By James Curry
In late September, the History, Political Science and International Studies Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth organized a Public History Celebration to promote its new public history track taught by Dr. David Woodward. Some of the week’s events took place at the UMD campus itself, including my keynote address on the subject of “Public History and Rebel Irishwomen.” The program concluded the following evening, September 26, with my talk on James Connolly and Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising at Carmody’s Irish Pub and Brewing on East Superior Street.
The event was dedicated to the memory of Rick Boo, the late co-owner of Carmody’s, who had passed away the previous month. This information brought tears to the eyes of his surviving business partner Eddie Gleeson, who I had discussed Irish history with during a visit to Duluth in April 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Ireland’s Easter Rising
The first part of my presentation provided an overview of this pivotal event in modern Irish history, when several thousand rebels sought to secure independence from Britain using arms. I was particularly keen to draw attention to the involvement of Liverpool native Padraig Supple (1898-1945), whose younger brother Andrew travelled from England to Duluth the following year to escape conscription into the British Army. Annabelle Genereau, a resident of Barnum, is Padraig’s and Andrew’s first cousin once removed; she attended the talk at Carmody’s with several siblings and other family members. Her daughter-in-law Katie Elizabeth Genereau later told me that seeing photographs of Annabelle’s mother Evelyn McKeever and the Supple brothers on screen had made it “one of the best days of our lives.” Moments like these make me truly appreciate life as a public historian.
In the final part of my talk, I told the story of James Connolly’s visit to Minnesota in November 1902. For those unfamiliar with modern Irish history, as well as his status as a nationalist martyr due to his leading role in the Easter Rising, James Connolly (1868-1916) is remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest labor leaders. During the final years of his life, he was organizer and then acting general secretary of the revolutionary Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, founded in Dublin by another iconic Irish labor leader, Big Jim Larkin, in 1909.
Connolly in Minnesota
The subject of Connolly’s visit to Minnesota was touched upon in Labor World almost a quarter of a century ago. On May 24, 1995, the paper published a short article on Connolly by New York-based trade unionist Bill Egan. This prompted the late Virginia Hyvarinen, then a retired Duluth librarian living in Massachusetts, to write a letter of appreciation to the paper’s editor Larry Sillanpa. Keenly interested in Irish labor history since 1987, Hyvarinen wondered if Labor World had run a story concerning Connolly’s visit to Duluth at the turn of the century (something not mentioned in Egan’s article). The answer was unfortunately negative, although Labor World did run ads for trade union meetings held at the venue of Connolly’s speech. This was Sloan (or Sloan’s) Hall, at 20th Avenue West and Superior Street. It was here, on Saturday, November 1, 1902, that Connolly delivered a public lecture to what the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Evening Herald recorded as a “large and enthusiastic” audience.
Background to Connolly’s visit
What was a man destined to be remembered as one of the founding fathers of modern Ireland doing in Duluth over a century ago? Connolly was on a lecturing tour of the United States, canvassing on behalf of the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP) while seeking to secure subscriptions for his Dublin Workers’ Republic newspaper. The Workers’ Republic was the official paper of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), an organization founded by Connolly in 1896 and which operated on the political periphery in Ireland. After recently coming through what the Workers’ Republic openly admitted was “a period of financial strain which … left its mark deep on the character and spirits of many of its members,” the ISRP looked upon Connolly’s 1902 trip to the United States – something which had been discussed for two years – with hope and expectation.
Connolly’s fourteen-week lecturing tour of the U.S. took place at a time when both the ISRP and SLP were preparing for elections, leading to the deal whereby the ISRP would raise the funds to send Connolly to America, while the SLP covered the costs of his tour and travel expenses home. After commencing his itinerary in New York on September 15, 1902, Connolly spoke at other events in the Big Apple before making his way through New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Ohio and Kentucky.
He was provided with a local contact for every city he visited. In Minnesota, Connolly’s three contacts were Edward Kriz of 614 Garfield Avenue, Duluth; J. W. Johnson of 12th & 20th Avenue, Minneapolis; and Frank Hayek of 336 Duke Street, St. Paul.
Frustration in Minneapolis
Like his talk at St. Paul’s Federation Hall on November 3, Connolly’s Duluth visit was hastily arranged to take advantage of his appearance in Minneapolis the previous evening at Century Hall, a venue possessing sizable gallery space and a seating capacity of around 800. Although he described it afterwards as one of the “finest meetings” of his tour in terms of size and enthusiasm, Minneapolis ultimately proved to be a frustrating experience for Connolly. Firstly, the local SLP candidate for governor spoke for over an hour before he was introduced. Connolly could then only manage to secure three Workers’ Republic subscriptions after getting into what he described as a “devil of a row” with local SLP branch members over an item that had appeared in the October 1902 issue of the Irish paper. Refuting the notion that this piece, which he had only become aware of on the night, had implied an endorsement of a rival American socialist party, Connolly nonetheless refused to pander to his audience and bluntly declared that the Workers’ Republic “was published for Ireland and not for America.” Fences were later mended, but the damage had been done.
Connolly’s Duluth success
Although smaller in scale, his lecture the night before in Duluth proved far more productive. Here, as elsewhere during his tour, Connolly devoted some of his attention to discussing labor and economic conditions in Ireland from a socialist perspective. This saw him evoke great applause by singling out for criticism the absentee landlords who drew profits from Irish properties while residing in England, a widespread practice at the time. Connolly was quoted as saying:
“The situation of affairs in Ireland is of a two-fold character political and economical: we are in the anomalous position of not being the rulers and masters of our own destinies; we are governed by an alien people – one with whom we have nothing in common. That which to us is ideal, to them is abhorrent. No nation that is politically enslaved can ever be economically free, and Ireland is in the depths of a political subjection. No miracle of holy writ can equal that illustrated by the Irish people in keeping their morality and integrity intact, as they have, under the grinding, soul-degrading slavery of ‘absentee landlordism’ and English autocracy and despotism. Yearly the landlords who reside across the channel demand that the life-blood of the green island shall go over the them to swell their already bloated coffers.”
He also sought to explain how the economies of America and Ireland were closely entwined, to the detriment of the latter:
“To those of you who may think it strange that one from a country 4,000 miles away should come to you to delineate the wrongs of that country, I will say that it is because you are living in a land possessed of the most dominant influence for the making or marring of things in the world today. Your interests are bound up in ours to a greater extent than you imagine. We in Ireland understand this as you can not – for we are the sufferers, and you to a great extent are the beneficiaries. It is explained in this manner: The labourer and the farmer in Ireland are not able to produce commodities as cheaply to sell at home as you here can produce and ship them to us, because of the greater scale upon which you operate. True, you, too, are oppressed by this concentration of capital and production in the hands of a few, but you are the recipients of at least a living wage for the production of the articles the shipment of which into Ireland is one of the great factors in conducing to her poverty.”
Did Connolly’s Duluth audience fully understand him? Although reaction was positive, doubtless there were some in attendance who struggled to catch his every word. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the famous Rebel Girl associated with the Industrial Workers of the World, would remark that Connolly’s speeches were “marred for American audiences by his thick, North of Ireland accent” (which was actually Scottish). Indeed, in November 1902 a socialist in St. Paul by the name of Alfred Ahlbug conceded in a letter to Ireland that being unfamiliar with Connolly’s “Irish dialect” and sitting “rather far back in the large Federation Hall in which he spoke,” he did not manage to make out all that Connolly said on the night.
Nonetheless, the first lecture of his three-part Minnesota trip was an undoubted success. Writing for the SLP’s Weekly People the following week, Connolly revealed that the two cities which produced the most Workers’ Republic subscriptions during his American tour up until that point had been Boston and Duluth. Boston, with its large Irish population, was to be expected. Duluth, on the other hand, had proved to be a pleasant surprise.
One impressed Duluthian, when sending his subscription card for the paper to Ireland, declared that Connolly had left an impression that would “last forever” among those fortunate enough to hear him speak. Another socialist in attendance from Wisconsin named J. H. Ecklund felt compelled to enthusiastically sign off his correspondence from Superior to Dublin by declaring, “Socialism is coming. It is useless to oppose it. One might as well try to stop the wave of the oceans. Down with capitalism. Yours for the Socialist Republic …”
Upon leaving St. Paul for Salt Lake City on November 5, Connolly continued his epic tour of the United States in Utah, California, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. He also paid a brief visit to Canada, before attending his mass meeting farewell in New York on December 26.
Although significant funds were raised during his trip, shortly after returning to Ireland Connolly fell out with other members of the ISRP and acrimoniously resigned as leader of the party. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1903 and 1904, before returning to Dublin in the summer of 1910. Six years later, Connolly was executed by firing squad at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol while strapped to a chair due to wounds received during the Easter Rising.
Dr. James Curry is a public historian in residence with Dublin City Council, Ireland. He has published widely on modern Irish history in recent years and is the creator of a “Statues of Dublin” page on Instagram. James’s visit to Duluth in September 2019 was sponsored by UMD’s History, Political Science and International Studies Department, Office of Diversity & Inclusivity, and Alworth Institute for International Studies.