James Gralton – Man from the Future

James Gralton was born in 1886 in Effernagh in Co.Leitrim and grew up on a poor farm of just 25 acres. He left school at 14 and found local conditions of employment too poor and intolerable to him so he went to Dublin and joined the British army. There he refused to shine the leggings and buttons of officers and received 84 days bread and water. He then refused to serve in India in protest of British polices in Ireland and for this was imprisoned for a year and then deserted. He next experienced the hard life on the Liverpool docks and Welsh coalfields but in 1909 moved to New York where he settled. He had by now seen and been affected by the modern world and had become a socialist. In New York he established the James Connolly Club and became active in the trade union movement there.

In 1922 he made his first visit home and built the Pearse-Connolly Hall in his native Effernagh to replace the previous parish hall which had been burnt down by the British army in reprisal for a shooting of an officer. The hall quickly became an integral part of the community and was used for classes including Irish, English, music, civics and agricultural science. It was also used as a venue to settle land disputes and teach tenants rights. Dances were also held there. He was seen as a major threat to the status quo of the region and the Free State army made a failed attempt to arrest him there in August 1922. Knowing he was ahead of his time and experiencing such opposition he left again for New York. He returned in 1932 to look after his parents and hoped that the time might at last be ripe for some progressive politics. He founded and led the Revolutionary Workers Party and reopened the hall and began again holding meetings and dances there. He also spoke at many evictions of tenants and joined the local IRA. The establishment of the time felt very threatened by his ideas and ways and the local parish priest called the hall a “den of iniquity” from the pulpit and said that it should be closed. This all resulted in a shot being fired into the hall and an attempt being made to blow it up. It was eventually burnt to the ground on Christmas Eve 1932. Gralton had been home less than a year.

Under mounting pressure from the Catholic Church the De Valera led Fianna Fail government ordered Gralton to be deported as an “undesireable alien”. He went on the run and found many willing to protect him but was ultimately found and deported in August 1933, making him the only Irish person to have ever been deported from their own country and the source of a deep national shame. Back in New York he became a trade union organiser and member of the Irish Workers’ Club. He reprinted James Connolly’s pamphlets, raised funds for the International Brigades in Spain, and for the remainder of his life was an active member of the Communist Party of the USA. He died there in 1945 aged 56.

At time of writing a film by Ken Loach is in pre-production about Gralton’s life and his experiences in the Ireland of that time, Jimmy’s Hall, to be released in 2014. A musical play called Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall was performed in 2012 and can be viewed here. A plaque to him has also been erected in Carrick-on-Shannon in more recent years. I took the above picture when I visited the site of the hall, opposite the Swan Lake bar in Effernagh, which is marked by a plaque. It has become something of a point of pilgrimage for many in the socialist movement and otherwise who would today share his progressive ideas. I also located a portrait of him by the artist Tim Kerr who has visited the area many times in recent years. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map of James Gralton Hall site


Magnum Photo Essay on Co. Leitrim

“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”
Martin Parr

One of the biggest selling issues in the history of Magnum photography magazine featured a photo essay on the west of Ireland entitled A Fair Day. The piece was by the now famous English photographer and photojournalist Martin Parr. His piece in Magnum was a series of shots he took here between 1980 and 1983. Some of the photographs which featured most prominently were from a dance at the Mayflower Ballroom, Drumshanbo, in 1983. He also showed images of a phenomenon of the time called bungalow bliss and general rural life. Many of his strangely prescient images of abandoned houses and rural decay could have been taken today. This article alone is said to have brought hundreds of new-comers to Co. Leitrim during the 1980’s. You can view more of his published images over two pages at this link. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Will Oldham

On 15th April 1996 Will Oldham played a live solo show as Palace in Whelan’s, Dublin. A show I was at as it happens and took this picture. Upstairs in the backstage room after the gig he met a fan from Drumshanbo that he got on with and took his number. Will had just two more dates to complete on the tour (France and Spain) which he was doing with Bill Callahan aka Smog. After these he arrived back in London and noticed he had a few days in a row spare between various press interviews, a guest recording session with Briana Corrigan (who would end up living in Ireland herself not much later and I would share a mutual friend with, shows how small Dublin is). he then had one more final gig in London on the 28th of the month before going home.

He wanted to record some demos of new material and do it somewhere else than London and decided to ring his new friend who agreed to the visit. Engineer Ken Heaton, who was in the city to discuss the upcoming Broken Giant soundtrack project with him, decided to come over with him to try out ideas for that release and record whatever else might go down. He simply brought a mini disc recorder with a good microphone which meant they could go anywhere. They stayed with Matt (who was on the traditional Irish music course run by Leitrim VEC at the time) and he brought them to an abandoned large estate house just outside the town. They reportedly loved the atmosphere and went there for 2 days in a row. One night Matt brought them to a weekly traditional music session in Monica’s on the high street of the town where it sounds like he played ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ but they mostly drank Guinness and enjoyed themselves. After 3 days in Drumshanbo they got a lift into Carrick-on-Shannon and the train back to Dublin where they stayed one night (and were seen out and about) and then flew back to London.

I had heard at the time from the promoter (who was a friend) that Will had been back in the city a week after his Dublin show and that he had been in Co. Leitrim recording. As nothing seemed to back this up over the years I thought nothing more of it until I met Matt about two years ago. Somehow Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy came up in conversation and that’s when he told me the above story. He wasn’t sure if anything from the session had ever came out himself but I figured out from the dates and Ken Heaton’s involvement that two tracks did indeed emerge from it in 1997 on a Drag City 7” (pictured). They were ‘Patience’ and ‘Take However Long You Want’.  I already had the single which gives no details of the location of the recording. The music is, as you would expect, very bare with just voice and guitar. Both tracks would be included on Will Oldham’s Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 in 2000. The soundtrack for the film Broken Giant, under the name Palace Soundtrack, came out in late 1996.

I visited the house and found it still abandoned and from looking in the windows it appears in fairly good condition considering how long it must be empty now. There is original furniture and moldy old books and who knows what else lying stacked about with two broken down cars outside and lots of rusting tractors and other farm machinery lying about the grounds. It’s very ghostly but I could see why they liked it; surely the house could be saved and developed into something like the Tyrone Guthrie Centre perhaps. I have heard it has been a bit of a squat party house in the past but it is locked up now and I have a feeling no one has come here to party for a long time. It’s not for sale but the land around it is still farmed. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Drumshanbo Hustle

In the early 1960’s Van Morrison played in the Mayflower ballroom in Drumshanbo with his showband The Monarches. Legend has it that there was some disagreement between band and promoter (which was common at the time)and he entitled the song ‘Drumshanbo Hustle’ with this incident in mind. The lyrics to the song are more general however, being about how an artist has little choice but to sign a standard contract when the opportunity arises but gets ripped off by the record company/business in the process. The track was recorded in late 1972 for the Hard Nose the Highway album, his seventh solo album, but would not come out until he released, The Philosophers Stone, a collection of outtakes in 1990.

I found this rare image of how the venue would have looked at the time and a link to the song. The venue is still there and is used by a well respected traditional music course run by Leitrim VEC, where today Morrison would no doubt be happy to hear that each year a representative of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) comes to give a talk to its students. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Abandoned Truck Trailer

According to a freedom of information request made by a journalist in 2010 a number of secret social experiments were tried out on the Irish public by a market research company on behalf of the Irish State between 1996 and 1998. We also know from this that they came to Carrick-on-Shannon in June 1998 and worked for a three month period. We can only speculate on what they got up to while they were here but the only evidence said to be left of them today is a mysterious truck trailer which can still be seen at the side of a road surrounded by a security fence. It can be located just outside the town opposite the North West Business & Technology Park (which is pretty empty of business and technology these days) which wouldn’t have even been built at the time.

The company involved would probably have set up a number of experiments in the town and its environs but the truck container aspect appears to be a variation on a pretty standard test. After bringing the trailer to this location and setting up some obstacles such as the fence they would have installed a number of hidden cameras to observe how many people were drawn to it and how far they would go to investigate what was inside. The colour they chose for it is also said to be a recognized trigger pattern which can get into your mind and for some subjects even enter their dreams. Finding out how much physical reality each person filters out of their reality tunnel is part of the experiment so even registering its presence tells them something as a good percentage would never even see it. Why it was left behind is a bit of a mystery though. Rust has been attacking it and trees are already growing around it so it will soon be out of sight to the public for real. What’s in the trailer today, probably nothing or maybe everything! (Stephen Rennicks)    

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Zoroastrian Fire Temple

After a forest clearing outside Drumshanbo in 2007 a number of puzzling old stone buildings were revealed on a slope leading to Acres Lough. Archeologists were invited at the time to investigate and were surprised to identify the main building at the top of the site as the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple. They thought that the other rooms attached to it were used as living quarters and for food preparation. There are other ruins on the large site too but only one other building is left standing, closer to the lake shore which may have been used for meditation and prayer. There are also two very thick lines of stones running down the slope to the shore line as well (one of which goes through a gable wall of the other building). These are thought to be from an earlier megalithic age and may have been built by the same people who built the cairns at Sheemore and Sheebeg which can both be clearly viewed from the site. They appeared to be too low and thick for walls and their purpose could not be determined by the archeologists. From this it appears that a small community of followers of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia settled here in the 1600’s or earlier and chose an already possibly sacred site to do so. No documented record of them living here is known to exist.

In the Zoroastrian religion fire and water are agents of ritual purity and considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire were represented within the precinct of their fire temple. Zoroastrians usually prayed in the presence of some form of fire (which could be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of their principle act of worship constituted a “strengthening of the waters”. Fire was considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom was gained, and water was considered the source of that wisdom. The site they picked here is perfect for this and I can imagine them being very content here. Ahura Mazda was their God and was seen as the beginning and end, the creator of everything that can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. In this way Zoroastrianism, which dates from 1000 BC, has been seen as a precursor to Christianity and perhaps they were accepted here because of this.

There is an intriguing account of WB Yeats visiting the region for a few days with other members of the Dublin Hermetic order in 1886 and enquiring about the whereabouts of an ancient sacred site outside Drumshanbo. I wonder if they located it?

Trees have again been planted on the slope and around the buildings but no further archeological investigations are due to be carried out on the site. Within a few more years the site will again be hidden from view and it shall again begin to fade from memory. When it again emerges I wonder how much of it will be left and what type of people will rediscover it? (Stephen Rennicks)

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Campfire Movement

What has become known worldwide as the ‘Campfire Movement’ is widely agreed to have had its genesis in Aughavas, Co. Leitrim in 1994. It is said to have started from one newly arrived German family who decided to invite their neighbors over to get to know them. They hadn’t thought of having their gathering outdoors at the time but as it was such a fine night they decided to light a fire in their front field parallel to their lane so everyone could see it as they arrived and be naturally drawn there. About 40 people came, many with their children, and they had a varied conversation beginning with the  tradition of bonfires in Co. Leitrim on St. John’s night and how during the time of the Brehon Laws fair days were traditionally used to settle local disputes and again a fire had been at the centre of this. Somehow as people shared their thoughts at this spontaneous initiative in a field, it sparked some deep universal folk memory which disarmed everyone attending to such a degree that they saw each other in new and refreshingly primitive terms. They found that any old grudges or disputes between them melted away in the course of the night, purified in the flames.

This particular micro community began having regular campfires on their properties which became part community council part mutually energizing experiences. The practice then appears to have spread from community to community, county to county and country to country by word of mouth until it became what it is now, a recognized grassroots and leaderless movement and concept that has the potential to one day eclipse government and media control. In 2005 Boards of Canada even referenced the phenomenon on their third album, The Campfire Headphase. (Stephen Rennicks)

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