'The Only Communist in Mayo': John Meehan, 1936-2020, An Appreciation

John Meehan 1936 - 2020
Fergal Costello & Carmel Tansey
ITGWU/ILHS seminar on Centenary of National Land League in Castlebar, 1979: front, l-r, Dan McCarthy (National Land Leagye), Patrick Powell (Galway Branch Secretary, ITGWU), Fergal Costello; back, l-r, Francis Devine, Paul Bew [now Lord Bew], Michael Neary (Castlebar Branch Secretary, ITGWU), John Meehan
Fergal Costello & Carmel Tansey
ITGWU NEC 1989: seated, l-r: John Meehan (Castlebar No 1), Mary Oakes (Mullingar), Chris Kirwan (Genera; Secretary), John Carroll (General President), Edmund Browne (Vice president), Doris Kelly (Dublin 2), Paddy Teahan (Tralee)
Fergal Costello & Carmel Tansey

The death of John Meehan of Ballinrobe in April 2020 arguably witnessed the passing of a long tradition of rural, radical socialist republican activists who drew their inspiration from Davitt and Connolly, the Land War and opposition to landlordism, forging a unity between workers and small farmers in the image of Peadar O’Donnell. Sometimes referred to as ‘the only Communist west of the Shannon’, he was more accurately perhaps the ‘only Communist in Mayo’, his open Party membership making his subsequent rise to the National Executive Council (NEC) of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) all the more remarkable. A celebration of his life was held on Saturday, 9 July 2022, at the family grave in Ballinrobe.[i]

Early Life, Emigration & Joining the Communist Party

John Meehan was born on 19 June 1936 and raised on a small farm in Cloongowla West (Cluain Gabhla), Ballinrobe County Mayo.  He was the youngest of five children, with three sisters, Sally [Sarah], Mary and Nellie [Ellen], and an older brother Patrick who died in infancy. His father, Patrick, died at age forty-five when John was five years old, and his mother, Norah raised the family on her own.   Meehan’s grandfather, John, born in 1845 but recorded as 71 in the 1911 Census, had lived through the Famine.[ii]  The Great Hunger was seared on Mayo’s memory and shaped his grandson’s commitment to the land and its people.[iii] Michael Davitt was born on the family farm in Straide, north of Ballinrobe, in March 1846 and, on 16 August 1879, the Land League of Mayo was founded in Castlebar, superseded on 21 October by the National Land League.[iv] In addition to rural poverty, in the early 1900s, Tuberculosis (TB) wiped out many poor families. Fergal Costello noted that:

‘Noël Browne, who lived in Ballinrobe as a child in the 1920s, lost both parents and five of his seven siblings to TB. Understandably, this had a profound effect on Browne’s life and subsequent political career. Together with Davitt and the Land War, this local inheritance suggests that resistance to oppression, injustice and colonialism was almost certainly built into John Meehan’s DNA.’[v]

After Meehan’s father’s death, times were hard but the family ‘managed’.[vi] Young Meehan was educated at the Sisters of Mercy Convent National School and at the Christian Brothers in Cornmarket before working on the farm for a few years.[vii] Around 1956, Meehan briefly left for London before returning to farm in Cloongowla. He already held strong convictions, recalling that ‘when I was around twenty, I stopped attending Mass’.[viii]  The local priest visited his mother, Norah, and gave her a hard time.  Meehan ‘took it upon himself to visit the priest to tell him to leave his mother alone’.  Attempting to placate him, the priest invited Meehan in and gave him his first glass of alcohol! There are overtones of Leitrim’s Jimmy Gralton in this tale and Meehan held him as hero and was, unsurprisingly, a founder-member of the Jim Gralton Labour History Society.[ix]

Meehan returned to London in the 1960s, working for British Rail in a ticket office and then as a porter. He spent one Christmas at Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant, the country’s largest Sorting Office. Meehan also laboured on the Isle of Dogs as dockland slums were replaced, the area now known as Canary Wharf.[x] About this time, he became friendly with Maurice O’Byrne and his son Terry from Waterford. Through them and a woman called Minnie Bowles (known to John’s niece Helen Ward as Auntie Min), Meehan became involved with the Connolly Association and Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Bowles was active in the Young Communist League (YCL) and served as secretary to Harry Pollitt, then CPGB General Secretary.[xi] Meehan sold the Daily Worker on Balham High Street.



[i] This appreciation has been drawn on Carmel Tansey, ‘Eulogy: John Meehan, 9July, 2022’ and Fergal Costello, ‘Tribute to John Meehan, 9 July 2022 on the occasion of the interment of John’s ashes in the family grave in Ballinrobe’.

[ii] In 1911, the Meehan family lived at 3 Cloongowla and consisted of John, 70 and a farmer, and Sarah, 54, and their children Patrick, 14; Annie, 20; and Nellie, 17. All were literate and spoke Irish and English, www.nationalarchives.ie/reels/nai002954846/. In 1901, at 28 Cloongowla, the Meehan family consisted of John, 54, a farmer, and Sara, 42, and their children Maggie M, 13; Annie, 10; Nellie, 7; Patrick, 4; and step-daughters, Mary T. Rogers, 16, and Sara J. Rogers, 15: www.census.nationalarchives.ie/reels/nai001062595/ [retrieved 2 September 2022]. The adding of a few years was not uncommon as eyes were turned to the Old Age Pensions Act, 1908!

[iii] Costello recalled that ‘from 1845 to 1849 hunger and disease wreaked havoc on the community and on a grossly overcrowded Ballinrobe Workhouse. Trenches were dug at the rear of the Workhouse where the dead were buried daily. In one week alone in 1849, ninety seven inmates died. Those who could emigrated. Many of those who couldn’t, died of hunger or disease’.

[iv] The ITGWU and Irish Labour History Society held a 1979 Conference in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar to commemorate the founding of the National Land League, Meehan being a prime mover. Costello represented the union at the unveiling of a statue to Davitt in Straide in 1979.

[v] Costello, op. cit.

[vi] Tansey’s recollection from family stories.

[vii] In 1990, the CBS, Sacred Heart Secondary School and the Vocational School merged to form Ballinrobe Community School.

[viii] As told to Carmel Tansey.

[ix] Information from Declan Bree.

[x] Information from his sister Mary and niece Helen.

[xi] Bowles was a CPGB member from 1941-1991. As a Battersea YCL member Bowles described an incident in which Saklatvala was called to deal with a domestic fight in which a man was beating his wife: ‘Sak stood inside the door and said, quietly, ‘Now why do you beat your wife? She is not your enemy. You have real enemies. Think of the landlord who charges you rent for this slum; or your boss who pays your wages, hardly enough to keep you alive’. And he [Saklatvala] went on in this quiet way until the man was weeping, and the wife was comforting him’, Irfan Chowdhury review of Marc Wadsworth, Comrade Sak, (Peepal Tree Press, London, 2020).


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