Every year, we try and mark Easter Week in some way on the site. This year we’re looking at an interesting set of artifacts in honour of one often overlooked participant in the 1916 Rising that have only recently come to light. This post wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Las Fallon, whose book ‘Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution is available here.
What became of people after the revolutionary period in Ireland? For many veterans of conflict in Ireland, a life in politics followed, with some becoming Ministers and voices inside the Dáil and the establishment, while others remained very much in opposition to the state that was born in 1922 and remained politically active. Many others went on to live a wide range of lives – actors, authors, nurses, cinema managers and more besides emerged from the ranks of those who risked everything between 1916 and 1923.
One character I’ve always found particularly interesting is Joseph Connolly. He continued doing what he was doing during the revolutionary years : fighting fires. Joe was an active member of the Dublin Fire Brigade for some time before the 1916 Rising and had even walked out of Tara Street Fire Station on Easter Monday to fight in the uprising! He continued to work in the Dublin Fire Brigade for many years after independence, and this post looks at a beautiful set of commemorative fire buckets presented to him by his comrades in the Irish Citizen Army at the time of his retirement from the Brigade in 1938. The buckets have a nice connection to Thomas Kain and Rosie Hackett, two members of the Irish Citizen Army. The new Luas bridge spanning the River Liffey has of course recently been named in honour of Rosie Hackett, the first female awarded such an honour.
Joseph Connolly was born in 1893, the son of a swing bridge operator on the docks of Dublin and the grandson of a family evicted from their small farm near Straffan in Kildare during the days of the Land War in Ireland. Joseph, listed in the 1911 census as a messenger, would join the Dublin Fire Brigade in 1915. All of his siblings also developed radical republican politics, and all of his four brothers and his sister Kathleen joined the Irish Citizen Army. His brother Sean was the first Citizen Army member and the first republican volunteer to die during the 1916, when he was shot at City Hall, while his sister Katie is visible in the famous photograph below of the Irish Citizen Army at Croydon Park. She stands between the two flag bearers at the front of the group. The names of many of the siblings appear on a monument at City Hall in honour of the garrison there during the rebellion which they participated in, while Joseph Connolly himself fought at Stephen’s Green and the Royal College of Surgeons. Connolly left the fire station he worked in to fight in the insurrection, commandeering a car and using it to carry weapons from Liberty Hall to the General Post Office, before joining his ICA comrades in the Green.
The Rising may have been the busiest week in the history of the Dublin Fire Brigade, but one fireman was missing of course. Joseph was ultimately released from internment in the summer of 1917, returning to his post in the Dublin Fire Brigade. Joe was one of the most reluctant members of the Irish Citizen Army to surrender, producing an automatic pistol with the ambition of shooting the British officer who came to accept the surrender from the men and women in the Royal College of Surgeons, leading others to overpower him.
Connolly’s participation in the revolutionary period was not restricted to Easter Week. An active Citizen Army man throughout the War of Independence, and he and other ICA and IRA men inside the Dublin Fire Brigade were crucially important to the movement. Never was this more evident that with the burning of the Custom House in 1921, when members of the Dublin Fire Brigade actively assisted the IRA by rescuing men and important weapons from the premises, and even assisted in spreading the blaze to parts of the building it had not reached. In 1922, Connolly was ‘double jobbing’ once again as a firefighter and a revolutionary, fighting in O’Connell Street with republican forces while also using the resources of the Fire Brigade to assist the IRA. Senior republican Oscar Traynor believed that Connolly was potentially of better use inside the Fire Brigade, with ambulance services making it possible for him and other republicans to carry both wounded men and important messages from republican positions.
Connolly’s brother George joined the Dublin Fire Brigade in 1923, following the Civil War. Like his brother, he had seen service throughout the 1916-23 period, and George was interned by Free State forces for his Anti Treaty activities. Joe was a leading figure within trade unionism inside of the job, appearing as Secretary of the men’s Union in newspaper reports in 1923 for a dispute between Dublin firefighters and the city authorities.
Joe succeeded in climbing to the top position in the Dublin Fire Brigade, becoming the Chief Officer of the force. This was a remarkable achievement, and in the long history of the force this position has only twice been held by firefighters who came through the ranks of the job itself, tending to go to an army officer instead. Connolly was a popular figure within the ranks of the job because he was seen to have come from the same class and background as many of the men themselves, with a strong trade union background too. His time as Chief Officer was not without difficulties – the single greatest tragedy in the history of the Dublin Fire Brigade occurred in 1936, when three firemen perished during a fire at Pearse Street, previously discussed on the blog. One of those who died was Bob Malone, another veteran of the Easter Rising who had fought at Boland’s Mills. He received full IRA honours at the funeral, with 1916 veterans marching alongside Dublin firefighters in a huge procession to Glasnevin Cemetery.
Connolly retired as Chief Officer of the Dublin Fire Brigade in 1938, and passed away in May 1956. At the time of his retirement from the job it was noted in media reports that he had brought about improvements to the conditions of men in the Dublin Fire Brigade, and he even made the frontpage of the Irish Press:
This blog post was sparked not by any intention to give a brief biographical sketch of an overlooked participant in the 1916 Rising however, but rather by a series of very interesting items that have come to light involving him. At the time of Connolly’s retirement in April 1938, he was presented with a series of beautiful fire buckets by his comrades in the Irish Citizen Army, which contain the names of some significant figures in the history of the force, as well as boasting a rather unique design. The buckets are marked ‘Northumberland Hotel’, a reference to the former life of the site that became Liberty Hall. Jim Larkin had purchased the decaying Northumberland Hotel and transformed it into a centre of union activity in the city.
One bucket contains the following inscribed shell, noting that the buckets were “donated by Thomais Kain.” Kain was a distinguished artist as well as being a member of the ICA, and his name appears alongside that of Rosie Hackett, who it says “liberated” the shell from Liberty Hall. The words “From the Plough to the Stars” appear, a reference to James Connolly’s words that a free Ireland would control its own destiny- from the plough to the stars. The words ‘Saol Fada Chugat’ appear, wishing a long life to Connolly:
Another bucket bears the following interesting addition of a Shamrock stamped with the date of Joe’s retirement, and acknowledgement of his involvement in the Easter rebellion:
These beautiful pieces only recently came to light, when they were put up for auction at Whytes auctioneers. The following video was uploaded by Whytes at the time:
They are an interesting piece, showing the comradery that existed between Irish Citizen Army veterans over twenty years after Easter Week, and also highlighting the respect and admiration that existed for Joseph Connolly. For all those household names who fought in the Easter Rising, there are many wonderful personal stories like this one to be told too. In 2010, members of the Dublin Fire Brigade participated in a commemoration that honoured the Connolly family in the north inner-city community they knew as home.