John Leary changed the course of Irish history.
“Who?” Says Your Man up in Pearl River?
Not much is known about Mr. Leary except that he had stepped out to buy a “pack of fags” in Wexford town in 1911 and literally ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Not them Yellowbellies again!” Fumes Pearl River. “They never let well enough alone.”
Indeed, the citizens of my hometown are renowned for stirring up trouble: in 1798 they seceded from the British Empire and proclaimed Wexford a free French Republic. The comrades barely had time to learn the words of Le Marseillaise before the forces of the crown counter-attacked and hung many of them from the rickety bridge that spans the Slaney.
The Wexford proletariat were no less riled up in 1911 when the owners of the two largest local manufacturing firms, Pierces and the Star, forbade their employees to join the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
James Connolly hastened down from Dublin and led the outraged citizenry through the streets in a series of torch-lit processions. The factory owners, un-amused by such shenanigans, complained to the Royal Irish Constabulary, whereupon the RIC baton-charged and that’s when the unfortunate Mr. Leary threw a spanner in the works of Irish history. He took a severe blow to the noggin and soon thereafter departed this earthly coil.
Now Wexford people take their annual drubbing by Kilkenny hurlers with a certain sang-froid but they draw the line at the cracking of innocent skulls. Battle lines were drawn: the strike and subsequent lockout dragged on for many cruel and hungry months before the workers capitulated and reluctantly promised they would forswear any further notion of collective bargaining and other such communist carryon.
Bitter seeds were sown and, even in my boyhood over fifty years later, class resentment still lingered in the narrow streets and back lanes of the old town.
Leary’s death, however, was to have other implications. James Connolly concluded that factory owners could always summon the RIC in times of industrial strife. He decided that workers had need of protection in their ongoing struggle for decent conditions and a living wage – hence, the formation of the Irish Citizen Army.
The ICA became a factor in the great Dublin lockout of 1913 by neutralizing the gangs of hired thugs who terrorized the strikers. Alas, this strike too was broken leading Connolly to decide that the only way to change the system was by armed revolt. In 1916 he commanded the uprising from the General Post Office – which event, for better or worse, spawned the Irish Free State in 1922.
There are no statues to John Leary in Wexford. Few even remember his name. However, the town is seething once again. The manufacturing plants have long gone -replaced by supermarkets or abandoned hulks of stone and girding.
The factory owners long ago took their profits and repaired to the leafy groves of Dublin or London leaving only resentment in their wake. That hereditary bitterness is now directed at the banks, property developers and politicians who recently crippled the country, its credit, and even worse its sense of confidence and identity.
The young are tripping over themselves to flee a mortgaged state that was thriving only seven or so years ago. What went wrong?
The same deadbeat litany as over here – cheap credit, speculation that bordered on gambling, and a punctured housing bubble, but also, rather uniquely, a political class too stupid to even run the figures before they financially guaranteed a bunch of latter day gombeen bankers.
Meanwhile, the ghost of James Connolly peers down from atop the GPO shaking his head in disbelief: how many times had he warned about such an eventuality. And by his side the fractured shade of John Leary grieves for the vast majority of Irish people who had nothing to do with any of the excess but just like him happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so it goes...
Happy May Day, comrades!