by Latham, Sean
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James Brendan Connolly 1868-1957
The son of Irish immigrants from County Galway, James Brendan Connolly was born in Boston in 1868. A statue stands in south part of the city commemorating the remarkable of achievements of this man whose career as an athlete, writer, and adventurer carried him across the world. He is best remembered now as the winner of the first medal awarded at the modern Olympic games in 1896. His victory came in the triple-jump where he defeated his nearest opponent by over a meter on the very day he stepped off the ship. In order even to make it to Athens that year, he had to withdraw from Harvard University after the dean refused to grant him an official leave of absence. This proved a particularly galling experience, since Connolly had fought to win special admission to the university after having already pursued a career as a clerk in the Army Corps of Engineers. (Still upset by this slight, he declined Harvard’s offer of an honorary doctorate 1949.) He won two additional medals at those first games and returned to the Paris Olympics in 1900 where he again placed first in the triple-jump.
In 1898 he enlisted in the Army when the Spanish Civil War began, serving in the “Irish 9th” Regiment of Massachusetts and fighting up San Juan Hill beside Teddy Roosevelt. He wrote to his family in Boston, vividly describing his war-time experiences in a series of letters that were then published in the Boston Globe. In these pieces he developed the vivid first-person narrative style that would eventually lead him to a successful career as a writer and journalist. After the war, he traveled broadly, often tramping on steamships and working as a fisherman or deckhand on boats sailing out of the Unites States and Great Britain. With the financial help of a friend who helped him make his way back to Boston from Paris, Connolly wrote a series of articles about the time he spent with the fishermen of Glouster. These pieces first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1901 and were subsequently published by Charles Scribner’s Sons as The Book of Glouster Fisherman. He quickly gained fame as a master of the “strenuous” American style in vogue at the turn of the century and began publishing widely both in sportsman’s magazines like Outdoors, Land and Water, and Golf as well as in popular periodicals like Scribner’s, Collier’s, and Metropolitan. President Roosevelt admired his work so much, he was granted permission to travel on any vessel in the U.S. Navy and from the decks of these ships he penned a number of stories and articles.
In the years before the First World War, Connolly traveled throughout the world as a correspondent for newspaper and magazines. Scribner’s and Collier’s both commissioned him to make a trip to the Artic and published a steady stream of his work. This included not only his heroic reportage but often sentimental yet artful pieces about the Irish immigrant experience. One such story, “Mother Machree”, appeared in the August 1915 issues of Scribner’s, relating a story similar to Connolly’s own. He also produced during this time a number of books including The Deep Sea’s Toll, Open Water, and Sonnie-Boy’s People, all published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. When the United States entered the European war in 1916, Powell became a special correspondent for Collier’s, covering the convoys crossing the Atlantic and the battle against German submarines, experiences later recounted in The U-Boat Hunters.
Connolly remained a prolific and adventurous writer throughout his life, and in 1921 was appointed Commissioner for the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland. Sent to make sure that relief funds were not being spent on illegal arms, he met with many of Ireland’s political leaders and witnessed the violent campaign waged by the British “Black-and-Tans” against nationalist insurgents. His aggressive reporting ran counter to British propaganda and conveyed a clear sense of what was happening to his American audience. He eventually settled with his wife and daughter in Boston where he died at the age of 87. By the end of career, he had written well over 200 magazine articles and some 25 books, including a collection of memoirs entitled Sea-Borne: Thirty Years Avoyaging.
Selected Works by James Brendan Connolly
- The Book of Gloucester Fishermen. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901.
- The Deep Sea’s Toll. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905.
- Open Water. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
- Out of Gloucester. NY: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1902.
- Sea-Borne: Thirty Years Avoyaging. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1944.
- Sonnie-Boy’s People. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
- The U-Boat Hunters. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918.