Thursday 20 June 2019

Jimmy Gralton – the only Irishman ever deported from his country

Graham Clifford

As he tearfully watched Ireland disappear into the distance through his round spectacles, Jimmy Gralton realised he would never set foot in his native land again.

The year was 1933 and the gutsy Leitrim socialist became the first and only Irish citizen to ever have been deported from the country.

Inspired by communism and a fierce desire to improve the rights of the Irish peasantry, Gralton was seen as a threat to national security.

This week casting is under way for a film about his life by legendary British director Ken Loach – who made the Irish Civil War film The Wind That Shakes The Barley – with Paul Laverty on board as scriptwriter.

Filming is set to begin in north Leitrim and Sligo this August.

Born at Effernagh, near Gowel, in Leitrim on April 17, 1886, a young Jimmy was encouraged to read extensively by his mother.

Though desperate to remain in his beloved Leitrim, he emigrated to the UK and joined the British army. He deserted after refusing to serve in India.

Despite being slight in build, Jimmy worked on the Liverpool docks and in Welsh coalfields before becoming a ship's stoker. In 1909 the job would lead him to New York.

Life was good for the farmer's son in America. He took on a variety of jobs including ice-selling and gained US citizenship. All the while though his heart remained on Ireland's west coast with his people.

Inspired by the writings of James Connolly, he developed left-leaning political views and returned to Ireland on June 2, 1921.

The Black and Tans had torched the dance hall in Gowel, but Jimmy saw an opportunity amidst the ashes. He erected the large 'Pearse-Connolly Hall' on his parents' land in honour of the socialist and republican leaders of 1916.

It doubled as a dance hall and a venue from which Gralton would passionately explain his socialist viewpoints to locals.

The Direct Action Committee, which Gralton established, was based there. It helped tenant farmers regain lands from which they had been evicted.

Leading from the front, Jimmy would drive cattle on to the property of large estate-owners and former tenants would move in.

News of his activities soon reached Dublin. The clergy described him as 'an anti-Christ' and in June 1922 Free State troops came to arrest him. Gralton escaped and returned to America.

In New York he played a leading role in the formation of the powerful Transport Workers Union, but in 1932 he returned to Ireland. The dance hall was re-opened, the land agitation resumed and the fury of the clergy and local establishment re-ignited.

In local churches, congregations were told not to go to Gralton's "den of iniquity" as he was "a paid communist agent".

The numbers rowing in behind him grew and the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was spooked.

On a night in November 1932 a dozen shots were fired into the packed dance hall but miraculously none of those inside were seriously injured.

The following month, on Christmas Eve, the hall was burnt to the ground in an arson attack. A deportation order was issued ordering Gralton – "an undesirable alien" – to leave Ireland before March 5, 1933.

He went on the run, staying in the homes of supporters for six months and avoiding arrest; many people took huge risks to hide the now-balding firebrand.

With every passing week that he remained 'a wanted man' his hero status grew.

But on August 10 he was captured near Mohill. As he was led away by police he shouted to the farmer who had hid him: "So long boys, I'll return to Ireland when we've a Workers' Republic."

Taken to Cork Jail, he was deported to America from Cobh on August 13, 1933. He spent the rest of his life involved in the American Labour Movement and was a candidate for the Communist Party in local elections in Manhattan.

Jimmy died on December 29, 1945 – more than 3,000 miles away from the home to which he could never return.

Married to Bessie Cronogue, also from Leitrim, the couple never had children.

Socialist councillor Declan Bree describes Gralton as being "on a par with Larkin and Connolly as one of the great Irish socialists".

In 1996, Bree, then a Labour TD for Sligo/Leitrim, requested to see the government files relating to Gralton, but after an 'extensive' search he was told by then justice minister Nora Owen that they were missing.

In 2005, when he was mayor of Sligo, he laid a floral tribute at the grave of Gralton in New York.

When Jimmy's family were told of Loach's plans for a film, they sensed the time was right for it to be done. His cousin Paul Gralton told the Irish Independent: "You could say there are parallels between Jimmy's time and what's happening in Ireland today. Ordinary people feel under threat now as they did back then.

"We're delighted this film is going ahead. We trust Ken Loach and know he'll do a great job. After all, this is a story that needs to be told."

Irish Independent

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