Kerry Association historian Gerry O’Shea, left, and Frank O’Keefe, president, at the Kerry Hall in Yonkers, N.Y. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
“The judge can drop dead in his black robes.”
That may be the best-known line ever to come from the lips of Transport Workers Union leader Michael J. Quill.
But there are quite a few others worth recalling. Try this: “If black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and Gentile are good enough to slave and sweat together, then they are good enough to unite and fight together.”
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These quotes and more will be heard again on Saturday, Jan. 26, as the Kerry Association remembers its most famous member — by far — in its 137 years of existence.
Officially the event is from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., but the doors of the Kerry Hall in Yonkers will stay open into the evening to celebrate a man who was both a prominent personality in the New York Irish community and a notable leader in American society.
New York is the center of the financial world, and yet, said Kerry Association President Frank O’Keefe, “it’s the most powerful union city in America. How is that even possible?”
Part of the answer, he believes, is Quill, who got in the January 1966 transit strike a contract for workers far beyond their expectations. It paved the way for others. Gerry O’Shea, the Kerry Association’s historian and a regular Irish Echo contributor, added: “[The UFT’s] Al Shanker said he was the teachers’ teacher.”
Both men are looking forward to two first-hand accounts of the Quill story: Pat Fenton of Rockland County will tell of how Quill became an important person in his life in the absence of his own father and former association president Sean Brosnan will recall in his remarks his role as the association’s official representative at the leader’s wake in late January 1966.
Other highlights include Macdara Vallely’s 24-minute film about the famous Kerryman. On the musical side of the program, Mickey Coleman, having tracked down the lyrics, has written a new arrangement to a song TWU members used to sing about their leader. Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On” will be sung, too, as will “James Connolly,” about Quill’s great hero.
Quill, who was born in December 1905, was a precocious rebel as a youth. He was involved in the War of Independence in Kerry and like his older brothers took the republican anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. The Quills were part of a group that briefly held the town of Kenmare before advancing government troops captured it. The 10-month conflict ended in April 1923, but the future “Red Mike” had a long career ahead of him as an anti-establishment militant.
In Irish New York in the early decades he was almost always in the minority, being an uncompromising union activist and a Communist. “He was unbelievably tough,” O’Shea said.
Race was one issue that tended to place him outside the mainstream of the labor movement itself throughout his career.
On the evening of May 9, 1963, singer and civil rights campaigner Harry Belafonte answered a ring on his doorbell in New York. He had just been on the phone with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was attempting to organize sympathetic labor leaders to send cash to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to use as bail money for the last of hundreds of activists who’d been imprisoned after recent upheaval in Birmingham, Ala. At the door was a deliveryman from the TWU holding a black satchel containing $50,000. “For King,” wrote historian Taylor Branch, “this favor was in part a return on a speech he had delivered before Quill’s workers several years earlier.”
The labor leader’s support went back decades, however, as King indicated when he eulogized him upon his death: “Today it is easier to oppose discrimination, but in the ’30s a leader who worried about his image and measured his popularity carefully kept his silence. Negroes desperately needed men like Mike Quill who fearlessly said what was true even though it offended. That is why Negroes will miss Mike Quill.”
The TWU leader operated on many fronts throughout his life.
“In the middle and late 1930s, at a time when many Irish Catholics in New York were sympathetic to the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist rantings of the radio priest Fr. Charles Coughlin, Mike Quill took a stand against the fellow travelers of Hitlerism,” said author Peter Duffy, whose forthcoming book, “The Agitator,” explores left-wing activism in New York during that era.
Duffy told the Echo: ”Quill had no hesitation in confronting — loudly and in public, with his famous Kerry accent — the thuggery of the Christian Front, the organization of Coughlinites known for committing street violence against Jews. He should be honored as an important anti-Fascist of the years leading up to World War II.”
After the war, Quill became increasing frustrated with Communist Party positions — such as its support for the third-party presidential candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace — and he broke with it in 1948.
“He was always focused on the TWU,” said O’Keefe, a retired sanitation worker and a son of a member of the paper handlers’ union who preceded him by a few decades as president of what was then called the Kerrymen’s Patriotic & Benevolent Association.
On the 26th, the focus is back on the TWU’s leader himself at the impressive Kerry Hall. The internationalist and immigrant in him would have liked that it is rented out to many other groups in the community. Quill once said: “Brothers and sisters: The Sermon on the Mount is 2,000 years old and not yet realized. Don’t give up on the UN which is only a few years old.”
A wall of photos at the Kerry Hall dedicated to the 37 senior All Ireland titles the county has won since 1903. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT