The Radical Irish Diaspora – Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl

The Radical Irish Diaspora.

The Rebel Girl.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was of solid Irish roots. Indeed she claimed that all four of her great grandfathers, Gurley, Flynn, Ryan and Conneran, were United Irishmen and had helped the French Army which landed at Killalla Bay in 1798.  Her mother Anne Gurley, a native Irish speaker was brought up in Loughrea, Co Galway, while Thomas Flynn, her father had strong Mayo roots. Elizabeth refers also in her autobiography to her mother’s family connections to George Bernard Shaw and the Larkins.

The family moved to New York in 1900 to live in the South Bronx, her early youth was blighted by poverty, yet she availed of educational opportunities and her independent spirit (she was an early vegetarian) was encouraged by her socialist parents. In the radical ferment of New York City she learned of the Molly Maguires, the Haymarket Massacre, she read William Morris, Edward Bellamy, Frederick Douglass and Upton Sinclair. Her first public speech in Times Square at the age of 16 was on the rights of women.

The teenage Flynn became a sensation in New York. When approached by theatrical producer David Belasco who wanted her to star in “a labour play”……..she responded “I don’t want to be an actress. I want to speak my own words and not say over and over again what somebody else has written for me. I’m in the labour movement and I speak my own piece”. She always wrote her own speeches.

Elizabeth crossed paths with some of the seminal figures in the Irish labour struggle.  She first met James Connolly in 1907 and they became firm friends.  He was a frequent visitor to her parents’ home before eventually returning to Ireland in 1910.  Accompanied by Connolly, who was then also an IWW organizer in New York, she attended a meeting addressed by a fiery Mother Jones in the Bronx in the summer of 1908, Flynn was so overcome at the sight of Mother Jones that she collapsed.

She later saw Mother Jones passionately defending a Jewish man against deportation at a meeting in Chicago. Describing Mother Jones as “the Greatest woman agitator of our time”, she also admitted that she was afraid of “her sharp tongue” yet Elizabeth found Mother Jones to be very sympathetic and kind to her when told of how Elizabeth had lost her first child.

Later Elizabeth became well acquainted with James Larkin when he came to the United States after the Dublin lockout. He called around to her house many times. “He was very poor and while in New York he lived in a small alley in Greenwich Village.” She also commented that “he was a magnificent orator and an agitator without equal.”

Anne, her mother regularly babysat Owen Sheehy Skeffington when Hannah had to speak at meetings in New York. Among other visitors were Liam Mellows and Dr. Patrick McCarten, the then Irish envoy to the US.

While Mother Jones played a prominent role in the founding in Chicago in 1905 of the International Workers of the World (IWW), she did not conduct union organizing campaigns under its auspices.  However, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, became one of the IWW‘s most celebrated and tireless leaders, having joined in 1906.  Her efforts to organize the most oppressed workers over several decades took her from Massachusetts, to Minnesota, to Washington on the west coast.

The Rebel Girl

A few hours before he was executed in 1915, Joe Hill wrote to his friend Elizabeth to tell her that she was indeed the inspiration for his song The Rebel Girl.

Flynn spent her entire life working for the labour movement and was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was dedicated to free speech and campaigned actively for women’s rights and was especially critical of the male leadership of the IWW and the unions and attacked their failure to practice equality for their female members.

Her valiant efforts to save Sacco and Vanzetti failed and they were executed in 1927. Her beloved only son Fred Flynn died in 1940 at the age of just 29. Arrested many times, and under surveillance by the FBI, she suffered bouts of illness. Eventually Elizabeth was jailed for over two years (Jan 1955-May 1957) when caught up in the red-scare campaign under the Smith Act by the American government. She became national chairperson of the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1961.

The grave of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at Forest Home Cemetery, Cook County, Illinois

While on a visit to the Soviet Union in September 1964, she died unexpectedly at age 74. According to her wishes, a portion of her ashes was sent back to the United States, where they were buried in Chicago. Rebellious to the end she donated her papers, a few possessions and her books to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in New York City.

In a tribute in 1926, Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, stated that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn has “espoused and championed the cause of the weakest, lowliest, most despised and persecuted, even when she stood almost alone”

Lorraine Starsky will describe the life and significance of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in a talk entitled: “In the footsteps of Mother Jones – the Life and legacy of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

This will be held at the Cathedral Visitor Centre on Thursday 1st August at 11am as part of the Spirit of Mother Jones summer school 2019.

Lorraine is a long-time labor union and social justice activist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. As a young adult she became involved in the campaign to end the Vietnam War, fighting against racism, and for womens’ rights, labour and union causes. Labour history is her lifelong passion and she has studied Irish women activists such as Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She is a Public Health nurse and has herself Irish roots.

Sources:

The Rebel Girl…..an Autobiography. My First Life (1906-1926) by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Published in 1955.

There is Power In A Union….The Epic Story of Labour in America, by Philip Dray. 2010 Doubleday.

James Connolly and the United States. Carl and Ann Barton Reeve. Humanities Press.

Outlanders: Stories of the Displaced.

Venue: Cathedral Visitors Centre

Date & Time: Wednesday afternoon July 31st at 3pm.

Séan Ó Tuathaigh is an activist and the author of Outlanders – Stories of the Displaced, his first book. He wants to use this book to highlight the plight of those often anonymous people who make the dangerous journey from their war ravaged countries to seek new lives and homes and peace in other countries.

“Ask yourself what would you do to survive? Would you cross an ocean, would you cross an armed border, walk across a desert?” Séan asks those questions of people who did just that and has published their stories.

Seán Ó Tuathaigh

Outlanders is a collection of refugee stories, compiled from some of the people who author met while working in the US. There are stories of old people and young, recently arrived and well established, originating from Laos, Burma (2), Afghanistan (2), South Africa, Somalia, Palestine, Bosnia and Kurdistan.

The first of its kind to explore the subject from a creative perspective, this book builds on the journalistic work available on the subject. The stories are presented in a style that immerses the reader into the experiences of the refugee, to see what they saw, smell what they smelt and feel what they felt.”

Listen to Séan and you will meet ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, you will hear the stories of Zarhawar, Saadia, Mar Mar, Chue Vang, Hawraz, Nolwandle, Bojana, Nasruddin, Tuqa, and Azhar. No longer statistics or objects of mistrust…..these ordinary human beings tell their stories in Outlanders and humanity needs to empathise with their fear, their hopes and their courage.

Séan’s book serves as a timely echo from the seanscéal of millions of our very own Irish ancestors who fled this country to begin new lives in other places. Young Mary Harris and her family did in Famine times!

Outlanders: book cover

Seán Ó Tuathaigh was born and raised in Sligo and is a graduate of the M.Phil in Creative Writing at TCD. Before that course, he taught English in Hanoi, Vietnam. After graduation, in 2016, he moved to the USA for 18 months, where he worked as a refugee biographer in a resettlement agency and following that he wrote Outlanders.Published by Mercier Press, copies of Outlanders: Stories of the Displaced will be available at the talk at the Cathedral Visitors Centre.

Available now at Mercier Press

Free overseas delivery at Book Depository

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Follow Outlanders on Facebook

 

Séan will speak at the 2019 Spirit Of Mother Jones summer school at the Cathedral Visitor Centre at 3pm on Wednesday 31st July 2019. All welcome.

 

 

Miss Mary: the Quiet Heroine! – The Story of Mary Elmes

 Mary Elmes (1908-2002)

Mary Elmes was born on 5th May 1908 at Cul Greine, 120 Blackrock Road in Cork. Edward Elmes, her father was originally from Waterford and her mother was Elizabeth Waters from Cork. The family ran a pharmacy at 4 Winthrop Street, in the heart of Cork city, were prosperous and lived in Ballintemple near Blackrock. The family had military connections and several relations served in the British Army abroad.  Elizabeth Elmes was also friendly with Mary McSwiney having worked together in the Munster Women’s Franchise league. The family business premises appears to have been damaged in the burning of Cork by British soldiers on the night of 11th December 1920.

Rochelle School around 1930

Mary Elmes attended Rochelle School, on the Old Blackrock Road, now closed and incorporated into Ashton School in Cork. In 1928  she enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin where Mary had an outstanding academic career. Top of her class, she was a scholar in 1931, was awarded a gold medal and gained a first-class degree in Modern Literature (French and Spanish).

In 1935, as a result of her academic achievements, Elmes was awarded a scholarship in International Studies to study at London School of Economics. This was followed with a certificate in International Studies as well as a further scholarship to continue her education in Geneva, Switzerland.

After the completion of her studies, in February 1937, Mary was invited by Sir George Young, a former British diplomat and journalist to join the University of London Ambulance Unit and was sent to a children’s hospital in Almeria in then civil war-torn Spain.

Mary Elmes at Almeria

She ran a children’s hospital in Murcia from May 1937, and worked for a period alongside Dorothy Morris a nurse from New Zealand. January 1938 saw her appointed as administrator to a Quaker established hospital in Alicante. She was not a Quaker herself.

The Quakers looked after victims on both sides of the civil war, however Mary’s work was mainly with Republican children and civilians. The hospital in Alicante came under aerial attack from the Fascist airforce with aircraft provided by Germany and Italy and had to be evacuated. In mid-1938, Mary moved inland to the mountains near Polop where they worked from an abandoned villa for the remainder of the year, caring for over 30 children.

By early 1939, as the Fascists, with superior resources defeated the Republican government and ground out victory, millions of Spanish became refugees in their own country. During the following months, some 500,000 defeated Republicans and their families fled to France.

Spanish children in Quaker run refugee camp, France

Mary eventually left Spain over the border to France in May 1939 and returned home to Cork where she stayed for a month, before volunteering to work in the Spanish refugee camps in the South of France. She worked out of Perpignan for the Quaker led International Relief organisations, distributing aid, supplies clothes and books.

World War 2 was declared on 2nd September, placing the humanitarian effort in the South of France in jeopardy. Later on 22nd June 1940, following the invasion of northern France and the fall of Paris, France became divided into the German occupied North and the collaborationist South under the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain.

The Vichy south was flooded this time by refugees from the north of France and again back in Perpignan, Mary found herself in the middle of a new humanitarian disaster. She was increasingly critical at the actions of the Vichy government towards Jews who were being rounded up and placed in concentration camps yet was also trying to prevent the expulsion of the humanitarian agencies, such as those run by the Quakers from the area.

Mary, known as “Miss Mary” to many refugees, worked tirelessly to bring aid to the Rivesaltes camp, local schools and other nearby facilities, where hunger and malnutrition was growing.

Relief organisations, including the Quakers, fearful of their fate, began attempting to get Jewish children out of the camps to America or into local respite homes where they might escape the Vichy authorities. The summer of 1942 saw the beginning of the systematic deportation of all Jews to extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

Clodagh Finn’s book

From August to October 1942, Mary Elmes, with assistance from some colleagues and others, rescued dozens of children from Riversaltes, taking them to safe houses or helping them flee the country altogether. Well aware that she was putting herself at risk, Elmes bravely hid many children in the boot of her car and drove them to safe destinations. She aided many others by securing documents, which allowed  them to escape through the underground Resistance networks in Vichy France.

From November 1942 onwards, the Nazi grip of terror tightened. In February 1943, Elmes was arrested on suspicion of aiding the escape of Jews and was imprisoned in Toulouse, later being moved to the notorious Fresnes Prison run by the Gestapo near Paris, where she was incarcerated .She was finally released without charge on 23rd July 1943. Her own children believe she may have been released after an intervention by Eduard Hempel, the German Ambassador in Dublin.

Paddy Butler’s book

Immediately returning to Perpignan, she continued her humanitarian work for the Quakers until June 1946. She married Roger Danjou and settled into a domestic lifestyle, raised two children, Caroline and Patrick and remained mostly silent about her extraordinary activities over the previous decade. After almost a decade of difficult relief works in two major wars and taking huge personal risks, she lived a quiet life. She refused the Legion d’ Honneur, offered by the French State. Her work still unknown and unrecognized, she died in France on 9th March 2002 at the age of 93.

Eventually recognition came for her courageous humanitarian work and her efforts to save Jewish children from the Nazi genocide. On 13th January 2013, she was recognized in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, at Yad Vashem in Israel. Later in February 2019, the Cork City Council voted to name the new pedestrian bridge across the River Lee as the Mary Elmes Bridge.

Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group will tell the story of Mary Elmes at the Firkin Theatre, Shandon on Thursday 1st August at 7.30. All are welcome.

Sources:

A Time To Risk All by Clodagh Finn. Gill Books 2017

The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes…The Irish Oskar Schindler by Paddy Butler. Orpen Press 2017.

Helen O’Donovan R.I.P.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee wish to extend our deepest sympathies to Mick O’Donovan and his family on the death of Helen.
 

Helen O’Donovan

Helen was a great friend to everyone at the annual festival and contributed and gave so much to this event over the past 8 years. 
 
She had the voice of an angel and her beautiful rendering of classic songs such as “Mother”, “Black Flowers” and “The Curragh Wrens” in and around Shandon will live on forever in all our hearts and memories.
 
May Helen Rest in Peace.