One rarely meets someone of such steadfast integrity as Jimmy O’Dea. He will always be one of my heroes. He passed away on 27 November at Auckland hospital aged 86.
I first met Jimmy and his family up at Takaparawha (Bastion Point) in 1977 when I first arrived in Auckland. They lived along Kitemoana Street from the Ngāti Whātua land wanted by private property developers for luxury housing. Jimmy was there then and was there every time people were needed for the frontline in struggle for the poorest and most marginalised.
Jimmy was a committed socialist and I heard a few of his stories from intensely grim times growing up in Ireland in a working class family. His anger at the horrific injustices faced by Irish workers and their families smouldered in his breast all his life, as did his anger at what big business and their government representatives were shoving down the throats of New Zealand workers and beneficiaries on low incomes.
There are thousands of children growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand today who will in future tell their stories of hunger and homelessness in a land of plenty alongside a government doing just enough to look busy as it pursues the votes of the liberal middle class – always fair weather friends of those on low incomes.
Jimmy was always there when an issue needed support and solidarity. He never sought the limelight – in fact quite the opposite. He was a humble man who had the best built-in bullshit detector I’ve come across. He was scathing of most Labour Party activists and politicians. Some were well meaning he would say but they could never be relied on when the going got tough. When National was in power their empty “we’ve got to change the government” rhetoric was denounced by Jimmy along with their miserable “we’re doing as much as we can” rhetoric when in government.
He was likewise contemptuous of trade union leaders who sold out working class New Zealanders. The union movement has a history full of such people.
Others will have plenty more to say about this incredibly staunch battler for the working class but I’ll include here just a couple of incidents. Jimmy was the man aged nearly 50 who took a beating from four red squad members in 1981 as he lay under a Patu shield on the pavenment in Onslow Road during the protest against the last game of the 1981 Springbok tour (He is lying close to the police car which was later turned over and trashed in the protest).
Then at close to eighty years of age he gave new meaning to the term “putting your body on the line” when he lay under the truck trying to remove the first state house from Glen Innes. Labour and National are slowly renovating Glen Innes into a “Ponsonby by the sea” for the rich during the worst housing crisis for low-income tenants and families since the 1930s.
When someone dies it’s easy to get carried away with what a great person they were. But with Jimmy it’s hard to find enough superlatives to begin to do him justice. At the start of this piece I said he was a person of steadfast integrity. He was all of that. It doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes but it meant he always put what was right ahead of what was comfortable and ahead of his personal interests. He was a genuine champion of the working class.
A friend was recounting to me today a time a few years back at a public gathering when the late playwright Dean Parker was asked who should be the New Zealander of the year. His immediate answer was a sincere “Jimmy O’Dea”. So true.
I’m proud to have known this man and to have stood alongside him on many frontlines. He lived a big life in a small country. Thank you Jimmy.
Condolences to Pat, Martin and all Jimmy’s family.
Hāere rā e Jimmy, haere, haere, haere.