IT is now twenty years since iconic Limerick TD Jim Kemmy passed away. Nick Rabbitts speaks to those who knew ‘Big Jim’ the best.
TWENTY years ago this Monday, a political flame flickered out and a man of bravery, conviction, and great principle was lost to the city.
Jim Kemmy, a Limerick East TD, mayor, respected campaigner and trade unionist, died following a short illness at St James’ Hospital on September 25, 1997.
The passing of the popular Labour man sparked an outpouring of grief, leading to the biggest political funeral in the city since that of the former Education Minister Donogh O’Malley almost 30 years previously.
A true socialist at a time when, as his former constituency colleague Willie O’Dea said this week, it was neither “popular nor safe”, Mr Kemmy stood up to many state institutions, including most notably the Catholic church, where he was condemned from many a pulpit including notably by then Bishop Jeremiah Newman.
One of the reasons for this was his setting up of the Limerick Family Planning clinic in 1975, at a time when it was illegal to sell condoms in Ireland.
“He was a social liberal in a very conservative city at the time. He was a proud Limerick man, an advocate for the poor, a historian and a lifelong learner,” said long-serving Labour councillor Joe Leddin, whose family is steeped in the party tradition.
Mr Kemmy packed a lot into a life cut tragically short aged just 61.
A Garryowen man, he was a passionate fighter for the disadvantaged, and seen by many as an outsider.
“I just completely admired him. He was a beacon of light in Ireland at the time. There was nobody saying the kind of things Jim was saying, or having the courage to stand up and be running for election saying the type of things he was saying – not just in Limerick, but the country as a whole,” said sitting Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan, who Jim took under his wing, and encouraged her into a political career.
Born in September 1936, Kemmy was the eldest of five children. His father and grandfather were stonemasons.
Educated at Sexton Street CBS, he left school at the age of 15 to begin working in the family trade. Following the death of his father, he was forced to become the man of the house, his apprentice wage supporting the family.
Arguably, his activism began at an early age: feeling unable to survive on his apprentice wage of 10d per hour, he was sacked after seeking a 3d increase.
After a spell in London – where he developed his well-documented love of reading – he returned to the Mid-West, working to build the Shannon Industrial Estate in 1960.
It was here where he began his lifelong connection with the trade union movement, which led him into the political arena.
He started his political career in Labour, before quitting, and being elected as an Independent TD in 1981 as part of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which merged with Labour in 1990.
On this journey, he met Ms O’Sullivan, a Montessori teacher who had just returned from working in Canada.
“I started hearing about this Jim Kemmy, and the various issues he was raising, and I have to say, I was enthused. I knew someone who canvassed for him, and asked to be introduced. Paul, my husband, was one of the doctors in the family planning clinic, so I started canvassing for him,” she said.
Ms O’Sullivan linked up with Mr Kemmy – fondly remembered across the city as ‘Big Jim’ due to his stature – when he was representing the relatively fledgling DSP.
Although a socialist, his brother Joe Kemmy noted that Jim was also a pragmatist: he knew – although did not necessarily agree – that smaller left-wing parties like his needed to unite to achieve real change.
“Jim knew, I won’t say believed, you must be prepared to work with other people for the betterment of society, otherwise you will stay in opposition for all your life without ever getting into government,” said Joe.
By 1990, the DSP had merged with Labour with Ms O’Sullivan and Mr Kemmy being the key negotiators across the table from Dick Spring’s party representatives.
”I think Jim believed only with a strong united left you can overcome the greater majority the right tends to get in elections. I think the Labour party he left at the time was quite conservative in Limerick, but when we merged again, we had the capacity to bring our voices to the Labour party, and make it a bit more liberal. He always saw himself like that, saw himself as part of a movement, and being the leader of a small party was not something he wanted to achieve,” Ms O’Sullivan said.
During Labour’s time in government from 1992 to 1997, Mr Kemmy never took a cabinet seat, and was quite vocal in his opposition to some of the junior coalition parties actions while in government, as his party’s chairman.
In the 1980s, Mr Kemmy went against the prevailing view in Ireland, and was a strong advocate for the anti-nationalist movement.
He condemned the H-block hunger strikers, and constantly argued for the repeal of articles two and three from the constitution, which suggested the Dublin government could claim jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.
His brother believes it was this approach which won him support from people who would not normally vote on the left-wing.
“There are many many people who voted for him, despite his politics, as much as those who voted for his politics. There were a faceless people who admired his standing up to the IRA. Many of these people would be naturally Fine Gael voters, some of whom (were) from the minority church. When he reasoned his way to a different view of things, he wasn’t afraid to stand up and say it. I think that endeared him to many people that would ordinary not have voted left,” Joe said. “It gave them a sense that someone understood the fear they had – remember, they lived through periods when their houses were burnt back in the 1920s. They heard it from their relatives.”
When fighting elections, as well as his rival candidates in Limerick East, Mr Kemmy also faced opposition from the church.
Indeed, it was his criticism of the pro-life amendment to the Constitution which led to sustained attacks from the Catholic Church. Having been elected in 1981 at his second attempt – and re-elected a year later – it was a case of third-time unlucky as, at the November 1982 general election, Mr Kemmy lost his seat to another political comrade Frank Prendergast.
It was during this campaign Bishop Newman engaged in a letter-writing campaign urging the electorate to vote against Mr Kemmy.
Joe revealed that the pair met the following Good Friday, with the bishop being “genuinely remorseful for costing Jim his seat”.
“Jim went to meet him, and told me he spent the most excruciating and embarrassing couple of hours with him. He was overcome with emotion, and saw what he did was wrong,” he said, “We always said 4,200 people did not take to heart what the bishop said and voted for Jim anyway.”
Six months earlier, Mr Kemmy had put his political career on the line, voting against that January’s budget over the issue of a tax on children’s shoes, thus bringing down the government.
While he won that battle, retaining his seat, it was the further election later in the year which proved his undoing.
“Jim was always willing to work with others, but at the same time, when it came to a point of principle, he was happy to sacrifice his own political career for a political principle. He wasn’t like the grandstanders who shout and always be on the right side of everything. He was willing to take political risks if he felt it would make a difference,” Ms O’Sullivan said this week.
Like a true fighter, Mr Kemmy did not let the disappointment of losing his seat stop him.
He returned to Dail Eireann at the 1987 election, and retained his seat at three more counts until his untimely death. In that time, he also served two terms in the high-profile role of mayor of Limerick, at a time when Dail deputies were also allowed to be local councillors.
It was in the mid-1980s when Mr Kemmy was fighting to win back his Dail seat that he met Margaret O’Donoghue, who became his secretary.
Recalling the time she first met Jim, Margaret said: “I had a social welfare problem. Like Jim I came from a stonemasons background, and it was my aunt who recommended me to come down and say who I was. My uncle had been secretary of the bricklayers union 25 years. Jim knew immediately my background.”
With his support, Margaret won her social welfare case, and agreed to work for Jim on a voluntary basis.
When she was asked to work on a paid basis, the fear of Jim losing his seat again deterred her, Margaret saying: “I had three young children, and I remember Jim telling me a week is a long time in politics. I was thinking, if Jim loses his seat again, I’ll have to fight with the social welfare again to get my deserted wives money back.”
She still came in on a voluntary basis, and when Jim’s permanent secretary Bob Kelly fell ill, he issued Margaret – known as Maggie to friends – with an ultimatum.
“I still remember it: Jim said to me – it’s make or break time. So I said I would take a chance on him. We were together until he died in 1997,” she said.
Margaret continued to work in the Mechanics Institute at Hartstonge Street with Ms O’Sullivan until her retirement last year.
“He was a gentleman. A perfectionist. His favourite piece of equipment was the bottle of Tippex in his pocket. His mayoral speech, he corrected it so many times the first time he was mayor. When he went to City Hall suited and booted he told me not to give out the speech until I saw that chain around his neck,” Margaret recalled.
A popular choice as mayor, Jim was elected unopposed.
It was during this mayoralty Margaret recalls happening upon famous Hollywood actor Richard Harris in Charlie St George’s pub at Parnell Street.
“A friend of mine had become a grandmother, and Richard was in there. He had had a few – and was mouthing off saying Limerick had never done anything for him. Someone must have pointed me out to him. I rang Jim from the pub, he was at home, and asked if he would give Richard Harris a mayoral reception,” she recalls. “Jim said to let him come down early in the morning. I conveyed this to Richard Harris’s minder. And that’s how he got a mayoral reception.”
Having endured a tough election in 1997 following Labour’s stint in government, Joe revealed that Jim had confided in him that the term of the 28th Dail would have been his last hurrah.
It’s likely Jan O’Sullivan would have run on the Labour ticket in 2002 – but she was forced to step up to the plate sooner, for the by-election caused by Mr Kemmy’s sad death.
It was a count that she admits remains the most difficult of her time in politics.
But she adds: “One of the things which impressed me about Jim and got me involved in politics, was the fact it was never about himself. He always wanted a political movement, rather than just Jim Kemmy, the Independent, the person who gets the big vote and the name in history. He always wanted to ensure people were there with him who would follow on from him.”
Jan has indeed followed in her mentor’s footsteps, serving Limerick for almost 20 years in the Dail, including a term in government, where she was Education Minister.
The ideals Jim instilled in her continues to this day.
“He was very supportive, but did expect you to pull your weight. You were not there on a gravy train, you were there to do your job,” she said. “Courage and principle would have been the biggest things I learnt from him. Sadly modern politics nowadays, there does not seem to be the same public interest in courage and principle. It’s very much around populism. I think that was the main thing which made Jim different, and someone who did bring about change in society.”
Away from politics, Jim had developed a lifelong love of reading, returning from a spell in London with what he said was “an enormous suitcase full of books”. He started the Old Limerick Journal in 1989 with Kevin Hannan, Tony Browne and Tom Donovan. This was a quarterly miscellany which gave local historians a chance to write about forgotten aspects of the city.
Jan recalls how, sat next to Kemmy in the Chamber at City Hall, he was editing the journal during some of the duller aspects of council meetings.
His secretary Margaret described him as akin to “a big brother in more ways than one” to her.
“He loved to meet people and spend half a day talking with them over a bottle or two of wine – maybe three,” his brother Joe added, “He was a different man outside politics.”
Such was Mr Kemmy’s respect across the spectrum, politicians from all sides were in Limerick for his emotional farewell, including the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and President Mary Robinson.
Even in his death, JP McManus, a lifelong friend, who has contributed to an upcoming documentary on Mr Kemmy, provided funding to the University of Limerick’s business school only on the condition it was named in his honour – a slight paradox, given his socialist leaning.
The Limerick Leader reported at the time how grown men and women were moved to tears at his funeral. Some 7,000 people witnessed his funeral, with his laying to rest played to a backdrop of his favourite song ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ by American tenor Thomas Hampson.
Limerick was truly a city in mourning on Monday, September 29, 1997.
The president of the Limerick Trades Council, Michael McNamara, believes ‘Big Jim’ gave the working class hope.
“Jim Kemmy loved the working class. He came from within the working class, he loved the working class people. He wasn’t full of pomp. He was an ordinary man, and was respected in turn by the ordinary man.
“His legacy was to show people from working class areas you can rise up and achieve anything,” he concluded.