Connolly, Joe (1922–2008), community activist and politician, was born 11 March 1922 at 5 Tolka Avenue, North Dock ward, Dublin, son of John Connolly, an engine driver, and his wife Esther (née McNally). Growing up in Lusk, Co. Dublin, and later in the East Wall area of the north-east inner city, Connolly learnt to box in the Tramways Boxing Club, training in the basement of the old Liberty Hall. He later boxed with the Corinthians Boxing Club, represented Ireland thirteen times (1941–5), and won the 1947 Irish junior featherweight title. After retiring from the ring, he was for a time honorary secretary of Corinthians BC and also of the Dublin County Boxing Board.
He worked as clerical officer with the Great Southern Railways at the Broadstone terminus, and transferred to CIÉ upon its establishment in 1945. After moving to the Dublin suburb of Walkinstown in 1965, Connolly was exercised by the lack of facilities for the area's youth, and served as honorary secretary of the Walkinstown Sports and Athletic Federation from 1966. Believing fervently in the value of community participation and activism, he and others developed a community hall and organised day trips and holidays for his neighbours to the north Co. Dublin coast (facilitated by chartering CIÉ buses).
In summer 1968, Connolly, with Fr Martin Tierney, catholic curate at Walkinstown, spearheaded the establishment of the Dublin Community Games, forming an executive at a meeting held in Moran's Hotel, Gardiner Street. Inspired by the 1968 Mexico City summer Olympic games, the tournament emerged from a ferment of local community sporting activism in the Walkinstown area centred around sports days and community events organised on a street-by-street basis, culminating in 'finals' in each estate. The first Community Games finals were held in Santry Stadium in August 1968, sponsored by the Evening Herald newspaper. From their inception, they were widely referred to in the press as the 'mini-Olympics', inducing the ire of the Olympic Council of Ireland.
The games grew the following year, spreading across the city, and the first 'inter-county' Community Games finals were held in Dublin in 1970, with teams from Limerick, Louth, Kilkenny, Roscommon and Tipperary participating. Connolly drew upon the devolved organisational structure (and in many instances, the members) of the National Association of Tenants' Organisations (NATO) and the Association of Community Residents' Organisations. Connolly travelled around the country promoting the games, encouraging interested areas to set up organising committees and affiliate. A 1976 dispute between NATO and the National Community Games organisation, concerning the disaffiliation of a specific Dublin housing estate from the former, demonstrated the close, if at times fractious, relationships between the two locally organised bodies (Ir. Independent, 24 April 1976).
The first National Community Games finals were held at Santry Stadium in 1971, sponsored by the Irish Independent. On their moving to the Butlin's holiday camp at Mosney, Co. Meath, in 1973, with teams from thirty-one counties participating, the growing popularity of the games was signalled by their opening by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and their closing by President Erskine Childers (qv). General (or honorary) secretary of the Dublin Community Games from 1968, Connolly was chairman (or honorary secretary; the positions were combined in 1984) of the National Community Games from 1975; the organisation's voluntary hierarchical structure brought many, especially as parents of participants, into community activism for the first time. With the emphasis on inclusiveness and promoting community participation for all, there were repeated attempts at international expansion of the games through the 1970s, but analogous equivalents were either lacking or were organised in different ways in other European countries.
By the late 1970s, it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of children were engaged in Community Games events nationally, supported by over 10,000 volunteers. In May 1981 Connolly was seconded from CIÉ to the National Community Games, devoting himself full-time to the needs of this now nationwide organisation. Although the games received meagre government funding (from 1971), and relied on parental and community support to ensure the participation of Irish youth, Connolly was keenly aware of the societal and health benefits: 'What we want to do is to show that there are other activities in this country other than television and the pub. We want to encourage good healthy outdoor recreation' (Ir. Times, 1 March 1974).
Connolly also had a significant political career. A Labour party member of Dublin County Council from 1960 to 1985, representing variously Crumlin, Terenure, and Tallaght as electoral boundaries shifted, he was chairman of the Dublin Health Authority (1966), and vice-chairman (1974–5) and chairman (1976–7) of Dublin County Council. Exercised by the lack of housing and employment opportunities, and concomitant leisure facilities for his constituents and neighbours, Connolly supported controversial rezoning decisions of land at Fortunestown, between Tallaght and Clondalkin, in the 1970s. Ignoring the warnings that these changes grossly violated the Dublin development plan, for which necessary services were unfunded and unplanned, Connolly supported the rezoning to create employment. However, he publicly criticised as corruption-inducing the aggressive lobbying of councillors by a Fortunestown consortium to oppose the council's plan to enforce a compulsory purchase order upon their lands in return for a non-binding promise (which later evaporated) to build much-needed leisure and sporting facilities (Hibernia, 21 June, 19 July 1974; Ir. Times, 11 June 1974). Connolly supported the rezoning of 235 acres at Ballymount in 1982, when the owners promised a twenty-acre sports complex, which also evaporated (Ir. Times, 7 Oct. 1982). To alleviate the city's chronic housing shortages, he urged Dublin County Council to establish a non-profit building society to facilitate the provision of affordable mortgages to workers.
Chairman of the Dublin mental health visiting committee, which reported (1970) on the poor conditions and overcrowding in St Ita's Hospital, Portrane, Connolly lobbied for improved drug and alcohol rehabilitation for young addicts, instead of their incarceration in the Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, arguing that 'we want drug addicts to be treated as sick people, and not as criminals' (Ir. Independent, 6 January 1971). He repeatedly proposed the introduction of the death penalty for convicted drug dealers. Campaigning for the establishment of a national lottery, which could fund healthcare, leisure and sporting facilities, while reducing the burden of local authority rates, Connolly also repeatedly called for the establishment of a ministry for sport. Later, with both in existence, Connolly criticised the overtly local and partisan nature of National Lottery community and sports funding.
A centrist Labour party member, sceptical of trade-union involvement, Connolly came fourth and last in the election for Labour's national chairman in November 1971. Selected as a second Labour candidate alongside Frank Cluskey (qv) in Dublin South Central for the June 1981 general election, he soon withdrew from the ticket to be replaced by a more viable candidate as the party targeted a second seat in the constituency. Local factional infighting played a role, alongside criticism of Connolly's seeking to become a full-time politician while also serving (from May 1981) as full-time National Community Games organiser. Standing as Labour candidate in the Dublin South Central by-election of 9 June 1994, Connolly polled fourth with 9.87 per cent of the vote, the party's share of the constituency vote dropping over 19 per cent since the 1992 election (although remaining higher than in both the 1987 and 1989 polls). He was elected to Dublin City Council from the Crumlin area in 1991, and retired from his seat in 1999.
Connolly was a recipient of a people of the year award in 1975, and held numerous public positions, such as a trustee of the National Association of Widows in Ireland (from 1970), a board member of the Rutland Centre (from 1978), chairman of the Dublin County local health committee (1981), and a member of the Irish Sports Council (Cospoir) (1978–95) and of the Eastern Health Board (1994–9). One of nine community activists recognised in the lord mayor of Dublin's millennium awards (1988), he retired as general secretary of the National Community Games in 1992, by which time the games had expanded to include chess and the arts; he remained an honorary patron of the organisation. With his wife Vera (d. 1996), whom he married in 1945, he had three sons and a daughter. He died after a long illness at St James's Hospital, Dublin, on 17 October 2008, and was buried in Bohernabreena cemetery, Co. Dublin.
Connolly responded to the absence of considered urban planning, a lack of leisure and community facilities, and rising juvenile delinquency and substance abuse in the new Dublin suburbs that emerged through the 1970s. The remarkable success of the Community Games organisation was a testament to his founding vision, emphasising community involvement and decentralised decision-making. His abiding concern was to engage young people during the long summer vacation and direct their energies into wholesome outlets: 'We wanted to give the children – and their parents – a chance to discover their own worth, to become aware of their own abilities and potential' (Ir. Independent, 26 August 1974).