Nora Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1893. She was the second daughter of James Connolly, and the family moved to Dublin having lived for a time in the United States and Belfast. Her father was an organiser for the Dublin Socialist club and the family lived in poverty for much of her childhood. For a time they occupied a tenement room in a decaying house in Queen Street, near Arran Quay in Dublin, but eventually settled in Ringsend. The Connolly children were educated at home by their mother before they went to school, as a result of which Nora allegedly could read by the time she was 3 years old.
When Nora was 8 years old, she saw her father speak in Glasgow and, from then on, was a devotee of his socialist politics. She left school when she was 13 to work in a millinery store and later worked as a dressmaker. In her teens she became business manager of her father’s publication The Harp.
In 1910, Nora moved to Belfast for work and the family followed her in 1911. Her father James remained in Dublin and became organiser of the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union (ITGWU) in Dublin. She was a founding member of the Young Republican Party and of the girl’s branch of the Fianna. She also helped to found the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan, the women’s section of the Irish Volunteers.
As World War 1 broke out in Europe, plans were being put in place for a rebellion in Dublin. In 1914 Erskine Childers landed a cache of arms and ammunition in Howth, County Dublin, on his boat, Asgard. Nora and her sister Ina couriered them to hiding places all over Dublin and were rewarded with two rifles. The Rising was planned for Easter 1916 and Nora was sent to America with a secret message from her father. While in America she met Roger Casement, who was there raising money and support for the Irish Volunteers, the force behind the Rising.
When Nora returned to Dublin, she met the key members of the Military Council who were planning the rebellion. In the days before Easter she was sent to the Belfast to try to persuade the leading activist there to join in the fight. Her journey back to Dublin was a long one, as she travelled by train, car and foot. By the time she got back, the Rising was over. Her severely wounded father was being held in Dublin Castle and was executed a few days later.
The Connolly family sought permission to move to America after James’ execution but were refused. Determined not to take no for an answer, Nora travelled to the USA under a false name and began a lecturing tour where she publicised the Rising and the cause the rebel leaders had stood for. It was while she was in America that she met Seamus O’Brien, whom she would later marry in 1922. When Nora tried to return to Ireland, she was refused entry, so she travelled to Liverpool instead and made her way back into Ireland as a stowaway on a ship dressed as a boy. She then spent some time on the run and was kept in various safe houses around the country. While working for the ITGWU, she campaigned for Sinn Féin during the 1918 General Election.
In 1921 after two years of civil unrest and ongoing guerrilla warfare, a truce was called between the British and Irish and a delegation was sent to London to negotiate an agreement. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on the 6 December 1921. It established an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth. But it also included an oath of allegiance to the King and agreed to the partition of 6 counties in Ulster, which would remain under British rule. When the Treaty was presented to Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) it divided not only the government but also the country into those that supported it and those who did not. Civil War quickly followed.
Nora was opposed to the agreement and volunteered for the Republican forces. She was sent to Tara Hall in Dublin which was used as a first aid post. She was made paymaster general of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) when Margaret Kinnider was arrested in December 1922. Nora and her husband Seamus were arrested by Free State forces and were held in the North Dublin Union and Kilmainham Gaol. She was released in August 1923, and he was freed 3 months later.
After the end of the Civil War, Nora and Seamus rented a flat in Belgrave Square, Rathmines and Seamus worked for Cleeves, the toffee manufacturers. In the 1930s they ran a newsagents shop in Rialto and operated a lending library from the shop, but rationing during World War 2 forced them to close the business. For the remaining years of the war, Nora worked in the Post Office and as a secretary in Rathmines college.
Nora and Seamus worked tirelessly in helping to build up support for the Irish Labour party, and they ran a small branch of the party when they moved to Drimnagh. She served three terms in the Seanad, the upper house of the Irish parliament, from 1957 to 1969.
Seamus died in June 1962 and it is said that he and Nora never argued during 40 years of marriage except about politics!
In her later life, Nora maintained a close friendship with Margaret Skinnider, spending weekends at her Sandycove home. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and received an honorary doctorate in Law. She was also a member of the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nora had a successful career as a writer. She had published Portrait of a Rebel Father in 1935, an account of her life with her father up until his execution in 1916 and, in 1978, her book James Connolly Wrote for Today – Socialism was published. Her work We Shall Rise Again appeared in 1981.
Nora Connolly O’Brien died in Dublin on the 17th of June 1981.