Limerick socialist, historian and stonemason Jim Kemmy was remarkable for both his ability to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies and his ability to organise and bring people with him in political argument, a leading Irish sociologist has said.
Prof Eoin Devereux of the University of Limerick told the opening day of a three-day conference, Remembering Jim Kemmy, that that the Garryowen-born trade unionist was a remarkable figure, not just on Shannonside but nationally, where he left an indelible mark. The three-day event, which concluded on Sunday, took place at venues across Limerick city.
“One of Jim Kemmy’s most noteworthy talents was his capacity to go against the grain of traditional orthodoxies – whether they were of a Catholic or Nationalist hue – and engage with more critical perspectives on how society was organised and whose interests were being served.
“Jim’s ability to show leadership and create a context in which ideas and alternative points of view were debated and discussed was also significant,” Prof Devereux told the large attendance at Limerick City Hall in the first of a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of Kemmy’s death.
Kemmy was born into a working-class family in Garryowen on September 1st, 1936, but he was forced to leave the Christian Brothers School on Sexton Street at the age of 15 for a stonemason apprenticeship to support his four younger siblings after his father contracted tuberculosis.
Following in his father and his grandfather’s footsteps, Kemmy found himself supporting his family on an apprentice stonemason’s wage of 10d an hour. When he sought a 3d rise, he was sacked, but he qualified as a stonemason and left for London in 1957.
In London, he was introduced to trade unionism and it was also in London that he developed a lifelong love of reading. When he returned to Limerick, he came home with what he later described as “an enormous suitcase full of books”, including works by Marx, Engels, Connolly and Larkin.
Back in Limerick, Kemmy joined a trade union before joining the Labour Party in 1963. He resigned in 1972 after a series of clashes with the local Limerick East TD Stephen Coughlan, after he led an anti-apartheid protest against the South African rugby team welcomed by Coughlan as mayor.
He set up a small but committed independent socialist group which called for the separation of church and State and he became chairman of Limerick’s family planning clinic while the group also took a strong anti-nationalist line calling for the repeat of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.
According to Prof Devereux, Kemmy was a persuasive figure, managing to bring people with him on political journeys that often seemed at odds with the prevailing political culture in a city which he [Kemmy] once described “as not the most progressive city in the world”.
“Part of Jim’s contribution lay in his ability to organise and bring together like-minded people. His political conviction rested on the assumption that social, economic, and political arrangements are man-made and ultimately can be changed,” said Prof Devereux.
Elected to Limerick City Council in 1974, at the council’s first sitting he refused to wear the ceremonial crimson robes, proclaiming “while some councillors act like clowns, there is no need to dress like them”. Kemmy stood unsuccessfully as an Independent in the 1977 General Election.
He was elected to Dáil Éireann at his second attempt in 1981, during which time he criticised the Maze hunger strikes. He ended his first term in the Dáil when, in January 1982, he voted against the government over an attempt by Minister John Bruton bring in VAT on children’s shoes.
“They took me for granted – that was the mistake they made tonight,” he said later, and in the subsequent general election, he increased his vote, turned down a Fianna Fáil offer to become ceann comhairle and, later that year, founded the Democratic Socialist Party.
Always a strong advocate of women’s rights, Kemmy opposed the Eighth Amendment giving equal rights to a foetus as to a mother. He was condemned by the clergy in Limerick and in the next general election, in November 1982, he lost his seat to Labour’s Frank Prendergast.
Kemmy had been denounced from the pulpit across churches in Limerick on the Sunday before the poll; while the Limerick Leader ran a front-page editorial, calling him “an abortionist” and referring to “Deputy Kemmy’s way of death”.
He spent his five years outside of Dáil Éireann building up his base and in 1987 he was re-elected, beating local political heavyweights Des O’Malley and Michael Noonan on the first count. He held his seat in June 1989 and, a year later, he led the DSP into a merger with the Labour Party.
According to Prof Devereux, while Kemmy’s profile nationally came from his work as a politician, much of his standing locally in Limerick stemmed from his passion for history which, along with politics, featured prominently in the magazine he established called The Limerick Socialist.
“Over a decade, The Limerick Socialist publication stood as a strong counterpoint to the establishment view of Limerick. It bravely questioned the sacred cows who occupied positions of power in Limerick and Ireland,” he said.
“As an editor, writer and curator, Jim Kemmy also devoted considerable stamina to promote an interest in Limerick’s complex history. The hallmark of his local history project was its truly democratic nature.
“It was governed by an inclusive approach which was always mindful of the need to include the voices and experiences of the poor, the marginalised, the working class,” said Prof Devereux, who recalled one of the first pieces he had ever published was one that Kemmy included in the magazine.
“In one sense, to speak of Jim Kemmy’s legacy in the singular is to do his memory a disservice. His legacy is multifaceted. For me, his life-long commitment to a just, socialist, humanitarian view of the world is what stands out most of all.
“Jim’s bearing witness for the common man and woman, for calling out exploitation and for always imagining and proposing a better world, for all, through collective action is what strikes me most,” he concluded. tánaiste