Did you know that the first American Olympic medalist was a Bostonian and also a writer of sea stories? James Brendan Connolly is perhaps no longer a familiar name, but he was once considered the “foremost among sea-writers”(Dwyer,1). Fabien P. Dwyer, a writer of distinction in Australia, described the power of Connolly’s popular seafaring tales: “Men go through the world with their heads in the stars, looking for romance, and die in the end, having passed it by. And all the time it has been in their street, in the house next door, probably in their own homes. That is why writers like […] James B. Connolly […] are to be read. They treat of ordinary human life.”(Dwyer, 10.)
James B. Connolly’s books reflect his varied and adventurous life. Connolly was born in 1868 in South Boston to Irish immigrants John and Ann Connolly, and grew up in the South Boston atmosphere of sports and Irish culture. After grammar school, Connolly traveled to Savannah, Georgia to join the U.S. Engineer corps where he worked along the rivers and harbors of the southeast Atlantic. Connolly’s experiences as part of the Engineer corps are reflected in his novel Jeb Hutton. Our copy of Jeb Hutton contains a long inscription by Connolly to his friend James Augustine Healy, explaining the personal significance of this novel.
“Dear Jim, Here is the first full length book I ever wrote. It came of my experiences up and down the Savannah River while on field service with the Vol. Engineer Corps in the 90’s . I came to know while quite a few Georgia people while there, I found them good people all. The boy Jeb Hutton is my debt to them. I am Kelly in spots but not in the near drowning episode. That rescue (of Kelly) is in detail my own rescue of a dredge hand. Charlie – his last name I never learned. That rescue was written up for the columns in the Savannah Morning News. The Savannah [Collector of Customs?] wrote to Washington for a medal for me, but [Washington?] said no medal from there unless it happened on the high seas which is […?]. Good Wishes to that Friendly soul, James A Healy from Jim Connolly.”
After his experiences in the engineer corps, he returned to Boston to attend an engineering course at Harvard University. During his time at Harvard, in 1896, the first modern Olympics games were organized. Always an athlete, Connolly applied for leave from Harvard in order to participate on the USA team. Harvard refused. So Connolly abandoned his program to attend the Olympics.
But despite leaving Harvard, he barely made it to the 1896 Olympics. While catching a train in Naples, Italy, his wallet was stolen and in the confusion, he almost missed his train. When Connolly and the other members of the USA team arrived in Athens, they discovered that the games were starting the very next day not in twelve days as they expected.
Athens followed the Greek Julian calendar, while the USA followed the Western Gregorian calendar causing the discrepancy in time. But Connolly didn’t miss a beat. The day after arriving in Athens, he competed in the hop, step and jump event and won his silver medal – at the time the highest medal awarded.
James B. Connolly channeled his Olympic experiences into another novel: An Olympic Victor. In 1949, years after Connolly had become an Olympic champion and a respected writer, Harvard offered him an honorary doctorate, but he turned them down. Harvard had had its chance.
Returning to the USA, Connolly’s many adventures continued. He started to write for newspapers including as Scribner’s and Harper’s in order to earn money. When the Spanish War broke out, he fought with the Ninth Massachusetts Infantry in Cuba. His letters to a friend about life in the war were published in the Boston Globe. During World War I he was sent as a naval correspondent by Collier’s magazine and witnessed the U-boat hunts. Over the course of his life, Connolly experienced life on battleships, cruisers, submarines, whalers, and even cattle boats. He even ran for Congress on the Bull Moose ticket, but was never elected.
Connolly’s wealth of experiences left behind a wealth of novels. On Tybee Knoll, Head Winds, The Crested Seas, The U-Boat Hunters and The Book of the Gloucester Fishermen all reflect Connolly’s understanding of the sea life and especially his love of the Boston area fishermen, the people he had grown up with.
The Burns Library owns forty books as part of the James Brendan Connolly collection. The majority of our copies have Connolly’s signature and some have personal inscriptions.
Much of the Burns Library Connolly Collection was donated by James Augustine Healy. Born in 1890 to Irish immigrants in Maine, Healy worked his way up through several jobs to become a powerful financial figure. Healy then used his time and resources to support Irish writers. He collected the works of many Irish organizations and authors, including James B. Connolly. Most of his Connolly collection now resides in Colby College in Maine, but we are fortunate to have a small part of his collection. Other Connolly books were donated by Thomas Barry, a personal friend of Connolly.
On Tybee Knoll: a Story of the Georgia Coast contains the inscription “J.B.C.’s Copy Do not take from house.” Let’s hope Connolly knew this particular edition had left his home.
Head Winds covers subjects ranging from Gloucester fishermen to Central American soldiery. Our copy was a gift from James Brendan Connolly to his friend Thomas J. Barry. The inscription reads: “Dear Tom: Here’s the new one – couple you probably have not already read. Good wishes to all – Jim”.
This edition of Head Winds along with our copies of The Crested Seas and Hiker Joy are also interesting for their illustrations. Most of Connolly’s books are illustrated, but these feature illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, one of America’s greatest illustrators. Wyeth is most famous for his illustrations of Treasure Island.
Connolly’s athletic achievements and gripping tales of sea adventures provide much to marvel at. But the residents of South Boston have particular respect for him. A statue showing Connolly landing a triple jump resides in Joe Moakley field reminding South Boston residents of their famous athlete.
Ultimately when residents of South Boston remember James B. Connolly, “it won’t be his essays or service during the Spanish-American War that parents will tell their children stories of. It will be about a man, an amateur athlete, and a South Boston resident that […] took the medals and showed the world that America and South Boston can compete and win on a world stage.” (Rosso)
- Lydia Murdy, Special Collections Cataloging Assistant
Connolly, James B. The Book of the Gloucester Fishermen. New York: The John Day Company: 1927.
Dywer, Fabien P. Finest Sea Writer of Our Day.
“Hall of Fame Class of 2012: James Connolly.” Team USA.September 18, 2015. http://www.teamusa.org/HOF-Class-of-2012-Home/HOF-Class-of-2012-James-Connolly.
“James Augustine Healy: Overview.” Colby College Libraries. September 18, 2015. http://libguides.colby.edu/healy.
“James Brendan Connolly.” CatholicAuthors.com. September 18, 2015. http://www.catholicauthors.com/connolly.html.
Rosso, Patrick. “James Brendan Connolly, of South Boston, recalled as Olympic champion.” Boston.com. July 25, 2012. September 18, 2015. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/south_boston/2012/07/james_brendan_connolly_south_b.html.
“The Ballad of James Brendan Connolly.” Dave Hannigan: Some Stuff that was Fit to Print. February 2, 2013. September 21, 2015.