True Colors – Frank McNally on Irish Relations by the Late Kenneth Kaunda

Like our own political leaders, except more literally, the late Kenneth Kaunda was well known for donning the Green Shirt. In his case, it was part of the safari costume he has become synonymous with. Kaunda’s enduring popularity in Zambia was such that when I visited Lusaka in 2013, stores were selling a special edition bearing her name, launched to mark her 88th birthday.

But aside from the green shirts, Kaunda also had real and strong ties to this country. When I attended the St. Patrick’s Day ceremony at the Irish Embassy that year, he was there too, as usual, and as usual he sang a song.

Almost 50 years ago, after leading the country to independence, he appointed a lawyer born in Tipperary as his first justice minister. James John Skinner, formerly of Clonmel, was the only white member of the cabinet. Alas, they fell out a few years later when Skinner’s legal principles clashed with Kaunda’s populism, after which the Irishman resigned and moved home for a while before returning to Africa as a judge in head of Zambia’s neighboring country, Malawi.

One of Kaunda’s most enduring friendships was with another Irishman I met in Lusaka, Fr. Prof. Michael Kelly, of Offaly.

Father Kelly had then spent most of his life in Zambia, where, as a school principal, he educated Kaunda’s sons.

Years later, at the University of Zambia, he became a world-renowned expert on AIDS, devastating the country.

His work in educating people about the disease received a huge boost in 1987 after Kaunda publicly admitted that one of his own sons had died from it.

When I interviewed Father Kelly in 2013, he still had the sweet Irish Midlands accent, but whenever he spoke of Zambia he used the term ‘us’. By a happy coincidence, the Zambian soccer jersey is also green.


It was James J Skinner’s policy, as well as his expertise, that brought him to Kaunda’s first cabinet.

After moving to what was then Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s, he found himself increasingly defending the local nationalist population against British colonial rule and later joined the independence movement, being ostracized by many whites.

He attributed his beliefs in part to an “Irish nationalist” upbringing.

“I didn’t like the social or racial atmosphere [in Northern Rhodesia] at that time, and I reacted against it, ”he said.

His father, WJ Skinner, had also been a lawyer and a member first of Sinn Féin, then of Cumann na nGaedheal, before becoming the registrar of County Tipperary in 1926. In this role Skinner snr made at least one small document legal. the story.

There was then a custom that if a scheduled court session had no criminal cases to hear, the clerk had to present the judge with a pair of white gloves.

It cannot have happened very often. Indeed, when the practice was abolished in 1956, an Irish Times editorial – unsure whether this was a trivial matter or the beginning of the end of civilization – noted that it was already discredited in places, with clerks surprised sometimes unable to produce gloves. and instead, substitute bits of “white paper” in a “bag”.

But when the Clonmel Circuit Court failed to produce a single suspected criminal on March 25, 1941, the clerk was not found to be in default. The landmark event was solemnly recorded by this newspaper: “No criminal case being heard in Clonmel, Nenagh or Thurles, Judge Sealy was given white gloves yesterday by MWJ Skinner, County Clerk.


Back in Lusaka in 2013, as my diary reminded me, it was a white shirt that I found myself embarrassingly devoid of. Among the events I had to attend was the Wild Geese Society 50th Anniversary Dinner, a black tie affair. I was even more distressed by the condition of my wetsuit after unpacking: it looked like real wild geese had nested in it.

But I must have planned to buy a shirt on the spot, to complete the outfit, before the project fell victim to other social pressures.

It may be relevant that I also made an earlier fact-finding visit to a bar called O’Hagan’s, where I was “trapped” (it says in the newspaper) by two Zambian students who were drinking wine. green beer in honor of St Patrick and who considered me eccentric to stick to the dark variety: the local Guinness.

They were very sympathetic, even though what we talked about faded from memory and my journal doesn’t help except to say that I finally got out of their company, “with some difficulty”. I don’t remember what color of shirt I wore to dinner.

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