On 26th July 1914 there was unusual crowding on the East Pier of the fishing harbour of Howth, Dublin and great excitement which grew as the sail of yacht was spotted making for the harbour. Among those gathered on the pier were members of the Irish Volunteers and of Na Fianna Éireann, the Irish Republican youth organisation. As the yacht, the Asgard, maneouvered to pull into position along the pier, mooring ropes thrown were quickly made fast. Then an amazing number of Mauser rifles and ammunition began to be unloaded into eager hands.
On Sunday 26th July this year the annual commemoration of the historic event was organised by the Anti-Imperialist Action group to take place in Howth. A group of people formed up at the start of the pier and proceeded along to the end, where the commemorative plaque is and where the ceremony was to be held. A small colour party preceded the procession, followed by a banner against the extradition of Liam Campbell, in turn followed by another banner stating: “This Is Our Mandate, This Is Our Republic” (from the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, 1919), with the rest of the procession following behind.
The idea of arming the Irish Volunteers to counter the arming of the Ulster Volunteers, who had declared their aim to prevent the limited autonomy of Home Rule being given to Ireland by the British Government, had been discussed in 1914 by a group that could best be described as Anglo-Irish, middle class and including even an aristocrat – nearly all of Protestant background. The eventual sailing of the gun-laden yacht from off the Belgian coast to Dublin was accomplished by a crew of the Asgard assembled for the purpose: Erskine and Molly Childers, Molly Spring-Rice, Conor O’Brien and two seamen from Gola in Donegal: Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan. Apart from the Captain, Erskine Childers, they all had some Irish in their backgrounds but only Conor O’Brien and the Donegal men were of indigenous stock, with only the latter two native Irish speakers.
The rifles were successfully landed and were used effectively during the 1916 Rising, though only single-shot against the five-shot magazines of the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifles, of which the Volunteers had only a few (and no machine-guns at all).
When the commemorative procession reached the pier head, the attendance fanned out in a square with an open end facing Margaret McKearney, who was to chair the event. The colour party stood to to one side, the flags bearing the designs of the Irish Citzen Army and Na Fianna Éireann, along with the Tricolour, fluttering in the gentle sea-breeze.
McKearney called for a minute’s silence in remembrance and honour of all those who had given their lives in the struggle for Irish independence, during which the colour party performed the presentation, lowering and raising of the flags. Floral wreaths on behalf of Anti-Imperialist Action and Spirit of Freedom Westmeath were then laid underneath the commemorative plaque to the historic landing of the weapons.
McKearney, a life-long Republican from a Republican family in East Tyrone, had once been described by Scotland Yard as “possibly the most dangerous woman terrorist in Britain” but had legally defeated extradition attempts to extradite her from the Irish state in 1975. Two of her brothers had been killed on active service and another murdered by Loyalists during the three-decades war in the Six Counties; another brother had barely survived 53 days of the 1980 hunger strike upon its termination.
Recounting the events of the obtaining of the rifles and ammunition and their landing at Howth in 1914, McKearney went on to tell of the failure of the colonial Dublin Metropolitan police and British Army to confiscate the weapons and how at Bachelors’ Walk, the King’s Own Scottish Borders opened fire on a crowd mocking their failure and bayoneted at least one, killing four and injuring 38.
The guns had been used in the 1916 Rising, McKearney related and went on to refer to the long struggle for Irish independence since, still uncompleted, with the Good Friday Agreement seeking to draw a line under it and preserve the status quo.
Referring to the growing danger of fascism in Ireland and in the world, McKearney pointed out that as the financial losses incurred during the Covid19 epidemic mounted, the ruling class in Ireland and its government would be seeking to break the resistance of the people in order to impose austerity upon them and it was then that they might well turn to the fascists.
The chair then introduced historian Peter Rogers of the Spirit of Freedom who delivered a lengthy speech on the nature of Irish Republicanism and the struggle for independence. Rogers referred to Good Friday Agreement as having failed to resolve the situation with even Francis Molloy (a Provisional Sinn Féin TD, i.e member of the Irish Parliament) remarking that they “had been sold a pup”. The speaker concluded saying that Sinn Féin must be given time to fail in the Dáil when the option of a united Ireland would be more easily embraced.
A speaker from Macra – Irish Republican Youth was then called forward and delivered a short statement.
Diarmuid Breatnach, representing the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland, was next to speak. Pointing out that internment without trial of Republican activists was continuing albeit under other forms, Breatnach related how Irish Republicans were being charged and refused bail prior to being brought before non-jury special courts on both sides of the British Border. In the unlikely event of their being found not guilty subsequently, they had nevertheless spent two years in jail. Also the practice of rearresting without trial or even charge of Republican prisoners released on licence constituted a form of internment, Breatnach said.
Going on to speak of the historic Howth event, the speaker remarked upon the varied nature of those who had planned and carried out the operation, including a number who would not have satisfied the criteria for “Irishness” of the current crop of Irish racists and fascists of the Far-Right in Ireland. Yet some involved in the gun-running had made that contribution before leaving the struggle, while most had gone on to fight in the 1916 Rising, joined there also by the workers’s Irish Citizen Army. Many had gone on the fight in the War of Independence and while some had sided with the Free State in the split and Civil War in 1922, most of the fighters had remained on the Republican side.
The lesson he drew from that, Breatnach continued, was that the fight for freedom had to be extended in as broad an alliance as possible but also remaining aware that some of that alliance would be temporary and to prepare accordingly.
The speaker commented on the historical importance of possession of weapons when facing an armed enemy and concluded by saying that though the time for weapons might not be now, the lesson of history is that such a time would come in the future.
McKearney thanked the organisers, attendance and all the speakers for their contributions and announced the handing over of a donation from Anti-Imperialist Action to the Loughgall Memorial Martyrs’ fund.
The event then concluded with the singing of a verse and chorus of Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem, sung in Irish by Breatnach.
HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT: THE ASGARD TODAY
The boat was built in Norway by an acclaimed Scottish migrant boat-builder and sold in 1904 to the Erskine Childers and his USA bride, Molly (Mary Alden Osgood), with the interior built to the specifications of Erskine and Molly. Childers, though English and had volunteered for the British armed forces during WWI, nevertheless took up the cause of Irish independence, joining the IRA in the War of Independence and continuing on the Republican side. He was captured by the Free State forces and executed by the State in 1922 (his son Erskine Hamilton Childers was elected the 4th President of the State in 1973).
The Asgard was sold and in 1961 Journalist Liam Mac Gabhann discovered the vessel in the River Truro, Cornwall and wrote about it. After lobbying, the Irish State purchased and overhauled the ship and sailed back to Howth in 1961, where the original event was re-enacted with surviving members of the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Navy used her as a sail training vessel but in 1974 the Yacht was dry-docked in what was in essence a large shed in Kilmainham, partly open to the elements, until new restoration work began in 2007. In 2012 the yacht was moved to the National Museum complex at Collins Barracks, where it has resided since in a separate and permanent exhibiton, along with memorabilia and related information and photographs. In normal times the National Museum is open six days a week and entry is free to both the Asgard exhibition and the general Museum exhibitions.
Mick Healy of the Irish Marxist History Project was kind enough to interview me about some of the issues about which I have been active. Parts I and II were published together a couple of months ago and here’s Part III now.
Mostly its snippets about the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, my involvement in the foundation of the Lewisham branch of IBRG in SE London and from there, the Lewisham Irish Centre. Also my participation in Kurdish solidarity and a trade union delegation to Turkish-occupied Kurdistan (the YPG placard photo is of me in Trafalgar Square, London a couple of years ago when I was over visiting kids & grandkids) and the anti-water charge campaign in Ireland.
(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
From Workers’ Republic, 18 March 1916.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.
The question often arises: Why do Irishmen celebrate the festival of their national saint, in view of the recently re-discovered truth that he was by no means the first missionary to preach Christianity to the people of Ireland? It is known now beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Christian religion had been preached and practised in Ireland long before St. Patrick, that Christian churches had been established, and it is probable that the legend about the shamrock was invented in some later generation than that of the saint. Certainly the shamrock bears no place of any importance in early Celtic literature, and the first time we read of it as having any reference to or bearing on religion in Ireland occurs in the work of a foreigner – an English monk.
But all that notwithstanding there is good reason why Irish men and women should celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. They should celebrate it for the same reason as they should honour the green flag of Ireland, despite the fact that there is no historical proof that the Irish, in the days of Ireland’s freedom from foreign rule, ever had a green flag as a national standard, or indeed ever had a national flag at all
The claim of the 17th of March to be Ireland’s national festival, the claim of St. Patrick to be Ireland’s national saint, the claim of the shamrock to be Ireland’s national plant, the claim of the green flag to be Ireland’s national flag rests not on the musty pages of half-forgotten history but on the affections and will of the Irish people.
Sentiment it may be. But the man or woman who scoffs at sentiment is a fool. We on this paper respect facts, and have a holy hatred of all movements and causes not built upon truth. But sentiment is often greater than facts, because it is an idealised expression of fact – a mind picture of truth as it is seen by the soul, unhampered by the grosser dirt of the world and the flesh.
The Irish people, denied comfort in the present, seek solace in the past of their country; the Irish mind, unable because of the serfdom or bondage of the Irish race to give body and material existence to its noblest thoughts, creates an emblem to typify that spiritual conception for which the Irish race laboured in vain. If that spiritual conception of religion, of freedom, of nationality exists or existed nowhere save in the Irish mind, it is nevertheless as much a great historical reality as if it were embodied in a statute book, or had a material existence vouched for by all the pages of history.
It is not the will of the majority which ultimately prevails; that which ultimately prevails is the ideal of the noblest of each generation. Happy indeed that race and generation in which the ideal of the noblest and the will of the majority unite.
In this hour of her trial Ireland cannot afford to sacrifice any one of the things the world has accepted as peculiarly Irish. She must hold to her highest thoughts, and cleave to her noblest sentiments. Her sons and daughters must hold life itself as of little value when weighed against the preservation of even the least important work of her separate individuality as a nation.
Therefore we honour St. Patrick’s Day (and its allied legend of the shamrock) because in it we see the spiritual conception of the separate identity of the Irish race – an ideal of unity in diversity, of diversity not conflicting with unity.
Magnificent must have been the intellect that conceived such a thought; great must have been the genius of the people that received such a conception and made it their own.
On this Festival then our prayer is: Honour to St. Patrick the Irish Apostle, and Freedom to his people.
I seem to recall that Connolly wrote something else about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps when he was living and working in the USA but can’t find it now. For similar reasons to what he lays out here, I supported and indeed organised public celebration of the feast day in London.
And I might have agreed with Connolly in the case of Ireland at the time he wrote it: the whole country under British occupation, in the middle of the First World War with thousands of Irish casualties in the British armed forces and coming up to the 1916 Rising.
But now? I don’t think so, neither with what it celebrates nor how it is celebrated, which always makes me want to get out of Dublin. Republic Day, which Connolly was party to creating but could perhaps not have anticipated being a national festival day, is what we should be focusing on now, I think.
The 5th of March is the anniversary of the naval Battle of Cape Machichaco (cabo matxitxakoko borroka, in Euskera/ Basque), which took place on 5 March 1937 off Bermeo (Bizkaia province, Basque Country), during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, between the Spanish Military-Fascist heavy cruiser Canarias and four Basque Navy trawlers escorting a Republican convoy. The trawlers were protecting the transport ship Galdames, which was sailing to Bilbao with 173 passengers.
(The following account of the battle is from Wikipedia; the section titles and comment are mine)
On 4 March, four armed trawlers of the Basque Auxiliary Navy section of the Spanish Republican Navy, Bizcaia, Gipuzkoa, Donostia and Nabarra departed from Bayonne, France. Their intention was to defend Galdames‘s mail, passengers, machinery, weapons, supplies and 500 tons of nickel coins property of the Basque government.
Canarias sailed from Ferrol with Salvador Moreno as the captain, with orders to stop the transport ship. Galdames, which was steaming up with the lights and the radio switched off, and was unknowingly left behind by Bizcaya and Gipuzkoa.
FOUR CONVERTED TRAWLERS AGAINST A BATTLE CRUISER
Next morning, while all the trawlers were watching for Canarias, Galdames rejoined them. Bizcaya‘s captain was Alejo Bilbao, Nabarra‘s Enrique Moreno Plaza from Murcia, and Gipuzkoa‘s Manuel Galdós. The trawlers had the intention of luring Canarias close to the Biscay coast to have the assistance of the coastal batteries.[
The first trawler to spot Canarias was Gipuzkoa, 30 kilometers (19 mi) north of Bilbao. The Basque trawler was hit on the bridge and the forward gun. Return fire from Gipuzkoa killed one Canarias seaman and wounded another. The armed trawler, with five fatalities and 20 injured aboard, managed to approach the coast, where the shore batteries forced Canarias to retreat.
Nabarra and Donostia tried to prevent Canarias from finding Galdames and engaged the cruiser.
Donostia withdrew from the battle after being fired on by Canarias, but Nabarra faced the enemy for almost two hours. She was eventually hit in the boiler and came to a stop; 20 men abandoned the sinking trawler, while other 29 were lost with the ship, including her captain, Enrique Moreno Plaza.
The transport Galdames, which was hit by a salvo from Canarias and lost four passengers, was eventually captured by the military-fascist cruiser.
Gipuzkoa arrived at Portugalete seriously damaged and Bizcaia headed for Bermeo, where she assisted the Estonian merchantman Yorbrook with a load including ammunition and 42 Japanese Type 31 75 mm mountain guns, previously captured by Canarias and released.
Donostia sought shelter in a French port.
The 20 survivors from Nabarra were rescued by the military-fascists and taken aboard Canarias. Instead of the expected hostility and mistreatment, they were given medical assistance, and both the cruiser commander, future Francoist Admiral Salvador Moreno and Captain Manuel Calderón interceded with Franco when the Basque seamen were sentenced to death in retaliation for the shooting of two crewmembers of the armed trawler Virgen del Carmen, captured by Republican sympathizers and diverted to Bilbao in December 1936. The survivors were eventually acquitted and released in 1938.
In contrast, one of the passengers aboard Galdames, Christian Democrat politician Manuel Carrasco Formiguera, from Catalonia, was imprisoned and executed on 9 April 1938.
COURAGE, COWARDICE AND CRUELTY
The story is one of incredible bravery of a number of converted trawlers and their Basque crews, in particular that of the Nabarra and her Captain from Murcia. One account I read related that her Captain consulted his crew and they agreed to fight to the death or the sinking of their ship. Their valour and stubbornness (two qualities which commentators often associate with the Basques) was of such magnitude as to impress even their military-fascist opponents, to the extent of their interceding with Franco to save their lives.
It is also the story of the cowardice of at least the captain of the Donostia.
And of the bestiality of the military-fascists in the execution of a member of the Catalan Governmentreturning to his country with his family, guilty of no crime but to serve his the administration of his elected republican government (one of hundreds of thousands of such crimes of the miiltary-fascists coupists and their victorious regime).
VISIT TO CAPE MATXITXAKO
I visited the land part of the location on a number of occasions in recent years. Access by public transport is by a bus every hour but I was driven by friends.
On a windy promontory on private land I saw one of the shore artillery battery sites (which has had nothing done to conserve it) and, close enough, the monument to the battle. Not far from there is a local bar-restaurant which is popular and a short trip by car, the iconic hermitage of Gastelugatxe. Many tourists visit the area but I wonder how many get to hear of the story.
Thinking of the determination and courage of those crews, not even trained for war, in converted trawlers, facing a trained naval crew of a huge battle cruiser, I am not ashamed to say my eyes fill and my lip trembles.
Alberto Sicilia in Publico.es, translated by D.Breatnach
Alberto Sicilia in Publico.es, translated by D.Breatnach (Reading time: 3 minutes)
For original version in Castillian (Spanish) click on link.
Greece today suspended the right to asylum. An unprecedented measure in the history of Europe.
How soon we forget. During World War II, thousands of Greeks crossed the Mediterranean in the opposite direction and sought refuge in Middle Eastern countries. That was the most accessible route of escape from Nazi troops.
A program called “Organization for Refugees in the Middle East”, launched in 1942 and led by the United Kingdom, helped tens of thousands of Greeks, Poles and Yugoslavs escape eastbound.
The refugees were taken to camps located in Syria, Egypt and Palestine. The city of Aleppo, (yes, you have not misread, Aleppo) became one of the main reception centers.
A number of official reports on the state of the camps were written in March 1944. A study conducted by Public International Radio includes the protocol for the entry of refugees and their daily lives:
“Once registered, newcomers made their way through a thorough medical inspection. The refugees were heading to what were often makeshift hospital facilities, usually tents, but occasionally empty buildings reused for medical care, where clothes and shoes were removed and they were washed until the authorities believed they were sufficiently disinfected.
“Some refugees, such as the Greeks who arrived at the Aleppo camp from the Dodecanese islands in 1944, could expect medical inspections to become part of their daily routine.
“After medical officials were satisfied that they were healthy enough to join the rest of the camp, refugees were divided into homes for families, unaccompanied children, single men and single women. Once assigned to a particular section of the camp, refugees enjoyed few opportunities to venture outside. From time to time they could leave under the supervision of camp officials.
“When refugees in the Aleppo camp made the multi-mile trip to the city, for example, they could visit shops to buy basic supplies, watch a movie at the local cinema, or simply distract themselves from the monotony of country life.
“Although the camp at Moses Wells [in Egypt], located on more than 100 acres of desert, was not within walking distance of a city, refugees were allowed to spend time each day bathing in the nearby Red Sea. “
The “Organization for Refugees in the Middle East” was part of a network of refugee camps around the world that were administered by governments and international NGOs.
And refugees arrived not only in the Arab region: Iran received 200,000 Poles between 1939 and 1941.
(Para el informe en castellano haz clic en el enlace)
(Translated from Castillian by D.Breatnach)
(Reading time: 3 minutes)
MADRID 02/15/2020 1:57 PM ALEJANDRO TORRÚS
At last. The remains of 247 victims of Franco that have lain in a warehouse in Valladolid for over two years will be buried this Sunday in a memorial constructed within the Carmen cemetery. This will be the end of a long process that began in 2016 with the exhumations of communal graves in the cemetery itself, paralyzed since for a long time by the insistence of UGT to install a bust of Pablo Iglesias Posse. Finally, there will be a memorial, there will be the names of the more than 2,650 fatalities of the province, the 247 bodies recovered and there will be no bust of the founder of UGT and the PSOE.
(Trans: UGT is one of two main Spanish trade unions and is connected to the social democratic PSOE; both were banned — along with many other organisations — during the Franco Dictatorship but since then the PSOE has been in government more than any other party. Valladolid is about halfway between Madrid and the Bay of Biscay).
3) Letter sent by Julián Carlón to his wife and children from the Valladolid prison.- ALEJANDRO TORRÚS
“We want this tribute to be an act of democratic recognition and historical justice to all those who defended the Second Republic regardless of the party in which one was active,” explained Julio del Olmo, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) of Valladolid, responsible for the exhumation and custody of the bodies, to Público.
The event will begin at 12.00 noon this Sunday and will include participation of relatives of the victims, the Valladolid writer Gustavo Martín Garzo, musical performances and the presence of the Mayor of Valladolid, Óscar Puente and the Secretary of State for Democratic Memory, Fernando Martínez.
However, the tribute comes too late for many victims. For example, for Saturnina, who passed away a few weeks ago. Her perseverance and struggle and that of her husband facilitated the ARMH in identifying the place where the graves were in the cemetery and proceed to their exhumation. Saturnina was only a child when Franco’s forces shot her father, Julián Carlón, on October 1, 1936.
Saturnina, in fact, barely knew anything about her father. He was four years old when he was taken. “I only remember the day he was taken and the place where he was buried, which my uncle told me about,” she confessed tearfully to this newspaper in September 2019. “I don’t even know how he was killed. I just know he was taken away, that he never came back and that, from that day, there were only tears in my home. My mother never told me about my father because of fear,” she said. However, thanks to the indications of a relative, Saturnina kept a memory of the exact place where the bodies were buried after their execution.
REMAINS OF THREE WOMEN AND TWO MEN IDENTIFIED
To date, the Valladolid ARMH has managed to identify “with total security” five of the 247 bodies recovered. These are of three women and two men: Lina Franco Meira; Republican Army sergeant Francisco González Mayoral; the Mayor of Casasola de Arión, Mateo Gómez Díez; and mother and daughter María Doyagüez and María Ruiz Doyagüez.
“Of the four graves with the 247 bodies that we have found, we have only been able to certify those five people to almost 100%. Of many others, we can be almost certain that they correspond to one group or another of those shot, but we cannot name each skeleton. We lack the means and it is a tremendously complicated process,” laments Del Olmo, who, however, points out that the remains of the victims will be well preserved so that, if possible, they continue working on identifications.
Cases such as that of Lina Franco Meira, which has been identified, are exceptional when 81 years have elapsed since the end of the Civil War. Her bones could be identified thanks to a DNA test sample of one of her daughters, 93 years old. An exceptional case of longevity that has allowed name and surname to be given to some bones and, in addition, allows us to believe that among the rest of those sharing her grave are her other 14 neighbors of the town of Castromocho (Palencia) that were taken along with Lina Franco to Valladolid to be executed and buried.
“SO THAT FRANCO AND AMNESIA DO NOT WIN”
Franco’s forces not only killed Lina Franco and more than 2,000 people in this province (Castille-Léon). They also tried to erase their names, their life stories and their struggles. Now, 84 years after the coup, a memorial will recover their names and try to spread their fight in defence of Republican values. The challenge, however, continues and consists in being able to identify as many of them as possible so that Franco and amnesia do not win the battle.
I observed in Language Is a Treasure Chest 1 that it is full of wonders but that it has some horrors in it too. And I found it to be so again.
I was reading a novel in which the word “Cimarron” appeared and, doing some quick research on the word, I came across a 2004 query in an email website or page called Word Wizard:
What is the etymology of the word cimarron? I’ve always been told that it means “runaway slave” in Mexican Spanish. Can anyone verify this?
The reply is dated the same day:
From Greek. It refers to people who live in perpetual mist and darkness, akin to the ‘land of the dead’. Latin ‘Cimmerius’, Greek ‘Kimmerios’, Assyrian ‘Gimirri’ even the bible ‘Gomer’ Gen.10:2 and Esk. 38:6. In Western United States it refers to a stretch of land that gets rainfall when other near by areas are desert year round.
Apart from the topographical reference, I thought the expert’s explanation highly dubious. And in fact I happen to know something about the Spanish-language origins of the word.
The searcher replied:
Thanks, Jim. I just wonder what connection this word has to Hispanics of Mexican origin because it shows up in their surnames (although not as common as Lopez or Vargas or Garcia). Is it just Mexican in origin or did that also come from Spain? So the “runaway slave” theory has no foundation then?
The expert’s reply did come back with a Spanish-language connection and he may be on to something with the topography, though I think he has it the wrong way around (as we shall see).
The “runaway slave” theory is not so obsolete.
Mexico did not have slaves (Outlawed in 1810)but
American slaves who fled to Mexico had to pass
through lands with water, or else parish (sic).
When relating their tales of woe to the locals
the word ‘cimmaron’ arose to describe their flight
through the South West desert.
Very curiously, there was no further contribution to the discussion. I tried to leave my own but had to register, which I have done (though wondering if worth the trouble) and am now awaiting confirmation1.
THE FOLK MEMORY WAS TRUE
Continuing with a little light online research I find that the Castillian-language (Spanish) origin is the explanation most often given, with rarely a reference to Greek or other classical or archaic languages. For example, in yourdictionary.com:
American Spanish cimarrón, wild, unruly ( from Old Spanish cimarra, thicket): probably origin, originally referring to the wild sheep (bighorn) found along its banks
(Latin America, of animals) feral (having returned to the wild)
Synonyms: alzado, bagual, feral
(Latin America, of people) rural; campestral
(Latin America, of plants) of a wild cultivar.
But …. what about the “runaway slaves”? Under the title Cimarron People, Wikipedia has this to say: The Cimarrons in Panama were enslaved Africans who had escaped from their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws. In the 1570s, they allied with Francis Drake of England to defeat the Spanish conquest. In Sir Francis Drake Revived (1572), Drake describes the Cimarrons as “a black people which about eighty years past fled from the Spaniards their masters, by reason of their cruelty, and are since grown to a nation, under two kings of their own. The one inhabiteth to the west, the other to the east of the way from Nombre de Dios”. (location in Panama — DB)
While we may indulge ourselves in a sardonic smile at commissioned pirate Francis Drake talking about the cruelty of others, or about slave-owning by a country other than England in 1570, we remember also that at the time Spain was the main competitor with England in the rush to plunder the Americas – and had got there well before them.2 Both colonial powers were already plundering Africa for raw materials and slaves.
The meanings of animals having gone “feral” or “returned to the wild” would easily have been applied by the society of the time to escaped African slaves, a society which, despite evidence to the contrary including agriculture in Africa, would have considered indigenous inhabitants of Africa as people living in the “wild”. Once escaped and no longer under European control, they would be seen as “returning to the wild”.
So what happened to the Cimarron People? Their settlements were subject to punitive raids by the Spanish, killing people and burning crops, so that in the end they came to a treaty with their old enemy. The Wikipedia entry says no more except that the “Cimarrons” and the English quarreled (not surprising, given that they were of no further use to the latter). I believe some of their settlements in Florida were raided and burned by US “pioneers” and soldiers and that the remainder became part of the Seminoles, a native American tribe that resisted the USA in the longest and most costly of the USA’s wars against the indigenous people, the Native (North) Americans. The Seminole had many tribe members of part-African origin in their midst.
And here – a surprise: The word “Seminole” is derived from the Muscogee word simanó-li, which may itself be derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “runaway” or “wild one”!
So, in line with what that on-line searcher back in 2004 had heard, no doubt a folk belief, the word cimarronis, in Mexico (and in the USA), of Castillian (Spanish) language origin and is connected to escaped slaves of African origin.
Some of the sources for “cimarron” also give us “marron” or “marrón” which is also related to escaped slaves and, in English, became “Maroons”. The Maroons, escaped slaves who inhabited mountainous regions of Jamaica and elsewhere became a great problem to the English settlers (after they took the island from the Spanish) which they failed totally to quell, the Maroons emerging victorious in many military engagements. In the Cockpits area of Jamaica, I have read, there is a place called Nanny Town, which is believed to be one of the settlements of the Maroons; their chief was said to be a woman called “Granny Nanny”3, whether because of her former slave occupation or for other reason4. In the end, like the Spanish with the Cimarron People, the English had to treat with them. Sadly the treaty required the Maroons to return newly-escaped slaves, which they did and for which they received payment.
However if instead of being a voluntary escapee to go to a wild place you were forced by people or circumstance, well then, like Alexander Selkirk’s “Crusoe”, you’d be “marooned”!
Well then, what about the “cimarron strips” in the southwest of the USA? Could the word refer to strips of land “gone wild”? Or could the expert replying to the question in 2004 have been on to something?
If the slaves escaping through the desert from the USA to Mexico did indeed make their way through strips of watered land (not just for the water, as the expert speculates but for vegetation to conceal them), then there is a connection between escaped slaves and these strips of land. But not as the expert sees it, rather the other way around: since the escaped slaves, the “cimarrones” were travelling the strips, they would be called by those who knew about it (escapee hunters, escapee helpers and just observers), “cimarron strips”, i.e “those strips through which the runaway slaves travel.”
CHRISTIAN ETHNIC PREJUDICE
However, if the word comes from Castillian (Spanish) what were the origins of the word in that language?
Perhaps a year ago, I was reading a book that described the Spanish State as having been characterised, contrary to many other European states, by mass expulsions and exiles on a number of occasions throughout its history5. Naturally enough, first on the list of expulsions was the well-known example of the Moors and the Jews. Those who were not slaughtered by the forces of the “Christian Monarchs” of Ferdinand and Isabella in the “reconquest” were obliged to convert to Christianity or to leave “with only the clothes on their backs”. This also occurred in Portugal.
Those Jews who left were the Sephardim or Sephardic Jews, who spoke Ladino, an archaic kind of Iberian Romance6language with Aramaic and Hebrew words, along with the Moors, who spoke an Iberian-Arabic mixture or Arabic. The key of their houses or gates have been handed down to this day in families of both groups.7
Many converted, often referred to by Christians as “conversos” (Jews) or “moriscos” (Arabs) but were constantly under suspicion of reverting to their old religion even with the threat and constant trials and torture of the Spanish Inquisition. According to what I have read they too were sometimes called “marronos”, i.e in the eyes of the Spanish Christian ruling class, those who had been “domesticated” (Christianised) but had “returned to the their wild way”, (Moslem) i.e “gone feral”.
Wikipedia on Marrones in Iberia confirms:The (Spanish) Inquisition was aimed mostly at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but were thought to be practicing their faiths secretly. They were respectively called marranos and moriscos. However, in 1567 King Phillip II directed Moriscos to give up their Arabic names and traditional dress, and prohibited the use of Arabic. In reaction, there was a Morisco uprising in the Alpujarras from 1568 to 1571. In the years from 1609 to 1614, the government expelled Moriscos.
THE BUSH FROM THE NUT?
And is “ci” or “cy” in “cimarron” then merely a prefix? The word “marrón” exists as a colour in Castilian and a number of Romance languages and came into English as the colour “maroon”. Its development is taken as originating from the colour of the large ripe chestnut, rather than given to it later. Of course there are a number of words for colours or tints which have a botanical origin, “orange” being an obvious one.
Alright, then the nut and tree might have been associated with uncultivated or “wild” areas, similar to those to which the “cimarrons” would escape. But where did the “ci” suffix come from? Somewhere in the midst of what I have been researching I came across an explanation, derived from Latin, meaning “towering”, “high” etc. But can I find it now?
The online sources are telling me that the relevant pages are up for deletion and I can join the discussion. No thanks, I do not have anything like sufficient knowledge to enter a debate on that, nor the patience of an academic to research it thoroughly.
But “high” and “wild” could easily correspond, given that valleys and plains lend themselves more easily to cultivation, as a rule, than mountainy areas, which might remain wooded or with with thick undergrowth. And that might also give us the “bush” or “thicket” referred to in a number of references for “cimarron”, which in turn might describe the “cimarron strips”. In parts of Latin America (and for all I know, in all of them) such as Chile, a “cimarra” is also a thicket or densely-grown area. The article in the Language Journal (see reference) comments that the “arra” cannot be a Romance language word-ending but even if true it seems to me that the author (or authors quoted) might be unaware that among those from Iberia who colonised or settled in the Americas, Romance language speakers were not alone. There were also Basques who spoke Euskera/ Euskara and for evidence, they applied a number of toponomics and left family names from the Basque Country (Basque descendants make up to 10% of the population of some Latin American countries). And “-arra” would be a common enough suffix or word-ending in Euskera.8
OKLAHOMA PANHANDLE AND THE CIMARRON STRIP
In the 19th Century wars between the Mexican Republic, the USA and the Native Americans in the area, it was carved up with less and less left to the Native Americans. Prior to the American Civil War, white Texas wanted to join the Union as a slave state and due to a US federal law prohibiting slavery north of 36°30′ parallel north, white Texas surrendered a strip of land north of that latitude. The settlement (temporary of course), left a strip as “Neutral Territory” (one can only imagine the temptation for African slaves in Texas to make for there). After the Civil War big cattle ranchers moved in, disregarding treaties and named the area the Cimarron Strip.
But that was because the word Cimarron was already in the area, from the “Cimarron Cutoff” leading to a crossing of the Cimarron river. And yes, there was a popular 1967-1968 TV series called “Cimarron Strip”, starring Stuart Whitman. But, though I used to watch it, that is only faintly related to the story of the word that set me out on this journey.
1Which days later had still not arrived – perhaps the site is no longer in operation, which would explain the silence after those two posters.
2Columbus voyage to America 1641 and Spain’s first colonial settlement 1565 (now Florida); Mayflower expedition to America with English settlers 1587 (now Virginia). However, Europeans had founded settlements much earlier, as with the Norse in the 10th Century and very likely Irish monks in the 6th Century. But it was the English and Spanish who conquered most, the Dutch, French and Portuguese less. The descendants of the English settlers after gaining independence from England completed the seizure and colonisation of most of the North American continent, while English colonists remaining loyal to the English Crown seized land to form what is now Canada.
4All the folk tradition, albeit conflicting on some points, declares that she had not been a slave which leaves one to wonder how she might have reached Jamaica from Africa without having been enslaved.
5 I borrowed the book from the public library and cannot remember its title at the moment.
6“Romance languages” is the name give to the group on Indo-European languages such as Castillian (Spanish), Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian and French. They are sometimes called “Latin-based” or “Latin Languages” but there is some dispute about the origins and developments of these languages.
7 Ironically, the door or gate “key” is also a symbol of return for Palestinian refugees driven from their homes by Zionist massacres, threats and fear during the founding of the State of Israel.
8 Among toponomics of North America’s southwest Durango (Colorado and Mexico), Navarro and Zavala Counties (Texas) are perhaps the best known; while Aguirre, Arana, Bolívar (Bolibar), Cortazar (Kortazar), Duhalde, Echevarria (Etxebarria), García, Guevara (Gebarra), Ibarra, Larrazábal, Mendiata, Muzika, Ortiz, Salazar, Ugarte, Urribe and Zabala are but some among a host of family names of Basque origin from the American south-west to Latin America. And of course the country of Bolivia, from Simon Bolívar, a Basque surname from a Basque toponomic.
“A man the ages will remember.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Kevin Rooney (reprinted by kind permission of author).
Michael Joseph Quill was born in Gortloughera, near Kilgarvan Co. Kerry on 18 September, 1905. His parents were John Daniel Quill and Margaret (née Lynch). Fighting injustice seemed to be in his blood. He remembered: “My father knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around”. His Irish-speaking family’s home served as headquarters for the No. 2 Kerry Brigade Of The Irish Republican Army during the War Of Independence Of 1919-1921. His uncle’s house was so well known for rebel activity, it is said that the Black and Tans in the area referred to the house as “Liberty Hall”; a reference to James Connolly’s ITGWU Union Headquarters in Dublin which was to prove prophetic.
IRISH REPUBLICAN ACTIVITY
While still a boy of 14, Michael was a dispatch rider for the IRA during the War of Independence. He served in 3rd Battalion of the No. 2 Kerry Brigade. Once on a scouting mission, he stumbled on a patrol of Black and tans asleep in a ditch. He stole all their ammunition without rousing them. He eventually graduated to carrying a rifle and organized a group of about thirty boys in the village into an IRA scout group, and drilled several times a week.
When the Civil War began in 1921, Quill joined the Republican side which opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the War Of Independence. He took part in the re-capture of the town of Kenmare from The Free State Army in August of 1922, one of few Republican victories. He was said to have been involved in robbing a bank for the IRA during the war. He was much affected by the brutality and violence dished out by the Government Forces (Free Staters) to his Republican comrades in Kerry who were captured.
The worst atrocity was the Ballyseedy massacre where eight Republican prisoners were killed by being tied to a landmine, which was then detonated. In March of 1923, at total of 23 Republican prisoners in Kerry were killed in similar manner, or summarily executed by shooting on different occasions. Another five were officially executed by firing squad. The most of any county.
His mother died in September 1923. The local priest refused to request a temporary amnesty so that Michael and his brother John could attend her funeral without risking arrest by National troops. It left a lasting bitterness in him toward the Catholic Church.
During the Wars, he met many prominent Republican leaders of the time who passed through his area; including Eamon de Valera, Liam Lynch, Tom Barry, Liam Deasy, Dan Breen, Erskine Childers among them. While still young, he conversed with these great minds.
EMIGRATION TO THE USA
After the war, Quill found opportunities limited for him as he had supported the losing side. He was also blacklisted after a sit-in strike with his brother John at a saw mill in Kenmare. He emigrated to the US, arriving on 16 March, 1926 in New York, where he stayed with an aunt on 104th Street in East Harlem (New York).
He hustled to make a living working a series of menial jobs which included what was called “bootlegging”: smuggling alcohol during Prohibition, during which time the sale of alcohol was illegal in the US. He worked passing coal and peddling roach powder and religious articles in Pennsylvania coal country. While there he wrote his father his observation that “the cows and pigs in Kerry were better housed and fed than were the miners’ children in America.”
Quill returned to New York and met a young Kerry woman named Maria Theresa O’Neill, known as Mollie who came from Cahersiveen. With the onset of the Great Depression she became unemployed and decided to return to Ireland. She and Quill maintained a patient long-distance courtship, keeping in touch with weekly letters.
Quill found employment with the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) railroad in 1929. He worked several jobs before becoming a ticket agent. The IRT, the largest transit company in New York attracted employment from many Irishmen; particularly Republican veterans of the Irish Civil War like Quill. There was a joke that IRT stood for “Irish Republican Transit”. Their advantage over other immigrant groups was that they already spoke English. Coming from mostly farm land, they were also able for the twelve to fourteen-hour days demanded of them seven days a week. About half of the employees were Irish.
Moving from station to station, he got to know many of the employees. Along with deplorable working conditions, Quill also observed discrimination based on racism and bigotry, which he hated. He said: “During those twelve hour nights we’d chat about the motormen, conductors, guards etc. whose conditions were even worse. They had to work a ‘spread’ of 16 hours each day in order to get 10 hours pay. Negro workers could get jobs only as porters. They were subjected to treatment that makes Little Rock (Arkansas) and Birmingham (Alabama) seem liberal and respectable by comparison. I also saw Catholic ticket agents fired by Catholic bosses for going to Mass early in the morning while the porter ‘covered’ the booth for half an hour. Protestant bosses fired Protestant workers for similar crimes, going to Church. The Jewish workers had no trouble with the subway bosses. Jews were denied employment in the transit lines”.
INFLUENCED BY CONNOLLY’S WRITINGS
While working a 12-hour overnight shift, Quill passed the time with reading to supplement his education, which had ended with National school. The main influence on his political thinking was James Connolly. Connolly had also organised unions in New York, where he lived for a few years before returning to Dublin where he was executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising.
Quill’s second wife Shirley later wrote: “Connolly’s two basic theories were to guide Mike Quill’s thinking for the next three decades: that economic power precedes and conditions political power, and that the only satisfactory expression of the workers’ demands is to be found politically in a separate and independent labour party, and economically in the industrial union.” He then set about organizing a union. He stood on his soap box during lunch hour in power-houses and shops all over the city.
Quill recalled: “We were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers; we were all poor, we were all overworked, we were all victims of the 84 hour week. In fact, we were all so low down on the economic and social ladder that we had nowhere to go but up.”
Quill and some of his fellow Irish immigrants became involved in Irish Worker’s Clubs that were established by James Gralton, and were affiliated with the American Communist Party. Gralton’s political views got him deported from Ireland in 1933 as an “undesirable alien”; even though he was born in Co. Leitrim because of pressure from the Catholic Church. This made him the only Irishman ever to be deported by the Irish government.
Quill didn’t find much difference in the attitude of Irish-American Organisations that were Catholic church-based. Quill recalled: “We went to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, but they would have nothing to do with the idea of organizing Irishmen into a legitimate union. We went to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and they threw us out of their meeting hall. They wanted no part of Irish rebels or Irish rabble. That was the reception we got from those conservative descendants of Ireland’s revolutionists of a hundred years ago.”
Making no bones or apologies, he said “I worked with the Communists. In 1933 I would have made a pact with the Devil himself if he could have given us the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. The Communist Party needed me, and I needed them. I knew what the transit workers needed. The men craved dignity, longed to be treated like human beings. The time had come to get off our knees and fight back.”
FOUNDING A TRADE UNION
On 12 April 1934, Quill, along with six other Irishmen including Thomas H. O’Shea and Austin Hogan from Co. Cork, and Gerald O’Reilly from Co. Meath formed the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). All seven including Quill were members of Clan na Gael, an Irish Republican organisation that succeeded the Fenian Brotherhood as the American branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). They were said to have initially applied the rules and practices of secrecy from that tradition. Quill was to remain a silent financial supporter of the Republican cause in Ireland his whole life.
Like Quill, they were all influenced by Connolly’s ideas and writings; in particular, Connolly’s 1910 pamphlet “The Axe To The Root” where he wrote specifically about a recent 1910 transit workers strike in New York that had failed, known as the New York Express Strike.
Connolly wrote: “It was not the scabs (strikebreakers, replacements) however, who turned the scale against the strikers in favour of the masters. That service to capital was performed by good union men with union cards in their pockets. These men were the engineers in their power-houses which supplied the electric power to run their cars, and without whom all the scabs combined could not have run a single trip.”
The very name of the union was a tip of the hat to James Larkin and James Connolly’s Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU). In fact the word “Transit” is more normally used than “Transport” regarding that industry in the US. Thomas H. O’Shea was the Union’s first president, followed by Quill, who would remain president for the remainder of his life.
The Union began with a membership of 400, then eventually represented all 14,000 IRT workers. An African-American porter named Clarence King was elected to the first TWU executive board. In 1937 there was a sit-down strike on the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT); the second-largest Transit company in New York. Two BMT employees at the Kent Avenue Brooklyn station were fired for union activity. The 500 members of TWU in the company secured their re-instatement. It eventually represented all BMT employees as well.
Quill began to involve himself in city politics and was elected to the New York City Council in 1937 representing the American Labor Party. His whole career people loved or hated him, with no middle ground. He returned to Ireland to marry Mollie on 26 December 1937. They would return to New York to live, where she bore a son; John Daniel Quill, named after Michael’s father. Theirs proved to be an unhappy marriage of convenience. Quill filled this void first with drink, later with extramarital romance.
While in Ireland, he met with Michael O’Riordan from Co. Cork, who was headed to Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic in that country’s Civil War; which side Quill supported. Michael Lehane, the child of a neighbor from Kilgarvan, also went to Spain to fight fascism.
In 1939, he organized a rally against anti-semitism in a heavily Irish neighborhood in The South Bronx attended by four thousand. This was in response to Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-semitic campaign preaching to New York’s Irish. Fr. Coughlin was born in Canada of Irish parents, but moved to the US. He began radio broadcasting in 1926 in response to a Ku Klux Klan anti-catholic attack on his church in Michigan, but moved into political commentary and also moved far to the political right. Fr. Coughlin’s sympathies to the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini got him removed from the air later in 1939.
Having little use for the church, this is how Quill summed up his personal philosophy: “I believe in the Corporal Works Of Mercy, the Ten Commandments, the American Declaration Of Independence and James Connolly’s outline of a socialist society. Most of my life I’ve been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother’s keeper. I organise poor and exploited workers, I fight for the civil rights of minorities, and I believe in peace. It appears to have become old-fashioned to make social commitments; to want a world free of war, poverty and disease. This is my religion.”
TESTIFYING AT MC CARTHY HEARINGS
In April of 1940, former TWU President and founder Thomas O’Shea; who had been earlier been ousted from the union testified against his former fellow union leaders including Quill. He alleged that the union was in complete control of the communist party and their goal was to promote revolution through strikes. Quill testified in the US House Of Representatives before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and denied these allegations, calling O’Shea a “stool pigeon.” He told Chairman Martin Dies: “You are afraid to hear the truth about our union. You can’t take it, but the American labour movement will live.”
Also in 1940, the city purchased the BMT and IRT. This put Quill in the path of every New York mayor from then on, beginning with Italian-American Republican Fiorello LaGuardia. Years ahead of his time, in 1944, Quill introduced a bill in the City Council to establish free childcare centers for working mothers. Also in 1944, he ended a TWU wildcat (unauthorised) strike in Philadelphia initiated by a racist reaction to a contract that secured promotions to conductor for eight black porters.
After World War II and the Holocaust, Quill said “We licked the race haters in Europe, but the millions of Jewish dead cannot be restored to life”. He was re-elected to the City Council also in 1945. His election campaign manager was Shirley Ukin, a fiery former communist born in Brooklyn Of Russian-Jewish parents with whom he began a longtime affair. She had worked with him in TWU from the beginning. In the late 40’s the union expanded to include airline workers, utility workers and railroad workers.
Also after the war, under pressure from the government on communists in the labor movement but mostly his own dissatisfaction and mistrust caused him to purge the communists out of the Union. In 1948 he secured a large increase for subway workers from Democratic Mayor William O’Dwyer, a native of Bohola, Co. Mayo.
In the 50’s he supported the candidacy of Democrat Robert F. Wagner for mayor. Wagner’s German-born father, a US Senator for New York (Democrat 1927-1949) had authored the Wagner Act Of 1935 that created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which protected workers’ rights to organise and strike.
Quill’s past relationship with the communist party continued to be criticised. He was nicknamed “Red Mike”. Wagner was elected to three terms and his administration was able to come to collective bargaining agreements with the TWU.
IN THE US TRADE UNION MOVEMENT AGAINST RACISM
Mollie died August 16, 1959. In 1961 he married Shirley; his longtime girlfriend who had previously been married and divorced twice. She would later carry on his union work and write his biography. Also in 1961, Quill received a letter from twenty-five TWU members in Tennessee protesting the Union’s support for Civil Rights and de-segregation. He responded by inviting a prominent black Civil Rights leader to address the Union Convention, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he admired.
He introduced Dr. King as “The man who is entrusted with the banner of American liberty that was taken from Lincoln when he was shot 95 years ago.” This was indeed high praise as the only two pictures in Quill’s office were of President Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly. The two became friends. As far back as 1938, Quill made a statement much like Dr. King’s famous speeches: “If we, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and gentile, are good enough to slave and sweat together, then we are good enough to unite and fight together”.
In November 1965, John Lindsay was elected Mayor. The aristocratic Protestant Republican whose name he intentionally mispronounced as “Linsley” immediately rubbed Quill the wrong way. Quill quipped: “we explored his mind (Lindsay) yesterday and found nothing there.” This was amid the union negotiating a raise for its members due to inflation caused by the War in Vietnam, of which Quill was typically an early critic.
The TWU had always threatened a strike that could cripple the city of New York, the largest in the US; a city of 8 million where many people’s commutes involve travel across rivers. Manhattan, the center of commerce is an island. Quill knew and stated that this was from where came the union’s power. Quill had seen many Mayors come and go and such a situation had always been averted.
Before he took office, Lindsay felt empowered and entitled to “call their bluff”. He felt such a strike was illegal as it would endanger public safety as transportation is a public utility. He also seemed to feel the union was incapable of pulling it off as history had shown. Irish-American newspaper journalist Jimmy Breslin observed: “[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Mike Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Lindsay was sworn in on 1 January 1966. The same day, 33,000 members of the TWU announced a strike and 2,000 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) also joined them. This demonstrated James Connolly’s lesson from “Axe To The Root” put into action.
A legal injunction was issued to stop the strike along with an order for the arrest of Quill and eight others: Matthew Guinan, Frank Sheehan, Daniel Gilmartin, Ellis Van Riper, and Mark Kavanagh of the TWU and John Rowland, William Mangus, and Frank Kleess of the ATU) effective at 1am January 4th.
Quill tore up the injunction and famously said in his thick Kerry accent: “The judge can drop dead in his black robes. I don’t care if I rot in jail. I will not call off the strike.” Only two hours after being imprisoned; Quill who was sixty years old and had health issues with his heart, suffered a heart attack and was sent to Bellevue Hospital. He had ignored all medical advice from his doctors and the strain of the battle was taking its toll. Ironically, he had to wait two hours for an ambulance because the strike had indeed brought the city to a grinding halt.
15,000 workers picketed City Hall on 10 January. The strike ended on 13 January with a huge victory. The TWU had secured the workers a package worth $60 million. Hourly wages rose from $3.18 to $4.14 per hour. Quill seemed to be on the mend and was released from the hospital on 25 January. Quill died in his sleep of congestive heart failure on 28 January. Like ancient Irish High King Brian Boru, he had won his greatest victory at the cost of his own life. His coffin was draped in the Irish
Upon his death, the TWU Express newspaper reported: “Mike Quill did not hesitate or equivocate. He died as he lived fighting the good fight for the TWU and its members.” His friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said of him: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life: Irish independence, labor organization, and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. When the totality of a man’s life is consumed with enriching the lives of others, this is a man the ages will remember. This is a man who has passed on but who has not died.”
In 1987, The Michael J. Quill Cultural & Sports Centre was opened in the predominantly Irish-American hamlet of East Durham, NY featuring an authentic Irish cottage and the largest scale map of Ireland in the world. There is also a Michael J. Quill centre in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry. In 1999, the MTA named the West Side bus garage the Michael J. Quill Depot. The TWU today has a diverse membership of over 100,000.
*Originally posted by K. Rooney September 23, 2018
by Diarmuid Breatnach
In 1964 the TWU offered the Irish Government to carefully remove Nelson’s Column in O’Connell Street. Quill wrote that the scale of the statue and its location would give the impression to visitors that the Irish looked up to Nelson and that it meant to them what the Statue of Liberty meant to US citizens. The TWU volunteered to pay for its removal and its replacement with a more appropriate one among which they included Pearse, Connolly or Larkin.
The Irish Government passed the letter to Dublin Corporation (now DCC) who claimed that since the column was managed by a Trust, the Corporation had no power to remove it.
Two years later, the 50th anniversary year of the Easter Rising, a ‘dissident’ group of the IRA, Saor Éire, took matters into their own hands and demolished the structure, commonly known as Nelson’t Pillar.
Language is a treasure chest, full of jewels: history, philosophy, humour, politics, sex, literature, natural history ….. It is a chest full of wonders but it has some horrors in it too. I want now just to run my fingers through a few of those jewels, letsome of those wonders trickle through my fingers and before your eyes.
Language is composed of symbols – spoken words, then squiggles to represent those words on stone, wood, paper and electronic screens. In visual interaction, those symbols are accompanied by other symbols such as facial expression, hand gestures, bodily posture, tone, pitch, volume, emphasis …. yes, and chemical emissions. Different languages — sophisticated whole systems of symbols – have been developed for communication of information and recording but not only for those: for expression of emotion too. And each carries the history, philosophy etc of the particular culture that gave rise to that language and often many other cultures too. In turn, language comes to leave its imprint on the speakers of the language, to mold their very minds to some extent, shaping their culture. So when a language dies, much more dies than just a system of recording and communication.
We can see residues of Irish and the Gaelic culture in the way Irish people speak English, even those who have not been Irish-speaking in generations. We go to see a filum, sweep with a floor brush instead of “a broom”, reply to a question with a positive or negative of the same verb (will you go? I will/ I will not). Or we might have a thirst on us and go to a pub if the humour was on us. That pronunciation of an imaginary vowel between the ‘L’ and the ‘M’ is a residue of the Irish language and having physical and emotional feelings being on us, instead of having them, as in standard English, are the ghosts of expression in Irish. When other cultures are happy to thank us a thousand we say thanks a million, not because we are a thousand times more thankful than every other culture but probably because a million sounds like the Irish word for thousand, míle, from Go raibh míle maith agat.
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Recently I was reading a novel, mostly based in Exeter, a city in Devon, SW England and I learned that the city’s name is derived primarily from the river Exe, with the ‘ter‘ being part of the noun ‘ceaster’ which meant first a Roman military camp (caster) and later, a town. Many place-names in England contain that ‘ceaster’, ‘caster’ or its variant ‘chester, for example “Lancaster” and “Manchester”.
Of course, with regard to the ‘Exe’, I could not help but think of ‘uisce’, the Irish word for “water”. And I’ve known for some time that Devon and Somerset have a great many megalithic monuments (more than Ireland even I read somewhere) and that nearby Cornwall has a surviving Celtic tongue (though spoken by few today). Anyway, I did a little digging with the help of the Oracle of Delphi, which today goes by the name of Google (which by the way in a short space of time has become an internationally-recognised noun and verb!).
The Wikipedia entry for Exeter tells us that the river Exe in the name of the city is from Old Brittonic, a Celtic language and means “ ‘water’ or more exactly ‘full of fish’”. Well that sounds pretty much like the meaning of the word “uisce” in Irish, which is also a Celtic language. But the Wikipedia entry for the river itself, as distinct from the town, says that the word “comes from the Common Brittonic word ‘iska’” meaning ‘water’ etc. But then the entry goes on to make the extraordinary claim that the word is unrelated to the word “whisky” while at the same time stating the latter word comes from classical Irish/Gaelic “uisce beatha” (‘water of life’). But since the Brittonic word for the river means ‘water’ and the Irish ‘uisce beatha’ (which became ‘whisky’) means ‘water of life’, then the words iska/ exe and uisce are obviously not only closely related but almost exactly the same!
Perhaps the entry meant something else and merely expressed it badly.
However, I am grateful to Wikipedia for drawing my attention to the connection between the Celtic words for ‘water’, ‘river’ and ‘fish’. Because the word for ‘fish’ in Irish is of course ‘iasc‘ which is not a million miles away in sound from ‘exe’ or even ‘uisce’. And if we were to stick the letter ‘P’ before the word ‘iasc‘, which the Gaels would never do, given that they avoided that letter and sound whenever they could, we would get the word ‘piasc‘, quite like the plural word for fish in Welsh, ‘pysg‘. And of course sisters of this word can be seen through some of the Romance languages, which in many ways are close to the Celtic: pez in Castillian, peixos in Catalan, peixe in Portuguese, pesce in Italian. And of course, for the astrologers, Pisces (Pis-kays) from the Latin, the star sign of the fish.
Now, the Greek word for ‘fish’ is psari, not all that similar (although it begins with the letter P too) but here’s a weird coincidence: the Greek name for the fish symbol used by early Christians, which is supposedly based on the first letters of the Greek words for Jesus, anointed, son, God and saviour ….. is the ‘ichtus‘. And the sound of ichtus is not a million miles away from the sound of iasc!
Anyway, back to Exeter, probably a Celtic settlement in a Celtic land by a river with a Celtic name, in a Celtic language, later a Roman town (perhaps preceded by a Roman military camp) with the word for ‘town’ coming from Latin, then overlaid by Saxon language.
“Old Brittonic” is the name given by philologists to the Celtic language once spoken all over Britain and of which the remaining survivors are Welsh and Cornish and, on the European mainland, Breton in Brittany and some words in Gallego in Galicia. Philologists call that branch of the Celtic languages ‘P-Celtic‘ because of its many old words beginning with the letter “P” which in Irish and other Goidelic or Q-Celtic languages (Manx and Scots Gaedhlig) begin with the letter “C”.
Exeter is an old place name in Devon and old place-names – as distinct from new ones like “Sea-View” used by property merchants to sell housing estates – tell us a lot about the history and culture of the people who named them and, often, something about their past in nature (for example all the places named after trees in this now-deforested Ireland).
Twenty-six, more than half the names of the 50 states that form the USA, are formed from Native American words or phrases. The original Americans, dispossessed, so many of them wiped out and a very small minority remaining in their ancestral lands, must find it hard to insist on the usage of their own place-names. Yet many of those have survived – European colonisers learned the names from the natives and for convenience continued to use them in their European languages so that they have now become US English words.
Of the Anglicised names of the 32 Counties of Ireland, only three are not of Irish origin – and the “English” names of those three were given to them by the Vikings. We are surrounded by the signs of our native language and culture but, for most of us, also cut off from them. This is hard to justify since unlike the Native Americans, for the most part, we have absorbed the invaders and we remain the majority on our land.
And yes, “Britain” and “Britons” were words associated with Celtic culture, derived from Praetani or Pretani, meaning “the people of Britain” and perhaps once a dominant Celtic tribe. Yes, and “Scotland”, it turns out, referred to a land in the north of Britain colonised by the Irish, to which they brought their language which has now developed into Scots Gaedhlig. And in the Middle Ages, a “Scotus” (Scot) was more likely to be an Irishman than what we today call a “Scotsman”.
And the “Scots” language of the poetry of Robbie Burns, including its practically extinct variant “Ulster Scots”, is actually based on German from Saxony and, except for some words, not Celtic at all!
Yes, it can all be a bit confusing. But interesting too.