IT WAS a throwaway line in a pub in Limerick some 24 years ago, but I never forgot it: "We had that Che Guevara in here, you know." On Halloween, 1979, on a tour of Ireland, I had walked into several pubs and hotels in Limerick where the entire city seemed to be getting drunk. They take their drink and their rugby seriously in Limerick, and they were celebrating the first anniversary of the victory of Munster over the All Blacks.
I can’t swear to it, on account of joining in the celebrations, but I think I was in the famous poet’s pub, the White Horse, on the corner of O’Connell Street and Glentworth Street, when I was told about Che - then, as now, a figure of fascination for me. I dismissed it as a fantasy, the result of too much drink, and I almost forgot about it.
Researching Guevara’s life in more detail earlier this year for a play I’m writing, I discovered that I had maligned my forgotten informant. Guevara did indeed go ‘on the batter’ in Limerick. The story is true.
Let’s put Guevara in context first. To most people he is just a handsome face on a poster, and even those who know he was an Argentine can get confused about his life as a revolutionary. It was Cuba he freed along with Fidel Castro wasn’t it, they may ask, so why did he end up being shot in Bolivia in 1967?
It was the CIA who did him in of course. And his martyrdom in the cause of revolution sparked all those riots and protests in 1968, didn’t it? Subsequently he has become an icon thanks to the most famous poster of all time. And that’s about it really. Except that Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was much more than a picture on the wall. He was one of the most fascinating and complex people of the 20th century.
Guevara was a rugby-playing doctor of medicine who became a killer of the revolution’s enemies; a lifelong asthmatic who often needed injections just to stay alive, but could track through jungle and mountains for days; a writer of genuine power; a revolutionary Marxist who turned his back on the only successful communist state in the western world to lead guerrilla insurgents in often hopeless battles against their oppressors; a man who loved women, a good party, a Havana cigar, and a pint of Guinness; who loved life yet gave it up for a cause which hopefully will never be lost - changing the world.
Guevara was one of the most famous people of his time, so it is a fair bet that when he walked into Hanratty’s Hotel in Limerick on the evening of March 13, 1965, at least a few people there recognised him. It’s not every day the world’s most renowned revolutionary orders a pint of the black stuff in an Irish hostelry - and you would think his unannounced visit might have made the front pages of every paper in Ireland. Indeed, more than 30 years later, the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune would describe Guevara’s visit to Limerick as "one of the great missed scoops of Irish journalism". It was wrong. The story was just one of the many exclusives garnered in six decades of remarkable journalism by Arthur Quinlan.
I had thought that since it was all of 38 years ago, no one would be around who could remember Guevara’s visit to Limerick. Fortunately I was wrong. Quinlan will be 83 next month, and he is still contributing to the Irish Times. His memory is as a sharp as a tack, and his claim to have scooped the world with his story of Guevara’s night on the tiles is easily proved. The front page of the venerable Limerick Leader, on March 15, 1965, contains Quinlan’s account of how Guevara eschewed the delights of bingo and ballad singing in order to sample the local brew.
"He was three sheets to the wind when he got back to the airport," said Quinlan as we talked in Jury’s Inn on the banks of the Shannon last week. Dapper and looking at least a dozen years younger than his age, Quinlan has that old-fashioned courtesy and love of the craic that make Irish journalists such a pleasure to meet. He had refreshed his memory by consulting the meticulous diaries he has kept throughout his career. "Dr Guevara was also festooned in shamrock, as it was coming up for St Patrick’s Day," said Quinlan. "So you can take it that he enjoyed himself in Limerick."
Guevara had been aboard a Bristol Britannia aircraft of the Cuban national airline which developed mechanical trouble en route from Prague to Havana. It was one of the most important weekends of the Comandante de la Revolucion’s life. At a conference in Algiers, he had just denounced the Soviet Union for failing revolutionaries across the globe. He knew that Fidel Castro, by now aligned with the Soviets, would not be pleased, to put it mildly. Quinlan had made it is his speciality to cover the activities at Shannon Airport. The last runway in Europe had been the stopping-off point for airliners for many years. Long after Guevara’s visit he scored a notable double by interviewing Castro.
"His guards weren’t going to let me near him until I mentioned that I had interviewed Dr Guevara," said Quinlan, who showed his respect for the man by referring to Che as doctor throughout our conversation. "That did the trick and we ended up showing President Castro how to make Irish coffee."
Guevara’s arrival was sudden and unexpected, but his contacts did the trick for Quinlan. A public relations officer at Shannon, who might just have been a CIA agent, tipped off the journalist about the imminent arrival of an important visitor who was going to be detained in the airport overnight while his aircraft was fixed. Rushing to the airport, Quinlan found Guevara accompanied by his fellow revolutionary, Dr Osmani Cienfuegos, the Cuban minister for construction, and some other Cuban friends and government officials.
"Dr Guevara indicated that he did not speak English, but I knew something about him," said Quinlan. That something was the fact of Guevara’s Irish roots - his grandmother was Ana Isabel Lynch, and the Lynches of Argentina had become notable citizens of that country after emigrating from famine-ravaged Ireland. They most likely hailed from the west coast around Galway, and only last year Che’s daughter, Dr Aleida Guevara, spoke of her family’s pride in their Irish ancestry when she visited Ireland. Quinlan recalls playing his ace card: "I told Dr Guevara, ‘Anybody whose maternal grandparents were Lynches either speaks Gaelic or English. Which is it to be?’ We went outside and began to talk in English. He spoke it quite well, and I found him charming but I didn’t learn very much from him as he would not speak about politics.
"He talked of his Irish connections through the name Lynch, and after a good chat he told me he wanted to go with a few friends to ‘see the nightlife’. I recommended that he should visit Hanratty’s Hotel on Glentworth Street I knew he would be welcomed there." We do not know who Guevara met or what exactly happened in the Gluepot, as Hanratty’s bar was nicknamed. Suffice to say Guevara enjoyed himself. Quinlan filed his copy and saw the Cubans off next day.
On his return to Cuba, Guevara met Castro and declared his intention to become a roaming revolutionary, even if it meant death in the cause. As he put it himself: "We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it." A little more than two years later Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army after his small platoon of guerrillas was almost wiped out in an ambush. He was not killed by the CIA - the Bolivian government ordered his immediate execution. Guevara once wrote: "I have a wish. It as a fear as well - that in my end will be my beginning."
After his death, photographer Alberto Korda’s famous image of Che became the symbol of a generation and Guevara was many times more famous dead than alive. Yet there is so much more to him that has largely been ignored. Thanks to Arthur Quinlan, however, we know at least one small and surprising element of his story.
• Martin Hannan’s new play Viva Che Lynch will be performed at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and elsewhere