Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Fearghal McGarry in the library's Irish Room. (Lee Pellegrini)

Jimmy Gralton (1886-1945) might seem a quirky, and dubious, footnote in Irish history. A Leitrim native who twice emigrated to and returned from the United States, Gralton was an ardent Communist and combatant in the struggle for independence against Britain, and later turned a hall he built on his property into a hub of political activism and a venue for jazz, arousing the wrath of Catholic priests and local authorities who denounced him for being a Communist. In 1933, he became the only Irishman ever to be deported from Ireland.

But Fearghal McGarry, the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College this semester, sees Gralton’s story as reflecting the tensions that wracked the still-young Irish nation as it sought to establish itself. According to McGarry, it wasn’t just Gralton’s radicalism that troubled the civic and religious leadership, but his promotion of activities—such as listening to jazz or going to dance halls—they believed to be immoral.

McGarry explains the larger significance of Gralton’s story in “Communism, Sex, and All That Jazz: The Struggle Against Modernity in Interwar Ireland,” presented March 31 as part of the Burns Lecture series. (Watch the video below.)

“Between the world wars in Ireland, there was a lot of anxiety about modern culture, modern trends, as represented by Communism, jazz, and cinema,” said McGarry, a professor of modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast. “What’s interesting is, you have all the clerical and nationalist denunciations of these things, but a lot of them are very popular with ordinary men and women: The cinemas are full, people love dancing, and so on.

“There’s a lot of hostility to these modern influences beyond Ireland: For example, Nazi Germany depicts jazz in anti-Semitic, racist terms, while in the Soviet Union it’s denounced as a symbol of decadent capitalism. But in Ireland, a lot of these concerns are expressed in terms of Catholicism, and in the desire to protect Gaelic culture. So in a weird way, there’s almost a positive element to this repressive, censorial atmosphere, because it’s about the idea of constructing an Irish identity.”

McGarry is the latest in a long line of distinguished academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures whose significant contributions to Irish cultural and intellectual life have earned them the position of Burns Scholar. Appointees teach courses, offer public lectures, and use the University’s John J. Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.

A member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Dublin-area native has written or edited 11 volumes on Irish history. His earlier work, including studies of Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, explored Ireland in an interwar-European context. His recent research, presented in publications including  The Rising and The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution, focuses on the Irish revolution and the cultural and political revival from which it emerged.

McGarry needed little in the way of introduction to Boston College when he arrived to begin his Burns Scholar appointment. He’s done research at the Burns Library and spoken at the University several times, including at the 2016 conference organized by BC’s Irish Studies Program to commemorate the centenary of the Irish Easter Week Rising. McGarry also has worked with Boston College Ireland on Century Ireland, an online historical newspaper that details events in Irish life from a century ago.

“I had a big ambition to come here,” he said. “The Burns Scholar chair is a very prestigious, sought-after honor in Ireland. The facilities at BC are outstanding, particularly the resources at the Burns Library. But it also gives you a lot of space and time to advance your research and write your book, and there’s the opportunity to teach as well, which is fun.”

McGarry’s class, Modernity and Tradition in Interwar Ireland—open to undergraduate and graduate students—along with the theme of his forthcoming lecture, reflect his longstanding interest in using a more expansive research lens on the Irish Revolution, which encompasses the 1916 rising and subsequent war for independence from Britain, as well as the 1922 Irish civil war.

As McGarry notes, perspectives about this crucial period in Irish history have shifted in recent decades. In past generations, including his schoolboy days, the focus was on the heroism and sacrifice of Irish rebels such as Padraic Pearse, and Ireland’s eventual success in winning independence. Over time, there has been an increased desire for a more thorough, diverse, and nuanced reading of the Irish revolution, including the important role women played and the range of radical ideologies among those involved.

I had a big ambition to come here. The Burns Scholar chair is a very prestigious, sought-after honor in Ireland. The facilities at BC are outstanding, particularly the resources at the Burns Library.
Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Fearghal McGarry

McGarry, for his part, explored a trove of nearly 2,000 previously unreleased witness statements in writing The Rising, which he describes as “a social history from below”—recollections of rank-and-file revolutionaries. For Abbey Rebels, he relates the stories of seven unlikely rebels, all connected with Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, including actors, a carpenter, an usherette, and the composer of Ireland’s national anthem.

“This rising was a revolutionary movement,” said McGarry. “There were socialists, labor activists, feminists, and others whose vision of Ireland was quite different than that of the nationalists and conservatives. The revolution ended with the civil war, when the government felt compelled to enforce its legitimacy, which involved a close relationship with the Catholic Church and promoting a narrow cultural vision without radical experimentalism.”

But McGarry sees a need to look beyond Ireland to get a better grasp of Irish history. “It’s important to note how events outside Ireland during that period shaped what happened in Ireland, but also how events in Ireland resonated elsewhere. The Irish revolution took place at a time when the age of empires was ending and a new world was starting to take shape. So this meant there was far more attention being paid to Ireland than before. For example, when Terence MacSwiney—playwright, author, and lord mayor of Cork—was arrested and imprisoned by the British for sedition, he went on a hunger strike and died after 74 days. This caused international outrage, especially in America, which became a key pillar of Irish support.”

This transnational and global context of the Irish revolution is at the heart of “A Global History of Irish Revolution 1916-1923,” a project on which McGarry is collaborating with BC Irish Studies Program Interim Director Robert Savage and faculty at Edinburgh University. The project features museum exhibitions, educational resources, and special publications, and will culminate with an international conference held at Boston College planned for this September.

Sean Smith | University Communications | March 2021