JIMMY GRALTON is the only Irishman to be deported from Ireland in the history of the state, (80 years ago), and he’s also the focus of a film being shot in Co Leitrim at the moment by Ken Loach, which is a companion piece to his 2006 Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Gralton, played by Irish actor Barry Ward in the movie, was born in 1886, one of seven children on a rush-covered, 25-acre farm in Effernagh, Co Leitrim, a few miles from Carrick-on-Shannon. After school, he drifted into the British army, and worked for a spell on the docks in Liverpool, down the coal mines in Wales, and spent years circumnavigating the world as a stoker on a tramp steamer. He settled in the US, becoming a citizen in 1909, a legal status that was used for his deportation as “an undesirable alien” years later.
He returned to Co Leitrim in June 1921, the truce in the War of Independence safeguarding him from arrest from his desertion of the British Army years earlier. Shortly after arrival, he built a new hall on his father’s land to replace the Temperance Hall in Gowel that had been burned down by the Black and Tans.
Gralton used the new Pearse-Connolly Hall for classes in English, Irish, music and woodwork, and for dances and playing jazz records on the gramophone he’d brought back with him from America. He also presided over an arbitration court in the hall from early-1922, passing down judgment on local disputes, mainly to do with land agitation.
“His first fealty was to the poor of Ireland, especially the tenants,” says Des Guckian, author of Deported: The Story of Jimmy Gralton, Effernagh, Co Leitrim. “He despised the landlords. He called them ‘a horde of people who never did a useful day’s work in their lives’.”
Gralton reinstated tenants whose land had been “grabbed”. The rogue court proved popular and effective, but drew the ire of Free State authorities. The local clergy reckoned “the Gowel Soviet,” as it was dubbed, to be “a den of inequity”. In May 1922, Gralton was arrested, jailed for a week, and fled to the United States.
He returned to Leitrim in March 1932 to take over the family farm after the death of his brother Charles. When Fr O’Dowd, the local priest in Gowel, heard about Gralton’s impending return, he kicked up at the door of Gralton’s father, a man pushing 80, and told him he didn’t want his son around because he was a communist. O’Dowd lashed out about Gralton from the pulpit, warning his congregation that he was “a paid agent of Russia”.
Gralton refused at first to reopen his hall, but later consented to holding dances, and quickly became consumed again by politics. During an impromptu speech at a sports day on the Earl of Kingston’s estate in Co Roscommon in August 1932, Gralton blathered on about “the international crisis in capitalism”, standard economics fare that could well have been spoken today, but, in a Pythonesque twist, his words were misinterpreted by two IRA men, overheard chatting on their way home — Gralton, they believed, had said there were two Christs, not one, and that the real Christ was not the Irish Christ, but a different one.
“The local IRA in Leitrim was quite reactionary,” says Donal Ó Drisceoil, the UCC historian, who works as a consultant on Loach’s Irish films. “The leading IRA people in that area were almost certainly the people involved in burning down the hall and in firing shots into the hall. The conservative elements of the IRA were part of the campaign to drive him out.”
Gralton’s hall went up in flames on Christmas Eve 1932. The fire came after an attempt to blow it up by landmine, and on the night of November 27, 1932, when about 60 people had gathered to dance to Jack Beirne’s band, shots were fired.
Andrew Mooney, the grandfather of the broadcaster and Fianna Fáil senator Paschal Mooney, tabled a motion at Leitrim County Council calling on the government to deport Gralton on the basis that he was a communist. Rumours swirled that a world congress of communism was to be held in Galway. A deportation order was served, telling him to leave Ireland before March 5, 1933. He went on the run.
“Gralton was unfortunate,” says Ó Drisceoil. “The reason it happened was that Gralton made lots of local enemies and practically the last thing that James Geoghegan, who was the Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, did before leaving office in 1933 was to sign Gralton’s deportation order, and I suspect strongly that he was a Knight of Saint Columbanus. That’s how they managed to get him to do it.
“I don’t think they thought there would be a nationwide conflagration on the basis of what was happening over a little hall in Leitrim. It was a microcosm of the intolerance, paranoia and power of the church.”
A Gralton Defence Committee, which included intellectuals like Frank O’Connor, Francis Stuart and Peadar O’Donnell, was established. O’Donnell went to Leitrim to agitate against his deportation, and was battered with fists and mud balls for his troubles by a priest-led mob.
Gralton sheltered in safe houses around his home place. Locals scrawled painted slogans such as “Up Gralton” and “Justice Demands a Fair Trial”, but the plea fell on deaf ears. Gardaí finally arrested Gralton on August 10 1933 during a raid. As he was ushered out the door of the house, he turned to those present and said, “so long boys. I’ll return to Ireland when we have a Workers’ Republic.”
Gralton was deported three days later from Cobh, Co Cork, his liner ticket to the US paid from money found by gardaí on his person. He lived out his days in New York, dying in 1945, having never returned to Ireland.
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