Kemmy, James Joseph Oliver Mary (‘Jim’) (1936–97), trade unionist, Labour politician, and local historian, was born 14 September 1936 in O'Curry St., Limerick, eldest of three sons and two daughters of Michael Kemmy and Elizabeth Kemmy (née Pilkington). His mother came from farming stock in Kilmihill, Co. Clare, while the Kemmys had a long tradition as stonemasons in Limerick, dating back to the early nineteenth century. The family moved in 1940 to Garryowen, where he grew up. He left the Christian Brothers School in Sexton St. at the age of 15 to follow the family trade. The death of his father from tuberculosis (1953) obliged him to become the main breadwinner for the family. His early experience of economic hardship and employer indifference – his request for a wage increase to support his widowed mother led to his instant dismissal – laid the foundation for his lifelong commitment to socialism. On completing his apprenticeship (1957) he emigrated to London, where he was introduced to trade-union activity. He continued that involvement on his return to Limerick (1960), quickly becoming branch secretary of the Brick and Stone Layers' Trade Union and subsequently president of the Limerick trades council.
His political activity began in 1963 when he joined the Labour party. Although he became a member of its administrative council and chairman of the East Limerick executive, he was highly critical of the party and frequently at odds with the leadership at both national and local level. He regularly produced his own publication, the Limerick Socialist, which vehemently attacked the lack of commitment of the party to socialism and targeted in particular the Limerick Labour TD, Stephen Coughlan (qv). Their vitriolic exchanges split the Labour organisation in the city and culminated in the resignation of Kemmy and his supporters from the party in 1972. He set up an independent socialist organisation and received a major boost in 1974 when he was elected to Limerick city council. His entry into national politics came in June 1981 when he took the traditional Labour seat in the Limerick East constituency, defeating the sitting TD, Mick Lipper (qv). He helped the formation of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government by voting for Garret FitzGerald (qv) as taoiseach, and was equally instrumental in its collapse the following January when he voted against the budget proposals of the finance minister, John Bruton. This episode is often oversimplified; the issue for Kemmy was not the specific proposal to tax children's shoes but the refusal to respond to submissions he had made on capital taxation and social-welfare provisions. His vote, while crucial, was not essential: the defeat of the government also resulted from their failure to lobby the independent TD Seán Loftus.
After his reelection to the dáil in February 1982, he founded a new political organisation, the Democratic Socialist Party, but in the November 1982 election he lost his seat. Having rebuilt his electoral base in Limerick, he reentered the dáil in 1987 and remained a TD until his death. He rejoined the Labour party in 1990, and became its vice-chairman in 1991 and chairman in 1993. His election as mayor of Limerick in 1991 was widely welcomed and seen as an honour long overdue; he held the position for a second term in 1995/6. His attempt in 1994 to gain a seat in the European parliament for the Munster constituency was unsuccessful.
While he never deviated from his basic advocacy of socialism, and was prepared to offer analyses of particular issues not completely in line with party policy, his later years in the Labour party showed a pragmatism absent earlier in his career. This was demonstrated most clearly in his defence of the 1993 tax amnesty. He strongly favoured the separation of church and state, and his support for divorce, legalisation of contraceptives, and abortion brought him into conflict with the catholic church. Although the abortion issue was widely seen as the main factor in the loss of his dáil seat in 1982, his public clashes with the catholic bishop of Limerick, Dr Jeremiah Newman (qv), did him little electoral damage and in private both men gradually developed a mutually respectful friendship. His distrust of nationalism, which he regarded as an impediment to socialism, influenced his attitude to Northern Ireland. He strongly condemned the IRA, denounced the 1981 H-block hunger strikers, called for the repeal of articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, and was an advocate of the ‘two nations’ theory.
Outside politics his main interest was in history. A voracious reader, he amassed an eclectic book collection. He founded, edited, and financially supported the Old Limerick Journal, which promoted the study of Limerick history with an emphasis on the neglected area of labour history. He edited two collections of Limerick-related prose and poetry, The Limerick anthology (1996) and The Limerick compendium (1997), and was joint author of Limerick in old postcards (1997). He was involved in most aspects of the cultural life of Limerick, supporting and encouraging writers, artists, and craftspeople. He chaired the corporation committees for the art gallery and national monuments. In August 1997 he was diagnosed as having a form of bone cancer, and died from his illness 25 September 1997. He was buried in the family plot in Mount St Lawrence cemetery, Limerick, after a secular funeral ceremony. His partner, Patsy Harrold, donated his portrait, by Jack Donovan, to the Limerick city art gallery, and his papers to the Glucksman Library in the University of Limerick.