By Geoffrey Cobb (Reprint from The Irish Echo 23 June 2021)
(Reading time: 2 mins.)
The Rev. Bernard Quinn faced opposition from the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island.
In 1983, African-American priest Fr. Paul Jervis was assigned to the parish of St. Peter Claver in Brooklyn, which had been founded in 1921 by Fr. Bernard Quinn, as Brooklyn’s first black Catholic parish. Speaking with his parishioners, Jervis was amazed to hear the stories of so many older people who still spoke of Quinn with profound reverence, even though he had died 43 years earlier.
Intrigued, Jervis began to research his predecessor and was so taken with Quinn’s life that he decided to write a biography of Quinn calling it: “Quintessential Priest, The Life of Father Bernard J. Quinn.” Jervis’s biography is an inspirational tale of a man whose love for his black congregation defined him and forged a unique community of faith.
Quinn was born in 1888 in Newark, N.J., into a large Irish Catholic family. His father, who was from County Cavan, and his County Offaly mother sent him to parochial school and young Bernard felt such a strong vocation that he entered the seminary in 1906, where he developed a lifelong deep sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden. Ordained in 1912 in Brooklyn, Quinn was assigned to diocesan parishes such as St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge and St. Gregory the Great in Crown Heights.
SHOCKED BY RACISM IN US ARMY DURING WW1
When World War I erupted, Quinn volunteered to serve as a chaplain for front line troops. Commissioned as a First Lieutenant, Quinn served as chaplain of the 333rd infantry. Serving at the front, he became a victim of mustard gas. Though he recovered, Quinn suffered from the gassing for the rest of his life. In France, Quinn was shocked by the racism in the American army. When a white American Protestant chaplain refused to pray with a dying Black soldier, Quinn intervened and prayed with the dying soldier, but the troubling incident lingered with Quinn.
The war ended, but Fr. Quinn remained in France to minister to the wounded soldiers. After a chance reading of “The Story of a Soul, the life of St. Therese of Lisieux,” in the barracks library, Fr. Quinn discovered a spiritual hero. Learning that he was stationed in the vicinity of Alencon, not far from St. Therese childhood home, Quinn obtained permission to visit it and became the first priest to celebrate Mass there before it became a popular shrine. Intense devotion to St. Therese would define Fr. Quinn’s faith for the rest of his life.
BACK TO BROOKLYN FROM THE WAR
Quinn returned to Brooklyn in 1919. While preparing two black women for baptism, he was inspired to create an apostolate to African Americans, but his concern for Blacks was not shared by all Brooklyn’s Catholics, some of whom did not want African Americans praying in their churches. After repeated appeals, Quinn finally received permission from Bishop McDonnell to begin his mission to the Black people of Brooklyn, but finding Black Catholics proved difficult. Quinn went to the streets, asking every African American he met where he could find Catholics.
Finally, Quinn found Mr. Jules de Weever, the leader of the dissolved Colored Catholic Club, which had met from 1915-1916, seeking in vain to establish a church for Black Catholics in Brooklyn. Frustrated by the church’s indifference to their quest, the group disbanded. Quinn revived the CCC and inspired them to persevere in founding Brooklyn’s first Catholic church.
Quinn incessantly petitioned the bishops for permission to establish an African-American parish, reminding them that Black Catholics were being excluded from worship at Italian, Irish and German churches, but instead of agreeing, the bishops ignored Quinn’s pleas. Finally, thanks to his perseverance, they authorized the founding of Brooklyn’s first African American Catholic Church, St. Peter Claver Church, in 1921, naming Quinn pastor.
The Irish-American priest now needed a church building and the parish soon found a warehouse for trunks and baggage that had once been a Congregationalist church on the corner of Ormond Street, now Peter Claver Place, and Jefferson Avenue, in the expanding black community of Bedford Stuyvesant. Quinn and the congregation enthusiastically set to work on the herculean task of transforming the warehouse back into a house of worship. The church’s decoration celebrated black faith with murals of early Black saints, and of St. Peter Claver’s work with enslaved Africans in Cartagena, Colombia.
On Christmas Day, 1921, the cornerstone for St. Peter Claver, named for the patron saint of African peoples, was laid. By 1922, the church was ready and blessed by Bishop Thomas Edmund Molloy. Quinn soon proved to be a model pastor and quickly the kindhearted priest endeared himself to his rapidly growing flock. Brooklyn’s Black Catholics were attracted to a church that didn’t just tolerate them, but even welcomed them with open arms. The parish became more than a place to pray, helping the parish’s poor, while also setting up a clinic, a credit union, a parish school, and adult education classes. St. Peter Claver soon became famous for its large children’s choir and its band. Legendary entertainers Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey both started their singing in the church’s choir. Reputedly, it was the first African-American choir ever to sing at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music.
THE LITTLE FLOWER NOVENA BUSTOP
Fr. Quinn began a temporary daily novena, a series of prayers, to his inspiration, St. Thérèse, called the Little Flower Novena, but he never could have imagined the massive reaction the novena received. People begged for the novena to continue and an estimated that 10,000 of all races a week poured into St. Peter Claver’s. Within five years an amazing 2.2 million people had attended the novena, stirring the envy of nearby white Catholic pastors who complained that it drew away their parishioners. The novena was such a hit that the drivers on the bus line near the church would call out “Little Flower Novena stop.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle soon did a feature article on the amazing success of the novena.
The novena proved to be a huge money maker for the parish, allowing Fr. Quinn to fund some of the parish projects he envisioned including a $300,000 school building, a convent, a recreation center and a Long Island orphanage that would ignite the bitter flames of racism. In 1929, Msgr. Quinn founded the Brooklyn Diocese’s first orphanage for Black children in a farmhouse in Wading River, Long Island, which at the time was still part of the diocese. A cross was burned in front of the Quinn family home in Mineola, but the priest defied the threat. Outraged racist locals contacted the Ku Klux Klan, which was very active on Long Island in the 20s and 30s, and the orphanage burned in an act of arson. The orphanage was rebuilt but burned again in the same year.
THE KLAN AND RACISM IN THE CHURCH
Undeterred, Father Quinn rebuilt the orphanage yet again, this time in stone and brick. The Brooklyn Eagle announced this with a headline, “New Fireproof Orphanage Will Defy Incendiary.” The KKK gave up, and the orphanage, called the Little Flower Orphanage, in honor of St. Thérèse, was dedicated as the Little Flower House of Providence Oct. 26, 1930. Today that organization survives as the Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York, offering adoptions and other social services in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.
Quinn became an outspoken defender of Brooklyn’s Blacks against the pervasive racism of his day. He denounced institutionalized racism and invited the Urban League, an African American advocacy group, to speak at his church. Some Brooklyn Catholic clergy spoke out against Quinn’s embrace of Black Catholics. In 1929, Msgr. John L. Bedford wrote in his Brooklyn parish newsletter that “Negroes should be excluded from this Roman Catholic Church if they become numerous.” Quinn vehemently defended his flock writing in the Brooklyn Tablet, “It seems to me that no church can exclude anyone and still keep its Christian ideals. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and this, plus the fact that church property is tax exempt, ought to mean that anyone can go anyplace to worship.”
The strain of his herculean labors took a physical toll on Quinn. In the spring of 1940, Msgr. Quinn went into nearby St. Mary’s Hospital for surgery for an abdominal problem. He never came back to St. Peter Claver’s, dying on April 7. Brooklyn’s Black Catholics were in shock. They had lost a dear friend and their most vocal advocate. Eight thousand grieving mourners attended his funeral at St. Peter Claver, which was reported in all the New York papers including the New York Times.
In 1992, a movement to canonize Msgr. Quinn received the blessing of the Catholic Church and the long and difficult path to Quinn’s canonization has started. Decades before the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, Fr. Quinn dedicated his life to serving Brooklyn’s Black Catholics and his life remains a shining example of the power of love to defeat hatred and bigotry.
Author and teacher Geoffrey Cobb will lead a walking tour on Saturday, Aug. 7, of sites associated with the Tipperary-born Paddy “Battle Axe” Gleason, who was the last mayor of Long Island City before its 1898 incorporation into New York City. The event is sponsored by the New York Irish Center, 10-40 Jackson Ave. “Rebel Breeze” will shortly publish an article about the same Gleason by Geoffrey Cobb.
Driving out of frenzied Manhattan heading out over the 59th Street Bridge and through the highway traffic east into Queens, the dense urban landscape is suddenly broken up by a jarring sight- an immense sea of green. Coming closer, the driver, who sees a vast number of gravestones and monuments, realizes that this great green space is a huge city of the dead.
This great green city of the dead is Calvary Cemetery, a place rich in New York Irish history. Founded by the Archdiocese of New York, the graveyard contains the remains of a staggering three million people, more than all the current population of the borough of Queens. Calvary holds more burials than anywhere else in the United States, covering an unbelievable 365 acres of prime real estate. The cemetery reaches into two neighborhoods and is comprised of four large sections. Many of the most important characters in New York Irish history rest beneath its fields and walking around Calvary is a lesson in New York Irish history. It even holds the remains of Annie Moore, (1874-1924) the Irish immigrant who was the first person of the millions of hopeful immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.
By the 1840’s, Lower Manhattan’s Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral graveyard was filling up and it was no longer possible to bury its large population on the island. In 1847, faced with many corpses from a raging cholera epidemic the New York State Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act, authorizing non-profit corporations to operate commercial cemeteries. The trustees of St. Patrick’s bought the 151-acre Alsop farm in Queen, which became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, today known as Old Calvary. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, she insisted that her Protestant Alsop family burial ground remain separate from the Catholics and the trustees have maintained this division to this day. The tiny family plot still remains walled off, dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of Catholic tombstones around it.
Calvary was consecrated by the legendary Tyrone-born Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes (1797-1864) in August 1848 and by 1852 there were 50 burials a day, half of them poor Irish kids under seven years of age, victims of the noxious conditions in the disease-ridden, teeming Manhattan slums. It cost seven dollars for an adult to be buried there, children under age seven cost three dollars and children aged seven to fourteen cost five dollars. In the early 20th Century, influenza and tuberculosis epidemics caused such a shortage of gravediggers that people were forced to dig graves themselves for their own loved ones.
In the days before highways and city parks, people reached Calvary by ferryboat and excursions to the graveyard were regular Sunday family outings. People often picnicked while visiting their loved ones and enjoyed the bucolic charm of the giant green expanse. With amazing statuary, marble mausoleums and towering trees, the graveyard remains a place of great beauty, though today there are few family visitors. Calvary, though retains a wonderful tranquility, making it a welcome refuge from the noisy city around it. Today, some harried New Yorkers visit Calvary to collect their thoughts or just to enjoy its wonderful calming silence. I have just written a book The Irish in New York and I realized that many of the characters in my book and hundreds of other famous Irish figures lie in Calvary’s ground. The Irish clawed their way to power and acceptance by creating an infamous political machine called Tammany Hall and dozens of its most notorious members lie in Calvary’s earth. The most famous Tammany Hall politico lies there, Al Smith, (1873-1944) the first Catholic Governor of New York, a reformer and the first Catholic nominee for President of the United States. A poor boy himself, Smith enacted many factory safety and labor reforms to help the working class. Another Tammany Hall figure who lies there is the infamous “Big Bill” Devery” (1854-1919). Serving as a notorious police chief of New York City, Big Bill stole enough money to become part-owner of a baseball team that would be known as the New York Yankees. A generous thief, Devery died almost broke.
A contrast to the corrupt Devery, Fr. Edward McGlynn (1837-1900) also lies in the graveyard. McGlynn was so passionately attached to the ideas of socialism and helping the poor that the Catholic Church branded him as a Communist and had him defrocked, though he was later reinstated. He was so loved that three decades after McGlynn’s death a parishioner wrote these words in Gaelic and English on paper attached to his tombstone:
Fr. McGlynn, We thank the Lord who gave us you, Soggarth aroon, (beloved priest in Gaelic)
Learned and wise, kindly and true, Soggarth Aroon,
You know your cause was sanctified,
Stood till measures were rectified,
And rest with God’s beatified, Soggarth Aroon.
There are also many infamous characters in Calvary including “ The Queen of The Night Club” Tex Guinan (1884-1933), who became a legendary, and often arrested, hostess of speakeasies during the Great Depression. She became famous for her sharp tongue and for insulting her rich male clients who still spent vast sums in her clubs. Tex lies amongst many famous murdered Italian mafiosi who also sleep in Calvary.
The Irish have been valiant New York fire fighters and some who lie in Calvary died fighting fires. One of the memorable graves contains a life-sized statue of Charles Keegan (1858-1882), a Brooklyn firefighter killed in the line of duty while fighting a blaze at Locust Point (the long-lost locale is at Meeker Avenue where it meets Newtown Creek), caused by a lightning strike at the Sone and Fleming Kings County Oil Refinery in 1882. Explosions associated with the blaze claimed the first Penny Bridge; Keegan and fellow firefighter Stuart Deane suffered grisly deaths, being burned alive. Some of the teenage girls who were burned in the tragic 1911 Triangle Fire also sleep in Calvary.
Perhaps the most striking feature in the cemetery is the city park located completely inside Calvary, dedicated to the Civil War soldiers who defended the Union. Irish sculptor Daniel Draddy from Cork created the park’s most stunning feature — amazing life-sized statues of Civil War soldiers. There is also a Fenian Monument in Calvary, erected in 1907 to honor members of the Fenian Brotherhood buried there, one of whom is the great Tipperary Fenian leader and Civil War veteran Michael Doheny (1805-1862) .
There is also — and a monument also honors — the legendary Civil War NY Irish regiment, the Fighting 69th, whose leader Thomas Meagher is also profiled in my book. My friend Peter McHale, author of Greenpoint Doughboy, wrote his excellent work about his great-uncle who fell in France fighting with the 69th in World War I. The book ends with the fallen hero’s return to be interred in Calvary.
One of the most famous figures interred there is Mayo legend and Olympic Gold Medalist Martin Sheridan (1881-1919). Sheridan, a World Record-setting discus hurler, was cut down just short of his thirtieth birthday by the last great pandemic a century ago. He lies in sight of the former Celtic Park where a number of Irish immigrants formed a legendary sports club that brought home several Olympic medals.
Artists and musicians also lie there. Galway-born Patrick Gilmore (1829-1892), song writer and band leader, known as “The Father of the American Band,” who wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Meath’s John Mulvany (1839-1906) the great western painter of Custer’s Last Stand also rest there. Also among the dead is James Blake (1862-1935) who wrote the text to the iconic New York song “ The Sidewalks of New York.”
Millions of New Yorkers lie here, each with his or her own biography. Sadly, the Archdiocese shut down walking tours of the cemetery and unlike Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Calvary fails to commemorate its amazing history. Let’s hope that this changes soon.
Born and raised on the New Jersey shore, Sean Tobin was influenced by Folk-song troubadours like Guy Clark, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, as well as high-energy rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and Tom Petty. Self-taught and trained by the New Jersey bar scene, Tobin owes much to his time spent busking on the streets of Galway, Ireland throughout 2015 and 2017. After graduating college in 2017 and uncertain of which direction to take he undertook the El Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trail through Spain, with his guitar tied to his pack. Upon completion, the future became obvious and on returning to New Jersey he worked hard to fund his music. He released his first album, This Midnight, in the summer of 2018, and in 2019 he played Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings III Festival at the House of Blues in Boston and soon after quit his day job.
In July 2019, Sean released ‘Dreams & Black Caffeine,’ a four-song EP recorded in Ocean, NJ with his band, The Boardwalk Fire. The group played several shows promoting the work, and had planned a tour for the summer of 2020, but were forced to cancel due to the Covid lockdown. The last year has seen the release of ‘East Coast Artifacts’, a compilation of his first EP, various tracks recorded through lockdown and three new songs.
“We’ve all played together as duos or trios in the past, but St. Patrick’s Day Forever really fortified us as a band,” said Tobin. “I just wish we could play live. That’s what we’re best at.”
Well he has a lot of catching up to do and on his new 4-track EP, accompanied by his band The Boardwalk Fire, he has made a pretty good start.
Released at the end of February, 2021 the EP features two originals and two covers and kicks off with the title track, a fast paced Irish trad influenced Celtic-Punk song about the lockdown and it’s first anniversary in New Jersey. It was after all the cancellations of St. Patrick’s Day events around the world that set the scene for what was going to follow. Lively, upbeat and catchy as hell Sean Tobin tells a great story with a brilliant accompanying video too!
It was winter 2020, we were playing on the roof, Jack was slapping stand-up to another song by Bruce. A mere twenty hours later, we heard it on the news: the Jersey Shore’s in lockdown, so stock up on your booze!*
Now it’s one, two, three fuckin’ months inside this house. There’s not too much I need, but I need fuckin’ out. So I make my way down Main Street, the flag’s on every door–it’s St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore, St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore.*
Not long later it was Easter, I was sippin’ on some stout. I’d horded fifty cases out of fear that they’d run out, but I couldn’t taste a drop ’cause I gave it up for Lent. So come Easter, fifty cases, up the field they went!*
Now it’s one, two, three fuckin’ months inside this house. There’s not too much I need, but I need fuckin’ out. So I make my way down Main Street, the flag’s on every door–it’s St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore, St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore.*
Murphy! Your laws are screwin’ me! But frankly, I don’t blame you. If it’s what we gotta do, to keep people from dyin’, then I’ll stay home for you. I just miss my friends…and the bar…*
So now it’s comin’ up on summer, and I’m still drinkin’ stout. I would be switchin’ to Corona, but I don’t think that’s allowed…So instead I’ve got a toucan on one can, three cans, five. If Guinness makes you stronger, I’m the strongest man alive!*
Now it’s one, two, three fuckin’ months inside this house.There’s not too much I need, but I need fuckin’ out. So I make my way down Main Street, the flag’s on every door–it’s St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore, St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore.
Now it’s one, two, three fuckin’ months inside this house.There’s not too much I need, but I need fuckin’ out. So I make my way down Main Street, the flag’s on every door–it’s St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore, St. Patrick’s Day forever on the Jersey Shore.*
The EP’s other original song is titled ‘Ode to Anna Liffey’s’ a bittersweet love song to the now closed Irish bar Anna Liffey’s in New Haven, Connecticut. As with all of Sean’s songs and in common with Irish music in general the songs tell intricate stories and at over six minutes the song gives him plenty of scope in telling his story of days spent propping up the bar there. A swirling gentle song with Sean’s strong voice backed by accordion and percussion that soon enough gets faster and faster with Sean’s guitar and Sean-David’s fiddle smoking! A real Irish tinged bluegrass/country floor filler that ends on a sad note (especially for us Irish!) with the last chorus going out to all the bars that are forced to close but “go down swinging”.
Four second-generation Irish lads, three brothers and their best friend from school write songs about identity and belonging. With influences as diverse as Brendan Shine, The Pogues and The Stone Roses their mission is to get people dancing and thinking.
Hot on the heels of their last single, the fantastic, ‘God Bless You And Keep You’, comes new music from Luton’s very own Missing The Ferry. Recorded mostly pre-Covid in Deptford, SE London and then remotely between bedrooms in Luton/SE London by the band then sent to our friend Luise (https://www.facebook.com/LuiseLondonAudio) in Germany to sprinkle some magic Teutonic Folk party Punk dust on.
A Song is about daring to dream; escaping from the box that the government, class and circumstance have shoved you in all your life.A Song is about self-destruction, hitting rock bottom, temptation and redemption.A Song is for the voiceless, the poor, the lonely and dispossessed.But at the end of the day, it is just a song.
Anyone who has ever missed, or nearly missed, the Dublin-bound ferry from Holyhead will get the name. Don’t be Missing The Ferry yourselves!
As we in the SE London, Lewisham branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group began to plan our Easter Rising commemoration locally in 2000, we could not have imagined the drama it would bring. It resulted in calls for the event’s cancellation, for the Lewisham Irish Community Centre to revoke our hire of the hall and even for the withdrawal of the Centre’s meagre funding from the local authority. And shortly afterwards an attempt was made to burn down the Centre.
Even in the general atmosphere of anti-Irish racism in Britain and context of the 30 Years’ War in Ireland, we could not have expected these developments. The Lewisham Branch of the IBRG, founded towards the end of 19861, had been hosting this annual event locally long before the Irish Centre had opened in 1992 and in fact the branch was instrumental in getting the disused building, which had belonged to the Cooperative Society, handed over to the Irish community and refurbished by the local authority. Furthermore, the 1916 Rising had been commemorated at the Lewisham Irish Centre by the local IBRG branch for a number of years running without any fuss.
As usual, whenever the event was to take place we naturally hoped others would promote it. In the days before Facebook and Twitter etc, email would would reach some contacts, a poster in the centre would be seen by users, some illegal street postering might be done and the Irish Post or Irish World might publicise the event. The rest would be by word of mouth.
It happened that in the week preceding the 1998 event, an activist of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement in London was in touch with the branch and he posted the event on the 32CSM site, intending it as a supportive advertisement. However, someone who hated that organisation took it to be an event of the 32 CSM themselves.
Victor Barker’s son James had been killed in the Omagh car bombing of 15th August 1998, carried out by the “Real IRA”, a group opposed to the Provisional IRA’s signup to the Good Friday Agreement and to the British colonial occupation of Ireland. Although the organisation responsible has always stated that it intended to kill no civilians2, with 29 fatalities the bombing took the highest death toll of a single incident (but not of a single day, which was the British intelligence bombing of Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974) during the 30 Years War.
Understandably Victor Barker had pursued a vendetta against the Real IRA since and, less understandably perhaps, against anything connected with it, including the 32CSM and even, in this case, the right of an unrelated Irish community organisation to commemorate its national history.
Barker contacted the Lewisham Irish Centre and expressed his outrage, demanding the event be cancelled. A nonplussed Brendan O’Rourke, Manager of the Centre, explained that the event was an annual one and booked by a local comunity organisation and affiliate of the Centre. Not in the least mollified, Barker then got to the local authority, an official of which rang Brendan, he repeated the explanation and the official seemed satisfied.
But Brendan was getting a bit worried and phoned me at work – I had been Chair of the Management Committee since the Centre opened and was at the same time Secretary of the local IBRG branch. We discussed the matter and agreed to cary on but his next phone call was to alert me that the matter was now national or at least London-wide news, with a report in an early edition of the Evening Standard headlining that we were running a “London fundraiser for the Omagh bombers”3. Furthermore, the cowardly local authority official was now saying – and quoted — that while they had no power to cancel the booking, they would be looking at the Irish Centre’s funding.
I hurried home to Lewisham as fast as I could – the SE London borough is about 90 minutes’ journey by underground line and overground train from King’s Cross, where I worked. With no time for a meal, I got some things ready and got down to the Centre, about 15 minutes’ walk from my flat.
By virtue of being Chairperson of the Irish Centre’s management committee, I had a key, opened the door, turned off the burglar alarm and locked the door again, then began to get things ready. The part-time Caretaker would lay out tables and chairs for events but I generally liked to change it to a less formal arrangement for our events and so I set to that. There was also “decoration” to be done: some posters and portraits of 1916 martyrs to put up in places, flags to hang etc.
In the lobby I placed a chair by a table there and also some hidden short stout lengths of wood. This was a provision inherited from earlier days when Irish or British left-wing meetings might be attacked by fascists of the National Front or the British Movement but we hadn’t felt the need at the Irish Centre for some years now. However, with the current hysteria being whipped up by Barker and the Evening Standard and assisted by the wriggling of the Council officer, fascists might well decide the conditions favoured an attack.
Another possibility was a police raid. The “Prevention of Terrorism Act” in force since 1974 in Britain specifically targeted the Irish community and gave the police the power to detain someone for up to five days without access even to a lawyer.4
Early arrivals started to knock at the door and I was in a quandary – until I had some reliable able-bodied people to staff the door, I didn’t want to start letting people in. On the other hand if we were going to be attacked, I couldn’t leave them outside either. So it was open, let them in, lock the door again, open, let some more in …. until the arrival of some I could ask to mind the door (after I’d told them about the “extras” in case they were needed).
Then there were sound amplification checks and gradually the hall was filling up. I was to be MC and so on duty inside the hall but kept checking the lobby to see everything was ok. And of course people wanted to chat about the news so would stop me and ask me about it …
For the evening’s program, the MC was to welcome people, introduce the Irish ballad band and have them play for an hour. Then intermission, MC on again with a few words on behalf of the local organisation, introduce the featured speaker, get the band on again for an hour or so to finish. So, some time to kill, to worry before the hour for which the band was booked.
The time came but the band didn’t. At half an hour late I started to worry and the supporter who had booked the band on behalf of the branch couldn’t get any reply from them by phone. As MC I apologised to the attendance and asked for their patience. Over an hour late, the band’s manager finally phoned to say they would not be coming. Because of worry arising out of the media reporting.
A few of us in the organising group held a quick conference. Nothing for it but to face the music – or rather its absence – and so I got on the stage and told the audience that the band had pulled out and everyone was entitled to a refund of their ticket price without any hard feelings whatsoever or …
Before I could lay out the alternative, a guy sitting near the stage jumped up and shouted “We will NOT accept our money back!” to the applause of some others. A little taken aback, I thanked him for his spirit but said people should have the choice and laid out the alternative, which would be to hear the speaker and just socialise for the rest of the evening. Nobody made a move to get up and approach the door so ….. I introduced the speaker, who that year might have been from the IRSP (a previous speaker had been Michelle Gildernew, then representing Sinn Féin in Britain). He did his bit, I did mine, much of that not surprisingly being devoted to censorship, intimidation and repression of the Irish community as well as the commemoration of our history.
Then a guy approached and said he’d play guitar and sing, so he went up on stage, I followed with a few songs acapella, someone else sang a few …. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening, there was no trouble at the door …. and because there was no band to pay, we made more money than we had ever done for function organised by the local IBRG branch!
But there were to be two dramatic sequels to this controversy. And tensions between myself and the Centre Manager would follow.
THE “MAC CHICKEN BROTHERS”
The professional name of the Irish ballad band was The Mac Namara Brothers but Brian, a resilient Dublin comrade from a deprived background, that night baptised them the Mac Chicken Brothers (a play on the Mac Donald chain’s naming of items and a reference to the band members’ cowardice.
Our event had been on a Friday night and they were due to play Sunday afternoon at an Irish bar a five minutes’ drive from the Lewisham Irish Centre. We didn’t see how we could let them do that without confronting them. In discussion I suggested we present them with some white feathers and denounce them and Brian was all up for that; he was taking the kids to the seaside and would pick up some white feathers around the beach. But, unbelievably, he could find none. Nor could I in a local park. In the end, I opened a pillow and took out handfuls but they were all small.
The next day, we declined to invite anyone who might get hurt without being accustomed to defending themselves or who might not be sufficiently disciplined in behaviour and of the remainder, only myself and Brian were available. The pub, The Graduate, was under new management, one of three sisters from the Six Counties (perhaps Armagh), who lived in South-East London. I knew her from when she had been barmaid and perhaps manager at the Woodman, another Irish pub in the general area, where I attended Irish traditional music sessions (and sometimes a lock-in for an extra hour or so).
On Sunday we were a bit late in getting going but Brian drove us there and we entered the crowded area that would have been the public bar before the lounge and that area were combined. I bought us a round and we tried to act as relaxed and natural as possible, nodded to people we knew … It was certain that many of those present already knew what had happened but no-one came to ask us about it.
The “Mac Chicken Brothers” were playing and I was unsure whether we had perhaps missed their break. I got another round in but that was going to be my limit. To our relief, the band took a break but now my tension racked higher as I positioned myself nonchalantly near the stage and waited for the band to get ready for the second half of their act.
Finally, I saw them coming and with a small plastic bag in my hand I jumped up on to the low stage, Brian ready to handle any trouble from the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” I called out loudly and got instant attention. “A few nights ago the British press ran a scare story about a 1916 Rising commemoration in Lewisham,” I continued. “This band here was booked to attend but didn’t turn up, leaving a couple of hundred people waiting. This is what we think of you,” I said, turning to the band members and threw a handful of the feathers from the bag in their direction.
“Hear, hear!” shouted someone in the crowd and I got down from the stage, glanced at Brian and made for the door, with him following closely behind. Incredibly I heard one of the band members say to me: “You might have told us you were going to do that!”
As we walked away outside, my heart thumping, the manager came rushing out.
“You had no right to do that,” she said, her eyes flashing fire. “Not in my pub!”
“Sorry, Bridget,” (not her real name), I replied, “It had to be done!”
“Not in my pub!”
“But that’s where the band was! It just had to be done.”
Now a customer came haring out looking for us and, from the look on his face, it wasn’t to offer congratulations. I felt Brian beside me change his stance to take him on but the manager took the guy by the arm and talked him back inside and we got in Brian’s van and car and drove off. “Bridge” wouldn’t talk to me for some years afterwards, though one of her sisters would.
The following day, I wrote a letter about the matter to the Irish Post5, attacking the Labour Council for its cowardice, the band for failing to comply with their booking and the Evening Standard for its felon-setting. Since I was Chairperson of the Management Committee of the Centre, which was already under some pressure, I wrote it under a pseudonym. The letter was published.
I felt that not only our branch of the IBRG but the Irish community had been attacked and we had responded appropriately and publicly, both locally and in the wider context. We would now face the next move, if one was to come, from the Council, as an Irish community with pride.
But at the next monthly meeting Management Committee, I was surprised to find that Brendan, the Centre Manager, believed that either Lewisham IBRG had organised the event jointly with 32CSM or that I had placed the advertisement. But worse, I was genuinely shocked to see that he believed my use of a pseudonym for the Irish Post letter was an attempt to distance the IBRG and myself from the controversy and leave him to face it alone. Brendan and I disagreed politically (he was a Sinn Féin supporter and I was by this time hostile to the party’s new trajectory with respect to the conflict in Ireland) but I supported him as Manager of the Centre while as Irishmen we stood together against oppression. But no matter what I said now, I seemed unable to convince him that the use of a pseudonym, far from being a device to have a say and protect myself at the same time, was to protect the Centre and himself as its Manager.
We got through the meeting and the Council officials seemed happy to let the matter rest, since the Standard lost interest and moved on to the next sensation.
But a more direct attack than that of Barker and the media was being planned somewhere.
ARSON ATTACK ON THE CENTRE
In the early hours of one morning a couple of weeks later, I received a phone call from the Fire Brigade, attending at the Lewisham Irish Centre. I was one of the emergency nominees. When I got down there, Pat Baczor6, another member of the Management Committee and also an emergency nominee, was there already. So were the Fire Brigade and the police.
There had been an arson attempt and a hole was burned in the wood of the front door. We opened up and let the Fire Brigade in, who came out a few minutes later, pronouncing the building safe. A container with some inflammable liquid had been set by the door and had burned a hole about the size of my fist but the floor inside was tile and had not caught.
In response to the police, I said while we had received no threats, there had been some controversy in the media about a history commemoration and though I would suspect local fascists, I had no specific individuals in mind.
If we hadn’t wire screens on all the external windows, it would have been easy to smash a glass pane and to throw in the container with a lit fuse. The flooring of the whole hall was wooden and the result would have been quite different. I was very glad that during discussion on the refurbishment of the Coop Hall for use as an Irish Centre more than many years earlier, as Chair of the Steering Group, I had made a point of insisting on the wire screens. An Irish Centre in Britain could expect to be the target of an attack some day.
AFTER ALL THAT
We weathered that storm and the following year’s 1916 Rising commemoration took place without incident.
The next crisis for the Irish Centre came some two years later when the Council’s Labour Party Leadership, which had been “Blairite before Blair” as one local Leftie commented, listed the Centre for cuts to our total staffing: one (underpaid) Manager and one part-time caretaker-handyman. There were heavy cuts planned to the whole Council-funded service sector across the Borough of Lewisham so, although in our case the cuts would have meant wiping out our entire staffing, it was difficult to say whether the controversy some years earlier had played a role or not.
But that was another day’s battle.
1The wider IBRG had been founded in 1981 and consolidated in 1982. The Lewisham branch was founded from an initiative by a core of people who had taken over organising the 1985-1986 Irish Aspects course at Goldsmiths (then) Community College from its original organiser, Derry-born Peter Moloney, who was stepping down and invited them to run it in his place or that the course would come to an end. Peter was one of founding members of the branch and active within it for a few years.
2The intentions of this bombing are still the subject of dispute. The killing of civilians would have been against the interests of the organisation and in the event were strongly so; it strengthened the hands of the authorities in enacting further repressive legislation and also ideologically for the authorities and the Provisionals in gathering support for the Good Friday Agreement and in neutralising its opponents within the Irish Republican movement. Over the years the Wikipedia page on the bombing has changed substantially as cases against accused collapsed, including one in which the Gardaí were found to have concocted notes of an interview and revelation has followed revelation of intelligence services awareness of elements of the plans and failure to alert the RUC (colonial police) on the ground. Four defendants were found responsible in a controversial civil case and it seems clear that that Mickey Kevitt’s criminal conviction on questionable evidence in another case in 2003 was related to his believed involvement as was the refusal to apply all possible reductions which would have seen him released in 2016. McKevitt died of cancer on 2nd January 2021, still serving his sentence of 20 years. The full truth may never be known.
3Pat Reynolds, PRO of the IBRG throughout most of its existence, in his year-by-year review of the IBRG commented: “The London Evening Standard with a long history of anti-Irish racism came out with the headline London fundraiser for the Omagh Bombers alleging that the event was organised by supporters of the real IRA. The IBRG were seeking legal advice on the article as the event was organised by Lewisham IBRG.” Busy with more practical organising and without perhaps the right contacts, Lewisham IBRG never did take up the misreporting legally or with the Press Council.
4As Irish community activists warned the British public, it would lead to wider repressive legislation if permitted to stand, which it did. The 2006 Act allows for detention up to 28 days without charge.
5The Irish Post was founded in 1971 as a newspaper aimed at the Irish community in Britain and played a generally progressive role until its editor-owner, Brendan Mac Lua and Thomas Beattie sold the title and company to Thomas Crosbie Holdings (TCH) in 2003. In 1981 the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group was in part inspired by comment in the paper’s “Dolan” column (a pen-name of Mac Lua’s). In later years the newspaper suffered competition from other titles aiming at the same community, The Irish World and The London Irish News(?). More about the Post’s later history (but next to nothing about it earlier work including promoting the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven etc and also covering protests against anti-Irish racism and promoting new Irish writing) here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Irish_Post
6Patricia Ellen Baczor owed her surname to having married a Polish man. There were many such marriages between Polish refugees and servicemen who met young Irish women at Catholic parish social events in Britain during WW2. Pat was a strong widow and supporter of the rights of the Irish community, progressive in her thinking, anti-racist but not one to push herself forward. She was generally very supportive of me as Chair of the Management Committee and appreciative of the other hat I wore in the local and ‘national’ IBRG and the tensions thereby I sometimes had to negotiate.
Few Irish American women have led a more controversial life than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. A fiery orator with a passionate dedication to social justice, Flynn dedicated her life to the working class. A militant’s militant, Flynn was arrested dozens of times fighting for the causes she espoused and served a prison term for her political beliefs. Flynn became one of the most influential labor organizers of the early 20th century, while also becoming the first female leader of the American Communist Party. Famed international journalist Eugene Lyons praised her intelligence saying she was “the most brilliant woman I had ever met.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7th, 1890. The family moved to New York’s impoverished South Bronx in 1900,where Flynn attended the local public school. She later recalled, “I hated poverty. I was determined to do something about the bad conditions under which our family and all around us suffered.” Influenced by her parents to become a socialist, Flynn was kicked out of high school for giving her first radical speech, What Socialism Will Do for Women , at the Socialist Club of Harlem.
Not yet eighteen years of age, Flynn became a full-time organizer for the radical labor group The Industrial Workers of the World, or as they were more commonly known, the Wobblies. A passionate devotee of free speech, she led the first of three free speech fights in 1909 as an I.W.W organizer and over the course of her life Flynn remained a dedicated advocate for free expression, freedom of the press and assembly, and the right to a fair trial for all labor activists, regardless of their political affiliation. In 1907, Flynn met a much older Minnesota local I.W.W. organizer, J. A. Jones. Flynn later stated in her autobiography, “I fell in love with him and we were married in January 1908. She had two children with Jones, one who died as an infant and her son Fred who was born in 1910. The marriage broke up and Flynn returned to her family.
Her first major involvement in an I.W.W. job action was at the famous Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike of 1912, which began when the American Woolen Company there tried to reduce the wages of its largely immigrant workforce. The workers walked off the job and the I.W.W. formed a strike committee with two representatives from each of the striking nationalities sitting on the committee. The strikers demanded a 15 per cent wage increase, double-time for overtime work and a 55 hour week. Using her powerful oratory, Flynn became one of the leaders of the strike, which became very violent. Reporters from around the country covered the strike and filed stories on the violence and the poverty of the Lawrence workers. Eventually, after management realized that it was losing the publicity battle, they settled with the strikers, giving Flynn and the I.W.W a great victory.
The following year Flynn gained even more fame for her role in the famous Patterson, N.J. Silk strike, which saw three hundred silk mills shut down by thousands of striking workers, many of whom were female. Flynn set up weekly women’s meetings on the issues. Flynn wrote in her autobiography of her experience in Paterson:
“Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people — the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from New York of trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them.”
Unfortunately for the workers, management was able to drive them back to the mills without achieving their strike demands. Flynn continued to organize restaurant workers, silk weavers, garment workers and miners across America. She was often arrested, but never convicted. She became such a celebrated labor activist that leftist songwriter Joe Hill wrote a 1915 song, reputedly dedicated to Flynn, called The Rebel Girl. A feminist, she began to write articles and make speeches criticizing labor unions as being male dominated and deaf to the needs of female workers.
She later became romantically involved with Carlo Tresca, a fellow I.W.W labor organizer and writer. When Flynn discovered that her sister was also romantically involved with Tresca, she suffered a mental breakdown that prevented her from working for eight years. During this period Flynn lived in Portland, Oregon with birth control activist, suffragette, and I.W.W activist Marie Equi.
Returning to politics, Flynn joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1936 and began to write a women’s column for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker. She quickly was elected to the party’s national committee, but as a result of her party membership she was ejected from the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a pre-World War II red scare. During the war, she played a central role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women, as well as the establishment of day care centers for working mothers. She ran for Congress in New York and received an astonishing 50,000 votes in a losing effort. In the Red Scare that followed the war, Flynn was arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to support a violent overthrow of the American government. She was convicted and sentenced to a three-year term. Flynn served her sentence in the Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia. During her incarceration she wrote a memoir entitled, in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1955). That same year she published her memoir, I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of “The Rebel Girl.
Flynn became national chairman of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died there unexpectedly in September 1964. She was given a state funeral in Red Square. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn’s remains were flown to the U.S. for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of I.W. W. Members Eugene Dennis and Big Bill Haywood.
Rebel Breeze comment:
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was indeed an Irish UStater and made a point of her background, keeping the surnames of both mother (Gurley) and father (Flynn) and stating it in her autobiography.
Her ashes being taken to Waldheim Cemetery near the grave of Big Bill Heywood can be viewed as something of an irony as in 1916 she had a major rupture with Big Bill over a plea bargain that she and another organiser, Joe Ettor, had counseled three innocent miners to accept when Heywood thought they could beat the charges. In addition, the one year jail time part of the plea bargain somehow ended up as 20. According to some accounts, she and Ettor were expelled from the IWW but according to others, Ettor left and Flynn remained but generally avoiding Heywood from then on.
During the years of Flynn’s labour organising in the USA, employers often hired company thugs (including the (in)famous Pinkerton Detective Agency) to beat up those they considered agitators or union organisers, who were also targeted by reactionaries including racists and fascists. Many worker organisers were killed or permanently disabled. In addition, many were jailed by the UStater legislature or even executed, as were the Molly Maguires, Saccho and Vanzetti, five of the Chicago Eight and Joe Hill. Being even a moderate union organiser in those years required courage and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was far from being a moderate.
(Article originally published 2017 in New York Irish History, journal of the New York Irish History Roundtable, abbreviated slightly and reprinted here with kind permission of the author)
In her article, “Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly: A Forgotten Feminist,” Wendy McElroy summarizes the paradoxes in Dr. Kelly’s worldview that make her a complex, seemingly contradictory figure: A labor radical who was deeply skeptical of unions, a medical doctor who opposed state licensing of medicine, a staunch anti-statist who broke with the most prominent individualist anarchists of her day, an ardent feminist who denied that there were “women’s rights” as distinct from “human rights.” (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”)
Kelly’s seemingly paradoxical and contradictory juxtapositions come into focus, though, in the light of her Irish birth and anarchist beliefs. Individual anarchists, like Kelly, were a group of anti-authoritarian radicals who regarded total individual autonomy and free labor as the answer to the social and economic problems of the day. Kelly believed that overthrowing power structures and maximizing individual autonomy and responsibility would create a truly free society, which would evolve organically once society had liquidated the oppressive state. Because individualist anarchists regarded labor as the source of value and exchanges of unequal values to be exploitative, they may be regarded as a part of the broader socialist movement. Kelly’s views not only were highly uncommon and radical, but they also placed her in direct conflict with the establishment: the church, the state, and the capitalist order.
Shaping Kelly’s perspectives was that in her eyes, Ireland was victim of both capitalism and the British state.
Although she left Ireland at age eleven, the experiences and opinions of her parents profoundly shaped Kelly’s perspectives. She was born into a family of Irish nationalist educators in 1862 in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary (Co. Waterford identifies Kelly as being born in the same year but in Ballyneale, across the border from Tipperary). Her father was a schoolmaster apparently forced out of his job for his Fenian sympathies. He left Ireland in 1868, five years before Gertrude would join him in New Jersey in 1873. He would become a high school principal, but he and the whole family remained passionately devoted to Irish affairs. Her older brother, John, played a huge role in shaping her anarchist worldview.
Kelly was one of twelve children, but little is known about any of her other siblings except for John who had a profound influence on her attitudes towards Ireland and anarchism. John graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and went on to earn a Ph.D at age twenty-two in electrical engineering. An assistant for a time to Thomas Edison, Kelly became one of the world’s foremost experts in using dynamos to transmit telephone signals. During Kelly’s lifetime he held over seventy electrical related patents and pioneered high voltage electricity generating and transmission systems.
However, he was not just a man of science; he was also devoted to Ireland and used his considerable wealth generously to advance the cause of Irish freedom. In the 1880s, he wrote articles for individualist anarchist publications including Liberty, Alarm, and Lucifer, which must have greatly influenced his sister. John Kelly spent the last years of his life supporting Irish causes, working closely with his sister. From 1916–18, he served as the president of the Massachusetts State Council for Friends of Irish Freedom. From 1920–21, he wrote a third of the Irish World’s anonymous political commentaries, and in 1921, from July to December, he and his young sister agitated for a nationwide boycott of British goods.
Despite being in America, Kelly still remained keenly interested in events within Ireland. Although she was busy with her medical studies she followed Ireland from articles in the Irish World, published in New York, and the Boston Pilot. Both newspapers featured several stories on the failure of the Irish Land Act of 1870 to improve the lot of tenant farmers, the formation of the Irish Land League in 1879, the subsequent Land Wars, the No-Rent movement, and the indiscriminate evictions of Irish tenant farmers from their land by agents of absentee English landlords. These stories cemented Kelly’s rejection of British imperialism and private ownership of land.
In 1879, John Devoy of Clan na Gael in the United States forged a broad-based coalition called the “New Departure,” with Michael Davitt of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Charles Stewart Parnell of the Home Rule League to create a joint front that united believers in physical force, agrarian agitation, and constitutional nationalism to aid the suffering Irish tenant farmer and demand Irish Home Rule from England. Parnell and Davitt were also members of the Irish National Land League. In support of that initiative Fanny and Anna Parnell founded the Ladies Land League in America in 1880 with branches in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, and Patterson.
Young Gertrude Kelly became an active member of the League and a vocal supporter of a No-Rent Manifesto published by the National Land League in 1881. Kelly’s understanding of individualistic anarchist philosophy was strengthened by the columns of “Honorius” in the Irish World, an organ of the Irish No-Rent movement. Honorius was, in fact, a pseudonym for the American natural rights advocate Henry Appleton, who contributed frequently to the early issues of Liberty, both under his own name and under the pen name of “X.”(McElroy, “Gertude B. Kelly”)
PROLIFIC WRITER AND FEMINIST
Anger at how British imperialist government had subverted its proper role in Ireland shaped Kelly’s anti-authoritarian worldview. Kelly was not only a dedicated Irish-Nationalist, but she was also a prolific writer and insightful social and political commentator. In articles published in the individualist periodical Liberty and the Irish World she expressed her indignation and abhorrence at the lack of fairness empathy or sense of humanity inherent in the attitude of the ruling elite towards the poor of Ireland. She contributed a number of other well-received articles for Liberty whose founder and editor, Benjamin Tucker, said of her “Gertrude B. Kelly…by her articles in Liberty, has placed herself at a single bound among the finest writers of this or any other country.” (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”).
Kelly, however, would later break with Tucker and cease writing for Liberty, a sign of her fiery independence. Kelly was more than a mere analyst of Irish anti-imperialism. She was also an avant garde feminist who understood the struggles that women faced, especially poor women, with whom the doctor had a lifelong affinity and her articles for Liberty reflect a keen understanding of the special problems females faced. In one of her articles for Liberty she developed a highly controversial argument about prostitution. Instead of seeing prostitutes as “fallen women,” Kelly saw them as economic victims. Her first article in Liberty, “The Root of Prostitution,” claimed that women’s inability to earn enough money through respectable forms of labor was the root cause of sex work. She wrote: “We find all sorts of schemes for making men moral and women religious, but no scheme which proposes to give woman the fruits of her labor. In her writing, she railed against men forcing women to conform to paternalistic codes of behavior. Men…have always denied to women the opportunity to think; and, if some women have had courage enough to dare public opinion, and insist upon thinking for themselves, they have been so beaten by that most powerful weapon in society’s arsenal, ridicule, that it has effectively prevented the great majority from making any attempt to come out of slavery.” (McElroy,“Gertrude B. Kelly”)
Despite Kelly’s sincere feminism, she could make the following statement that must have alienated her from many of the leading feminists of her day: “There is, properly speaking, no woman question, as apart from the question of human right and human liberty.” She added: “The woman’s cause is man’s— they rise or sink/Together—dwarfed or godlike-bond or free.” She saw women’s struggles in the wider context of humanity’s struggle against all forms of coercion. Women would gain their deserved social status only when all of society had also liberated itself. Kelly also became a militant suffragette, believing that women with the power to vote could solve many of the issues they faced. (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”).
In Kelly’s eyes both women and men were in fact the victims of a coercive capitalist society. Radical individualists of nineteenth-century America, like Kelly, saw capitalism as the root cause of poverty and social injustice. Kelly subscribed to the labor theory of value espoused by the anarchist individualist theoretician Josiah Warren who posited that capitalists stole the fruits of labor by underpaying the worker for his or her efforts. She also accepted the popular radical belief that capitalism was an alliance between business and government, in which the state guaranteed the rich their privileged position. Kelly considered all forms of capitalism to be what individualist anarchists called “state capitalism.”
In Irish-America, where so many fellow immigrants had climbed the ladder by joining the civil service, her anti-government stance was especially incendiary.
KELLY’S WORK AS A DOCTOR
Kelly’s becoming a physician is an extraordinary story in itself. She became one of the very few women to study medicine and become a doctor thanks to two English sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell who set up the first school to grant women licenses to practice medicine, the Women’s Medical College of New York. Kelly graduated from Blackwell’s school in 1884 with an M.D. degree and became an accomplished surgeon.
If Kelly is recalled today in New York City, it is not for her important role in agitating for Ireland, but in helping the city’s poor through her work as a doctor. Although she campaigned for many deserving causes during her lifetime, her primary focus was on treating the downtrodden and poor working women and their families in the clinics she worked in. She set up such a clinic in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood where she became legendary for surreptitiously leaving cash under her dinner plate when she made house calls at the homes of impoverished patients. Kelly was also a renowned surgeon who, in addition to her work at the clinic, was a member of the surgical staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the institution where she had received training. During her medical career she authored and co-authored papers on abdominal surgical procedures and other medical and health care-related issues.
KELLY AND THE RISING
Kelly would play an oversized role in the events before and after the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1901, John Redmond, who assumed leadership of the reunited Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), established the United Irish League of America to raise funds for the IPP and promote its Home Rule agenda in the United States. Dr. Kelly supported the United Irish League, even though its acceptance of continued British sovereignty over Ireland disturbed her. In accepting home rule, she reasoned that it could serve as an intermediary step before launching a nonviolent, anti-British, grassroots campaign that would lead to an independent Irish Republic.
In October of 1914, Kelly issued a call to “women of Irish blood” to join the first chapter of Cumann na mBan formed in the United States. Hundreds of women met at the Hotel McAlpin, where Kelly, Mary Colum, and Sidney Gifford, a recently arrived émigré from Dublin outlined the aims of the organization. Their chapter would follow the lead of Cumann na mBan in Ireland by raising funds and garnering support for the Irish Volunteers formed in 1913 in response to the formation of the anti-independence Ulster Volunteer Force the previous year. The declared aim of the Irish Volunteers was “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” (“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net). Chosen as president of the organization, Kelly helped set-up other branches and arranged for speakers from Ireland to address its members, conduct lecture tours and help in fundraising efforts.
When Redmond in a speech called on young Irishmen to enlist and fight in the British Army, it was too much for the anti-imperialist Kelly, who issued the following statement: “May I, as a woman, an Irishwoman and physician, spokeswoman of hundred, thousands of my sisters at home and abroad ask our leaders what it is they propose to Ireland to do—commit suicide? Admitting for the moment that this is “a most righteous war” not—”a war of iron and coal”—a war between titans for commercial supremacy— why should little Ireland have to do what the United States, Switzerland, etc., do not. Is Home Rule to be secured for the cattle and sheep when the young men of Ireland are slaughtered, the old men and old women left sonless, the young women obliged to emigrate to bring up sons for men of other climes.” (“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
After the Easter Rising, Cumann na mBan’s fundraising efforts were redirected to the support of the thousands of families of imprisoned Volunteers. Kelly and other Irish women activists including Margaret Moore, a Land League veteran and labor leader Lenora O’Reilly led the highly successful fundraising campaign.
In 1917, America entered World War I on the side of the British. President Wilson threatened members of any organizations that protested against the British Empire with jail sentences. Nevertheless, in the same year Dr. Kelly was part of a group that formed the Irish Progressive Party, whose aim was to lobby the government in Washington to protest British imperialism and recognize the Irish Republic.
In 1920, Dr. Kelly would perform her greatest services to Irish freedom. She understood that women could take bold actions, such as in public protests, that would capture popular attention and focus the American public on the continued presence of Britain in Ireland, which violated one of the Fourteen Points identified by Wilson in 1918 as necessary for world peace—self-determination for small nations. The first official meeting of the activist group, American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America’s War Aims, was held in New York on April 20, 1920, organized by Gertrude Kelly.
With Irish men in America mired in fighting one another, this women’s movement grabbed headlines through a succession of highly effective public acts, some of which created chain reactions across the eastern seaboard of the United States. In September, 1920, Kelly was one of the organizers of a female blockade of the British Embassy in Washington as response to their actions in Ireland. Kelly was arrested for her part in the agitation.
In December, 1920, the women pickets and the Irish Progressive League organized a strike at a Chelsea pier in Manhattan to protest the arrests of Irish-born Australian Archbishop Daniel Mannix, an outspoken foe of British rule in Ireland, and Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who was on hunger strike and near death. Kelly, Leonora O’Reilly, Hannah SheehySkeffington, and Eileen Curran of the Celtic Players assembled a group of women who dressed in white with green capes and carried signs that read: “There Can Be No Peace While British Militarism Rules the World.”(“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
The strike which, lasted three and a half weeks, was directed at British ships docked in New York. Striking workers included not only Irish longshoremen but also, Italian coal passers, AfricanAmerican longshoremen, and workers on a docked British passenger liner. According to a New York Sun report it was “…the first purely political strike of workingmen in the history of the United States. The strike became famous and spread to Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Boston. When reporters asked who exactly was behind these protests, Dr. Kelly responded “American women.” (“Gertrude B. Kelly” in Irish Echo).
By the end of 1920, many thought the only prospect for an independent Ireland was an acceptance of partition. Dr. Kelly was a fiery opponent of division and expressed her views on Ireland being divided: “The thing itself is absolutely unthinkable. We have always been slaves, but unwilling slaves. Now we are subscribing to our slavery. I cannot believe that the Irish people will do this. The whole thing is a fake from start to finish. Summed up I would say that after 750 years we have given England moral standing in the world when she has none: it’s a tremendous defeat.” (“Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
Nevertheless, partition did take place, much to Kelly’s dismay. Bitterly disappointed, she continued her work treating the poor of the city. In the first quarter of the twentieth century she was on the “must meet” list of every Irish political and literary figure who came to the United States.
Kelly passed away on February 16, 1934. The poor of Chelsea mourned her and remembered her acts of kindness. In 1936, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia named the Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly Playground located in Chelsea west of Ninth Avenue between Sixteenth and Seventeeth Streets in her honor. It was one of five model playgrounds developed in New York City during the mid-1930s. (“Gertrude B. Kelly Playground” in NYCgovparks.org)
The playground is perhaps the only public tribute to a woman who made an outsized contribution to Irish independence and to the City of New York. Perhaps in the future Dr. Kelly will garner more.
The original article in full may be found here, including also a list of sources: nyih32.CobbG_pdf2%20(3)%20(1).pdf
Mick Healy interviewed me about a number of my experiences in revolutionary work over the years and this is Part 1 (Part 2 will shortly be published), nearly all about some of my three decades in London. It contains a number of errors by me, for example the apartheid rugby team was South Africa’s one which were not called the “All Blacks”, that being New Zealand’s. Also I believe the giant Hunger Strikers solidarity march in London was to Michael Foot’s home, not Tony Benn’s. Still, here it is for what it’s worth with many thanks to Mick.
Diarmuid a long time political agitator was active in London from 1967, in interview part one, he talks about his involvement with Marxism-Leninism-Anarchism. His involvement in the Vietnam and Rhodesia solidarity campaigns, Anti-fascist mobilisation, solidarity Ireland, family squatting. In addition the campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the 1969 Peoples Democracy march from Belfast-Dublin.
Dem were de days …. hard days and nights but busy! 1970s Britain in relation to Ireland was the decade in which the British troops were sent into the Six Counties, the war with the IRA began, internment without trial was introduced, Army massacres of civilian protesters took place and the IRA took the war to Britain. The British State introduced legislation to terrorise the Irish community, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and framed 20 Irish people on murder and murder-related charges. 1980s Britain was the decade in which, due to the hunger strikes, the Irish community stood up, shrugged off the terror of the PTA and took to the streets. At the start of that decade too, the Irish in Britain Representation Group was founded.
In the 1980s when IBRG branches were being set up across the country one of the biggest problems was finding somewhere to meet. There were many Irish Centres, but most of them did not want an Irish group with a political agenda meeting there. Most of them were attached to Catholic churches who promoted a reactionary agenda or they were commercial venues who worried about their alcohol licence as well as police surveillance and threats to their future.
Manchester IBRG found a home at St. Brendan’s Irish Centre in Stretford. Originally the Lyceum Cinema, it opened as an Irish Centre on 25th April 1961. Surrounded by streets of Victorian houses it became the home for many of the Irish who emigrated to the Manchester district in the 1960s.
St. Brendan’s Irish Centre
St.Lawrence’s Church which was located next to the Centre organised an Irish community care organisation which met Irish…
Sir, – Gerard Murphy (Letters, February 27th) and some others doubt the existence of anti-Irish racism in Britain prior to the Brexit debates, claiming never to have experienced or witnessed it themselves.
After the Race Relations Act (1976) drove the blatant discrimination of notices in lodging-house windows and “help wanted” advertisements into concealment, in 1984 the Greater London Council published Liz Curtis’s booklet Nothing But the Same Old Story, full of public examples of anti-Irish racism in print and in drawings over centuries, including cartoons in the Evening Standard during the 1970s.
In the mid-1970s nearly a score of innocent people in five different cases were taken from the Irish community and convicted of murder or in assisting murder while Irish people were being regularly stopped at airports and embarkation points, as well as having their houses raided and being taken into Paddington Green police station, for example, to spend days in underground cells without daylight or access to solicitor, to be eventually released without charge. In the 1970s Granada TV series The Comedians, stand-up performers told sexist and racist jokes, with the Irish often being the butt of the latter. In the 1980s the Irish in Britain Representation Group picketed WH Smith shops until they removed from sale their “Irish mugs”, which had the handle on the inside.
Letters in Irish community newspapers in Britain like the Irish Post and the Irish World regularly complained of anti-Irish racism in print, on TV, on radio and in public places. Anti-Irish racism has a history of centuries but it was all around Britain in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s. – Yours, etc,