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NAAS - Sinn Fein, Sean Connolly Branch

Sean Connolly – First ‘rebel’ casualty of the 1916 Rising


Brian McCabe


The recent re-discovery of an old political banner in the Naas area calls to mind one of the more interesting – and often overlooked – figures involved in the Easter 1916 Rebellion.

The banner, which has now come to light again after many years, belonged to the early Naas branch of the Sinn Fein organisation and commemorates Sean Connolly, who was a Captain in the Irish Citizen Army, and who led the assault on Dublin Castle in what was, in effect, the first action of that fateful week.

Connolly, at the time of the Rising, was living at Philipsburg Avenue in Dublin but his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had come from Straffan, Co Kildare, and his earlier forebears from Monasterevan, in the same county. This is, presumably, why the Naas branch of the organisation – which was one of the earliest in Kildare – was named after him.

Connolly was also a notable actor in Dublin at the time but it is probably as the leader of the attack on Dublin Castle and City Hall on Easter Monday 1916 that he is best remembered. For the assault, Connolly had a total of 16 men and 9 women, including three of his brothers and one of his sisters (Mrs Barrett).

The objective for this stage of the Rising had been to seize and hold the approaches to the Castle but this had been compromised by the poor turn out of Volunteers that morning due to the confusion over plans, and the order countermanding the mobilisation issued by Eoin Mc Neill.

The Commander of the Citizen Army, James Connolly, had secured a duplicate from an impression of the key of the City Hall main door and the original plan had, apparently, been to make the attack on the Upper Castle Yard and seize the guard room there from the City Hall. However there had been some delay in securing this key and Sean Connolly then decided to rush the Castle Gate directly. This daring move almost paid off spectacularly.

On reaching the Castle, Connolly demanded admittance and, when the policeman on duty went to slam the gate shut, shot him. As the sentry fired and fled, six Citizen Army men rushed the guardhouse and overpowered three of the soldiers there – tying them up with their own puttees. Leaving six men there Connolly then proceeded to City Hall, not realising that the Castle was completely undermanned and probably could have been taken by the rebels if the attack had been pressed further at that point.

Connolly and the rest of his small force proceeded to scale the iron front gates of City Hall and install themselves there. Connolly had previously been employed there in the Motor Taxation Office and would have been familiar with the layout of the building. On entering, he deployed half his men on the ground floor, proceeding himself with the remainder (including his brother Matthew) to the roof circling the huge dome.

Shortly afterwards a troop of British soldiers arrived at the Ship Street barracks and began to concentrate fire on City Hall. Snipers from surrounding high points began to pick off the rebels one by one and Connolly himself was reputedly shot around two o’ clock by a sniper operating from the Castle clock tower. According to some reports he slid down the roof after being shot and the Citizen Army medical officer, Dr Kathleen Lynn, tried to reach him on the parapet but was unable to do so.

Connolly was 32 when he died and left a widow and three young children.

As already mentioned, Connolly was a very talented actor and, in fact, his name is amongst the seven commemorated in the Abbey Theatre ‘1916 Plaque’ which was unveiled, on the wall facing the main entrance, by the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, during the opening week of the new building in July 1966.

Connolly had made his first appearance at the Abbey in 1913 and had featured in at least a dozen new productions and many revivals there over the following three years. In fact, a revival of W.B Yeats’ "Kathleen Ni Houlihan" had, apparently, been planned for the Abbey for the Tuesday of Easter week, in which he was to have played the leading male role.

Lady Gregory had, previously, praised his playing expressed her gratefulness "for his beautiful and distinguished work, especially in the tragedy of ‘Kincora’ and the comedy of ‘The Lord Mayor’" On hearing of his tragic death that week she penned the following touching lines, on the back of a letter, while travelling to Dublin by train:

" O branch that withered without age!

Would we could see you where you’re missed

Step airy on the Abbey stage

Play there ‘The Revolutionist’

Or fill with laughter pit and stalls

With Bartley Fallon’s croak and cry

What led you to those castle walls?

We mourn you Sean Connolly"

2006 marks the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and this article on Sean Connolly by Brian McCabe explores a little known connection with Co. Kildare. 

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