Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Dunganstown Brothers

So the last of the brothers passed away; now who’ll keep the dream alive?
That’s what those Kennedy boys were all about – the notion that we could be bigger than ourselves. And that’s why so many people the world over looked up to them. They were a symbol of a land of opportunity where, with hard work, your dreams would come true.
They had their flaws – some grievous – but so had Hamilton, Jefferson and Roosevelt. We overlooked those shortcomings, because they gave much and, after all, we’re in the business of electing politicians not altar boys.
The Kennedys epitomized the ideal that if you get ahead, you should stretch a hand back to those left behind.
That particular ethos originated for them on a small farm in Dunganstown, County Wexford where Patrick Kennedy weathered the worst of the famine years of 1845-47. When he sailed for Boston in 1848 he could not help but take with him the sights, sounds and smells of that holocaust.
He bequeathed them to his son, the saloonkeeper, PJ, and they were, in turn, passed on to his grandson, Joseph, who made a fortune and attended the Court of St. James as Ambassador of the United States. In the midst of all that grandeur, did he ever mention that his forebears had been evicted from a small Irish farm because of Imperial British policies?
Jack, Bobby and Ted were the sons of that Ambassador. Say what you will about them, they assumed no airs or graces; nor did they forget their heritage or the responsibility they owed to the less fortunate.
President Kennedy may have fallen somewhat in stature of late, but he was sharp as a tack, welcomed dissenting opinions and was, above all, a consummate politician. You have only to read the transcripts of the Cuban Missile Crisis to appreciate the loss the world suffered at the death of this statesman in the making.
What a break for humanity that such a clear-thinking non-ideologue was at the helm and ready to defy General Curtis LeMay, and other trigger-happy nuclear warriors who might have incinerated Cuba.
And how fortunate that his pugnacious and dynamic brother, Bobby, was there to support him. Nepotism, it would appear, does work at times.
Bobby’s trajectory is proof that we can all become better than we are. Originally, a conservative counsel for the slimy red baiter Roy Cohen, he metamorphosed into a compassionate man who recognized that poverty and naked military-industrial aggression should not be endemic to the greatest country in the world.
He was driven to action, for the great-grandson of a famine survivor does not stand by while American children starve, nor when our air force indiscriminately rains down napalm bombs on cities and villages on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, in a country bristling with more guns than sense, like his brother he paid the ultimate price.
I never met Teddy Kennedy but I was twice in the same room. On both occasions I was reminded of Wexford’s hurling heroes, the Rackards - Nicky, Bobby and Billy. Perhaps, it was the similar broad forehead and big build, or was it the ready smile and innate humanity?
I could easily picture the young Harvard receiver as a full-forward, like Nicky barreling through the vaunted Kilkenny back-line. That might have been Teddy’s destiny had his great-grandfather not sailed away on a coffin ship in 1848
The Rackards and Kennedys faced metaphorically similar obstacles. Kilkenny men have perennially been superior hurlers but, every so often, the stars align and Wexford fields a team blessed with skill, forbearance and tremendous courage. Such was the case in the successful Rackard era of the 1950’s.
Ted Kennedy possessed those qualities by the bucketful. He lost many battles in a bruising career, but he never gave up on his dream of universal health care for the American people.
Now that he’s gone, will we allow our resolve to be muddled by self-interest, ignorance and corporate greed?
Better tread carefully, for we could well be stamping out a spark of hope that ignited on a small farm back in Dunganstown in far darker days.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Look up at the stars
Throw the light into dark places
You can’t see the heavens above
When you’re down there on your knees…

Many consider them the two greatest Irishmen, yet one was born in Edinburgh, the other in Liverpool. Though their reputations tend to wax and wane with the economic barometer, let us dwell on the lives of James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin on the approach of Labor Day.
Despite his Republican sympathies, my grandfather - a small businessman and their contemporary - considered Connolly a “troublemaker,” but spoke well of Larkin.
Both grew up in dire poverty, worked as children, were self-educated, read voraciously, inspired fierce loyalty, and fought bitter battles with the Catholic Church.
Yet Larkin was the more popular. Could it have been the temperament bequeathed by their birthplaces - Connolly from dour Edinburgh and Larkin from ebullient Liverpool?
Connolly, a storied organizer, was also a Marxist theoretician; his tracts are still studied and he is often cited in the battle against the integration of Ireland into the European Community. Loosely speaking, he felt that any union of capitalist-run countries would be inimical to the welfare of workers.
Larkin, on the other hand, was less concerned with theory but more instinctive and passionate. Sean O’Casey, an intimate of both, preferred Larkin, feeling that the Liverpool man would not only put a loaf of bread on each worker’s table but also a flower in a vase.
The streets of Wexford rang with their names in 1911. The town then boasted a number of large manufacturing works whose owners resolved to lock out any worker who joined a non-approved union.
Both men led torchlight processions, spoke at large rallies and urged the workers to resist. This led to tremendous hardship; scabs were imported, riots broke out and a man was killed in a baton charge.
Most workers were forced to capitulate, and Connolly and Larkin retreated to Dublin. The strike led to much bitterness and heightened class division in Wexford; it also bred a certain distaste for the parochial clergy who had sided with the bosses - as opposed to the local Franciscans who had ministered to the hungry.
Battle was rejoined on an even greater scale in 1913 when Connolly and Larkin led the Dublin workers during the Great Lockout. They were outlasted by a confederation of employers led by William Martin Murphy, owner of many businesses including the Irish Independent.
The Irish hierarchy did not endear themselves to the workers either when they successfully objected to the children of destitute strikers being sent to the homes of sympathetic British (Protestant) trade unionists.
However little love was also lost between workers and nationalists such as Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Fein, and even the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood, because of their lack of support - mostly on account of class differences.
The defeat in 1913 profoundly affected both strike leaders. Larkin departed for the US where he became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. He stridently opposed the US entry into World War 1. A victim of the “Red Scare,” in 1920 he was sentenced to ten years in Sing-Sing for “criminal anarchy.” He was pardoned and deported back to Ireland by Governor Al Smith in 1923.
Hardened by his experiences, Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army to protect the working classes from goons and police. Although still disdainful of many in the Republican movement, he led the united forces of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army in the failed Insurrection of 1916.
Badly wounded, he was tied to a chair and shot in Kilmainham Jail by British firing squad. Many feel that this was on the insistence of his old foe, William Martin Murphy.
There is a lone statue to Connolly in Troy, NY. The fiery and charismatic Larkin is largely forgotten.
Both were unapologetic socialists, each would have been scathing of the current debate on health care reform and one can only imagine their response to the balance of power between employers and workers. But it is as leaders of the labor movement that we salute them on this coming Labor Day.

Then Jem yelled out “oh, citizens, this sytem is a curse
An English boss is a monster, an Irish one even worse
They’ll never lock us out again and here’s the reason why
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die