How the Irish emigrant’s son Jim Donovan did a deal with the Cuban revolutionary leader

The stakes were high at the Cuban military airfield in San Antonio de los Baños, some 20 miles south west of Havana, two days before Christmas in 1962.

It was to have been the climax of an incredible Cold War achievement by the grandson of a man who had emigrated to the US from Clonakilty, Co Cork, some 92 years before.

His grandfather’s exact birthplace has yet to be established, but West Cork is a stronghold of the Donovan/O’Donovan clan for at least 1,000 years, and the name is still prominent in the region.

James B Donovan, a brilliant insurance lawyer from New York, had spent months negotiating with Cuban leader Fidel Castro for the release of almost 1,200 prisoners held on the Communist island nation 90 miles across the water from Florida.

All were members of Brigade 2056 who had taken part in the disastrous American supported April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which became a defining event in the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The captured prisoners were later sentenced to up to 30 years in prison at their trial in Havana. The court adding that payment of a $62m ransom would secure their release.

They were held in terrible conditions and harshly treated, which caused President Kennedy a lot of anguish because he blamed himself for their plight.

How the Irish emigrant’s son Jim Donovan did a deal with the Cuban revolutionary leader

His brother, attorney general Robert F Kennedy met with the Cuban Families Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners of War, which was struggling to raise the funds to secure the release of the men.

But the US government could not be seen to be directly involved in the negotiations, although they gave them covert backing.

“What you need,” RFK told the families, “is a man who knows how to deal with Castro… I think I know of a lawyer who might help.”

Jim Donovan agreed to represent the committee pro bono and, like any good lawyer, he did his homework on Cuba and its revolutionary dictator.

He even made a note ahead of their first meeting to make sure he mentioned his own Irish heritage. He figured it would be of interest to Castro.

It was a wise move because the Cuban leader had swept to power beside his fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, who often proclaimed that his ancestors were from one of the great tribes of Ireland, the Lynchs of Galway.

Donovan made many trips to Havana, slowly building trust with Castro. They often talked through the night about everything and anything. And it eventually paid off.

A widely read man with a tough streak and a passion for justice, he eventually convinced Castro to accept much needed medicines and baby food in exchange for the prisoners. But it almost all fell apart in October 1962.

The US discovered that the Soviet Union had deployed lethal missiles in Cuba with the capacity of destroying many of its major cities and killing millions of people within minutes of being launched.

What became known as the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the verge of nuclear war, but President Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba instead of air strikes and invasion, and the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev backed down.

Amazingly, Donovan’s friendship with Castro survived, and the two men took up where they had left off. With Kennedy’s popularity soaring in the US following his handling of the crisis, a new impetus was given to the efforts to bring the Cuban prisoners home for Christmas.

Castro eventually settled on $53m worth of baby food and medicines, donated by companies all over the US, instead of a cash payment.

The airlift of the prisoners began two days before Christmas, when the first 107 men boarded a DC6 airliner supplied by Pan American World Airways.

How the Irish emigrant’s son Jim Donovan did a deal with the Cuban revolutionary leader

But after just four flights, the operation was suddenly suspended to the consternation of the prisoners’ relatives waiting in Miami for their return. Castro had changed his mind.

He told Donovan he had not been paid $2.9m for 60 wounded prisoners released earlier in the year, and warned he would halt the release of the remaining 623 men unless he got his money.

The White House went into overdrive as Christmas Eve broke over Washington. Robert Kennedy quickly raised $1.9m, but another $1m was still required and the clock was ticking towards Christmas Day.

Richard Cardinal Cushing’s telephone rang beside his bed in Boston at 5am.

The attorney general of the US had turned to an old family friend to rescue the deal with Castro by asking him to come up with the rest of the money before the day was out.

Cushing, a product of South Boston, an Irish stronghold, was a kind and generous man, despite his gruff voice, was rarely at ease in his colourful robes, which he referred to as his “glad rags” and often described his biretta as his “beanie.”

His father Patrick went to the US from Glanworth, Co Cork, in about 1879 and worked as a blacksmith repairing trolleys for a railway company in Boston.

Mary, his mother, was a Dahill from Touraneena, Co Waterford, between the sprawling Knockmealdown and Comeragh mountains.

“I’ll call you back in three hours,” Cushing told Kennedy.

When he did, it was to tell him he had the raised the $1m and that it would be delivered to him at the White House about 6pm.

He had borrowed the cash from friends and paid it all back within months.

The prelate, who later became a Freeman of Cork and Dublin, and visited his ancestral Glanworth and other places in Ireland, was one of the first public figures in the United States to have branded Castro a communist.

“When I see a bird walking like a duck, waddling like a duck, swimming like a duck, eating like a duck, I know that bird is a duck.

“And when I see a man imitating communists, following the line of communism, acting like a communist, I know that man is a communist,” he said.

Back at the military airfield near Havana, the mood was tense that Christmas Eve, but it was eased by Jim Donovan’s ready wit.

When four Soviet MIG fighter jets swooped low over the airfield in a show of power, Castro and everyone else hit the ground, prompting Donovan to shout: “It’s the invasion.”

Castro laughed and so did all the others.

John Nolan, a lawyer who had been sent by Robert Kennedy to help with the final stages of the mission, maintained that Jim Donovan’s Irish humour kept the Cuban leader in a good mood during those tense final hours.

At one stage, the man with his family roots stretching all the way back to Clonakilty, joked with Castro that with all the food and medicine he had won for Cuba, he was thinking of standing against him in the next election.

“I think I can take you,” Donovan said.

“You know, Doctor,” Castro replied, “I think you are right. So we will have no elections.”

With the cheque in Castro’s bank account, the planes started to fly again and the last of the prisoners were home with their families for Christmas.

Jim Donovan maintained his links with Fidel Castro and made several more trips to Cuba, securing the release of another 8,000 or so prisoners.

He was accompanied on one occasion by his 18-year-old son, John.

Castro showed them the sights including the Bay of Pigs and hinted he would like to improve relations with the US, something Kennedy privately welcomed.

But those faint hopes were shattered when the 35th president of the United States was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Jim Donovan, a deeply thoughtful man whose life touched some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, died of a heart attack in 1970, one month short of his 54th birthday.

His tombstone bears the opening lines of the prayer of St Francis which he often carried with him on a card: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.”

The prayer goes on: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith.”

He even read it to Castro when a troubled world, then as now, cried out for the aspirations that it proclaims.


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