IT WAS only after his untimely death in 1997 from bone marrow cancer that Jim Kemmy’s contribution to local life and national politics was truly recognised, believes the author of the first body of work dedicated entirely to the Garryowen man.
Brian Callanan, 62, from O’Connell Street, has spent the past five years researching the life of the famous Limerick socialist, who passed away aged 61 after a varied political career spanning 30 years.
Not only was he a “unique” politician in hindsight, but this author feels Kemmy was a “maverick” and “icon of the Left” who could serve, in some respects, as an inspiration to the politicians of today.
“He was an example to the future, in that he was a politician with a simple lifestyle and a careful use of resources. Maybe if the Celtic Tiger had followed some of those kind of principles we wouldn’t be in the difficulty we are now,” he said.
Callanan had known Kemmy in the 1960s and 1970s through the former’s work in Shannon Development as a planner, but said he was never part of the Labour movement, or the Democratic Socialist Party which Kemmy founded.
Nonetheless, Kemmy stood out for his ideals and controversial views of the time, in relation to the separation of Church and State, family planning, and even lost his seat in the Dail in 1982 over the latter debate. The 200-page account, published by Liffey Press and to be launched next Tuesday at UL’s Kemmy Business School, details Kemmy’s life as a stonemason, trade unionist, historian and politician, but the last chapter, entitled Final Days, is among the most poignant. After being diagnosed with cancer in June 1997, the author writes that Kemmy described his condition in a matter of fact way.
“Almost as if he was describing a new coat he said, ‘I’ll be happy if I get two years out of it. I want you to keep it quiet for a while.’ ” Ironically, having championed workers’ rights as a trade unionist, it is believed he contracted lung problems associated with asbestos from working in the building industry, which may have led to his condition.
But his humour never gave up on him. “This chemotherapy is very interesting. The only problem is that I’m part of the experiment,” he once said. Mary Robinson visited him at his bedside, as did Bertie Ahern, John Bruton and even Dick Spring, who had a fractious relationship with Kemmy.
“Things must be bad when you are coming to see me, was the response I got from Jim – he knew his race was run”, said Spring.
Over 10,000 were reported to have filed past his coffin after he passed away on September 25, 1997. “It was a ceremony deliberately devoid of the pomposity, which Kemmy detested,” wrote Callanan, even taking the shortest route from the funeral parlour to the cemetery.
In Callanan’s eyes - after conducting dozens of interviews and poring through the hundreds of papers in the Kemmy archives in the University of Limerick’s Glucksman Library – there was one common theme coming through:“What you saw, is what you got. You didn’t necessarily like him, but you respected him. He was refreshing in his directness and had very clear ideas, even if you didn’t agree.”
Callanan got a taste for research a decade ago when he completed a PhD in UL, leading him to write ‘Ireland’s Shannon story’. Schooled at the Crescent College Comprehensive and University College Dublin, he found the story of Kemmy “really riveting, really absorbing. He wasn’t a boring character.”
He was distinct in that he spoke from “a national perspective, and didn’t just voice purely local issues”, which a lot of Independents and local TDs would do to protect their vote. He was, it appears, a scandal-free politician to boot. “I’ve dug as deep as I can, and I can’t get scandal. There is plenty of controversy, but it’s all upfront.”