George Harrison: An Irish Revolutionary, An American Activist

by Matt Siegfried, for Fourthwrite

Just weeks before the indomitable George Harrison passed into history, a history he consciously took part in, my comrade, Brian Mullin, and I traveled to George’s Brooklyn apartment. There we spent the day with him talking informally; visiting with his wonderful companion and nurse Priscilla McLean and recording what would become a lengthy and wide ranging interview. I hope this interview will be made available in the near future.

As many socialists and radicals in the United States and around the world, I have known of George for what seems like my entire active life. He was old enough to be my grandfather and had lived, it seemed, several lifetimes, witnessed and engaged in the struggles of several generations on several continents.

We knew him not only as the media’s gunrunner from Mayo and Irish republican of the old school, but also as a stalwart of the social struggles in this country. A man who never met a picket line he would cross or not gladly join in. We wanted to tell that story, we wanted George to illuminate in his own words the world view that traveled with him from across the Atlantic and informed his active life as a socialist, an internationalist and revolutionary in this country.

Immediately put at ease by his disarming (how ironic to use that word to describe George Harrison!) charm we sat down and listened and asked and learned of a life of service. A unique, even singular life. But his was a life lived not in dogmatic isolation from the changing world around him, but a life informed by the tumultuous events of the 20th Century. As a young man and IRA volunteer he resisted the, seemingly cyclical, counterrevolutions in Ireland following the War of Independence and Civil War.

As a working class person, the revolution and Civil War in Spain became a great passion for the then young revolutionary. Spain would continue to instruct his politics until his last days. He held his highest admiration for those from around the globe that selflessly went to defend the Republic and nascent workers’ revolution against the fascist generals, reactionary priests and Nazi Luftwaffe.

As he himself said, his greatest regret was to not travel to Spain with his friends and comrades, some of which lay still under the battlefields of Jamara and Madrid. To join with Frank Ryan, Tommy Patton, Mick Riordan and so many others to fight arms in hand for the freedom of Spain and the Workers’ Republic. His regret was our, all of our, fortune as he lived another seven decades in the service of the ideals of those who fought and died in that heroic struggle. The struggle for socialism whose prospect seemed then so near you could hold it in your hand.

While nothing about George was ordinary he was and remained a working man. Not common but alive in commonality. He was one of a multitude of immigrants who traveled to this land seeking work, seeking freedom from poverty and oppression and often the adventure of beginning a new life. Though Ireland was always intimately on his mind.

Many of those immigrants brought with them a radicalism learned, often painfully, in the conditions of their native lands. Many of those immigrants who came without politics learned them in the disappointing lie of the American Dream, the hypocrisy of a democracy which acts in the service of the US oligarchy, the ruling class, the capitalists. The daily humiliations visited on working people; especially immigrants in the hard scrabble toil of survival to make ends meet in a land where the streets were said to be paved with gold.

Many became leaders of workers’ struggles, the civil rights and women’s movements. Some fought long, quiet, dignified struggles as rank and file activists. Nearly all informed the US born working class of the world beyond their borders, yet so affected by the action of the United States and often the very same bosses that exploited them at home. George’s name will rightly be mentioned with others of that tradition, Nagi Daifallah (Yemen), Harry Bridges (Australia), Carl Skoglund (Sweden), Mother Jones (Ireland), and many others. Read Mother Jones’s marvelous biography; she and George must be relations, however distant.

The conditions in the United States are such that labor’s voice has largely been excluded from the political process. The laws governing working conditions as well as the ability to organize are so severely restrictive and draconian, a strike or union battle in the United States has more than once resembled a civil war. The history of the United States’ left is one of a relationship between the experiences and ideas brought by immigrants mutually enriching and combining with the native class struggle, the battle against racism, for women’s emancipation, for civil rights, for a socialist future.

George Harrison’s life was an exemplary confirmation of this dynamic. George Harrison, the Irish republican came to the United States in 1938 after a brief stint as a laborer and activist in England. He found himself working on the docks of Brooklyn and immediately threw himself into his union, which was at the time heavily influenced by the politics of the Communist Party, with which George had a long and cordial relationship. The union turned right and increasingly buearcratic after the left purges in the late ’40s. He developed, quietly, a relationship with the legendary transport workers’ leader Michael Quill who would on occasion pass money to George to assist in George’s life long commitment to supply the resistance in Ireland with the means to resist. Quill knew how the money might be spent and gladly gave it anyway.

George spent thirty years as a driver for Brinks and a member of Teamsters local 820. The Union went through changes in leadership and direction. George remained an active member of the union regardless of its changes in leadership, developing relationships with his co-workers both politically and personally. Some of those co-workers were to testify on his behalf at he and Michael Flannery’s famed 1983 trial. The old Wobbly code of class solidarity: “an injury to one is an injury to all” was not just a slogan to George, it was a way of life. He was not just a familiar face on the picket lines of every nearly strike in New York City for several decades, but helped to organize material solidarity. Getting funds and provisions to strikers, handing out leaflets, passing resolutions in his union. Connecting the struggles, seeing their confluence. Raising hell.

But the thing, more than any other, that made George a uniquely American activist was his early introduction to the reality of white supremacy in the United States. When he first arrived here and found a job tending bar in which blacks were sometimes refused service and treated vilely at the pub frequented by Irish immigrants like himself. He could not countenance that his own country folk, those who had suffered so grievously under the yoke of the bloody British Empire could not see and make common cause with black people here. Because of George’s worldview, his certain knowledge of human equality and his enormous wealth of empathy he could not abide the racism endemic, still, in the United States.

George was often the only white man at demonstrations, marching for civil rights and desegregation, against police brutality and with those who would espouse “Black Power” to the embarrassment of members of the Irish community, including in the republican community. As he said in the interview he saw no difference in the legitimate rage of a black community in the late ’60s and early ’70s, under siege and ghettoized with what the “lads in Belfast” were doing.

Harrison’s great American hero was the white abolitionist and martyr John Brown and he proudly marched with the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Chicano Brown Berets. He was no liberal; he was a militant anti-racist who saw no threat from those without power demanding power over their own lives. He saw the Black and Brown Power movements of the time as natural and integral to a global struggle, of which Ireland was apart, and Vietnam and Cuba and South Africa and Nicaragua and so many other places of contest between the past and the future. Between imperialism and solidarity.

George Harrison was the least nostalgic 89-year-old I have ever met or will ever meet. When he spoke of the past it was to inform the future. When he remembered his many comrades who proceeded him, some far too young, into history it was with regret, not just for their passing, but that their contributions to the movement that they had lived there lives for were cut short. His thoughts were always on tomorrow; it’s activities and struggles.

George remained an Irish republican because he was an anti-imperialist and a socialist. Consequently he was the Patron of Republican Sinn Féin and an implacable foe of the Good Friday Agreement. He spoke of Marx and Che and Fidel with the same admiration that he spoke of Tone and Emmett and Connolly (how he wished that Connolly and Lenin could have met!). What I learned from George and will keep with me as I remain an activist, trade unionist and revolutionary is that the struggle is not sectoralist, it is combined and only in it’s active combination will we have anything like the victory we seek. We, who seek the world George sought, cannot simply trod the path marked by the deep and lasting imprints of George’s enormous shoes.

George has walked his path and we are left seek out the path to a future George would not live to see, but nonetheless, would not come into being without him. Him and the millions like him who refuse to be broken, who refuse to compromise the future to this present. Those, like George who see with the clarity of a supremely calm, confident and humble man that only by the actions of those who engage in the process going on all around us, fully and consciously with the goal in mind is the goal achieved.

It is our great fortune and our enemy’s great torment that there will be other George Harrisons. Imperialism made George Harrison a revolutionary and will continue to make others like him, though one can say that George was a superlative example of the best of his class, he will not be the last. Let imperialism and capitalism shudder at the idea of a new generation of George Harrsions, for they have reason to fear. Even when I disagreed strongly with him, talking with George as I did frequently from before we interviewed him until several days before he died, I became convinced of the optimism he exuded for the youth of today internationally. That and the “actuality of the revolution” that he lived every day of his long and remarkable life.

I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to George than to commit to carry on, regardless of the obstacles and difficulties ahead. To continue, relentlessly, in pursuit of world of solidarity, emancipation and socialism that George sought. That is the only homage worthy of such a man. Indeed, as George knew and proved in deed, a life in the service of human freedom is the most honorable and noble profession in which a thinking person could engage. George Harrison, Presenté!

October, 2004