Viva O’Chevolución!

The front door of The Strand Hotel, overlooking Kilkee main beach, where Che spent a fateful night in 1961.

IN history’s pantheon of legendary revolutionaries, there’s Cromwell and Washington, there’s Lenin, Mao and Ho, there’s Gaddafi if you’re so inclined, and Mandela, too.

And then there’s Ernie Lynch.

Ernie Lynch? Now, there’s a name one doesn’t hear so much in such radical company.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps Che Guevara might. He was Fidel Castro’s comrade-in-arms in overthrowing the brutal US puppet in Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959. He was also an Argentine doctor apparently born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna Lynch (yes, Lynch) whose allure and iconic image – most famously in Alberto Korda’s intense Guerrillero Heroico photograph – has adorned college fratroom walls, countless T-shirts and inspired uprisings from Caracas to Cairo, Dili to Durban.

And now, it seems, in Kilkee too. Kilkee is a tiny slip-of-a-seaside hamlet in Ireland’s remote far west that’s desperate for a way out of Ireland’s crippling recession, a village of 1,500 people where about the only things thicker than the creamy Guinness poured in the town’s 16 pubs are its abundant hospitality and the near-impenetrable regional accent.

Some 50 years after Che made an unscheduled overnight stay here, and re-affirmed his alleged roots to Eire, Kilkee’s elders are keen to lead a tourism revolution with him, or his image at least.

It all started last September, when tiny Kilkee was suddenly awash with all things Cubano. Havana’s ambassador to Dublin, Teresita Trujillo, had trekked over to open the Che do Bheatha festival, organised by Kilkee’s great and good to mark the village’s fleeting connection to Che.

For three days, Kilkee’s pubs made mojitos, Hemingway and Fidel lookalikes were salsa dancing, 1950s-era Plymouths and Buicks cruised the streets, cigars were rolled and smoked, and festival organiser Tom Byrne squired Madam Ambassador around town on a 1939 Norton, a replica of La Poderosa (the Mighty One), the motorcycle Che rode around South America in the 1950s, pace his history-changing diaries.

By all accounts, it was a right craic. So much so, Kilkee plans to make it an annual event. This year Kilkee has invited Guevara’s daughter, Aleida from Havana, and Courtney Kennedy too, daughter of the late Bobby, JFK’s brother and his attorney-general through the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Cuban Missile Crisis. “It will be fascinating to see those two together,” enthuses organiser Byrne.

Six months out, Ernie-as-Che is institutionalised on the walls of Kilkee, five hours west of Dublin, next stop Newfoundland, or Havana if one is inclined to head left, a sharpish south-left more to the point.

I fling open the windows of Room 6 of the Stella Maris Hotel to take in the morning sea air and there he is, 20 metres away, decorating the side of Nolan’s Deli. I peer down Kilkee’s long beachside Strand Line, along which generations of Gaelic buckos and cailins have strolled and courted, and there he is again, nine square metres of him, affixed to the sea wall.

He’s on a plaque next door at Johnny Redmond’s Strand Hotel, where Che stayed in September 1961. And by the chemist, and the bank, and the grocery store too and…and…and…ad nauseum, as some of the town’s occasional visitors – particularly American ones – regard this relentless Che-a-thon.

There’s no escaping Ernie Lynch at breakfast either. Over a sturdy refection of strong tea, soda bread and black pudding, I browse through the Connacht Tribune from nearby Galway, and there he is again, causing controversy at the city council, which wants to erect an arty monument to him on the town’s promenade, complete with funky wi-fi access so admirers can post tributes if so persuaded.

So what’s this all about?

Well, back in 1961 en route to Krushchev’s Moscow and in the comradeship of 34 Czech and Polish fellow travellers, bad weather forced Guevara’s plane to land at nearby Shannon, the airport closest to Kilkee. Local cabbies made their living ferrying passengers to the only town that could accommodate a large group, so it was to Kilkee’s salty climes an hour away for this earnest claque of compañeros.

Che and amigos had unexpectedly alighted in the birthland of a woman, Anna Isabel, who was either his grandmother, his great-grandmother or his great-great-grandmother, depending on which Irish bard is embroidering the yarn.

Whatever distant relation Anna was of Che, it is universally agreed here that her family name was Lynch, a clan common to Counties Clare and Galway of Eire’s faraway west.

The Che party signed into the Strand Hotel register on September 11, 1961. (Then on the CIA’s most-wanted list, Che ironically used the nom de plume of Rafael Trujillo, another US-backed dictator, in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, whom Che had lined up to knock off, too. The address was “La Habana, Cuba”.)

By all accounts, Che et al had a grand old time of it in Kilkee, crawling the pubs and enjoying some of that legendary craic. The Strand’s current proprietor, Johnny Redmond, remembers his mother telling him how she’d seen Che hold court over the breakfast buffet, full of revolutionary bonhomie, or perhaps the hair-of-the-dog more likely, given the night he’d just had. “Apparently, he was very charismatic,” winks Johnny, a scion of Kilkee’s chamber of commerce and the fourth Redmond generation to run the six-room guesthouse.

Che’s Kilkee visit gave rise to the famous poster of him, published just before his death in Bolivia, which went on to become a phenomenal revolutionary icon. It was painted (and freed of copyright) by the left-wing Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who claims to have met Che in the nearby Marine Hotel where the then 16-year-old Fitzpatrick was pulling Guinnesses behind the bar. Fitzpatrick reckons Che’s revolutionary fervour in Cuba and elsewhere was inspired by Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916, when a Republic independent of colonial London was first proclaimed. Che’s father supposedly referenced the Irish connection at his son’s 1967 funeral.

And then Che’s visit to Kilkee was forgotten. For years. Johnny Redmond, who’s 45, remembers hearing about it only six or so years back, when he moved to take over the family hostelry. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy was roaring at the time, so who much cared for history, particularly a ephemeral footnote such as Che in Kilkee?

But recessions have a way of re-opening memories if a buck can be made of them. Suddenly, in the hands of master yarnspinners as the Irish famously are, Che is not only Irish, this land nurtured his revolutionary zeal, gave rise to that painting and, don’t forget, he was surnamed Lynch. Thus far, no 50 year old with a swarthy countenance and flowing mane and speaking Gaelic with an Argentinian patois have to yet to charismatically emerge from Kilkee’s misty bogs, but no-one here will be surprised if they do.

On the surface, Kilkee’s Che festival seems mostly good, clean fun. And for a long weekend, the town buzzed with visitors, forgot its miseries and made some cash.

Four years after the boom crashed, it seems almost half the town’s businesses are boarded up, houses are being repossessed, and many of the town’s youth have packed their bags for Australia for jobs Ireland can’t generate. Tragically, a despairing few that didn’t leave have been fished from the Atlantic, after leaping to their deaths from the soaring cliffs outside town.

But back at the Stella Maris, a couple of American tourists are struggling mightily with Kilkee’s Che obsession. They’ve been tootling around the Emerald Isle connecting with their Irish roots, as 40 million Americans claim.

They’re charmed by the Kilkee but deeply puzzled by the Che thing. So they ask the Stella’s amiable proprietress, Ann Haugh, about it all.

Ann patiently explains the Guevara connection, but it doesn’t wash. “So, I guess if that means that if Adolf Hitler once stayed here, you’d have a celebration around him, too?” they inquire. Ann baulks and parries with a diplomatic shrug that says, ‘there’s not a lot one can say to that.’ Tom Byrne snorts that the Che festival isn’t offensive, or to be taken very seriously or politically. “We are more commemorating the image, not necessarily the man,” he says.

But in Galway, firebrand local businessman and politician Declan Ganley is firmly behind the Americans, and having a lot of fun with it. An old mate of John Howard’s strategist Lynton Crosby, multi-millionaire Ganley is outraged that his taxes are being wasted on a work that commemorates a “monster”, at a time when Ireland is deep in the peat.

“There’s two more people who won’t be visiting our shores again,” Ganley tells The Global Mail. “Having worked across the former Soviet Union trying to help correct the ideological handiwork that Che and friends inflicted on the world, I’m appalled. Che Guevara was one sick puppy.

“These idiots (at the Galway council) can’t help themselves,” he says. “They come into public money and suddenly it’s party time.”

Ganley has made his views clear to the local media, and the local media have made theirs back. Thundered Dublin’s Evening Herald: “If anything is going to shame the country, it’s not this plan to commemorate a famous figure. It’s reactionary, right-wing windbags like Declan Ganley.” The artist Jim Fitzpatrick chimed in to the Irish Times, quoting Che’s biographer Jon Lee Anderson: “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent’.”

Across the pond in Washington, D.C., Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agrees with Ganley. Born in pre-Castro Cuba, she’s a Florida Republican who was the first Cuban-American to be elected to the US Congress. She’s the chairwoman of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

On February 29, she issued a statement urging the Galway council not to build the Che monument. “Despite the image makeover which some try to give him,” the congresswoman railed, “the real Che Guevara was a mass murderer and human rights abuser.

“To honour him with a monument would be an outrage, and would be a futile attempt to hide the brutal acts which he committed. Che Guevara was a ruthless killer who should not be idealised.” It seems Ros-Lehtinen’s entreaty has had an impact. Three days after it was issued, Galway’s mayor said she didn’t support the council’s Che proposal.

Phew. It’s all getting a bit heavy around here so I repair to the radio for light relief, to the broadcaster and wit Sean Moncrieff. After ripping into a Sinn Fein MP for wasting 50,000 euros of taxpayers’ money on printer ink (the normal annual cost is about 1,000 euro), he’s now sparring with a pushy American author who’s promoting his book about fighting, something the American posits is not unknown to the Irish – after a few pints, he ventures.

“What’s the time over there?” the American asks Moncrieff, apropos of nothing. “About 2pm,” Moncrieff responds. “Why do you ask?”

“What, two in the afternoon and you’re not drunk yet?” the American taunts.

But Moncrieff was quick as a flash. “Not yet, my friend, but in an hour we’re all heading down to the Cliché Bar near the studios and we’ll be getting utterly plastered.”

Ernie Lynch would be proud. Of his countryman.