Photo courtesy of Fearghal McGarry / Wikipedia

Fearghal McGarry Unpacks Communism, Sex, and all that Jazz in Interwar Ireland

On Wednesday, March 31, the Burns Visiting Scholar Fearghal McGarry lectured on the relationship between communism, jazz, and sexual immorality in 1930s Ireland.

McGarry is a professor of modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast. His research focuses on the Irish revolution and the resulting cultural and political revival. McGarry is the author of 11 books on Irish history and is currently working on a piece studying Irish anxieties in Interwar Ireland. 

McGarry began his lecture by providing historical background to detail the emergence of the anti-communist movement in Ireland. In response to the Spanish Civil War, the Irish popularly supported the idea of Ireland as a uniquely spiritual nation. However, McGarry emphasized that this popular desire for a Catholic Ireland did not translate into concrete political or state forms. 

“This lack of translation deserves much more recognition that it receives,” said McGarry.

To further dive into this idea, McGarry introduced the historical figure Jimmy Gralton. In his hometown of Leitrim, Ireland, Gralton opened a dance hall that local priests condemned as a communist den. In 1933, Gralton became the first and last Irishman deported from Ireland. He fled to the United States because his revolutionary ideas were not accepted in Ireland.

McGarry posed the question, “Why did jazz, communism, and dance halls provoke such alarm in one of the remote corners of Ireland?”

During the 1930s, modernization was strongly associated with the United States. Leitrim experienced post-famine immigration, a concept McGarry described as “reverse migration.” McGarry labeled reverse migration a product of failure. 

“Reverse migration has been overlooked. People went to America and came back demonstrating the economic reality that some of the Irish did not make it in America,” said McGarry. 

As a result, Leitrim’s population was densely populated with Yankees. 

“International migration created and sustained powerful transnational networks," said McGarry. "These found themselves at odds with prevailing opinions of Irish counties.”

McGarry said the birth of the anti-jazz campaign resulted from “the myth that jazz embodies the full gamut of anxieties to modernity.”

Jazz was defined by syncopated off-beat music leading to a fear of sensual dancing and Americanization influence.  McGarry also highlighted the sexist aspect of the anti-communism movement. 

“Jazz promotes a feminine man and a masculine woman," he said. "It brings urban to the rural. Jazz was an undescribed barbarism.”

Jazz personified a strong emotional form sparking fear in the anti-modern crusades. These crusades racialized and sexualized the construction of jazz music to contribute to an idealized national identity. 

McGarry saod, “The anti-jazz campaign fixed anti-modernity identities to the rural.”

The emergence of jazz in Ireland also sparked gender-based anxieties about sexual immorality. Rural Irish communities like Leitrim blamed women for “the flow of foreign filth threatening the purity of the nation,” McGarry said. 

However, McGarry also said, “if women were the problem, women were also the solution.”

In Ireland, the 1930s are characterized by religious policies policing the female body. McGarry touched on the relationship between religious institutions and power in Ireland; however, he ultimately believes historians have more work to do to understand how power worked. 

McGarry concluded by arguing the return of Jimmy Gralton to Ireland haunts the national conscience. Gralton serves as an important figure representing an underground traditional resistance to authority. Historians are too focused on what people were not allowed to do and instead should study resistance during the 1930s in Ireland. 

He hinted that the transformation of Ireland, ultimately ending the dominance of Catholicism in the country, was Gralton’s best form of revenge. 

“Individual desires represented a threat to a form of Catholicism whose authority relied on obedience and tradition rather than spiritual conviction,” concluded McGarry. 

History major with a whole lot of love for all things Harry Styles