Connolly, Sean (1882–1916), actor, trade unionist, and republican, was born 12 April 1882 at 10 Seafort Ave., Sandymount, Dublin, third child and eldest son among eight daughters and eight sons of Michael Connolly, seaman, and Mary Connolly (née Ellis). When his father ceased seafaring to work on the Dublin docks, the family moved to the northside city centre, firstly to Bella St., where his mother practised midwifery and ran a ground-floor shop in their home, secondly to Gloucester St. (latterly Sean McDermott St.). Educated at North William St. national school and St Joseph's CBS, Fairview, he entered Eason's stationers as despatch clerk (1897).
At an early age he joined the Gaelic League. In Pictures in the hallway (1942), Sean O'Casey (qv) describes conversing in Irish with Connolly on their first meeting in Eason's warehouse about this time and paints a vivid portrait of his fellow employee: ‘young and handsome; young and firm; young and kindly . . . gentle but strongly built . . . a musical voice, a dark tenor . . . calling the papers to be placed together to form a parcel for some country newsagent’ (O'Casey, 340–42). Trained in the Inghinidhe na hÉireann acting class, he appeared in the first production of ‘An scrabhadóir’ by Tomás Ó hAodha (1866–1935) at the 1909 Oireachtas. Acting in various productions in Irish and English, he drew acclaim for his facility in both dramatic and comic roles and his fine singing voice. He joined the Abbey Theatre (January 1913), his regular appearances including the first European production of Rabindranath Tagore's ‘The post office’ (May 1913).
Active in the ITGWU during the 1913–14 lock-out he joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). In Drums under the window (1945), O'Casey recounts participating with Connolly in the Howth gun-running (26 July 1914). Alongside his sister (Mrs Katherine Barrett) and Helena Molony (qv), he was prominent in the ICA's Liberty Players, popular for their Sunday night revues, in which Connolly revelled in satires and patriotic dramas by James Connolly (qv) and Arthur Griffith (qv). When the ICA marched through Dublin against a Mansion House recruitment meeting (Sept. 1914) addressed by John Redmond (qv), John Dillon (qv), and British prime minister H. H. Asquith, the procession halted outside the old parliament building (Bank of Ireland), College Green, where Sean Connolly led a mass rendition of ‘A nation once again’. By then employed as clerk in the motor tax office, City Hall, Connolly was usually the best-dressed man at ICA mobilisations.
Appointed captain on the eve of the Easter rising, he commanded the ICA contingent that operated in the Dublin Castle area on Monday 24 April, under orders to seize key positions, including the castle entrance, and thereby seal off the castle approaches. When the duty constable, James O'Brien, slammed shut the castle gates against them, Connolly fired what was probably the first shot of the rising when he shot O'Brien dead. While six of his troops secured the castle guardroom, Connolly occupied the nearby City Hall with his main body of nineteen men and women, establishing therein his primary base of operation. Within an hour, while occupying a position on the building's roof, he was killed by a sniper's bullet from the castle tower. The widely reported tradition that he was shot while running up the tricolour is not verified by Molony's eyewitness account (Caulfield, 125). The garrison, under heavy attack, surrendered that night. Connolly's sister, Kathleen Barrett, and three brothers – Eddie, George, and Matt – were also in the ICA's castle area contingent, while a fourth brother, Joseph, served in the General Post Office and St Stephen's Green.
With his handsome looks, singing and acting talents, modest demeanour, and noble idealism touched with the fanatic (‘maybe dangerous, for, like Robespierre, he believes what he says’ – O'Casey, 342), Connolly made a lasting impression on many. Lady Gregory (qv) composed a verse elegy; it has been suggested that O'Casey partly based the character of Jack Clitheroe in ‘The plough and the stars’ (1926) on him, and that W. B. Yeats (qv) had him in mind when he wrote of his drama ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ (in which Connolly once played) having ‘sen[t] out certain men the English shot’.
Connolly married (1910) Christine Swanzey (c.1888–c.1978) of Dublin; they had two sons and one daughter. His widow married secondly Joseph McCarthy, garda sergeant.