Speech at the unveiling of a monument to Jimmy Gralton
Effrinagh, Co. Leitrim, Saturday, 3 September, 2016
I am especially delighted to be able to visit South Leitrim to commemorate the memory of Jimmy Gralton. May I thank the Gralton Labour History Committee for their invitation. I have had the opportunity of speaking in previous years, to the Jimmy Gralton Summer School, and I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to acknowledge, in this special year, the contribution of the people of Leitrim to the struggle for Ireland’s Freedom. Earlier this year I paid tribute to Sean MacDiarmada for his work for Irish Independence and the Irish language.
Today, I come to acknowledge a too long hidden or suppressed story – the wrongful intimidation and ultimate deportation by an abuse of the law, of Jimmy Gralton, to whose memory, and whose family, an apology is due.
Jimmy Gralton was one of those rare emancipatory figures from Cosmuintir na Tíre, from below, a blaze of energy, honesty and generosity that burst upon this locality in very turbulent times at the beginning of the 1920s and again in the early 1930s. We can recall him with sadness, but also with righteous anger, because he was, for authoritarian political purposes, mixed with clerical pressure, illegally deported from his own country for his political beliefs. What happened was an affront to basic civil rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech; freedom to organise and the freedom to hold meetings.
It is primarily through the work of the Gralton School and a small number of committed labour historians such as Des Guckian, as well as the contribution of writers in literary form and through film that a new generation has learnt about Jimmy Gralton.
Ken Loach’s film has shown how, through his Dancehall, Jimmy Gralton created a place where his community could escape from the restrictions of a repressive social and cultural order that insisted on a narrow idealisation of our native culture being put under a conservative and clerical control that would culminate in the Dance Halls Act of 1934.
This unique space provided a focal point for communal organisation, for education and for popular pastimes. Jimmy Gralton’s Hall has recently become a focus of wider international interest thanks to Ken Loach’s 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall.
There is, however, so much that is important for Irish history in Jimmy Gralton’s life. His is a story of an internationalist, an egalitarian, and the courts in Gralton’s Hall dealt with, for example, the land greed that often incubated within competing nationalist expressions.
Throughout this centenary year, as we have recalled the Easter Rising of 1916, I have spoken on several occasions about the readiness manifested by our citizens in going beyond the celebration of the iconic leaders of 1916, so as to reach out to the memory of so many men and women who, although their names are not registered in our national school books, played their part in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom and in laying the foundations of this Republic. There is a valuable vein in that history. It is peopled by those who not only wanted freedom, independence in a political sense, but freedom from hunger, abuse or bigotry, and they wanted it for all of humanity. Jimmy Gralton is one of those.
This welcome interest in the human and social dimension to our recent history is of equal relevance to the story of the struggle for workers’ rights in Ireland and I therefore salute your Committee for planning to have a monument erected here on the site of Gralton’s Hall. I also commend SIPTU for the contribution it has made to bring that about. Whatever improvements have been made in terms of inclusiveness in commemorations between 1966 and 2016, these improvements will in future seem to be tiny in terms of the challenge that remains to write inclusively of the 1920s and all of the 1930s. The 1930s is the decade of extremism in recent Irish history.
James Gralton was born at Effernagh, near Gowel, in South Leitrim on April 17th, 1886 to Michael Gralton, a small farmer and his wife Alice. Michael Gralton farmed 25 acres and was a founder member of the Kiltoghert Cooperative Creamery. We should never forget the great significance of the cooperative movement in empowering small farmers at the turn of the last century, most especially in the West.
Jimmy left school at 14 and went to work as a shop assistant in Carrick on Shannon before emigrating to work on the Liverpool docks and in the Welsh coalmines and as a stoker on ships operating in the South Pacific and in North and South America.
Gralton developed an informed and alert political consciousness in the course of his international travels and he had acquired US citizenship after a period of service in the US navy.
He returned home to Leitrim in June, 1921 to find that the Black and Tans had burnt the local Temperance Hall during the War of Independence. Gralton set about building a new hall here at Effernagh Crossroads with support from local farmers who contributed materials and labour.
The hall opened on New Year’s Eve, 1921 and was named The Pearse-Connolly Hall in honour of the socialist and republican leaders of 1916. Informal educational classes were provided for young school leavers, as well as social events for the surrounding community.
In his pamphlet, entitled The Gralton Affair, published to coincide with the centenary of Gralton’s birth in 1986, Pat Feeley described the hall
“as a very democratic institution, built for communal use, run by an elected committee, with its ownership vested in three trustees”.
Gralton was, with such a structure, not only asserting concepts of civic education, culture and community, he was doing so at a time when Gowel area was a cockpit of agrarian agitation and acute class antagonisms. Gralton was putting political theories, ideas, options, discourse, to the test in such conditions.
In an essay in SAOTHAR, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society in 1989 that was inspired by the Gralton centenary commemoration, Luke Gibbons observed that Gralton’s social and political engagement
“had disrupted the fragile balance of forces between the different conflicting interests in his own locality, [he] touched a raw nerve in the connective tissue of both Catholic and Nationalist ideology”.
That ‘fragile balance’ to which Luke Gibbons referred was an exploitative one, with the grazier enjoying a position of influence that equalled the influence of any landlord of the past.
Recent research on the relationship between land and revolution by historian Fergus Campbell points to how the agrarian conflicts in this area revealed strains and divisions within the national movement.
The holding of Court sessions in Gralton’s Hall from 1922, with Jimmy presiding, and the associated land arbitrations, as well as the numerous cattle drives in the area, sought to transact such heightened tensions.
It was feared by some in the IRA leadership that a popular campaign for land redistribution in 1922 would subvert patriotic opinion and distract attention from the “national” question. Proper historiography must, I suggest, acknowledge the missing light of egalitarianism in that form of nationalism that was influenced by a fixation with concerns about land.
While Jimmy Gralton was denounced from local pulpits for trying to lead the youth away from the Church and for teaching communism and leading a campaign of land agitation, it is important to recognise that he also had his supporters. As Des Guckian tell us of the reaction to Gralton’s arrest in 1922 by Free State soldiers:
“On Sunday the people of Gowel district, joined by Labour, paraded the streets of Carrick in protest against the arrest and detention of Mr. James Gralton. The procession was of large dimensions and many banners with inscriptions were carried in the ranks. A deputation waited Commandant F. O’Rourke, regarding the arrest and detention, and demanded an immediate trial of Mr. Gralton on whatever charge (if any) was preferred against him, or his immediate release. O’Rourke promised to convey to his superiors the demands of the protestors but he told them that Gralton had been arrested for taking forcible possession of lands. Gralton was detained for a week. He returned to a rousing reception at the Pearse-Connolly hall where a dance was in progress. Tommy Gilroy, Gralton’s friend, was arrested and detained. He went on hunger strike and was released without being charged.”
Jimmy Gralton would spend the next decade in New York but returned to Leitrim in April 1932 following the death of his brother Charlie. While Gralton had sent money home from New York to have the hall painted, sermons in three parishes warned of “the false doctrines that were taught there before”.
Gralton resumed local political action on land issues. Despite some considerable reluctance on his part, Gralton was persuaded to re-open his dance hall on this site. However, the re-opening of the hall reignited the fury of the local clergy, who again denounced him from the pulpits of local churches warning their parishioners to steer clear of his, as they put it, “den of iniquity”.
Jimmy Gralton joined Fianna Fáil as many other small farmers did in 1932. He addressed the County Council on the case for creating employment by building and improving roads, drainage and other measures. Gralton, while a member of Fianna Fáil was also a member of the Revolutionary Worker’s Group. There are strong parallels between the denunciation and personal vilification heaped upon Jimmy Gralton in South Leitrim and on Nixie Boran of the Castlecomer Miners’ Union in County Kilkenny at this time.
There were a number of attacks on the hall over the latter months of 1932. In November, shots had been fired at the Hall. Police reported that “they could not find the culprits, but that there was an amount of hostility in the area towards Gralton due to his attitude to the Catholic Church and the attacks may have been intended to deter people from attending his dances.”
As Des Guckian tells us “by the end of 1932 Sean O’Farrell and the IRA were totally hostile to him and to the Revolutionary Group in Gowel”.
Then on Christmas Eve 1932, the hall was burnt to the ground in an arson attack.
In February 1933, the Minister for Justice ordered Gralton to be deported as an “undesirable alien.” The order was made just two days after Jimmy’s father, Michael, was buried.
As Jimmy Gralton was not an alien, this was and must be seen unequivocally as an abuse of the Aliens Order 1925. It is worthy of note that the successor order to this legal instrument, the Aliens Order 1946 was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1999. On any reading, the issuing of the Deportation Order against Gralton was a misuse of the law. The fact that the legal basis for Gralton’s deportation was subsequently struck down does not mean that it, or its consequences, can be airbrushed from history.
A wrong was done on behalf of the State and it must be acknowledged. An instrument of the State signed by P.J. Rutledge on 3rd April 1933 was used to deport an Irish citizen as ‘an alien’. That wrong must be acknowledged.
Instead of complying with the order to leave Ireland before 5th March, 1933, Gralton went on the run for six months, relying upon the goodwill of some of the people of this area. In Dublin, the Gralton Defence Committee, which included prominent figures such as Frank O’Connor and Peadar O’Donnell, campaigned against the deportation order.
A representative of the Indian Independence League was among the speakers at a public meeting in the Rotunda in February 1933. His presence recalled the principled stance that Jimmy Gralton had taken against British imperialism. While serving in the British army almost a quarter century earlier, Gralton was court martialled for refusing to join his regiment in the Punjab region of India.
Gralton was finally captured on 10th August near Mohill. Three days later he was deported to America from Cobh, his mother’s request to see her son a final time was denied.
Jimmy Gralton died in New York on 29th December 1945.
It is now over thirty years since John Mc Gahern, speaking in the 1980s at the launch of Des Guckian’s book entitled Deported, described Gralton as the victim of
“an insecure State and a colluding Church”.
That is perhaps too polite an account. There was more than a difference of opinion or confusion. Des Guckian gives an account of the after mass meeting chaired by Packie Gralton and at which Peadar O’Donnell was a featured speaker on behalf of those who were opposing the deportation. He describes Fr. Cosgrove leading the shouts of “Take them down, take them down!”, and the firing of scraws at the speakers, the priest only withdrawing when he was struck himself, by a misdirected ball of mud.
John McGahern’s own literary sensibility was rooted in the social, political and moral landscape of Leitrim and in his experience of migration. Yet he observed how he had only heard about Jimmy Gralton’s story a short time earlier. In his view this silence demonstrated
“the effectiveness of the conspiracy of silence and suppression around his name and life”
This memorial which we unveil today, and which I have, as President of Ireland, the honour to unveil, puts an end to that accommodating and evasive silence.
The treatment of Jimmy Gralton was emblematic of a wider suppression of radical and emancipatory politics in the Ireland of the 1930s, a time when a moral panic was created, a whipped up fear of communism, coupled with clerical dominance sourced in authoritarianism rather than any spirituality, created an atmosphere of intolerance, and oppression of the labour movement.
The right of a person to remain in his or her country of nationality is now well established under international law. This State is now committed to protect, respect and fulfil the rights laid down in our Constitution, in the European Convention on Human Rights and under international law.
Jimmy Gralton was afforded no such protection. The dissenting voice was allowed no space in this decade of so many abuses, many sectarian in content, would come to the fore.
But it is never too late to attempt to acknowledge the wrongs and injustices of previous times, and previous office holders, officials or institutions. Jimmy Gralton was a man of radical views and radical actions in a deeply divided Ireland.
He was motivated at all times by a profound concern for social justice and the rights of the working people of Leitrim, be it on the farms, in the trades, or in the shops, and indeed we should not forget that he returned to Ireland primarily to assist his aging parents. His passion for justice should have been a great asset for the young Irish State; rather than something for which he would come to be expelled.
Perhaps Gralton’s most enduring legacy lies in his aspiration for a common humanity for a universal civilisation. Luke Gibbons describes him as having the ability -
“to fuse the local and the international, to merge events in North Connacht with struggles in India six thousand miles away”.
As President of Ireland, then, I wish to say directly to the representatives of the Gralton family here today, and indeed to those in the Gralton Historical Society who have done so much to preserve his memory and his story, that Jimmy Gralton’s treatment at the hands of the Irish State and its agencies was wrong and it is indefensible, and I hope that even at this distance of time the recognition that is being afforded to him today will remove any lingering stain on his fine character.
As a Head of State, I acknowledge that the State’s authority was abused under undemocratic pressure. Church authorities have previously acknowledged the wrong done to Jimmy Gralton. I do so now as President of Ireland.
To conclude, may I, once again, commend the Gralton Labour History Committee and all those involved in organising this event. The monument we are unveiling this morning will stand as an important reminder of the integrity of Jimmy Gralton and the unjust treatment he suffered at the hands of the new State. It is also an enduring memorial to the sacrifices made by the people of South Leitrim so that we, today, could live in a free and independent Ireland, and aspire to an inclusive Republic.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.