By Jack Holland
For a man turning 87, it might seem like a somewhat unusual birthday speech.
“My advice to all comrades who control arms,” declared the birthday boy, “hang on to your guns, improve your aim, and keep your powder dry.” Unusual that is, unless the birthday boy happens to be George Harrison, the unrepentant gunrunner and Irish rebel from Brooklyn. It’s almost 21 years since he and four of his comrades were arrested in the FBI sting operation that broke up the arms-running network that had been responsible for helping keep the IRA in business since the mid-1950s.
For Harrison, born in Shammer, Co. Mayo, a year before the Easter Rising, the goal of that rebellion remain unfulfilled. It is, quite simply, “to drive the Brits out lock, stock and barrel.” That was the sentiment of his birthday speech, and possibly of every speech he has made in his long life.
He was speaking at the party held to honor him on May 2 at the offices of the law firm of O’Dwyer and Bernstien, where about 75 people had gathered, hosted by Frank Durkan. They were in some ways an increasingly rare breed — a reminder of a radical New York that is now more and more a historical memory. They included old communists, traditional Irish republicans and Irish-American activists from the early days of Irish Northern Aid, civil rights lawyers, and a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, part of the International Brigades that fought the fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is one of only 105 Lincoln brigadistas still surviving from that war. Bernadette McAliskey was there in spirit at least, and sent her birthday greetings.
“Some people never know when to quit,” she declared.
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Moe Fishman, the veteran from the Lincoln Brigade, at 86 was just one year behind Harrison. He had his own for celebrating. Last year, he explained, at Harrison’s 86th birthday bash, Cupid struck him — when he had just left the party and was waiting by the elevator, to be precise. Waiting there also was Georgia Wever.
“We discovered we lived in the same building,” Fishman recalls, as Wever beamed at him. He went home with her. And by the time they had reached the elevator in their apartment building, love had done its thing.
“I asked her for a kiss,” Moe said as Georgia gave him a gentle nudge. “Who would have thought,” he mused, “that George would play Cupid?”
Among the others who nodded in surprise were Martin Galvin, the former NORAID spokesman who is currently a spokesman for the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, John McDonagh of the Irish Freedom Committee, and Charlene Mitchell, the communist activist and organizer. But not Priscilla McClean, from North Carolina, who has been Harrison’s home attendant since he underwent painful knee surgery about five years ago. She can easily see Harrison armed with his bow-and-arrow.
“He’s such a sweetheart,” she declared. “He ought to run a class to teach men how to treat their women.” McClean was there with her daughter Kenya, who sometimes looks after Harrison for her mother.
“He’s my sweetheart,” Kenya said. She works full-time for an insurance company.
“I’ve never been to so many demonstrations,” Priscilla McClean said. “I’d never thought I’d see Castro or listen to a speech for four-and-a-half hours” — which she did with Harrison when Castro visited Riverside Church in Manhattan a few years back.
Harrison’s grandniece Alana was serving drinks from a cooler. A graduate of William and Mary, she is doing sketch comedy but keeps an eye on things Irish, sharing something of the family’s rebel spirit.
Speaking of which, Harrison was asked about the latest developments.
“When you put one foot in the imperialist door, it’s hard to pull it out,” he said. He regrets the vituperativeness that has accompanied the latest transformation of the Provisional IRA.
“The only way a turncoat can win is to smear you,” he said. He was asked what he thought about Gerry Adams’s latest statement saying that Sinn Fein would put the vision of James Connolly on the political agenda.
“No kidding,” he replied, before enjoying a mouthful of birthday cake.