As historical advisor on the film Jimmy’s Hall, Donal Ó Drisceoil is happy the incredible story of Jimmy Gralton is reaching a new audience with a stage version at the Abbey
I CAN’T help but smile when I hear the prime-time ads on RTÉ radio for the Abbey Theatre’s summer offering, the musical Jimmy’s Hall –— adapted by Graham McLaren from Paul Laverty’s film script –— in which Jimmy Gralton’s fate as the only Irish person ever deported by an Irish government is highlighted.
Gralton is now getting the full ‘Riverdance’ treatment, and more and more people recognise his name and have an awareness, however slight, of his story. Six or so years ago, when I was asked by Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach –— with whom I had previously worked with much pleasure on The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) –— to act as historical consultant on their planned movie inspired by Gralton, few had ever heard of the man or his case. his was no accident.
His now-famous hall in rural Co Leitrim had been burnt to the ground by persons unknown in 1932; he was deported to the USA in 1933 and was never allowed return; and the official documentation relating to these events are mysteriously missing from the National Archives of Ireland, hindering the search for explanation by historians and others.
Laverty and Loach set about reclaiming the Gralton story from obscurity, inspired by Milan Kundera’s words in The Book of Laughter and Forgettingn : “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In the process, they wanted to use Gralton’s story to make a film that celebrated political and cultural freedom in a world where these freedoms were under increasing attack, and to portray an historical example of resistance to state and religious oppression that might resonate in the present and future.
Whereas traditional political activism and agitation form part of the resistance that Loach’s film portrays, music and dance, including the jazz music and dances imported from “roaring twenties” New York, are foregrounded in the spirit of the anarchist Emma Goldman’s admonition to the stern Bolsheviks — “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” –— and murdered Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wira’s call to his people to “Dance your anger and your joys... Dance oppression and injustice to death.”
Jimmy Gralton, from Effrinagh in Leitrim, emigrated to New York in 1907 and became an active supporter of Irish republicanism and a follower of the ideas of James Connolly. He joined the Communist Party of the USA in 1919 and returned to Leitrim just before the Truce of July 1921. The local parish hall had been burnt to the ground by the Black and Tans a year previously and Gralton set about building a new community hall on his father’s land. The Pearse- Connolly Hall opened on New Year’s Eve 1921, weeks after the signing of the Treaty.
As the independence movement split on the Treaty, courts were held in the hall to settle land disputes. A Direct Action Committee enforced court decisions and organised land seizures from landlords on behalf of tenants. The hall was also used for dances and informal education classes. Because it was outside Catholic Church control, Gralton was condemned from the pulpit.
Both the pro-Treaty ‘Free Staters’ and conservative local anti-Treaty IRA leaders opposed Gralton as Ireland moved towards civil war in June 1922. He was briefly jailed by Free State troops and, fearing for his life, fled back to New York.
The death of his brother in early 1932 coincided with the defeat of the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal government and the coming to power of the republican Fianna Fáil party, whose policies promised space for progressive politics to develop. Gralton returned to run the family farm for his aged parents and resumed his political activism, re-opening the hall and starting a local Revolutionary Workers’ Group.
His motley crew of old enemies were roused as the hall became a secular space of free thinking, radical activism and lively dance at a time when the state was copperfastening its Catholic identity through hosting the Eucharistic Congress. Censorship and suppression were being increasingly applied to the creative arts and revolutionary politics. Gralton was denounced as a dangerous communist and “agent of Satan”, and he came to realise that Fianna Fáil’s promise of freedom was a false one.
The local priests, conservative IRA leaders, Blueshirts, powerful Catholic laymen and the political police combined to plot against him and the hall was destroyed on Christmas Eve 1932. The following February, Jimmy was served with a deportation order, declaring him an “undesirable person”.
The move was inspired by the recent deportation of British communist Thomas Mann from Northern Ireland, and was made possible by Gralton’s American citizenship. In the absence of official documents, we can only surmise and speculate as to the context of this extraordinary action. I have concluded that the move originated with the powerful Catholic group, the Knights of Columbanus, of which the Minister for Justice who signed the deportation order, James Geoghegan was most likely a member.
Gralton was caught after six months on the run and sent back to New York. He never returned to Ireland and died in 1945.
The 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall achieved what pamphlets and articles by political activists and historians had failed to do, and put the Gralton scandal back on the agenda in Ireland, culminating in President Michael D. Higgins unveiling a plaque at the site of the hall last year.
While the song-and-dance extravaganza at the Abbey — which is receiving very positive reviews — might not be my personal cup of tea, I will continue to smile at this latest blow struck in the ongoing struggle of memory against forgetting.
Donal Ó Drisceoil lectures in History at UCC. He was historical advisor on the film Jimmy’s Hall (2014)
Ending the conspiracy of silence and suppression
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