Frank Durkan

Martin Galvin with a piece on Frank Durkan which first featured in the Irish Echo on 1st of November 2012.

New York will honor a great Irish-American leader by renaming one of its Bronx streets “Frank Durkan Way.” The measure, introduced by City Councilman Oliver Koppell and backed by an array of Irish-American groups, was passed unanimously by the New York City Council, and received Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement at City Hall on October 2nd. It is fitting that the site selected to honor him, should be Tibbett Avenue, directly outside Gaelic Park in the Bronx, which was so central to so many of Frank’s enduring contributions to Irish-America.

Frank Durkan was a devoted Gaelic Athletic Association supporter, particularly of his native Mayo, and might well have deserved this honor for the decades of legal advice and representation which he provided as legal counsel to the GAA.

As a Mayo born Irishman who had come to New York and enjoyed the opportunities for success that Ireland, sadly, could not provide for so many of its children, Frank fought to legalize  the generations of Irish men and women who came after him in search of the American dream. He was one of the founders of the Emerald Isle Center; spoke at rallies organized at Gaelic Park, and might well have been honored for these efforts alone.

Frank might have been honored as an outstanding trial lawyer, or fighter for civil rights, or for his contributions to so many Irish organizations as a master Master of Ceremonies.
However for me and for many others, Frank Durkan will always be remembered for his battles to achieve justice for victims of British rule in Ireland, and to fight any injustice inflicted upon anyone in America because they supported that struggle.

I first met Frank Durkan at Gaelic Park, introduced to him by his colleague at O’Dwyer and Bernstein, Mark Barrett. Frank had just won a long legal, political and public relations battle to free five Irish born New Yorkers in the then famous case of the “Fort Worth Five.” Gaelic Park was filled to the brim to cheer him.

In the mid-70s the British had convinced Cosgrave’s Dublin Government Coalition to join in enlisting the United States government to discourage and intimidate American supporters of Irish Northern Aid and other groups who were a thorn in the side of British rule.

A thirty year policy of visa denial censorship was introduced against speaking tours by Sinn Fein leaders. Homes and jobs of prominent Irish activists were visited and neighbors and employers questioned by the FBI. Finally five men were dragged from New York to Forth Worth Texas. They were told they must become informers before a Texas Grand Jury or remain in jail indefinitely.

A delegation led by Martin Lyons, and Mike Flannery asked O’Dwyer and Bernstein to fight this campaign of repression at Britain’s behest. Frank went to Texas and fought for the “Fort Worth Five” in the courts, but also won their freedom by lobbying politicians, and rallying Irish Americans.

Frank used the platform of Gaelic Park to inspire, rally and convince Irish–Americans to take pride in standing against British rule in Ireland and also for standing up for their rights as Americans against un-American policies. He began his speech with a humorous thank you to the FBI agents in the hall for the money they donated to gain admission.

Frank then congratulated those in attendance and assured them that if George Washington were looking down from heaven he would smile upon those who wanted the same freedom for Ireland that Washington himself had won for America, and be angered at any government agents who spied on Americans in the service of the British crown. It was an electrifying speech, which we would come to expect from him whenever such inspiration was needed.

It became a point of pride to brag that one had been visited by the FBI and told them to talk to Frank Durkan if they wanted an interview. The British strategy collapsed.

Then the Justice Department attempted to suppress the Irish People Newspaper the weekly “Voice of Irish Republicanism in America.” In pre-internet times such a political perspective was badly needed.

Frank convinced the American Civil Liberties Union to take the case as a fundamental issue of freedom of the press. Together Frank and the ACLU not only won, but forced our government to hand over thousands of pages of secret documents which proved that Britain and Dublin were behind the censorship case.

During the first Hunger Strike, in 1980, Sinn Fein sent a number of former Blanketmen including Kieran Nugent and Fra McCann to help Irish Northern Aid highlight the torture of Thatcher’s H-Blocks. After one demonstration McCann and Sinn Fein member Dessie Mackin went missing. Two days later it was discovered that they had been arrested by the FBI and INS.

Frank worked around the clock to force an unprecedented Saturday bail hearing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. McCann was released on bail and openly toured the country for the Hunger Strikers.

When the British started extradition proceedings against Dessie Mackin, Frank himself took and won the case by proving to an American federal judge that the IRA charges against Mackin were part of a legitimate struggle against British rule, and as such, political offenses exempt from extradition.

This case became a template, followed by attorneys like Mary Pike and Steve Sommerstein to fight Joe Doherty’s extradition and then by the attorneys who would fight political deportation cases on behalf of Gabe Megahey, Sean Mackin, Brian Pearson and others, until a number of a number of these cases would be settled on recommendation of the Secretary of State in 1997.

The FBI then arrested Michael Flannery, George Harrison, Danny Gormley, Pat Mullin and Tom Falvey, on IRA weapons charges. Frank recruited a number of prominent attorneys including Michael Kennedy, Bill Mogulescu, Michael Dowd, Barry Scheck and David Lewis. Frank himself took on the case of his fellow Mayo native George Harrison. Together these attorneys won so conclusively that many of the jurors attended a celebratory victory party. Flannery would be honored as Grand Marshal of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Some of these attorneys would be so impressed with the Irish cause that they would volunteer to represent others facing IRA arms charges in future cases.

Frank was also a major part of the efforts by John Dearie to hold Irish American political forums in which candidates were asked to take positions on Irish issues. These forums had been dismissed even by some within the Irish community but ultimately future President Bill Clinton would take breakthrough positions on visa denial that would shape his foreign policy.

Frank was a key supporter of the MacBride Principles and campaigned with officials like Harrison Goldin, Alan Hevisi, and others to get these anti-discrimination measures enacted by states and cities across the country.

He was a leading figure in the American Committee for Ulster Justice and then a founding member of the Brehon Law Society, where he encouraged lawyers to monitor British miscarriages of justice cases or Orange sectarian parades.

There are far more examples than space here would allow. Many more examples will no doubt be cited by speakers who will join with Frank’s beloved wife Monica and family at the unveiling ceremony to be held outside Gaelic Park tentatively scheduled for Saturday November 24th at 2pm.

It is enough to know that from that day, those who enter Gaelic Park will see Frank Durkan’s name and perhaps think about what he did for us. It is enough say that in honoring Frank Durkan, Irish-Americans are only giving him a small bit of the justice which he fought to give to so many of us.


  1. Martin,

    a detailed account of a real battler. Seems a book of the guy's life would not be out of place.

  2. What a nice piece. I seemed to have missed this prior to now what with all the other goings on across the site.

    Such a nice tribute for his family.

    I wonder what Frank would have made of the whole subpoena case?