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
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
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
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
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
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
After been informed that there would be no fighting in Belfast Nora returned
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
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
She married Seamus O’Brien in 1922.
During the Civil War she sided with the
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
Despite all the hardship and tragedies she experienced in her early years,
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.”
Tomás Ó Coısdealha
353 1 830-1133
Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Ireland
CL 64 Saint Patrick's section
Photo courtesy of Matt Doyle
Back to Biographies