By Sandy Boyer (for the Blanket)
George Harrison was perhaps the most unrepentant Fenian of them all. He was, as they say, baptized in the Fenian faith at a very early age in his native Shammer, Co. Mayo. He held to that faith unflinchingly until he died sitting in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday. October 7th.
Of course the Fenian faith has as many variations as any other. George Harrison’s was the fenianism of Liam Ryan and James Connolly, two of his heroes. It was also the fenianism of Republican Sinn Féin, whose Patron he was proud to be.
His vision was of a 32-county socialist Ireland. He believed firmly that nothing but physical force would ever get the Brits out. And George judged every new development in Ireland by that very basic criterion - would it help get the Brits out?
But his internationalism was integral to his republicanism. He held that if you wanted to free Ireland, you had to support the struggles of oppressed people everywhere in the world. George was fond of saying that the US had no more right in Puerto Rico than the Brits did in Ireland
He is best known for providing the IRA with arms and equipment for over 25 years. George purchased the weapons, the most vital and dangerous part of the job. Others raised the money, stored the arms and ammunition and arranged to ship them to Ireland. Owen MacNamee, who George referred to as the “Emissary,” was their link with the IRA.
Jack Holland, in his book The American Connection, says that there were never more than a dozen people involved with the network. George estimated very conservatively that they supplied the IRA with 2,000-2,500 weapons and more than a million rounds of ammunition.
The trial of the “IRA 5” - George, Tom Falvey, Michael Flannery, Paddy Mullens and Tommy Gormley - has become legend. The prosecutor opened the case by charging that George had been running guns to the IRA for the last six months. It is reported that at the defense table George was heard to mutter “It was 25 years if it was a day.”
Frank Durkan, his attorney, opened the case for the defense, saying “My client is charged with conspiring to ship arms to Ireland over a short period of months - December of ‘80 to June of ‘81. Mr. Harrison feels somewhat insulted, because, as the government well knows, he has aided, abetted, and shipped arms to the rebels in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century. And makes no bones about it.”
Some of the political differences between George and Michael Flannery, who he admired greatly, were revealed in their choice of character witnesses. Flannery, who was a daily communicant, chose a bishop. George brought Bernadette McAliskey and David Ndaba, secretary to the ANC Mission to the UN.
The prosecutor cross-examined the bishop. He couldn’t get Bernadette off the stand fast enough.
The defendants were all acquitted. But George’s gun running career was over. In later years he would say repeatedly that he only regretted that he hadn’t send enough to get the Brits our of Ireland. For that, he said, he would apologize to the young people of Ireland.
After the trial George, who was probably the most thoroughgoing anti-imperialist I ever met, had the time to actively support the national liberation movements he had believed in for years. Bernadette McAliskey describes spending a Saturday afternoon with George visiting every picket line in New York. They went from the “Long Green Line” picket at the British consulate to demonstrations against apartheid and to support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and political prisoners in Puerto Rico, Argentina and Chile.
At every stop George was known and greeted as a respected comrade and friend. At each demonstration he picked up leaflets announcing future protests and handed them out on the next. George had become the link between very national liberation movement in New York.
You can’t appreciate George Harrison without his passionate hatred of racism. He worked day in and day out to elect David Dinkins as the first African-American Mayor of New York City. Even after Dinkins lost his race for a second term, George called him “the people’s Mayor.” George would no more recognize Rudy Giuliani as the Mayor of his city that he would recognize British rule in Ireland.
I remember how thrilled George was when we organized an Irish event that raised $10,000 to rebuild the burned Black churches in the South. He called me the next morning to say “We gave racism and imperialism a good kick in the ass.”
Throughout his long life, George never budged an inch off his core principals. That didn’t mean he couldn’t learn and progress.
I met George in 1980 at a weekly picket line at British Airways on Fifth Avenue, supporting the first hunger strike. Every week he would show up with the tricolor and the American flag. Although no one said anything about it, George somehow realized that many of us who had been through the anti-Vietnam war movement saw the American flag as the banner of US imperialism. It never appeared again.
Years later, when George was in his 70’s, someone from the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) told me that he was flabbergasted to meet him working for an openly Gay candidate for Congress. George felt he was just supporting a very progressive candidate and didn’t particularly care about his sexual orientation.
Well into his eighties, George asked a friend what transgendered people were. She explained, and he said it sounded like they had a hard time of it.
Another side of George was his amazing generosity. Even when he was retired and living on a pension and Social Security, no one could stop George from giving his money away.
I remember him saying, when the New York H-Block/Armagh Committee was considering supporting INLA prisoners, that he had been sending money to families of republican prisoners for years. I suspect that there are many families throughout Ireland who remember getting a totally unexpected check in the mail one day from George Harrison of Brooklyn, New York.
And even after the contributions for prisoners, and for Republican Sinn Féin, there were the innumerable good causes that George felt bound to support. I wasn’t surprised when Priscilla McLean, the nurse who cared for cared for him throughout his last years, told me that he was living from check to check.
I am very conscious of everything I have left out. Things like his passionate devotion to the republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War, his attachment to New York City, his occasional stubbornness and obstinacy and his great affection for his family and many friends. Other people who knew George would no doubt include much more.
Maybe, at the end, we can say with Shakespeare that “Take him all and all, we shall not look upon his like again.”
Of course George might disagree. He would probably have said that he did he did the best he could, and now it is up to us to do the rest.