Jim Savage: an obituary

9.8.1923 - 16.12.2005

David Granville pays tribute to the life of Cork socialist and republican Jim Savage who died last December

Jim Savage

A LOYAL friend of the Connolly Association and a contributor to the Irish Democrat for over five decades, Jim Savage, died in a Cork hospital on 16 December 2005, following a short illness - though his health had been failing for a number of years.

Our condolences goout to his family, especially his daughter Marjorie and granddaughters Deidre and Aoife.

A republican, communist and internationalist in the tradition of James Connolly, Jim Savage's life was intertwined with the struggles for Irish freedom and socialism from the 1930s.

Born in Cork on 9 August 1923 to Jack and Elizabeth Savage, Jim acquired his nationalist sympathies from his mother's family. As Jim explained in Uinseann MacEoin's book The IRA in the Twilight Years: 1923-1948, his father had suffered physically and psychologically after spending four years as a British soldier in Flanders, was "totally devoid" of nationalist feeling and showed no interest in politics. However, his fragile heath and a citation from King George V were not enough to prevent frequent raids and physical harassment by the Black and Tans during the war of independence.

Jim joined the republican youth movement, Fianna Eireann, at the age of 12 and came into direct contact with the legendary IRA fighter Tom Barry. Barry, who was greatly admired by Jim, was the commanding officer (OC) in Cork at that time.

While still a member of the Fianna, Jim was one of those present in Mary MacSwiney's house in Glanmire on 8 December 1938 when several surviving members of the Second Dail transferred their 'authority' to the IRA. Jim was the last living link to this historic event in the history of Irish republicanism.

His transfer from Cork city's north side and promotion to the First Battalion of the IRA brought these 'boys' club' days to an abrupt end. Despite his youth - he was still only 17 - it was only a matter of months before he was made commanding officer after the arrest and internment of his predecessor, John Varian. Varian, like many other republicans, had fallen foul of the De Valera government's 1940 round-up.

De Valera increasingly viewed the IRA as an irritant and a threat to his government's policy of neutrality in the conflict between Britain and its allies and Nazi Germany. This was especially so after the launch of an ill-conceived bombing campaign in Britain by the IRA.

Jim himself was on the run from the authorities for 18 months before his eventual capture and subsequent internment in 1941. On the day of Jim's funeral, a former comrade of his told me that Jim had once held a set of keys for the Sacred Heart Church on Western Road Cork, and that Jim, himself and two other IRA-men had hidden three boxes of arms behind the altar there in the late 1930s. A local priest had ensured that the weapons were passed on the their intended destination. The story holds particular poignancy in view of the fact that Jim's funeral mass had been held in the same church only hours before.

It was during his time as OC of the First Battalion in Cork that Jim came into close contact with fellow Cork man, left-wing republican and prominent International Brigader, Michael O'Riordan, at that time the IRA's quartermaster in Cork. "The bravest man I ever met", was how Jim once described O'Riordan, who was to become the chairman of the Communist Party of Ireland. "If you ever went in anywhere with Mick you knew you would come out alive."

The authorities finally caught up with Jim in 1941 and, after first spending time in the Cork Bridewell and then Mountjoy prison, he was eventually reunited with O'Riorden and other republican comrades in the Curragh internment camp, where he remained for the next two years.

It was a time of increasingly sharp divisions within the republican movement over its political direction. O'Riordan and Savage became prominent figures within the debate, establishing the left-wing Connolly Group in the camp.

Schooled in the tradition of the great Irish labour leader and revolutionary James Connolly, Jim Savage was one of those who saw the twin struggles for national independence and socialism as complimentary, rather than antagonistic. Shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising James Connolly had written: "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered." It was this perspective which informed Jim's active political life.

Whether as a member of the IRA or, for much of his life, the Communist Party of Ireland, Jim worked with like-minded comrades to maintain 'the link', while fighting political reaction in whichever guise it reared its head.

Following their release on extended parole in the mid-1940s, both Savage and O'Riordan threw themselves into socialist politics, first founding the Liam Mellows branch of the Irish Labour Party in Cork and then, after their expulsion for being too radical for the timorous right-wing Labour leadership of the day, the Cork Socialist Party. The latter, despite its name, was in effect the Cork branch of the Communist Party of Ireland; the subterfuge being due to the exceptionally strong grip the Catholic Church had in Cork, where it waged a virulent campaign againstall forms of 'godless' socialism.

As Jim told me many years later, it was far from unusual, especially during the anti-communist fervour of the 1950s, for the Catholic church in Cork to mount daily processions outside the Savage household protesting at the 'Red threat' within.

Jim Savage

p> It was sometime after his release from the Curragh that Jim Savage came into contact with the late C Desmond Greaves, Irish labour historian, political activist and editor of the Connolly Association's newspaper, the Irish Democrat, for over 40 years.

It was Greaves who persuaded him to write for the paper, a commitment that he maintained for five decades until ill health prevented him from contributing further at the beginning of 2002.

Many of his contributions focused on issues of concern to the local Cork working-class movement, highlighting the malign effects of Irish capitalism on people, especially the poor and vulnerable. British imperialism around the globe was another favourite target of his.

A retail worker, he was also an active member of the shopworkers' trade union and was instrumental in organising the strike which forced pennypinching shop owners to provide protective clothing for Cork's messenger boys in 1947. In 1968, his successful one-man solidarity picket of the Esso oil terminal in Cork, in support of wrongfully dismissed worker Jimmy McGown, stands out as a testimony to his tenacity, courage and solidarity with workers who found themselves the victims of injustice. It will also be remembered for almost bringing the terminal to a complete standstill, as tanker drivers and other refinery workers resolutely refused to cross his picket line.

Something of a pioneer in raising the environmentalist banner, he alerted readers of the Irish Democrat to the dangers posed by pollution and the poor health and safety practices prevalent among industrial employers, especially the major petrol, chemical and steel plants operating in and around Cork.

A committed internationalist, he never failed to see the bigger picture. He was a staunch supporter of the socialist countries and a defender of those fighting against imperialism for the right to self-determination - including the Irish.

He was a firm believer in the civil rights approach to achieving Irish unity, an idea originally conceived by Greaves and taken up by progressives in the six counties during the late sixties in the shape of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, with which he maintained close links. Whilst a supporter of the current Irish peace process, this was undoubtedly tempered by concerns over what he saw as Britain's duplicitous role and a general mistrust of politicians, including republican and socialist ones, whom he saw as being as susceptible to the intoxication of power and the trappings of office as others from less progressive backgrounds.

Essentially a modest man, capable of great kindness, generosity and warm friendship, he will be remembered by those who knew and worked with him for his integrity, steadfast determination, personal courage and razor-sharp wit.

In the parlance of a generation much younger than his own, he was undoubtedly a man who could be said to have "walked the walk" as well as having "talked the talk".

On 19 December, Jim Savage's friend and comrade over many decades, Eamon Corcoran, reminded mourners gathered at the graveside at Cork's St Finbarr's cemetery that Jim had "preached the gospel of discontent" against the capitalist class and all those who would enslave Ireland and her people. "He was as nationalist as Pearse, as socialist as Connolly, as revolutionary as O'Donovan Rossa and as conspiratorial as John Devoy," Eamon remarked.

I cannot think of a more fitting epitaph.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-02-20 19:44:56.
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