Jim Kemmy

Reference Code: IE 2135 P5
Title: The Jim Kemmy Papers     
Dates of Creation: 1863-1998 (predominantly 1962-1997)
Extent and Medium: 73 boxes (857 folders)

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Name of Creator: Kemmy, Seamus (Jim) (1936-1997)

Biographical History: Seamus Kemmy, better known as Jim Kemmy, was born in Limerick on 14 September, 1936, as the eldest of five children to Elizabeth Pilkington and stonemason Michael Kemmy.  He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ primary school in Sexton Street and in 1952 followed his father into the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stonelayers’ Trade Union to commence his five-year apprenticeship.  When his father died of tuberculosis in 1955, the responsibility of providing for the family fell onto Kemmy’s shoulders.  Having qualified as a stonemason in 1957, he emigrated to England in the hope of a better income.  The different social conditions and the freedom of thought and expression he encountered there challenged and changed his traditional Catholic values and opened his eyes to the issues of social injustice and inequality, which he was to stand up against for the rest of his life.  In 1960, encouraged by the building boom, Kemmy returned to Ireland and found work on construction sites at Shannon.  He also became involved in the Brick and Stonelayers’ Trade Union, and was elected Branch Secretary in 1962.  A year later, he joined the Labour Party.  Kemmy harboured no electoral ambitions during his early years in politics.  Instead, he became involved in local party organisation, first as director of elections, and later as member of the party’s National Administrative Council.  He also became increasingly involved in making representations on behalf of local residents to assist them in their domestic and personal difficulties.  His employment as stonemason by Limerick Corporation from 1965 to 1981 gave him flexibility to take leave whenever his help was required.  In 1965, to augment his practical experience, Kemmy enrolled in the School of Commerce on Mulgrave Street for a two-year extramural diploma in Social Science, and was conferred in September 1967.

In the course of the following years, political differences between Kemmy and other Labour Party members began to emerge.  One of the issues on which he adopted a radically independent stance was the question of the status of Northern Ireland, on which he took up an anti-nationalist position.  To compensate for his dissatisfaction with the Labour Party, Kemmy set up the Limerick Socialist Study Group, which aimed to generate awareness and discussion on current issues through organised monthly debates between well known public figures, among them John de Courcy Ireland and Conor Cruise O’Brien.  Kemmy’s disillusionment with Labour Party politics eventually led to his resignation in 1972.  He then turned his energies to the launching of a new monthly newspaper, The Limerick Socialist, which served as a platform for his political ideals, carrying polemical analysis of local politics and politicians.  In 1974, he registered as a non-party candidate in the local elections, advocating social and cultural reform, the availability of contraceptives, and the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.  He was elected to Limerick City Council and, in characteristic fashion, refused to wear the ceremonial crimson robes at the Council’s first sitting.  The issues he advocated during his election campaign remained central to his political concerns after election.  By 1975, he had successfully campaigned to set up a family planning clinic in Limerick.  However, the clinic was so strongly opposed that in its first two years no member of the medical profession in Limerick would work there.  In 1977, Kemmy fought and lost the general election for the Limerick East Labour seat.  Undeterred by his defeat, he continued his campaign to bring about a social and cultural revolution in the city.  His activities were primarily directed towards changing the way people thought, and one of his fundamental beliefs was that culture should be accessible to all social classes.  To this end, in 1979, he discontinued publishing The Limerick Socialist and launched The Old Limerick Journal, a local history periodical which he continued to produce until his death.

Also in 1979, he was re-elected to the City Council, attaining the position of Alderman.  His profound interest in culture became evident in 1980 when, having been appointed Chairperson of the City Council’s Art Gallery Advisory Committee, he revived and transformed the City Gallery.  He also became Chairperson of the City Council’s National Monuments Advisory Committee.  Kemmy’s involvement in local politics and culture did not replace his commitment to national issues.  He continued his participation in broad-front socialist organisations and became a leading member of the Socialists against Nationalism movement in 1980.  He also continued his campaign for the amendment of the constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, his commitment to this cause reaching its zenith in 1981 through his evident lack of sympathy for the H-Block hunger strikers.  In that year, Kemmy was also elected to the Dáil as an independent candidate.  The election had resulted in a hung Dáil and Kemmy cast his vote in favour of Dr. Garret Fitzgerald as Taoiseach at the head of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.  In Dr. Fitzgerald, Kemmy found a kindred spirit, and in September 1981, the Taoiseach announced a constitutional crusade, one of the aims of which was the removal of Articles 2 and 3.  The crusade, however, came to a sudden end in January 1982 when Kemmy voted against the budget, which removed several food subsidies and introduced a tax on children’s shoes, and brought down the government.  Kemmy was re-elected to the Dáil in February 1982.  The socialist causes that he had championed in the 1970s, particularly women’s rights and women’s issues, remained in the forefront of his pursuits.  Having been elected Chairman of the Limerick Family Planning Clinic, and lending his support to the Rape Crisis Centre, he became increasingly aware of the need for political and legislative measures to deal with these and other social issues.  However, he also realised that as an independent TD his opportunities to influence policy making were nonexistent.  This realisation led him to play a central role in the creation of the Democratic Socialist Party.  The first task of the new party was to draw up a number of policy documents, one of which related to abortion.  At this time, the Pro Life lobby was campaigning for stricter legislative restrictions on abortion, and gained the support of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The DSP policy, according to which abortion was justified where a woman’s life was endangered by pregnancy, where pregnancy had resulted from rape or incest, or when the foetus suffered from congenital abnormalities which made survival outside the womb impossible, threw Kemmy and his party in the centre of a controversy which was to cost Kemmy his seat in the November 1982 general election.  Rather than return to his old career as stonemason, from which he had resigned on being elected TD in 1981, Kemmy decided to commit himself to rebuilding his electoral base.

He remained active as a council member and kept his constituency clinic open, although for several weeks no-one would turn up to seek his help.  He also remained active in national politics through the DSP, and found common ground with Senator Mary Robinson in objecting to the Anglo-Irish agreement.  In November 1985, when Garret Fitzgerald, during his second term as Taoiseach, signed another Anglo-Irish agreement without any commitment to amend Articles 2 and 3, Robinson resigned from the Labour Party and joined Kemmy on the platform at a DSP public meeting to protest against the anti-democratic character of that agreement.  Kemmy’s dedication paid off in 1987, when he was returned to the Dáil as a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.  Being aware of the limited impact made on Dáil politics by small parties, Kemmy committed himself to unifying the left.  He attained his goal in 1990, when the DSP and the Workers’ Party merged with the Labour Party, but not without a price: with the merger, his hopes for a radical socialist party were finally put to an end and, whatever his own convictions were, he now had to align his views with those held by the Labour Party.  However, the next twelve months were to be among the most rewarding of his life.  He revitalised the Labour Party in Limerick and Clare, leading it into a dominant position during the 1991 local elections, and played a key role in the Labour Party campaign which saw Mary Robinson elected as President of Ireland.  Also in 1991, Kemmy became the Labour Party’s spokesperson on transport, was voted into the position of Labour Party Vice-Chairman, and, perhaps the greatest personal honour of all, was unanimously elected Mayor of Limerick.  In his role as Mayor, Kemmy was described ‘like a thunderbolt’.  His first gesture was to donate his £16,000 Mayoral salary to counterbalance cutbacks in city contributions to 25 local organisations.  He opened the doors of the City Hall to ordinary people, holding receptions in honour of everyone and anyone who had represented the city well, from gifted students to local award-winning darts clubs.  He was also the first Mayor of Limerick ever to attend at the War Memorial on Remembrance Day in his official capacity.

In 1992, when the general election resulted in a record number of Dáil seats for the Labour Party, it seemed inevitable that Kemmy would be given a ministerial position within the incoming Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition government.  However, this was not to be.  Instead, Kemmy was elected Chairperson of the National Labour Party, a position which provided him with the advantages of having a voice within the Dáil while at the same time giving him the freedom of speech associated with a marginal politician.  Kemmy made the most of his station to indulge his notorious outspokenness, particularly during the 1994 Beef Tribunal, and the Brendan Smyth extradition case.  However, his words were not always directed against the government: in 1993, he defended the much criticized tax amnesty on the grounds that it would bring money back into the economy.  With Kemmy, common sense was always the key.  In 1994, Kemmy unsuccessfully contested the European Parliament Elections in Munster, and in July 1995 he was elected as Mayor for a second term.  In 1996, Kemmy faced into a difficult election but, unlike many of his Labour Party colleagues, managed to hold his seat.  In addition to numerous commitments and responsibilities, Kemmy also found the time to indulge in his lifelong ambition to write books.  His literary achievements include Limerick in Old Picture Postcards, prepared jointly with Larry Walsh in 1996, The Limerick Anthology, published in 1996 in anticipation of the Limerick 800 celebrations, and The Limerick Compendium, published posthumously in 1997.  In August 1997, Kemmy was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.  He was admitted to St James’ Hospital in Dublin, where he died on 25 September 1997.

Archival History: Donated by Patsy Harrold to the University of Limerick in [1998?].  The transfer and boxing of material was organised by Dr John Logan of the History Department.


Content and Structure

Scope and Content: Membership lists, correspondence, account books, financial reports, minutes, statements and press releases relating to The Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stonelayers’ Trade Union, Woodworkers and Plasterers’ Trade Union, Construction Industry Federation, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Limerick Building Trades Group, SIPTU and other trade unions and union activities (1962-1998); rules, correspondence, bills, receipts and financial reports relating to the Mechanics’ Institute (1882-1996); constitutions and policy statements, press statements, speeches, membership lists, minutes, financial statements, election manifestos, correspondence, pamphlets and posters relating to the Democratic Socialist Party (1980-1994); minutes, reports, statements, accounts and correspondence relating to the Labour Party (1965-1997); electoral material and correspondence relating to Kemmy’s Dáil terms and electoral campaigns (1977-1997); correspondence, speeches, press releases, minutes and appointment diaries relating to Kemmy’s activities as Alderman and Mayor (1974-1997); appeals, petitions and other correspondence relating to Kemmy’s constituency work (1967-1997);  articles and draft articles, research material (including nineteenth-century documents) and correspondence relating to Kemmy’s historical and literary activities; and photographs, artwork, correspondence and a small number of other items of personal nature.

System of Arrangement: Material has been arranged into five series reflecting Kemmy’s major activities over the years.  Section A relates to Kemmy’s union activities, particularly his role as secretary of the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stonelayers’ Trade Union.  Material relating to other trade unions is arranged alphabetically by union.  General labour and trade union issues have been arranged under the headings of Apprenticeship, Employment, and Strikes and Disputes.  Material relating to the Mechanics Institute has also been included in this section.  Section B relates to Kemmy’s political activities and contains material on the formation and development of the Democratic Socialist Party, its subsequent amalgamation with the Labour Party, Kemmy’s election campaigns, his Dáil terms, and issues prominent in his political career.  Section C relates to Kemmy’s constituency work and has been alphabetically divided into 17 categories, ranging from Arts to Sports.  Administrative material relating to Limerick Corporation and Kemmy’s roles as Alderman and Mayor have also been included in this section.  Section D relates to Kemmy’s historical interests and literary pursuits.  Material relating to his books is arranged chronologically by publication.  Correspondence relating to historical and literary matters has been included in this section, with the exception of correspondence with or relating to writers (most notably Frank McCourt and Jerry O’Neill), which can be found in Section C under Arts, Culture and Built Heritage (Literature).  Kemmy’s particular interests, Michael Hogan, Limerick Jews, Labour History and the Park Danes, have all been grouped under their own headings.  Research material collected by Kemmy has also been retained as it may help to identify some of the sources he used for his research, rarely footnoted in his articles.  Section E contains personal material, including photographs, letters from friends, and ephemera.  Thank you letters Kemmy received throughout his life have been included in this section, as it was often impossible to ascertain whether they were sent to him by friends or constituents.  For clarity, all receipts and financial material have also been included in Section E, even when they relate to Kemmy’s Dáil terms or constituency work.  The lack of personal items is illustrative of the fact that for Kemmy, his work equalled his life, and there was little distinction between his public and private persona.


Conditions of Access and Use

Conditions Governing Access: Most files contain personally identifiable or sensitive information relating to people other than Jim Kemmy and are closed until 2034 to protect individual privacy.  A small number of items of particularly sensitive nature are closed until 2104.  These items have been identified in the descriptive catalogue.  Access to the remaining files is unrestricted.

Conditions Governing Reproduction: Reproduction of the material is permitted, except for closed files and any items dated after 1980 containing personal information.

Language/ Scripts of Material: English.


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