Jim Kemmy archives reveal ‘genius’ of Limerick TD

Anne Sheridan


Anne Sheridan

Professor Don Barry, president of UL,  Joe Kemmy, Jim's sister Maureen McAteer, Minister Jan O'Sullivan, Mayor of Limerick, Cllr Kathleen Leddin, Joan Hartnett and Patsy Harrold, sitting in front, at the launch of the Jim Kemmy Papers in UL. Picture: Don Moloney / Press 22
SEPTEMBER 25 next will mark the 16th anniversary of the passing of the late, great TD and Limerick Mayor Jim Kemmy.

SEPTEMBER 25 next will mark the 16th anniversary of the passing of the late, great TD and Limerick Mayor Jim Kemmy.

But the stonemason, trade unionist, politician and historian is still remembered as strongly as ever.

While being treated for bone marrow cancer in St James’s hospital in Dublin in 1997, his dying wish was that his extensive records – comprising more than 70 boxes whittled down from thousands of documents - be handed over to the University of Limerick. On Friday last, his wish was granted.

Patsy Harrold, 83, sat in the front row in the Glucksman library in the university, as tributes were paid to her former partner. While Jim lived in Garryowen for much of his life, he later moved in with Patsy, a widowed mother of six from John Street and six years his senior. They met at a meeting of an archaeological and historical society in the late 1970s, and went on “to spend the best part of 20 years together”.

However, she wasn’t prepared for the sudden upheaval he would have in her home. “He landed out to mine with all his books, and there wasn’t a bit of room left in the house. The books were everywhere, even in the hot press.

“They all came out of my house,” she said of the archives. “To look at them you’d think they were just bits of paper. He never had headed notepaper or anything like that. Any scrap of paper he could find at all, a white space, and Jim would fill it. You might get the history of Limerick on one page and the mason’s account on the other.”

While he wasn’t a “marrying man” or “a man for leisure at all”, she wasn’t too put out that “he was in love with his books. I’d all that marriage stuff behind me. I had enough on my plate without thinking about a second romance.

“He had a girlfriend before me but she got tired of him going to his meetings. He used to always laugh at that. So it left little time for romance.”

While the archive contains thousands of documents of great historical and social importance, some of the papers will be “sealed” or placed under an embargo for up to 100 years “to protect local families still alive”.

“This is not to protect Jim. Jim’s life was an open book; it’s to protect other people still alive, as some of it may be of a sensitive nature,” said brother Joe Kemmy, stressing that any documents under seal were not at the request of the Kemmy or Harrold families.

To reveal such documents of potentially minor local importance, but of major importance to the individuals concerned if alive today, would be simply “voyeurism”, he said.

However, he said there is a lot of correspondence in the archives around the time when Jim left the Labour Party in 1972, “which might he controversial.”

An online index of all the thousands of items now neatly filed away runs to 123 pages alone, and is fascinating reading in itself.

Apart from his many political interests of local and national importance, there are many more unusual and unexpected items, including two letters of his attempts to lose weight, letters of apology to him, and a letter written to Dick Spring on the death of his mother two weeks before his own death.

Some items are ‘closed’ to the public until 2034, when they will be up for review again, while a smaller number of items of a “particularly sensitive nature are closed until 2104”.

Thirty-one monthly pay-slips from Dail Eireann are archived, but only one has curiously been closed off to the public until 2034. Twelve letters from the general public commenting on the performance of the Labour party from 1992 to 1997 have been closed.

One item in the file relating to Mary Robinson’s presidential campaign has been closed, while four items relating to Kemmy’s election as an independent candidate in the February 1982 general election are closed.

There are tape cassette recordings of lectures delivered by Noam Chomsky, and of some six letters sent to and relating to the author Frank McCourt just one item is under embargo.

Not surprisingly, when Joe Kemmy and one of Patsy’s sons began sorting through the archive they found they needed professional help, and John Logan, a retired senior history lecturer in UL, was drafted in and brought all the material to UL to evaluate.

Professor Philip O’Regan, dean of the Kemmy Business school, said this could well be “one of the last [archives] of its type in being a written record, uncontaminated by emails or the electronic medium”.

“There’s a high level of embargo-ing on the archive and it’s surprising that it isn’t greater. Jim was ahead of his time, and this archive will confirm that,” said Prof O’Regan.

As Jim was a strong opponent of ardent Republicanism, he said the archive would be particularly interesting on the subject of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

He added that the late TD and former two-time Mayor of Limerick “understood the importance of archives, especially in defining the political record.”

He recalled that in a packed train from Limerick to Dublin, where seats were at a premium, Jim managed to commandeer three entire suites in the dining car, with massive bundles of documents piled on each of the desks, reserved for different subject matters. “He was actively moving around between the three desks and discussing them with people, and was writing at the same time as he as conversing,” he marvelled. Prof O’Regan said that they are funding a postgraduate student on the work on the archive, under the heading of ‘business history’.

UL president, professor Don Barry, said that the library had worked very hard to build a collection of Limerick material, not only for the benefit of UL researchers but also for the general public.

“You really can’t get any more Limerick than Jim Kemmy, and I for one am most grateful to the donors of this material Patsy Harrold and Joe Kemmy for enriching our collection. I’m sure significant time went into sorting these papers, time that may have been accompanied by a fair share of nostalgia and sadness, but rest assured they have been placed in a good home.”

Minister Jan O’Sullivan, TD said that apart from revealing a great deal about the social and political life of Ireland and Limerick, the archives “more importantly reveal the humanity, generosity and genius of Jim Kemmy himself.”

Jim’s sister, Maureen McAteer, a poet in Gweedore, Co Donegal, said: “Jim was a great believer in the written word, and the written word endures long after a verbal anecdote can be forgotten.”