Michele Megna, the Gandhi of Palagonia (Sicily)

Michele Megna was born in Palagonia (Sicily) on 3 December 1917. At the age of five he lost his father, a peasant with a few tiny smallholdings. In order to support their surviving son (the sole survivor of the ten children she had by her husband) his mother, Anna Politini took her dead husband’s place working in the fields. In 1938 Michele was called up for army service in Ciriè in Turin province; he was still there when the Second World War broke out and he was transferred to the horse artillery corps in Sardinia. It was in Corsica that the TB that was to trouble him over the next twenty years developed. He completed his recovery in hospital in Rome where he underwent a swift conversion to antifascism. Initially he flirted with the Action Party and the partisan group of Carlo Andreoni who broke away from the Bandiera Rossa movement in July 1944 along with some Roman anarchists to launch a brand-new organization, Spartaco

Megna struck up a friendship with Giovanni Forbicini, the best known of the anarchists in Rome; in September 1944, he moved first to the foothills of Etna (to a Salesian sanatorium) and then on to Ragusa to the ‘Odierna’ sanatorium where he made up the initial nucleus of the future Ragusa anarchist group together with Franco Leggio, the three Perna brothers (all three of whom were to die of TB over the next five years) and Mario La Perla. The evolution of this group in the direction of anarchism took nearly a year: first of all, they established the Spartaco movement in the city; in the wake of the “Don’t go” revolt in January 1945, it offered a radical, leftist challenge to the Communist Party and the resurrected labour confederation.

As his TB grew worse, he was advised to move into the ‘Fortanini’ Hospital in Rome in the early months of 1947. Prior to that he stayed in Ragusa as the main recipient and distributor of the papers of the Spartaco movement (Il Partigiano), of the Italian Libertarian Communist Federation (L’Internazionale, first series), and then, after the anarchists broke away from that in 1946, of the Italian Libertarian Federation (L’Internazionale, second series).  Megna’s rapprochement with the Ragusa comrades – decidedly anarchist by that point – came in May-June 1947 and was helped by a trip made to Rome by Maria Occhipinti, described as the ‘Pasionaria’ of the “Don’t go” revolt.

Maria’s presence turned Megna’s life upside down. The pair fell in love, passionately as well as discreetly, as was the custom at the time, but whenever Maria flouted convention by asking if they might live together, Megna ultimately declined, a decision he was bitterly to regret and he prioritized his own mother (who had made so many sacrifices to support him in Rome) over the woman he loved. Maria was to remain the greatest and maybe the only real love of Megna’s life.

During his time in Rome, Megna boosted his ties to the anarchist movement nationwide. He became friendly with Gigi Damiani and Alfonso Failla who ran Umanità Nova. A the beginning of the 1950s he came out solidly in support of a resuscitation of anarchism, and especially of the Italian Anarchist Federation (FAI) which, driven throughout that decade mainly by Franco Leggio (with his cyclostyled review Conoscersi … comprendersi) went unheeded inside the specific movement. But was ahead of its time in opening up to the widespread contestation movements of the 1960s. 

Not that Megna was neglecting his ties to his home town of Palagonia, especially through a cousin of his – Salvatore Megna (who had returned unscathed from the Nazi concentration camps in 1946) who, egged on by Michele, became an anarchist sympathizer and, after 1950, successfully launched an anarchist group in the area. Michele Megna left the Alpina di Alpemugo sanatorium once again (having moved there from Rome) in order to take part in the fourth Sicilian anarchist congress held in Acireale on 18 April 1954, and to visit Palagonia where he took part in the peasant demonstrations (organized by Salvatore Pillirone) calling for work and fair pay. Pillirone was arrested and thrown into jail for a few months whilst Megna himself was forced by the police to “go into exile” in Rome again. On that occasion the local communists set aside their old grudges with the anarchist group, which was made up largely of genuine peasants.

From late 1948 to the mid-1950s, Megna was treated along with Mario La Perla at the Alpina di Alpemugo sanatorium near the Swiss border in Sondrio province and then in Sondalo, nea Como. Thanks to Mario, who handled all the red tape, he secured an army invalidity pension in 1953, complete with substantial arrears and this, plus some of his mother’s savings and the first of a number of lottery wins, enabled him to buy an apartment in Rome on the Piazza Fiammetta. At that apartment he was to play host to Armando Borghi and his partner Catina Ranieri and, from time to time, the staff of the anarchist weekly Umanità Nova, edited by Borghi.

He often stepped in with substantial sums of money to assist publishing ventures and not merely those of Franco Leggio. At the end of the 1950s and before his return to Palagonia, he wrote articles of his own for L’Agitazione del Sud, the Sicilian anarchists’ monthly. By 1960 he was back in Palagonia, displaying not just his innate generosity but the political creed that he had embraced back in the mid-1940s, especially in its communitarian or “communalist” variant and the grappling with and identification of solutions to society’s problems. Over time he was to finish up describing himself as a “Gandhi-style anarchist”, in a bizarre amalgamation of anarchist mind-set and atheism, mid-way between revolution and conservation, a blend that was often contradictory or which quite simply defied classification. 

From then on he devoted all of his energies and full attention to Palagonia whilst sustaining a consistent interest in the political and social affairs affecting the entire country. The water strike in 1980 found him in the forefront, leading and guiding the rebellious crowds. In the 1990s he engaged in intensive publicist efforts, sending off letters and articles to a range of newspapers (mainly the Catania-based La Sicilia and the Ragusa-based Sicilia Libertaria which dispatched them around the country) and setting up two local self-managing local papers – Palagonia ieri, oggi e domani and Michelmegnannotizie) in conjunction with some young students. He produced and printed up illustrated commemorative post cards and hundreds of flyers and political and social exposés that frequently showed up on the walls locally, and in 1987 he launched the ‘Accademia dei Palici’, linked to a publishing series designed to reconstruct the history and cultural identity of Palagonia and adjacent areas – almost all of it funded from his own pocket. And he oversaw a few publications of his own like Ai figli dei palici (1987), La mia rivolta (1988), Palaunisi (1990), Cantate con me (1993) and Promemoria per un paese invecchiato (2006). 

But above all he seemed tireless and dogged in improving a number of run-down areas in Palagonia, either unaided or with help from appropriately paid collaborators. He also oversaw school groups, associations and visitors’ groups at the unveiling of monuments in Palagonia. 

His generosity, especially towards the poorest and most needy, was a by-word. Michele Megna who had always aspired, among other things to set up a rest home for the local elderly from his home town on the ‘Sirba’ where he had been used to playing games in his younger day, spent the later years of his life in and out of rest homes in Mineo, Ramacca and Palagonia and passed away on 16 December 2008 in the ‘Villa Serena’ in his home town.

Michele Megna is one of the last representatives of a generation that deserves much more consideration than it has received to date, in that it operated in very difficult circumstances and displayed unfailing generosity, intellectual honesty and consistency. A generation of libertarian militants, worthy characters respected and heeded by the masses and favourite reference points for up-and-coming authentic young democrats and antifascists; a generation that played a leading role in the moral and civic reconstruction of a large number of districts and towns in Sicily.

Sicilia Libertaria, (Ragusa) January 2018 https://www.sicilialibertaria.it/wp-content/uploads/gennaio2018.compressed.pdf 

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.