HIS pledge to serve 'neither King nor Kaiser' has left a contested legacy in his native Scotland, an intellectual pioneer with no official recognition in his home city.

But 100 years after his execution by firing squad, James Connolly, one of the founding fathers of the Irish state and key figure in Scotland's fledgling Labour movement, is to be celebrated in a major work of art.

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Produced by acclaimed contemporary artist Roddy Buchanan and featuring leading historian Owen Dudley Edwards, Understanding Versus Sympathy, focuses on Connolly's early life on Edinburgh's Cowgate and his political activities before his pivotal role in Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising.

The film will be shown in St Patrick's Church, the centre of Edinburgh's 'Little Ireland' during the 19th Century and just yards from Connolly's birthplace and where he was baptised.

Reflecting a growing awareness in Scotland of Connolly's intellectual place in European history, the film is part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, which focuses on the themes of memorials and is linked to First World War centenary commemorations.


The work also marks another of award-winning Buchanan's exploration of themes around identity politics, including an exhibition on Loyalist and Republican bands at the Imperial War Museum, as well as an intimate portrait of Dudley-Edwards, who has direct personal connections to Connolly's time in Dublin.

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The film has already attracted the attention of Irish President Michael D Higgins, who requested a viewing during a recent state visit to Scotland, while Buchanan had also a spoken about the project with former Herald journalist Ian Bell, a direct relative of Connolly's, before he passed away last year.


St Patrick's Church on Edinburgh's Cowgate

Buchanan said: "My idea with the work was to celebrate James Connolly and place him in the context of Scottish political life, not just account for his demise or the last week of his life. The project reflects on Connolly's writings, his context and his community.

"In a sense the project combines two great figures in Scottish intellectual and cultural life. Dudley Edwards is also someone who should be celebrated, the elder statesman of Scotland's historians.

"It was an opportunity for me to ask Owen Dudley Edwards the value of Connolly, someone whose name was still incendiary when I was growing up.

"You had to careful who you asked about James Connolly. I had only heard trade unionist or Celtic supported talk about him. Since Edinburgh City Council appear to ignore him I wanted to make something with someone who had a deep academic engagement with the subject."

Born of Irish parents in Edinburgh in 1868, Connolly was a British Army deserter who later became an acquaintance Labour founder Kier Hardie, who helped his fellow Scot with the finances for one of his Irish socialist groupings.

Part historian and journalist, part trade unionist, he spent time in the US, becoming a prominent member of the International Workers of the World before returning to Ireland where his socialist group the Irish Citizens Army took part in the doomed Easter Rising.


Owen Dudley-Edwards

Dudley-Edwards, a leading expert in Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde, who has written a biography of Connolly, said: "People think just about Connolly and 1916. But that's not what animating Roddy and me. It's about the human person who made fantastic human leaps in a culture which kept working people as ignorant cornered rats.

"Our job as historians is always to find new ways of wisdom and new ways for people to understand. Roddy's is a tremendous approach, an unusual method to the understanding of a historic figure. Connolly was a pioneer. Roddy is also a pioneer who also works in new forms of communication."

Who Is James Connolly?

Remembered mostly for his role as the de facto commander-in-chief of the Easter Rising and the part played by his subsequent execution in Ireland's independence, James Connolly had a political career spanning decades before 1916.

A labourer by the age of 10, he joined the army at 14 but deserted prior to a tour of India, remaining in Ireland where he had been based.

Moving back to Scotland, he became involved with the Independent Labour Party which Keir Hardie had formed in 1893. He took his message back to Dublin, where he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and after several years as a prominent activist and speaker in the USA, became right-hand man to legendary trade unionist, the Liverpool-born James Larkin.

The best-known period of his life came after 1914 and the creation of his socialist militia, the Irish Citizen Army. Uneasy bedfellows with the romantic nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Connolly nonetheless was crucial in the Rising, spending the week at the GPO, where he was badly injured.

When he was executed in Kilmainham Gaol he had to be tied to a chair before he was shot. In Scotland, Connolly's thinking was hugely influential for socialists such as John Maclean, who would, like him, combine his leftist thinking with nationalist ideas.

He was also cited as an influence by John Lennon and is remembered in statues, railway stations and hospitals in Dublin.

A 2002 BBC poll ranked him the 64th greatest Briton.

Roddy Buchanan

"The way I make films is for an art audience. They’re not televisual or cinematic experiences. You can drop in and out and don't need to watch the whole thing. Five or 10 minutes and you can see the construct, find a little bit of treasure.

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"The film is a single screen projection shot in a blank set, lit like a piece of theatre. It’s rich in detail, Owen talking and presenting ideas about this or that part of the Connolly story.


Roddy Buchanan

"You don't have to sit through the whole one hour 40 minutes. It's not a pedagogical film about a political agitator. It's a bit more enigmatic than that. I'm looking for people to be as fascinated about Owen, about what he's talking about.

"The trigger for the commission was the War Memorial on the Royal Mile boarded up during the International Festival last year. People so desperate to see the jugglers that they would climb over sacred space. This led the commissioner to wonder about the value of Edinburgh’s memorials. I was approached because of my interest in identity politics in Scotland.

"This film provides the context around which Owen can riff, where he can be playful one minute and deadly series the next."

Owen Dudley-Edwards

"The point I'd make as a historian is James Connolly was someone pretty extraordinary in human history; autodidactic whose father literally was a sh*t shoveller, who learned what he could from where he could and got to the stage he was producing history different to that being produced by the historians of the time, as well as some extremely good journalism.

"He was picking up something new and showing what anyone since could do. He was a pioneer.

"The 1916 Rising wasn't just an intellects revolt. Connolly came from the Cowgate, a very different world to the Rising leaders. For the others the Rising was largely about aesthetic reasons. Connolly's wasn't about creating a revolution but being revolutionary. Connolly invaded these conventional methods of what a nationalist revolution was about."