On the 13th of August 1933 the M.V. Britannic pulled away from Cobh Harbour with a remarkable passenger on board. Next to Passenger 17’s entry on the manifest was a handwritten note, “Ordered deported from Irish Free State”.
Paradoxically, James (Jimmy) Gralton's deportation came just 18 months after he was first issued with a US passport - a passport he had obtained in order to return to his homeland on the death of his brother. Gralton's story of would one day inspire movies and plays.
A native of Effrinagh, Co Leitrim, Gralton was the son of a small farmer. Like many young Irish men from impoverished rural areas, he joined the British Army while still a teenager in order to see the world. On learning he would be based in India he showed some of the traits he would later become renowned for: a disregard for authority and an entrepreneurial spirit.
He deserted, and carved out a new life for himself on Britain’s west coast. After a spell working on the Liverpool docks, the Welsh coalfields, and as a ship’s stoker, he had saved enough money to emigrate to the US.
After briefly returning to Ireland he left Queenstown on April 11th 1907 at the age of 21, bound for Brooklyn with $80, a significant sum at the time. He would remain in the US for 14 years, holding a variety of jobs such as a driver and an ice salesman.
He also put his experience working as a stoker in the British Merchant Navy to good use, enlisting in the US Navy. This may have counted in his favour when he successfully applied for US citizenship in 1915.
Most importantly, he also became deeply involved in socialist politics, and was an avid reader of the works of James Connolly. He even founded the James Connolly Club in New York in the wake of the Easter Rising.
With an end to the War of Independence in Ireland in sight, Gralton returned to Leitrim in the summer of 1921. Like many return emigrants he sought to share the new knowledge and sense of freedom he had acquired overseas back home.
He built a dance hall on a patch of his parents’ land, and named it the Pearse-Connolly Hall. It quickly became a community hub where the locals could enjoy an evening dance, hold community meetings, or listen to Gralton outline his vision for the newly independent state. He also established the Direct Action Committee which sought to seize land from large landholders and restore it to evicted tenants.
The actions of the committee quickly earned him the enmity of the new Irish Free State government, and Gralton returned to America again in June 1922 to avoid arrest. Ten years would pass before he returned to Ireland for the last time.
1932 was a landmark year in the history of Ireland. The Cumann na nGaedheal government of William T. Cosgrave, which had been in power since the founding of the state, was replaced by Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition in February. Many were hopeful this would bring about a sea change in Irish society, including Gralton, who returned and joined Fianna Fáil shortly after.
However, he quickly lost his initial enthusiasm when it became apparent that no real societal changes would be implemented. The Catholic Church was staunchly opposed to the socialist and communist rhetoric Gralton advocated.
In the wake of the 31st Eucharistic Congress, which had been held in June that year to mark 1,500 years of Christianity in Ireland, the Church was in a position to exert their influence. Gralton’s newly reopened hall was burnt down on Christmas Eve, after exhortations from the local pulpit were taken literally.
Shortly afterwards a deportation order was issued ordering Gralton to leave Ireland before March 1933. He was now classified as “an undesirable alien” and decided to go into hiding rather than return to the US. But within six months he was captured in just outside Mohill in Cork, and deported three days later. He would spend the rest of his life in the US, dying of stomach cancer in 1945.
In 2016 President Michael D Higgins proclaimed that Gralton “…was, for authoritarian political purposes, mixed with clerical pressure, illegally deported from his own country for his political beliefs”, and issued an apology on behalf of the State during the unveiling of a monument to him in his home town of Effrinagh.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.