A short biographical note
A full obituary essay is available here.
GREAVES, CHARLES Desmond (1913-1988), political activist and labour historian, was born 27 September 1913 at 7A Rockville Street, Birkenhead, Merseyside. His father, Charles Edward Greaves, a post office official, and his mother, Amy Elisabeth Taylor, were Methodists, of mixed English, Irish and Welsh background.
Greaves graduated in chemistry and botany at Liverpool University, where, like many young intellectuals of his generation, he became active in left-wing politics. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934, and remained a member all his life. Politically he was always more interested in issues of nationality and imperialism than of socialism.
He worked in Woolwich Arsenal during World War II. In 1941 he joined the Connolly Club, later the Connolly Association, which sought to organise the Irish immigrants who were streaming into Britain’s war-time industries by urging them to join trade unions and bring their influence to bear on the politics of the country they had moved to.
In 1948 he became editor of the Connolly Association’s monthly newspaper, The Irish Democrat, and remained so until his death. In 1951 he gave up a well-paid position as chief research chemist at Powell Duffryns to devote himself full-time to politics. His commitment and that of the Connolly Asssociation was to the cause of a united independent Ireland, to be achieved by making the ending of Partition the policy of the British labour movement.
In the 1950s as the guiding political brain of the Association Greaves advanced the view that the way to a peaceful solution of the partition problem was to discredit Ulster unionism in Britain through exposing the discriminatory practices occurring under the Stormont regime, in the process winning sympathetic allies for the cause of Irish reunification. This perspective was embodied in the new constitution he drafted for the Connolly Association in 1955.
There followed a fifteen-year-long campaign of political education and propaganda in Labour Party and trade union circles, which did much to ensure that when, in 1968, the civil rights movement got going in Northern Ireland, British Labour opinion was substantially on the nationalist rather than unionist side. This was a transformation from 1949, when the Labour government’s Ireland Act had purported to give the Stormont parliament a veto on constitutional change.
There is good reason to regard Greaves as the intellectual progenitor of the 1960s civil rights movement. He pioneered the idea of a civil rights campaign as the way to undermine Ulster unionism and he had considerable personal influence on leading figures of that campaign.
In 1968 he advanced the conception of a Bill of Rights imposed by the Westminster parliament as a middle way between leaving the Stormont parliament unreformed and abolishing it altogether in favour of direct rule from London. Such a Bill of Rights would at once outlaw discriminatory practices by Stormont, while encouraging the north to come closer to the south.
In 1971 as a result of Connolly Association lobbying this became the policy of the British Trades Union Congress. It was also the policy of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In 1971 Greaves personally drafted a Bill of Rights in appropriate parliamentary form and it was proposed on the same day, 12 May 1971, by Arthur Latham MP in the Commons and Lord (Fenner) Brockway in the Lords.
The Conservative majority rejected it. The Connolly Association and NICRA opposed Britain’s abolition of Stormont and imposition of direct rule in 1972. Greaves regarded the subsequent quarter-century of Northern Ireland conflict as vindicating his Bill of Rights conception. He was also a strong opponent of the Common Market and European political integration on what he regarded as democratic and internationalist grounds.
Greaves’s principal contribution to labour history was The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). This established that Connolly’s birthplace was Edinburgh. In writing it he had the advantage of meeting many who had known Connolly personally. His Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution”(1971) deals with the complex social dynamics and class relations of the revolutionary period 1916-23. His study of Anglo-Irish relations and the background to the civil rights movement,
The Irish Crisis (1972), was translated into Russian, Hungarian and Italian. In 1979 he wrote Sean O’Casey, Politics and Art. The executive of Ireland’s largest trade union commissioned him to write its history, which led to The Irish Transport and General Workers Union: the Formative Years (1982).
He wrote numerous pamphlets, countless articles and three volumes of satirical poetry,his two mature collections being Four Letter Verses and the Mountbatten Awar and an unfinished comic epic Elephants Against Rome.
Scientist, historian, poet, musician, political organiser, orator, journalist, wit, excellent cook and dedicated gardener, Desmond Greaves was an extraordinary man, whose genius confidently spanned C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures.’ He left a voluminous journal and extensive research records, for deposit in the National Library of Ireland. He never married.
His younger sister, Phyllis, predeceased him. He died suddenly 23 August 1988 returning to Liverpool from a political meeting in Glasgow, his body being taken off the train at Preston.
- A. Coughlan, C.Desmond Greaves, 1913-1988, an obituary essay (1991), which contains a detailed bibliography; pamphlet
- S. Redmond, Desmond Greaves and the origins of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (1999); pamphlet