty Hall now’ she would say bursting with pride ‘ the Union with the tallest building in Dublin. He would not have believed it’.
I never had the heart to tell her that there was great opposition to it at the time. For her it was a statement - a testament to her father’s life’s work - dedicated to the cause of labour and the cause of Ireland - his towering achievement reflected for her in a glowing edifice of shining light out of the darkness of a very different Ireland that she had known, lived, worked and grew up in.
An Ireland of privilege over poverty, rich and poor, the haves over the have nots, the oppressor and the oppressed.
And her father set out to change all that.
He burned to end it as a self-proclaimed ‘disturber of the political peace’.
True revolutionaries dedicate themselves twice, he wrote, first in the flush of youth, then in the wisdom of maturity’.
And his family never wavered in supporting him every step of the way - from bright beginning to sad dark end.
When I first learnt of this Aras project on the occasion of the unveiling of the JC monument on the Falls Road I stood on a street corner and listened as the grand plan was explained. I admit to have being a little sceptical as to it ever coming to pass.
It was to my mind an incredible undertaking and in ways a dream that was unlikely to be realised. How wrong I was - I am pleased to say. The continuing 17 year long campaign to Save Moore Street from the developers wrecking ball has obviously left its mark on me. Our aim is to develop a 1916 Historic Cultural Quarter there - on the very ground that our forebears made history. But today the last HQ of the 1916 Provisional Government still lies neglected and abandoned by successive administrations and is closed to the public.
Restoration work undertaken under pressure, plans for its future still uncertain. Described by the National Museum as’ the most important historic site in modern Irish history’ the area is is now under the ownership and control of a British based vulture capital fund - the irony of that apparently lost on those holding office.
Today I take this opportunity to salute Sinn Fein for their unstinting support for the Moore Street Campaign. In particular, the late and much missed Martin Mc Guinness, Gerry Adams,TD, and Uachtarain Shinn Fein, Mary Lou Mc Donald. Councillors Criona Ni Dalaigh and Cllr. Michael Mac Donncha also did sterling work on our behalf when holding office as successive Lord Mayor’s of Dublin.
This project, from dream to reality, puts the authorities in Dublin to shame. The success of one development stands in marked contrast to the inexplicable paralysis surrounding another.
When Joe and Harry outlined progress on the plan on a recent visit to Dublin and fittingly in the GPO, it was clear that this day would indeed come to pass. Their sterling work rewarded. A dream realised. The story of a success.
Of course the reason this has been achieved is directly associated with the area in which it is located. Where people appreciate and connect to their proud past, guard the memory of their heroes, preserve the record and stand up to be counted. A community bound together through great struggle is a stronger community in the long run - hurdles are to be leapt over - failure is not an option - dreams can never die. Everyone can play a part. And in this case where there is a will there is a way. This visitor centre celebrating the life and times of James Connolly will not only benefit tourism, education and community relations - it will change lives. Cultural centres can become the heartbeat of a community. Where lessons are learned relationships built, friendships flourish and lives are enriched.
Communities are under threat in an ever changing world. What were traditional hubs in the community where, news and views were exchanged and shared - the local shop or store, the post office or community hall or local pub are fast becoming a thing of the past - our lives are becoming more privatised - leaving many citizens isolated some abandoned, some lost, others lonely. A community without conversation is a community in crisis. There is no such thing as society if we do not strive to keep it intact. Social interaction respect and understanding among all citizens are its vital ingredients. The heroes of our time will emerge from the struggles of today and not out of the comforts of tomorrow.
The value and values of times past held in trust within the community and passed to future generations will be the story of this success.
In many ways this new centre brings James Connolly and his family home. Here in the city that marked him and his children and one that Lillie Connolly in particular did not want to leave. She left Belfast with tears in her eyes as the family made their way to Dublin for the final chapter in what was and is a remarkable family story.
This city helped shape her husband as a trade union leader and defender of workers’ rights. Their fight was his fight, their struggle his struggle, their cause his cause - to the very end. Here he stood for election as the’ determined enemy of the domination of class over class, of nation over nation, of sex over sex, who will at all times stand for the cause of the lowly-paid and oppressed’. My grandmother and grand Aunt Nora joined the Fianna here and Ina became secretary of the Betsy Gray Cumann with, as she puts it, ‘their headquarters in old wooden army huts on the Falls Road built to house soldiers who kept the peace as it was called when there was rioting in Belfast’. The baton in their family had already passed to the next generation.
And It was in Belfast that they first enjoyed the stability and comfort of their first real family home.
The joining of forces behind this project is also a great testament to their father’s refusal in his time to engage in sectarianism of any kind. To build a society based on opportunity for all, with equality in housing, health, and education - basic civil rights - rights that had to be fought for in our time - at home and abroad and still not realised.
The pillars of a real democracy where nobody is left behind, marginalised, abandoned or forgotten. My grandmother in her biography of her father wrote: “Accused of being fanatically Nationalist on one hand and not Nationalistic on the other James Connolly found one home, one country - the hearts of the working people of the world. Sacrifice and devotion to their cause was the weather of his mind and the keystone of his work”.
How fitting therefore that this project has had widespread support from near and far.
Writing in The Irish Worker during municipal elections in 1913 he himself wrote: “A small nation such as Ireland can only become great by reason of the greatness of soul of its individual citizens. Discontent is the fulcrum upon which the lever of thought has ever moved the world to action. Ireland has two things that must make the blood run with exaltation in the veins of every lover of the Irish race - a discontented working class and the nucleus of a rebellious womanhood. I cannot separate these two things in my mind”.
Winifred Carney, Margaret Skinnider, Countess Markievicz among the great rebel women of his time. The heroes of our history.
The lesson of this success is that working together Citizens are best placed to build a future shaped by all and not designed by the few, planned for all and not to benefit the few. That ‘greatness of soul’ of the individual citizen allowed flourish so that all have the opportunity to make a contribution to society for the betterment of all. A peoples project - evidence yet again that there is so much more to unite us than there is to divide us.
And West Belfast again showing the way forward.
Great credit and enormous thanks is due to all who have given their time energy and talent to see it through.
To Joe, Harry, Jim and the committee and all who helped in any way this is your day. Your work now takes tangible physical form and this visitor centre will no doubt influence, educate and inspire a new generation to strive to achieve equality and justice for all.
And though this is your deserved day in the sun - you allow us bask in its reflective light.
By honouring the memory of my great grandfather his life and times in this way you also pay family members great tribute - undeserved but accepted with humility and gratitude.
I can only imagine what my grandmother would think of the development of this centre honouring the name, memory and sacrifice of her father within a stones throw of the family home.
I know that were she here today she would be bursting with pride.
As I am. We salute you. We are forever in your debt.
James Connolly Heron