Entertainment Books

Monday 14 October 2019

Review: Biography: Jim Kemmy - Stonemason, Trade Unionist, Politician, Historian by Brian Callahan

Stephen O'Byrnes on a biography of the erudite Jim Kemmy
The Liffey Press, €17.95

Stephen O'Byrnes

It was September 1997. Deputy Jim Kemmy was enduring his losing battle with cancer in St James's Hospital, Dublin. Many of his Labour Party colleagues were calling to see him; among them Dick Spring, until recently Tanaiste of the Rainbow Coalition. "Things must be bad when you are coming to see me", was Jim's blunt greeting. It was a sad footnote to Jim's 25-year turbulent relationship with the party, when his unflinching socialism and radicalism often brought him and the party into serious conflict.

However, later that month at his secular and humanist funeral service in Mount St Lawrence Cemetery in Limerick, Spring was one of the speakers, invited to address mourners by Jim's brother, Joe, one of his long-time campaign managers. The Limerick East deputy was just 61 years old when he died, and he spent his final days proof-reading his last book, The Limerick Compendium, which was published posthumously.

Jim Kemmy was an amazing man, and Brian Callanan's clunky and uneven biography is worth persevering with to appreciate the incredible range of his accomplishments, and his tireless political campaigning.

Forced to leave school at 16 years of age, following the death of his father from TB in 1952, he served a five-year apprenticeship as a stonemason, becoming the third generation of the family to follow that craft.

With little work around, he headed for London in 1957 and spent three years there. His socialist outlook, and burning concern for the underdog, blossomed there. So, too, did his love of books and learning.

In later years, he wrote a poem called Exiled Memory '57, where he vividly describes the exile's experience that probably resonates for many of today's fresh wave of Irish emigrants; mobile phones and Skype notwithstanding: "Straining for a homely voice/ Or a helping hand./ Choked with homesickness./ Hoping for the best./ Fearing the worst./ Holding on. . ."

Back in Limerick in the 1960s, Kemmy was soon immersed in local Labour Party politics, but his politics were way too radical for many of the local party stalwarts, especially its colourful then TD, Stevie Coughlan. Lots of rows and controversies ensued, culminating in the departure of Kemmy and some 40 members to establish the Democratic Socialist Party in 1972.

Callanan's narrative relates the many tensions and breaking points. Kemmy favoured Irish entry to the then EEC in 1973; Labour opposed it. And with the Northern Ireland conflagration becoming ever bloodier, he came to espouse the controversial 'Two Nations' theory.

In 1974, he established one of Ireland's earliest family planning clinics in Limerick, but for the first three years it had to rely on a doctor from Dublin to host the clinics, as no local doctor would get involved.

It was in this period, too, that Jim established the Limerick Socialist magazine, which espoused strident left-wing positions on local controversies, and the burning national issues.

A few years later, he founded the Old Limerick Journal, which became the platform of his great love of local history and built heritage. Callanan also explains that the circle of contributors -- some conservative, some devout Catholics -- influenced Jim to be more accepting of disparate viewpoints and philosophies.

These were wonderful publications and, on a personal note as a Limerick person, I found them a great source of knowledge and pride about all things to do with the region.

Kemmy eventually won a Dáil seat in the June 1981 general election under his Democratic Socialist Party banner, and the book recounts in detail his pivotal role in bringing down the first Garret FitzGerald government in the following February in protest at cuts in food subsidies and VAT on children's shoes. In the ensuing election, he held his seat. However, in the third election in that turbulent 18-month period, that of November 1982, Kemmy was defeated by Labour's Frank Prendergast.

However, it was the horribly divisive and emotive pro-life amendment campaign of that time that scuttled him. Kemmy refused to go with the emotional Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) tide sweeping the larger parties in its wake, and asserted that abortion could be justified if a woman's life was endangered, or where there was congenital deformity of the foetus.

A Limerick Leader editorial that appeared during that election campaign certainly did not pull its punches: "Abortionist Jim Kemmy is hitting below the belt ... let the people decide which is the better way -- the pro-life way or Kemmy's way of death".

Eventually, the DSP standard-bearer did manage to secure re-election to the Dáil in the next contest, five years on in 1987, and two years later -- largely due to the efforts of the then general secretary of the Labour Party, Ray Kavanagh -- a reconciliation with Labour was effected and the DSP merged with that party, though "merger" was obviously overstating the real politic that drove both sides. Current Labour Minister Jan O'Sullivan was its only other elected representative at the time (Limerick City Council).

But as Callanan graphically outlines in his book, it was a story that did not have a happy ending. When the Spring-tide Labour victory of November 1989 ensued, Kemmy had high hopes of a cabinet seat. That he did not secure even a junior ministry then, in the Labour-Fianna Fáil alliance, or in the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left Rainbow Coalition in 1994, was a source of bitter disappointment. The consolation prize was chairmanship of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He certainly deserved better.

Stephen O'Byrnes is a communications consultant and former policy director of the Progressive Democrats

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top