I FIRST heard of Jimmy Gralton in the early 1980s when his surname was used as the title for a short-lived socialist magazine.
I remember the shock when I read about his expulsion — the only Irish person ever deported from this country (made possible because he was a naturalised US citizen).
His ‘crime’? Running a dancehall in the face of Catholic Church disapproval and ‘preaching’ socialist politics. When I went searching for the files relating to his deportation in the National Archives a decade later, they were listed but could not be found. It seemed as if someone did not want this story to be told.
A couple of small pamphlets have dealt with the Gralton story, but it is generally unknown, so I was delighted when Ken Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty told me they were wanted to make a film based on Jimmy’s experiences and the fate of his emblematic hall in Leitrim, and asked me to come on board as historical advisor.
The film is set in 1932-3, but flashes back to 1921-2 also, connecting it to a previous Loach-Laverty Irish film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. In some ways the Gralton story answers the questions posed in Barley about what sort of society an independent Ireland would be.
Gralton returned to Leitrim from New York in June 1921, just as the Anglo-Irish war was coming to a close. That conflict had largely sidelined unresolved issues of land ownership, workers’ rights and class power in general within Irish society.
These now briefly emerged more clearly. Gralton’s radical class politics made him powerful enemies, particularly the challenge to local landowners posed by the land courts based in the Pearse-Connolly Hall he built on his family’s land. As civil war loomed in the early summer of 1922, he was driven out by the pro-Treaty Free Staters.
While Gralton enjoyed the relative political freedom and socio-cultural vibrancy of New York in the ‘roaring twenties’, the Free State government of Cumann na nGaedheal, in alliance with the Catholic Church, ruled over an economically stagnant Irish Free State that was socially restrictive and culturally repressive.
Socio-economic inequality worsened, policies favoured bankers, business owners and cattle-exporting big farmers, and the urban working class and rural poor fared badly. In 1926 Éamon de Valera and his followers split from Sinn Féin and formed Fianna Fáil. It took advantage of the weakness of the Labour Party and the left to win the support of workers and small farmers in the depression after 1929. At the same time, the party reassured elites of its adherence to Catholic and capitalist principles, and it won power in 1932.
The victory of Fianna Fáil coincided with Gralton’s return to Ireland to help his elderly parents run the farm following the death of his brother. This was a honeymoon period for progressives in Ireland following a decade of repression and conservatism.
These were “days of bravemusic”, wrote socialist republican and novelist Peadar O’Donnell O’Donnell. Gralton threw himself back into agitation — aimed mainly at maintaining pressure on Fianna Fáil to deliver on its progressive promises, such as land for the landless. He rebuilt the hall, bringing music and dance to the youth and hope to the poor.
But dark clouds hovered above this new political landscape. The Catholicisation of the state was crowned in June 1932 when over a million people attended the Eucharistic Congress. Censorship and ecclesiastical condemnation of ‘evils’ such as dancing, jazz and ‘immodest fashions in female dress’ intensified, and new laws would soon restrict social freedom even further, especially for women.
The tariff war with Britain hit the pockets of large farmers hardest, which helped to radicalise the prosperous pro-Treaty constituency in a fascist direction, symbolised by the adoption of the ‘blue shirt’ uniform by the Army Comrades Association (ACA) in 1933.
Anti-communism became violent. Gralton’s socialism, combined with the challenge his hall presented to Church control, made him a prime target for a coalition of enemies: the Church, local big farmers and businessmen (organised in Catholic societies such as the Knights of St Columbanus), the police Special Branch and conservative elements of the local IRA.
In December 1932 the rebuilt Pearse-Connolly Hall was burnt to the ground by right-wing IRA men, and in February 1933 Gralton was served with a deportation order. Gralton went on the run but, despite local support and a national ‘Gralton Defence’ campaign, he was eventually tracked down and deported to the USA in August 1933, never to return. The ‘brave music’ faded, along with the glowing embers in the ashes of Jimmy Gralton’s hall.
* Dr Dónal Ó Drisceoil is a lecturer in history at UCC and was also historical advisor on The Wind That Shakes The Barley
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved