An Irishman's Diary


GEORGE LEE’S recent elevation, or relegation, to the Dáil represents the welcome return of an old tradition in Irish politics. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the ranks of the Irish Party at Westminster were regularly populated by journalists as varied in their politics and bitter in their personal rivalries as William O’Brien, Tim Healy, Michael Davitt, Tim Harrington, TP O’Connor and JJ O’Kelly. It probably helps explain why their speeches were far more readable and relevant than those of current TDs, many of whom had captive audiences in the classroom or the courts before entering the Dáil, writes  PADRAIG YEATES

Most of the literary stalwarts of the past are long forgotten, but one of the most significant, JJ O’Kelly, has received a new lease of life thanks to a dismissive comment in Dermot Meleady’s recent biography of John Redmond, Redmond: The Parnellite. Meleady’s characterisation of O’Kelly as an advocate of racial superiority has spurred the re-publication of the latter’s 1873 reports for the New York Herald on the first Cuban war of independence, which won international acclaim at the time.

Meleady’s comments were based on a speech O’Kelly made in 1899 when he told the farmers of Elphin they should follow the example of the “South Carolina niggers” and vote for “men of their own class” instead of the landlords’ candidates. However regrettable the term “nigger”, it was commonplace in the political language of the 19th century and it was in that context O’Kelly spoke.

Ironically, it would be hard to find a 19th-century politician less influenced by notions of racial superiority than O’Kelly. A former Fenian who maintained links with the greatest of all the Fenians, John Devoy, throughout his political career, O’Kelly supported the Zulu king Cetewayo and the Mahdi in their struggles against the British empire. In the case of the Mahdi he travelled to the Sudan to observe the latter’s revolutionary regime at close quarters. O’Kelly’s artist brother Aloysius also travelled to the Sudan and was similarly sympathetic to the rebels in his sketches for the Pictorial World.

O’Kelly praised the efforts of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, as a social and economic reformer and wrote, “The new champion of Islam might strike hands with the French and German socialists as a man after their own hearts only somewhat more thorough”.

He would later champion the Zulu and Sudanese causes in the House of Commons, but it is his account of the Cuban war that proves most conclusively how far ahead of his time O’Kelly was in opposing notions of racial superiority and recognising the common humanity of people very different from himself.

Slavery still existed in Cuba in the 1870s and escaped slaves formed a major element in the rebel forces. The Spanish authorities frequently to portrayed the conflict as a slave insurrection. It took considerable courage for O’Kelly to defy popular perceptions, as well as the military authorities and cross into enemy lines to find out the truth for himself. With typical candour O’Kelly described his first encounter with the rebels.

“Towards evening a coloured officer arrived with a guard of 30 men to escort me to Tempu. It was rather a surprise to find they were all coloured, and not by any means a pleasant one; not that I have any objection to coloured people, but there came a chill over me lest reports which had been constantly dinned into my ears that all white men, except some half dozen, had been killed, or were dead from sickness and disease, should prove well founded. Had this been true, the chance of success of the Cuban revolution would have been at an end, because ignorant men,

however brave, cannot hope successfully to maintain a struggle which requires delicate combinations and great forethought to render success possible.”

His fears of ill-treatment, or worse, were quickly dissipated and he discovered that the conduct of the rebel troops, of all races, was far superior to that of their Spanish opponents.

O’Kelly’s honesty and the quality of his writing are rarely matched today. In 1968 the Cuban government reprinted his book to commemorate the centenary of the commencement of their first war of independence. Now, as a result of Meleady’s slight to his memory, Siptu has reproduced O’Kelly’s account of the war, with an introduction by the union’s head of research, Manus O’Riordan, outlining O’Kelly’s political career and the context of the Elphine speech.

O’Kelly’s account of the war in Cuba still makes a gripping read. Let us hope that George Lee’s election to the Dáil will see the revival of a great political tradition and more journalists step off the ditch and onto the field.

Irish Solidarity with Cuba Libre: A Fenian Eyewitness Account of the First Cuban War of Independence, edited by Manus O’Riordan, Siptu