|James Connolly Irish socialist revolutionary and US trade union organizer.|
This Irish American political world is dominated by Irish American mostly racist politicians, business people and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The class these form seeks to claw its way up in US capitalist society by ingratiating itself with the US capitalist class as a whole. To do so it throws out the revolutionary tradition of Irish history and its people. Singing songs of glorious defeats in pubs while the singers fill the pockets of the Irish American pub owners, to go beyond that is unacceptable. This Irish American elite would not be welcome within the US capitalist class if it spoke positively of James Connolly the Irish revolutionary socialist or James Larkin the Irish trade union leader, both of whom had organized as revolutionaries in the US as well as in Ireland. The Irish American elite’s substitute for Ireland’s revolutionary heritage is insulting stunts such as dyeing the Chicago river green on March 17th.
This Irish American elite nauseate me. They have their vast network of churches, schools, hospitals and full time organizers from the Cardinals down to the priests and the nuns. The majority of the US supreme court at one time were members of the Catholic church. The Catholic church elite want above all to keep their snout in the US capitalist trough and hold onto their power. To this end it seeks to suppress all knowledge of Ireland’s revolutionary heritage. Never mentioned is how it came to Ireland, destroyed the country’s culture, smashed its Brehon laws which were much more equitable and which had much greater rights for women than the then new Catholic laws that it imposed.
I have come to see a difference between myself and most, but not all, Irish American people, of all classes. Born in the US most Irish Americans buy into “the US is the best country in the world” propaganda. They tend to be more right wing than the Irish who now live in America but who were born in Ireland. Racism also tends to be stronger amongst them. They dominated the building trades unions and sought to exclude African Americans from these organizations and jobs in this sector. The trade union bureaucracy in those unions with a large Irish American component played their part in pushing this racism and in destroying Irish revolutionary traditions.
And of course all these forces were linked to the Chicago cops with their large Irish American component and whom I never forget murdered Blank Panther leader and socialist Fred Hampton. I do not frequent the Irish American world.
Myself and most Irish who have been born and lived in Ireland are the product of centuries of oppression. We developed a way to deal with that oppression. We sought to prevent the ruling British colonial and imperialist class from understanding us and so easily repressing us. This took the form of regular uprisings and struggle. But not only that. It also permeated every aspect of peoples’ lives. People born in Ireland tend to speak indirectly, rarely answer a question directly, tend to create their own new words or used existing words differently. On first coming to the US I thought I was always being insulted because people spoke so directly and bluntly. Coming out of the indigenous Irish born culture I understood from my historical experience that the less the rulers could understand what was being said the better. The less they could prove the oppressed were rebellious the more difficult it was to justify repressing them. This is one reason why Irish speech and culture is indirect and subtle. It is summed up in the expression; “Whatever you say say nothing.”
For this and other reasons it is amongst the African American population not the Irish American population I feel most at home. It is there I feel that my pattern of speech and thought are most similar. African Americans too had suffered centuries of oppression. While the repression they suffered was and is much worse than the Irish, they had developed some similar ways of dealing with this. Indirect speech, their own words, phrases and formulations, all to keep "the man" from too easily being able to accuse and convict them of something. I understand what is going on.
While my health allowed I organized my own activities around March 17th. I called them Alternative Irish Nights. I knew Jimmy Lee Robinson, an African American man and a world class blues musician. I asked him to play at one of these. The theme was to thank the black revolt, the US civil rights movement, the African American people for inspiring the civil rights movement in Ireland and in doing so sparking off a new interest in Irish culture. An Irish American offered his art gallery as a venue. It was run by his African American girl friend. When we arrived the gallery was closed. I went to his house. He whined that he had been drunk and smoking dope the night before and slept in.
I could see he was lying. I knew why he had not opened the gallery. He and his African American girl friend feared for their careers if they hung out with Jimmy Lee and I. His girl friend worked for the Daly machine, one of the African Americans it hired to try and hide its racism. I told the two of them this home truth. “You won’t let us in because you work for that racist Daly in city hall. You do not want to be seen with Jimmy Lee and me. Jimmy Lee does not kiss Daly’s boots and I am a socialist. That is why you have not opened the gallery.” I turned to the man; “You are just a fucking wimp who talks about being against racism, has a black partner but when push comes to shove you back down.” His girl friend angrily claimed that Daly was not a racist, called me a white honky and told me to go back to where I came from.
With the gallery closed we went to Chicago’s biggest Irish pub and asked could Jimmy Lee join in on the music session that was going on. There were about a dozen musicians sitting in a circle playing Irish music. It was like I had taken a grenade, pulled the pin, and thrown it in amongst them. They huddled and whispered and huddled and looked over their shoulders. Then they sent one of their flunkies over to tell us that Jimmy could not sit in because the blues was different from the Irish music. A different beat and rhythm you see. Their racism made me ashamed to be Irish, And I was utterly humiliated for Jimmy Lee.
I turned to Jimmy Lee. “Jimmy I apologize. I got you into this. Those were a bunch of racists. Come on. Let us go.” Jimmy said nothing. His face was impassive. He had no doubt experienced this many times before. He turned so we would leave together.
As we left a man and woman separated themselves from the session group who had been playing the music and hurried after us. “Wait, wait. I know a place we could have a bit of a session.” The man had a pronounced Cork accent. I was skeptical. I did not want to put Jimmy in another humiliating situation. “Are you sure? I will not put Jimmy through that racist crap again. Because that is what it was.” “I know, I know, you are right. But this will be okay.”
Jimmy and I got into my truck and followed the two Cork people to another pub where we exchanged introductions. “Neiley and Mary, pleased to meet you.” We went into the pub. There was the owner Patricia behind the bar and two other customers. It was not going to be a wild night going by the numbers. But Patricia gave a big smile shouted a welcome to Neiley and Mary and to Jimmy and myself. She was genuinely pleased to see us. “Set up there in the corner.” Jimmy plugged in his guitar and Neiley got out his bohron.
Jimmy wore a long coat with shoulder pieces and a cowboy hat. He wore high top boots and spurs which he tapped as an accompaniment when he played his guitar and sang. He had his guitar, his percussion spurs and his voice. All in all he was his own ensemble. He began to play the blues.
Neiley sat and joined in. Jimmy sang a line and then gestured to Neiley to sing a line in response. Neiley was used to knowing the words to the song in advance. But gradually and with help from Jimmy, Neiley got into it. And in no time at all we had this wonderful sight and sound, Jimmy and his blues guitar and spurs and singing, and Neiley with his own very good voice and bohron producing a synthesis of the two traditions, the blues and the Irish music. I thought of the racists in the other pub and their lies and how their lives were made worse by their racism. I felt no sympathy for them.
After a half hour or so the door to the pub opened and in came three men in biker garb, leather, chains, big boots, the lot. I was concerned. Some of the biker types were racist. I said to Neile: "If these men insult Jimmy I am going to fight. I am not going to have him insulted twice in one night." The bikers got their bottles of beer and came over and stood watching and listening to Jimmy and Neiley. Then in no time at all they began to sway to the music and smile and laugh amongst themselves. In a break between songs they tried to push money on Jimmy and Neiley. The power of the Blues.
Some years later Jimmy Lee developed cancer in his sinuses. He knew the pain and indignity that lay ahead. He drove out to a forest preserve and surrounded by the trees and grass and the beauty of the natural world he shot himself in the head. What courage. When I heard I thought about an aunt of mine in Ireland who had drowned herself. They both ended their lives. He in a wooded park, she in a small water filled dam, both back to nature. I wish I could sit and talk to Jimmy Lee and my aunt and hear their wisdom and Jimmy's music. What different but similar experiences to both end up taking their own lives and both in nature. I tried to find Jimmy Lee’s grave but could find no trace of it. I grieved. Jimmie Lee was a good strong cultured and heroic African American man. I thought of the racists in the pub who would not let him play, It was no wonder I stayed away from the racist Irish American world.
I thought of Billy Holliday singing “Strange Fruit.” The strange fruit were the bodies of lynched African American men hanging by the neck by ropes from trees after being hanged by the Klu Klux Klan. The KKK was a racist terrorist movement organized by the white ruling class and made up of European American mobs. The KKK brought their whole families along to brutalize them to the barbarity of hanging African American men and burning their bodies. They brought their children along to wean them onto this monstrous crime. After the African American men were lynched and their bodies burnt they were left hanging on the trees as a warning. Hence the “strange fruit.” This whole barbaric slaughter and the KKK itself was organized by the former slave owning class who were transforming themselves into the new capitalist class in the South and were making sure the power and wealth did not slip from their hands in the process of transition.
I thought of Jimmy when he was told he had cancer. He would have weighed things up, taken into account the centuries of oppression and suffering of his African American people. When he did so putting an end to things probably did not seem so terrible. He had probably not expected much of a life or a long life anyway. Like so many African American people Jimmy would have thought he was “blessed,” just to have survived the nightmare of racist America as long as he had and to have become the musician he had. So to Jimmy Lee ending his life with his own hand had probably drifted in and out of his mind before. If your life is hard bitter brutal and humiliating that could end at any time with a lynching or a cops bullet, if the odds are always stacked against you, then ending your life by your own hand is not such a big deal.
My aunt back in Ireland ending her own life was directly related to her poverty, suffering, sexual and class oppression and the difficulty of her life. Balancing and judging and weighing up what should be done is different for different people. African American people given their historical experience do not expect to, nor do they, live as long as long as European American people. European Americans and especially the European American upper classes expect to live much longer and in better circumstances and so in general were much less likely to take their own life. The irony is that the world would be a better place if more of the European American upper class did take their own lives. It would be a much better place if run by people like Jimmy Lee and my Aunt.
I was to become friends with Neiley and Mary the couple whom I had met in the pub and who had the courage and principle to come with Jimmy Lee and I to the other pub where they had played together. On one occasion we were out eating together and Neiley asked me:" “Sean, I have never heard anybody talk as much about racism as you, why is this?” I replied:“It is not hard to answer that Neiley. African American people, the African American revolt in America, African American culture, saved my life, saved me from a life of rural idiocy and backwardness in rural Ireland, gave me a way to live my life that has been rewarding and positive, a way to live my life to my fullest potential.
My life would have been a catastrophe without the struggle and inspiration of the African American people. Seeing them marching, refusing to be beaten or hosed of the streets by US regimes and the racist police, reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, George Jackson, this changed my life. It let me see that the backwardness of rural Donegal in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not all that existed. It allowed me to see that I could find another life, that I could live another way."
I did not have Neiley’s company for long. One winter evening his truck would not start in the parking lot at Walmart. He asked the man in the car in the next space for a jump start. The man said: ‘if you were my own brother, I would not give you a jump start.” Niall made up his mind there and then. He came to see me that night. He was enraged. “I am not going to bring my son up in this f...... country. I am going home.” And this is what he did, left me some of his pieces of sculpture, Neiley was a carpenter and made pieces of sculpture out of left over pieces of wood, wire and concrete. These I still treasure. But Neiley and Mary and their young son packed up the rest of their things and went home to Cork. Neiley did not think the US was the best country in the world.”