November 2016        

Leitrim communist remembered

On Saturday 3 September a monument to the memory of the local communist Jim Gralton was unveiled at Effrinagh, near Gowel, Co. Leitrim, by the president of the Irish state, Michael D. Higgins.
     The granite monument was erected on the site of Gralton’s Pearse-Connolly Hall at Effrinagh, which was opened on New Year’s Eve, 1922. The hall became a place of education and also a venue for dancing and social occasions for local people. It quickly became a place where young people could escape from the controlling and repressive social and cultural norms of the Catholic Church and the state.
     It was also a venue for the Republican Courts. The court sessions in the hall from 1922, with Gralton presiding, adjudicated on issues associated with land arbitration as well as cattle drives in the area. These actions expose in a small way the class tensions and the divergent class interests within the national independence movement.
     Gralton was born at Effrinagh on 17 April 1886 to Michael and Alice Gralton, small farmers. Michael Gralton, who farmed twenty-five acres, was also a founder-member of Kiltoghert Co-operative Creamery.
     Jim Gralton left school at fourteen and went to work as a shop assistant in Carrick-on-Shannon before emigrating to work on the Liverpool docks and in the Welsh coalmines and as a stoker on ships. He later joined the British army and served in India.
     After emigrating to America in 1909 and a brief spell in the US army he acquired US citizenship. He became active in trade union struggles and in the early years of the American communist movement.
     In 1921 he returned to Ireland to look after his mother and began political activity in his native townland. His activities drew him to the attention of the Free State puppet government, and in 1922 he was arrested by Free State soldiers because of his land agitation. His activities also drew opposition from leading elements within the IRA, frightened by this form of social agitation and seeing it as a distraction from the “real” struggle.
     Thousands of working people, small farmers and farm labourers marched through Carrick-on-Shannon to demand his release, which they secured.
     Shortly afterwards he returned to the United States, joining and playing an active role in the Communist Party of the USA and the wider American labour movement.
     He again returned to Ireland in 1932 and joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, the forerunner to the refounding of the CPI in 1933. His return home to Ireland and to Co. Leitrim coincided with the great suffering caused by the capitalist crisis of the 1930s. It also reawakened the memory of his previous activities, striking fear among the gombeen class in Co. Leitrim.
     The denunciation and vilification of communists such as Jim Gralton in Co. Leitrim and the communist leaders of the Castlecomer Miners’ Union in Co. Kilkenny, such as Nixie Boran, show clearly an organised attempt to marginalise and smash the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups around the country.
     Towards the end of 1932 the Pearse-Connolly Hall came under attack, and in November shots were fired at the hall. The local clergy kept up their opposition both to the hall and to Gralton himself. A clear alliance emerged around the country between the clergy, the state and gombeen business interests to smash the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups and to marginalise rural radical activists. The local IRA leadership in Co. Leitrim, as elsewhere, were also hostile to the RWG. On Christmas Eve 1932 the hall was burnt down in an arson attack.
     On 9 February 1933, on the orders of the minister for justice, P. J. Rutledge (Fianna Fáil), Gralton was served with a deportation order as an “undesirable alien.” He refused to comply with the order and went on the run. He remained at liberty for more than six months, finding food and shelter among his people of south Leitrim. In Dublin the Gralton Defence Committee, which included such prominent figures as Frank O’Connor and Peadar O’Donnell, campaigned against the deportation order.
     A representative of the Indian Independence League was among the speakers at a public meeting in the Rotunda, Dublin, in February 1933. This was a mark of respect for Gralton’s principled stand while serving in the British army in India when he was court-martialled for refusing to join his regiment in the Punjab region.
     Gralton was captured on 10 August 1933 near Mohill and taken from there to Cóbh, Co. Cork, and within three days he was deported to the United States. His mother’s request to see her son for a last time was denied.
     In his speech at the unveiling of the memorial, President Michael D. Higgins said: “I wish to say directly to the representatives of the Gralton family here today, and indeed to those in the Gralton Historical Society, who have done so much to preserve his memory and his story, that Jimmy Gralton’s treatment at the hands of the Irish state and its agencies was wrong and it is indefensible.”
     Jim Gralton remained a staunch and active communist and anti-imperialist until his death in New York on 29 December 1945. The monument at Effrinagh should be seen as a tribute not alone to Jimmy Gralton but also to all those communists who stood firm despite being hounded and persecuted down the decades by the forces of clerical reaction, the state, and the ruling class.
     The fight continues.

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