John McDonagh hosts award winning journalist and author Ed Moloney and activist Joan McKiernan as they recall the life of Sandy Boyer. (begins time stamp ~ 26:35)
John: We’re going to get Ed Moloney on and speak to him and his wife, Joan. They were very good friends of Sandy Boyer. And as I always tell the story: Sandy would call me up during the week and if there was an event that was going on in Ireland we’d always say: Well, who can we get to talk about that? And we’d inevitably narrow the list down to Eamonn McCann or Bernadette Devlin and sure enough Ed Moloney would come on because Ed’s knowledge of The Troubles and what went on there and him chronically it for all the papers over there and in his book, A Secret History of the IRA, I mean it was just an invaluable resource to have Ed Moloney come on and give us his analysis – just a wonderful resource over the many years here at WBAI and he was a good friend of Ed and we have Ed on the line right now. Ed, are you there?
Ed: Yes, I am, John, yes.
John: How did you find out about Sandy and hang out and know of Sandy Boyer?
Ed: Well actually, my wife, Joan McKiernan, you know, was friends with Sandy long before I even met Joan and she’s the expert on his life because they went way back at the start of The Troubles in Northern Ireland but they were involved in socialist groups. So Joan is the one to ask that question to really.
John: Well, Joan, how did you meet him? Because I want everyone, if they can, go to The Broken Elbow and see the obituary you did of Sandy and as I said to you, Joan, after I read it and saw the history of his mother and father and their involvement in the left community here in the United States I couldn’t believe it. And what I couldn’t believe is hanging out with Sandy all that time at Rocky Sullivan’s and he never brought that up!
Joan: No, well he – he was very proud of his parents and it was a very important contribution to the kind of person that he was but it just wasn’t something that you’d talk about much. Actually, when he was just in the hospital there, we were just talking a few weeks ago, I actually asked him about his mother – I had to ask what her maiden name was – but I had known all about her. Let’s go back to your question you were asking Ed: I met Sandy, and I can’t even figure the year, but what we were doing here in New York was we had the National Association for Irish Justice and we were doing grassroots organising in Irish-American communities for civil rights support for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement. And at that time it was quite a difficult and challenging thing to talk about civil rights in the United States as we were still in the throes of the civil rights movement which did not get great support in Irish-American communities. So that was the work we were doing – was building for the civil rights movement here. And that’s what Sandy, he was by that time a member of the International Socialists, and he came and joined us and he stayed with the struggle and, as you know, the history of The Troubles, you’re talking about like – that was about 1969 – 1970 – and as things broke out there in what we know as The Troubles it moved on very rapidly from civil rights as a demand to much more national liberation as a demand. And we had the events of internment without trial in which were able to be involved in a very large movement here in New York – well, throughout the United States, obviously. And then we had Bloody Sunday and you know, all the events, so Sandy was there at the start. And he – no, he never talked about his history but I got to know him personally through this movement and the way I learned about – well, he did talk about his father because his father was a well-known author. He had been writing for The New Yorker until he had been blacklisted. And this was, to me, a very strange and alien world. I mean I was an Irish-American, very naive politically and certainly the idea of socialism and blacklisting and communists my God! scared the life out of me but this was part of Sandy’s life talking about these sorts of things very normally. And it was in 1973 (I think) his mother died first and then his father and I remember that his father was in hospital for quite some time and visiting there and then eventually his father died. And I went with Sandy to bury his father, his father’s ashes, and that’s when I really – he had told me his mother’s history: she was qualified to be a Daughter of the American Revolution – that is those families that were important in colonial times. Her name was Sofia Ames and she was an author as well – she wrote a children’s book on Nkrumah, one of the African liberators – and so the African struggle was important for the family, the the black struggle for civil rights was important in the family and as was – I mean the family was steeped in working-class history. His father wrote a really wonderful book called Labor’s Untold Story which is the story of labour/trade union struggles in the United States. So his parents, Sandy was raised as what we call a ‘red diaper baby’ – he was immersed in this kind of history. Not just the American revolutionary history and overthrowing the Brits at the start of this country – his mother’s family and their relatives were part of the founding fathers of the nation but then his parents, in their own right, became activists and that was the kind of – Sandy grew up as part of an activist family – learning about socialism, learning about American labour history and he continued that through the Irish struggle and through the working-class struggle in the United States.
So anyway, I went with him to bury his father and he took me to where his grandmother lived – it’s on the – if you go up to Concord, Massachusetts you follow like a revolutionary trail where you go to all these revolutionary sites and his mother was born into a house called The Old Manse – which is one of the houses that you visit and we went there to visit. And Sandy – you know how you measure children as they grow older? Sandy’s markings are there, they still were there at least in 1973, on the wall of this revolutionary house that you visit – you know, the first shot of the Revolutionary War was like around the corner somewhere – they probably call it the Patriot Trail. And then where his father was buried was in an historic graveyard in Concord and the person that hosted a kind of breakfast afterwards was a man called Tom Adams – you know – from those Adams? As in a descendant of Samuel Adams.
John: We’re not talking about the beer – we’re talking about Sam Adams, yes!
Joan: The Samuel Adams, the cousin or somebody of John Adams – the President! And this was all totally taken for granted that Sandy was part of this history, part of that culture and all very accepting of each other and their histories. It was amasing. So no – he didn’t talk about it because it was just part of who he was and all taken for granted, you know?
John: That just explains so much and as I said to you I wish I knew the Sandy you were writing about – how natural he was on the left because that’s all he knew, just even listening to you, that’s what he grew up in so it was just natural. And the other point about: his father wrote a biography of John Brown! And like I keep saying: God! How many times did I sit down? I would have loved to hear that story! Or even he could have read part of it up here at WBAI or done something more – like just sitting here listening now to you talk about it, because some of the stuff you’re talking about wasn’t in the obituary, but it’s an amasing life! He is truly someone that grew up and didn’t know anything else probably – just that he was part of that struggle from Day One.
Joan: Yes. Yes. Very much. I mean, the idea of joining – and he did. He organised – his first protest was part of the whole civil rights movement and he was in high school, you know? What are most of us doing when we’re in high school, you know? We’re certainly not thinking about political activity but it was part of his life very definitely. And listen: Can I share with you because when people – Sandy had and everybody – people in the various movements that he was involved in people talk about his organising skills – and he was brilliant and his knowledge – all of it – I’ve written about it. But what people don’t know – one of the things, as a socialist, we all emphasise the use of workers’ power to win and we were facing pretty awful things going on in Northern Ireland and trying to build support for the struggle here. So one time what Sandy did – he went to see the head of the International Longshoremen’s union (ILA) and he got them to agree that we would picket the Queen Elizabeth, the QE II, when it was coming into New York and the longshoremen would recognise the picket and would refuse to cross the picket line therefore they wouldn’t unload. Now we had an agreement, it was going to be just for an hour or two hours or whatever as we were there outside the QEII, this massive thing, and we stopped the unloading and we were very proud of ourselves. It was the very day that the British government dissolved Stormont and imposed Direct Rule – like as if we knew that was going to happen – right? And we were very proud of ourselves for having picked such an auspicious day, for good or bad, that Direct Rule was protested by New Yorkers today as they stopped the QE II from unloading with the help of the longshoremen. And of course what we didn’t know, and Sandy would have had no way of knowing at that point, that the IRA was using the QEII to smuggle weapons. So everybody must have been pretty upset and pretty horrified that we were messing up a good thing but we didn’t know that until people wrote about it later in history – but it’s just one of the little organising things that he did and he had done so many things I wanted to share that with people that don’t seem to – lots of people don’t remember that far back.
John: (station identification and announcement) And if you want to read a truly amasing obituary of Sandy Boyer and his family go to thebrokenelbow.com – that’s Ed Moloney’s blog – or Facebook or just his writings about what’s going on in Ireland and that and you get to see actual – a photograph of his mother’s obituary in the New York Times and also his father’s obituary in the New York Times. You know, to get that – how did you go about getting that?
Ed: That was very simple. First of all we made contact with The Old Manse in Concord which is a National Heritage site and there is a staff there that looks after the place and compiles archives. And as it happened when we rang there the very nice woman who answered the phone explained that the guy in charge of the house was actually compiling a biography of Sandy’s mother so she had all this information to hand to add to what Joan knew. And one of the things – we found his father’s obituary on the New York Times – that’s a very simple thing to get on the web, on the internet site, of the New York Times – but we didn’t know that his mother also had an obituary and she told us about the obituary for his mother. So it was really very simple to do once you knew where to go, you know?
John: Well listen, Ed and Joan, thanks for coming on. Ed, we’ll probably have you on next week to get back to politics and life but just – I know you’ll probably be down there on April 17th, there’ll be a memorial for Sandy at Theatre 80, just off First Avenue on St. Mark’s Place, and we’ll be trying to organise some of that next week at Rocky Sullivan’s over in Red Hook in Brooklyn.
Ed: No problem.
John: Ed and Joan, thanks for coming on and just telling us those amasing stories – I just wish Sandy would have told us on the microphones here! Well listen, thanks for coming on.
Ed & Joan: Yes. You’re welcome. Thanks, John. Bye.
John: And listen – I was listening to Joan there – I was learning as much as everyone else out there about Sandy and his mother and his father and just steeped in that part of American history – the American Left – and how they were just such a part of that and Sandy was telling me there before he died that he’d signed a contract with the New Yorker – with New York Magazine – they’re reproducing a lot of his profiles of some of the greatest jazz musicians from the 1950’s and putting it into a book – and that’s also going to be coming out soon. So I’m going to have to stay on top of the biography of his mother and also the reproducing of his father’s writings from the magazine. So it’s an amasing life but God! I know I’ve said myself and a lot of us that hung out with Sandy: Well jeez, we just wish he would have told some of these stories that we’re doing but you know what? Things never work out quite the way you want them in life. So – it’s just you’re doing that – and for people just tuning in we’re talking about Sandy Boyer, Co-host here at WBAI for many, many years, who passed away a couple of weeks ago and just telling little bits and pieces of his life. (ends time stamp ~ 41:57)