PAULINE MURPHY reflects on The Poem of James Connolly by Liam MacGabhann, based on reading comments made by the son of a Welsh miner who was part of Connolly’s firing squad and who later asked Connolly’s relatives to forgive him.

On May 12th, 1916, one of the most shocking executions to take place in the aftermath of the Easter Rising was that of James Connolly. The injured trade union leader was taken from Dublin Castle to Kilmainham Goal by ambulance before being carried into the stone breakers yard on a stretcher.

The Edinburgh-born Connolly was then tied to a chair to face the firing squad. Connollys death left the public disgusted with those who sanctioned the callous execution but it also left poets and songwriters with much material to write.

The best known song written about the martyred leader is The Ballad of James Connolly but unfortunately the author of the song is unknown.

In 1968 Irish folk band The Wolfe Tones brought The Ballad of James Connolly to a wider audience when they recorded it as a single which reached number 15 in the  Irish music charts of that year. When the band included the song on their 1972 album ‘Let the People Sing’ they featured a spoken poem before the song and, unlike the ballad with an unknown authorship, we fortunately know who wrote The Poem of James Connolly.

Kerry journalist Liam MacGabhann penned The Poem of James Connolly in 1933 which was included in this book ‘Rags, Robes and Rebels.’  MacGabhann, who was born on Valentia Island in 1908, wrote the stirring piece from the view of a soldier in the firing party ordered to shoot Connolly.

In 1916 a Welsh regiment on its way to the Western Front was diverted to Ireland as backup for troops trying to crush the rebellion in Dublin. MacGabhann heard a story about a young soldier, a son of a Welsh miner, who was part of that regiment and was included in the firing squad for Connollys execution and felt utter guilt and shame because of it.
In the aftermath of the ghastly deed this unnamed Welsh solider  tracked down Connolly’s widow and children to ask for their forgiveness. MacGabhann took this anonymous Welsh soldier as the voice for his poem who reflects on his participation in the execution of Connolly with heavy regret.

MacGabhann worked as a national school teacher in Kerry before taking up a job at the Irish Press as the papers film critic. This position saw MacGabhann  travel to and from Los Angelus for many years during Hollywood’s golden age and it  kick started his interestingly well travelled life.

Anthony Cronin and James Plunkett. MacGabhann would go on to become editor of The People newspaper in the 1950s and then news editor of the Irish Times and was one of the founding editors of the Sunday World. Liam MacGabhann died in Dublin in 1979, two years after retiring from journalism.

100 years ago on May 12th, capuchin Father Aloysius was in the stone breakers yard of Kilmainham Gaol to administer James Connolly absolution and last rites.
Father Aloysius asked Connolly if he was willing to pray for those about to shoot him, to which Connolly replied “I will say a prayer for all men who carry out their duty.”

The Poem of James Connolly
(By Liam MacGabhann)

The man was all shot through that came today
 Into the barrack square;
 A soldier I – I am not proud to say
 We killed him there;
 They brought him from the prison hospital;
 To see him in that chair
 I thought his smile would far more quickly call
 A man to prayer.
 Maybe we cannot understand this thing
 That makes these rebels die;
 And yet all things love freedom – and the Spring
 Clear in the sky;
 I think I would not do this deed again
 For all that I hold by;
 Gaze down my rifle at his breast – but then
 A soldier I.
 They say that he was kindly – different too,
 Apart from all the rest;
 A lover of the poor; and all shot through,
 His wounds ill drest,
 He came before us, faced us like a man,
 He knew a deeper pain
 Than blows or bullets – ere the world began;
 Died he in vain?
 Ready – present; And he just smiling – God!
 I felt my rifle shake
 His wounds were opened out and round that chair
 Was one red lake;
 I swear his lips said ‘Fire!’ when all was still
 Before my rifle spat
 That cursed lead – and I was picked to kill
 A man like that!