July 2014        

The hall that Jimmy built

James Gralton was the only Irish person (so far) to be deported from the country of his birth as an undesirable alien. The deportation was ordered on the grounds of dubious logic and equally dubious legality, which claimed that because he had adopted American citizenship he was a foreigner.
      Gralton’s story is told in Ken Loach’s film Jimmy’s Hall, with many vignettes of life in 1930s Ireland. In the 1920s and early 30s the counter-revolution of 1922 was enforced by the guns of the Free State army, the batons of the Garda Síochána, the excommunication threats of the Catholic Church, the credit control of the gombeen-men, and later the knuckledusters of the Blueshirts.
      Republicans were forced to emigrate in their thousands to avoid repression and planned discrimination in employment. It was a period of utter confusion in the republican movement, and of Fianna Fáil opportunism, which eventually led down the slippery slope to full collaboration with imperialism.
      The film touches on many aspects of life at the time, such as the lack of recreation facilities as well as unemployment and the puritanism of the time (which, let us not forget, permeated all of society, including the working class). Dancing at crossroads, a traditional communal pastime, was liable to be broken up by morality-enforcers armed with nasty clubs, on the grounds that such events were “occasions of sin.”
      The Catholic Church had played a leading part in the destruction of the incipient republic in 1922 and had strengthened its position in 1929 with huge ceremonies celebrating the centenary of Catholic Emancipation. Then came the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, a display of ecclesiastical triumphalism that exploited the religious beliefs of the majority to fortify the established social order. Indeed it was believed by some that religion and nationality were coterminous, or ought to be.
      There were, of course, such priests as Father Michael O’Flanagan, who supported republicanism in Ireland and in Spain, but they were a small minority.
      Some aspects of the period will appear both funny and scary to the present generation, such as the campaign against jazz. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in that campaign, although most of them probably had never heard jazz.
      Other events are recalled in the film, such as the “outdoor relief riots” of 1932 in Belfast. This was a campaign for an increase in the dole, in which communists played a leading role and which united Catholic and Protestant workers—something that terrified the Orange oligarchy. It is suggested that the exclusion of the English communist trade union leader Tom Mann from Northern Ireland and his “extradition” to Britain put the idea of expelling Gralton from Ireland into the minds of his enemies.
      The question arises, Why was James Gralton (1886–1945) such a hate figure for the powers that be? Fianna Fáil could handle radicals; de Valera had a few around him (mainly female), for a while at least. Gralton was a communist, in ideology and affiliation, and a communist known, liked and respected in his own community of small farmers and agricultural labourers. Worse, he had renovated the Pearse-Connolly Hall in Effrinagh, five miles from Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim, not merely as a meeting-place or a recreation hall but as a centre for adult education. Now, that was really dangerous. (At about the same time the communist professor of Greek at University College, Galway, George Thomson, pioneered extra-mural courses open to all in Irish towns. That scheme too came under suspicion and was eventually terminated, and a sigh of relief no doubt went up from supporters of the ruling class when he returned to his native England in 1934.)
      This is one of Ken Loach’s best films. He is a brilliant film-maker, though his brilliance is sometimes dimmed by his ultra-leftist prejudice against organised communism. This film is free of that. Even his distinctive discussion scenes in Jimmy’s Hall are, for once, realistic and untiring.
      On his return to Ireland in 1932 Gralton joined the Leitrim Revolutionary Workers’ Group. These groups were the successors of the first Communist Party of Ireland of 1921–23 and became the core of the Communist Party refounded in 1933 under the leadership of Young Jim Larkin and Seán Murray. From his deportation to his death from cancer in New York in 1945, Gralton was an active member of the Communist Party of the USA. He became a trade union organiser and was involved in fund-raising for the International Brigades in Spain.
      Irish communists and the left in general belong to a great native tradition, in which Jim Gralton is a shining light.

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