Connolly, Joseph (1885–1961), politician, businessman and civil servant, was born 19 January 1885 at 41 Alexander St. West, Belfast, one of fourteen children (five of whom died in infancy) of John Connolly, master baker, and Margaret Connolly (née MacNeill) of Cushendall, Co. Antrim. The Connolly family were distantly related to James Connolly (qv). Joseph attended the national school at Milford St. (1889–97) and St Malachy's College, Belfast (1897–1900). Thereafter he spent a year and a half assisting his father in the family bakery, and a year in the engineering firm of Coombe, Barbour, & Coombe. He eventually joined Maguire & Edwards, house furnishers (January 1903), remaining with this firm until April 1915; he then set up his own house-furnishing business, married (January 1916), and continued his business in Belfast until autumn 1921.
Connolly began his involvement in the independence movement in 1911 when he co-founded the first ‘Freedom Club’ to spread the separatist gospel of Sinn Féin. In 1914, on his initiative, a conference was held that led to the establishment of a company of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast, with him as deputy chairman of the organising committee. When the movement split into the Irish National Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers he remained with the latter. He went to Dublin on Easter Saturday 1916 with the intention of taking part in the rising. After meeting Eoin MacNeill (qv), his wife's uncle, he became aware of the confusion among the leadership, and on his way back to Belfast delivered one of MacNeill's countermanding orders to the Volunteers in Drogheda. On the Friday of that week he was arrested in Belfast. Subsequently he was held in Richmond barracks in Dublin and in Knutsford and Reading jails in England.
On his return to Belfast he applied himself to his business. His home was a ‘safe house’ for Sinn Féin and Volunteer leaders visiting the city. When Dáil Éireann was established (January 1919) he offered his services and was appointed to its commission of inquiry into the resources and industries of Ireland. He witnessed the pogroms against catholics in Belfast in 1921–2. When some Belfast employers dismissed their catholic employees, Sinn Féin in Belfast reacted by organising the ‘Belfast boycott’. Connolly was one of the most active and influential members of the organising committee and, with his considerable experience of business, contributed significantly to its success.
In September 1921, at the request of Arthur Griffith (qv), he went to the USA as consul-general of the Irish republic. He was deeply disappointed with the Anglo–Irish treaty but did not publicly campaign against it. He returned to Ireland in July 1922 and resigned his post the following November. In mid December 1922 he attempted to persuade Éamon de Valera (qv) to use his influence to end the civil war by channelling opposition to the treaty into a new political movement. In April 1923 de Valera requested his help toward this end. Within a week he became chairman of ‘Sinn Féin Reorganised’. Because of his involvement in this new republican organisation he was forced to resign from the National Land Bank, of which he had become an executive in February 1923. In the general election of August 1923 the new party succeeded in having forty-four members elected. However, having steadfastly refused to stand as a candidate for the dáil, he resigned from the party's executive after the election and returned to the USA, where he was proprietor of an importing business until 1929. He also acted (1926–32) as managing-director of Alesbury's, a firm of coachbuilders and furniture manufacturers, with premises in Edenderry and Navan. Elected to the seanad (1928), he served until its abolition (1936) as leader of the Fianna Fáil group. At de Valera's request he became a director of the projected Irish Press (1930).
His first ministerial appointment was to Posts and Telegraphs in March 1932, when Fianna Fáil took office. He was one of de Valera's staunchest supporters in the economic war with Britain, accompanied him to the inaugural meeting of the League of Nations assembly at Geneva (September 1932) on the occasion of the Irish Free State's presidency of the council, and subsequently represented him at the working sessions of the assembly. After the Fianna Fáil victory in the general election of January 1933, Connolly was appointed minister for lands. Before taking up his post he visited the USA to pay off the republican bonds that had been bought (1919–21) by American supporters. He also met influential American politicians to counter British propaganda on the various issues at the root of the economic war. Within three weeks of his return, he was in London representing the Irish Free State at the world economic conference that opened 12 June 1933. On his return from the conference he took charge of the Department of Lands. He was particularly successful in facilitating the acquisition and distribution of land, in improving the work of the department's forestry section, and in implementing a policy of migration from the western seaboard to farms in Co. Meath. He also revamped the industries in the Gaeltacht.
With the abolition of the seanad (June 1936) Connolly's career as a minister came to an end. He subsequently served on a commission to advise the government on the creation of a new second chamber. On ending his career in the seanad he was made chairman of the Office of Public Works, a position he held until January 1950. In September 1938 he was appointed to a commission on arterial drainage, and from the beginning of the second world war until 1941 he acted as controller of censorship.
The outspoken Connolly's influence was considerable. From 1932 onwards de Valera consulted him frequently on most aspects of government policy. However, this close relationship ended in 1945 when he accused de Valera of abandoning his core policies; thereafter Connolly became increasingly critical of Fianna Fáil. Eight years later these criticisms were articulated in How does she stand? An appeal to young Ireland (1953). His criticisms are to be found also in his posthumously published memoirs.
Besides politics and business, Connolly had a lifelong interest in the theatre. In 1913 his play ‘The mine land’ was performed in the Abbey Theatre, and in 1958 another, ‘Master of the house’, was presented by the Belfast Theatre Group.
On Good Friday 1959 Connolly suffered a severe heart attack but survived for almost two years, dying 18 January 1961. He married (1916) Róisín McGavock of Cushendun, a niece of Eoin MacNeill, and was survived by his wife, four daughters, and four sons. His papers are in the NLI. His brother Alexander J. (‘Alec’) Connolly (1892–1982) was for a time the private secretary of Seán Lemass (qv) at the Department of Industry and Commerce.