An Appreciation of Jim Gralton – Leitrim’s Unrepentant Communist
On August 13, 1933 Jim Gralton was forced to board a Trans-Atlantic Liner in Cork which was to set sail for the USA. Jim had been arrested on August 10 at a friend’s house in Gorvagh, County Leitrim and brought to Ballinamore Barracks where he was detained before being brought to Cork for his deportation. He had been living on the run since February of that year following the issuing of a deportation order by the courts who ruled that he had to leave Ireland by March 5. His deportation 77 years ago makes him the only native Irishman to be deported from this state.
He was born in Effernagh close to Carrick on Shannon in County Leitrim on April 17 1886. His education, such as it was, was received in nearby Kiltoghert school. Like most young people at the time, he left school early, aged just 14. After working for a number of employers in the local area, fed up with the harsh treatment he and others suffered at their hands, Jim headed for Dublin where he enlisted in the British army.
His rebellious behaviour was not long coming through and he endured punishment of 84 days on “bread and water” for his refusal to shine the leggings and buttons of one of his officers. He was then posted to India, but refused to go in protest at British policies in Ireland. For his defiance and protest, Jim was jailed for a year and subsequently deserted the army, going to work for a time in the coal mines of Wales and in Liverpool docks.
He then got employment as a ship’s stoker and eventually settled in New York where he became a US citizen in 1909. In the midst of the great wealth in the USA, Jim was appalled at the harsh, slave-like conditions that workers endured, which led him to become a firm believer in supporting the rights of workers and in socialism.
From the time he arrived in the US, Jim was active in supporting and raising much needed funds for both the Irish republican struggle and for fellow workers in New York. He became a member of the US Communist Party and became heavily involved in trade union activity. In the wake of the 1916 Rising, and after studying of the writings of James Connolly, Jim became a founding member of the James Connolly Club in New York.
Almost a decade and a half after arriving in the US, Jim decided to return home to Ireland in June 1921, just a month before the truce in the Tan War commenced on the 11th of July. During the war, the notorious Black and Tans had burnt the local Temperance Hall beside Gowel Church to the ground. On his return, Jim promised local people he would replace it and set about, with his own money and with local support, building a new hall on his father’s land near Effernagh crossroads.
The new hall, named the Pearse-Connolly Hall, was eventually opened on December 31 1921 and became an integral part of the everyday lives of the local community. Amongst its many uses was the holding in classes of a wide range of subjects including Irish, English, music, dancing, civics and agricultural science. This was also a time of many land disputes and the Hall was also used to hold Land Courts to settle many of these disputes. Despite the good work Jim was doing for his community and despite the valuable educational service that was been provided, not everyone was happy.
The Catholic Church in particular were extremely unhappy. They denounced him at every opportunity, at the pulpit during mass and in letters, going as far as to describe him as an extremely dangerous socialist and even an “Anti-Christ”. They accused him of “leading a campaign of Land agitation”, of trying to take the youth of the area away from the Catholic Church and of teaching communism to them in his classes.
The Free State forces also were unhappy with his activities, and on May 24 1922, they raided the Hall in a failed attempt to arrest Jim. The following month, as Civil War loomed, he got out and returned to the US. He did not return to Ireland until 1932 following the death of his brother Charlie who looked after and ran the family farm and following the securing of power in the Twenty-Six Counties by Fianna Fáil. Like many other people at that time, Jim was of the mistaken belief that a Fianna Fáil government would allow for the development of progressive politics in his homeland.
Following his return to Ireland, Jim re-opened the Pearse-Connolly Hall which had been closed for many years while he was in the US. He also involved himself once again in left-wing agitation, joining the Revolutionary Workers’ Group [a forerunner of the Communist Party of Ireland]. As well as the hall being used for dances and other social activities, meetings were also held there highlighting issues such as unemployment and the rights of workers and tenants.
He spoke at many anti-eviction meetings and following the eviction of a worker from his home in Keadue, also in County Leitrim, Jim joined with a local IRA group in re-instating the worker and his family back into their family home. This radicalism and persistent campaigning on such issues was of major concern once again to conservatives in general and to the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil in particular.
Once again, Jim was denounced as a massive campaign was launched by the clergy against him and the views he represented. Shamefully, many of his former comrades turned their backs on him, as the church demanded that the Hall, which they described as a “den of iniquity” be shut down.
The Hall came under physical attack on many occasions. Shots were fired into it during a dance and an attempt to blow it up with a bomb failed. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1932, the Hall was eventually destroyed when it was burned to the ground.
In February of 1933, at the behest of the Catholic Church, the Fianna Fáil government ordered the deportation of Jim from his homeland by March 5 on the spurious grounds of him being an “undesirable alien”. Instead of complying with the order, Jim went on the run, staying with friends and neighbours in the area. During his time on the run, the Revolutionary Workers’ Group organised a campaign in support of Jim. Public meetings were organised and addressed by Jim himself, and by other prominent republican socialists of the time such as George Gilmore and Peadar O’Donnell. Many of these meetings were attacked and broken up by reactionaries.
Finally on August 10 1933, the Free State caught up with Jim, capturing him at a friend’s house in Gorvagh. He was taken to Ballinamore Barracks where he was detained before being transported to Cork where he was put on board a Trans-Atlantic Liner and deported to the US against his will. He was never again allowed to return to Ireland.
Undeterred, upon his arrival back in the US, Jim once again got involved in trade unionism and left wing politics. Along with Gerald O’Reilly, a close colleague of George Gilmore, Jim set up the Irish Workers’ Group in New York. He became a trade union organiser, encouraging the involvement of women within the unions, and set about promoting, republishing and distributing the works of James Connolly. During the Spanish Civil War, he raised funds for the International Brigades who were going to Spain to fight against fascism and in defence of the Republic.
A committed and unrepentant communist up to his last breath, Jim Gralton died in exile in New York on December 29 1945 and is buried in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx area of the City.
To conclude fittingly, the final words go to a comrade of Jim’s, Charlie Byrne. Speaking at Jim’s Graveside in the Bronx in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his death, Charlie said:
“Let all of us who believe in the principles for which Gralton stood, pledge ourselves anew to the continuation of the fight for the complete political, cultural and economic rights of the working classes in all lands, no crying, no weeping over his grave at Woodlawn. There is work to be done, so let us carry on; Gralton would have it that way.”