Some memories of C. Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association in London in the 1970s by Eddie Cowman, Dublin.
Eddie Cowman, born in 1952 in Bunclody, Co. Wexford, was active in the Connolly Association from 1974 until the end of 1979, when he returned to Ireland. He was full-time organiser for the Association from early 1977 until late 1979 and worked with C.D. Greaves in the Association’s office during that time. He is a committee member of the annual Desmond Greaves Weekend Summer School.
I attended a Sinn Fein seminar in Waterford, probably in the summer of 1968, at which Sinn Fein President Tomás Mac Giolla played a recording of Desmond Greaves speaking on imperialism. Veteran International Brigader Jackie Lemon was in the audience and paid tribute to Greaves’s lifelong struggle against British Imperialism. For me this was the first time I had heard of C. Desmond Greaves. While his books on James Connolly and Liam Mellows were widely available in Ireland at the time, I have no recollection of hearing about him again until the mid-1970s.
My friend Jim Cosgrave and I moved to London in the autumn of 1974. Jim was familiar with the political scene in London as he had been a member of Clann na hEireann, and he suggested that we go along to a Connolly Association meeting at its office in Grays Inn Road near Kings Cross.
I haven’t got a particular memory or a lasting impression of our first meeting. Desmond was speaking against the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland and in favour of a Bill of Rights that would bind Stormont to do what was right and beneficial for all. It was the first time that I heard of an equality agenda there.
For my part, I wasn’t looking for a new ‘political home’. I had been involved in broad-left politics back in Ireland. Sinn Fein in Waterford had opted for the Official Republicans’ left-wing political line following the 1970 Republican split. Official Sinn Fein had been involved in activity showing solidarity with NICRA and opposed the imposition of internment in the North. Protecting our national resources was also high on our agenda. Apart from the conflict in the North, the big issue locally was the campaign for a No vote in the 1972 EEC Accession referendum. We had fought a principled campaign of opposition to the erosion of Irish sovereignty and independence by joining the then EEC. At that particular time I had no ideological difference with Official Sinn Fein.
At first, the general attitude of the members of the Connolly Association towards the ‘Provisionals’ puzzled me. They were sceptical of the durability of the ‘Officials’. For me, the early editions of ‘An Phoblacht’ summed up the Provisionals’ policy and I regarded them as very conservative. If Desmond, on his trips back and forth to Dublin in the 1970s, detected a policy change in the leadership of the ‘Officials’, it hadn’t been obvious to us in Waterford. All the members of the local organisation were passionately in favour of the reunification of Ireland. Nevertheless, within a short period of time Official Sinn Fein nationally had revised their ideology and reinvented themselves politically as ‘Sinn Fein – the Workers Party’ and later the Workers’ Party. They also adopted a neo-Unionist line on the North, as they drifted politically to the right. However, after participating in the activity of the Connolly Association, I had lost interest in the ‘Officials’ even before these policy U-turns.
Desmond Greaves, the Connolly Association and the Irish Democrat were a kind of political package. It was obvious that he had carefully encouraged a particular type of organisation for a specific purpose. For decades the Connolly Association had survived, and on some occasions thrived, in what could only be described as a very difficult political environment.
Constantly having a forum to propagate policy was central to Greaves’s strategy. The Irish Democrat was the most consistent form of public contact. On the last weekend in every month when he was down in London from Liverpool editing the next month’s issue of the paper, Desmond would make himself available for paper sales. We would finish off the evening with liquid refreshment in one of the Irish pubs. It was how most of us got to know him, by going on a sales run with him. He was always great company, as he brought us up to date with the latest developments. On some occasions he would just listen to our arguments to see what we were made of or even to find out what was going on.
On one such occasion I was having an argument with a member called J.P. O’Connor. J.P. had a kind of sneaking regard for Trotsky. He was putting forward an ultra-left position, going on at great length about the ‘Hammer and Sickle’. In the end I suggested to J.P. that while he was advocating a ‘Hammer and Sickle’ revolution he really only wanted a ‘Hammer’ revolution, excluding one important social class in Ireland. I think that with this remark I won Desmond’s confidence for the first time. Up to then, he may have been suspicious of me because of my Official Sinn Fein background. He was different towards me from then onwards.
On one occasion British Rail messed up the distribution of the Irish Democrat, which used come to St. Pancras Station from where it was printed in Ripley, Derbyshire, so that it wasn’t available for sale on the first Friday of that particular month. I had spent the Thursday and Friday phoning every possible contact in British Rail without success. It looked like the consignment was lost, and in the end I gave up. Unfortunately, I suggested to Desmond that British Rail would have to compensate us for the value of the consignment. It wasn’t what he had in mind. It was the only time he had a blazing row with me, saying that he would go down to the railway siding and find the papers himself. Fortunately, the consignment turned up on the Saturday. At that stage he had brought out the Irish Democrat on a monthly basis for almost thirty years without missing an edition. The lesson from that particular exchange was the emphasis he put on continuity.
In addition to the members of Connolly Association, he had supporters in the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the broad British Labour Movement and the Irish community in Britain generally. What linked these miscellaneous elements into a single constituency was their interest in Irish affairs. They looked to Desmond Greaves for leadership on politics. When things got too complicated they regarded him as the person who would write that important book, pen a relevant article or make the appropriate speech.
All the Connolly Association’s political activity was geared either towards defending the interests of the Irish community in Britain or influencing British policy makers at Westminster. Labour politicians were our primary target. The Ireland Act 1949 had resulted in All-Party agreement at Westminster on maintaining the partition of Ireland. The Connolly Association wanted this policy changed to one whereby Labour would favour the reunification of Ireland. It could be tedious work and nobody was left in any doubt as to either the difficulty or the timescale involved. There were even devastating setbacks. The Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign in England during the 1970s was a testing period for all Irish organisations there. By then the Connolly Association had been in existence for over thirty-five years. In the course of its political activity its members had encountered numerous trade union officials on the rise and many Labour politicians in the making. Contacts like these were vital in the wave of anti-Irish sentiment and accompanying oppressive legislation that followed the Birmingham pub-bombing incident in 1974, which killed 21 people. Irish people, including members of the Association, were beaten up in their workplaces. Verbal abuse of Irish people was commonplace. When travelling on public transport I had to turn my copy of the Irish Times inside out to avoid attracting hostility.
Greaves ensured that the Connolly Association was to the fore in opposing the introduction of the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), on the ground that it was unnecessary. The police had indicated that their existing powers were adequate to deal with the situation. In spite of the wave of anti-Irish hysteria that followed the Birmingham bombing, the Association organised a lobby of Parliament to try to prevent the legislation being introduced. Desmond regarded this as the lowest period for both the Connolly Association and the Irish community generally.
The British Government felt that they had to be seen to be “doing something” in response to the IRA violence. Politicians who had been good on Irish issues changed their position from one of actively seeking Irish support to trying to avoid losing English votes. Roy Jenkins’s Prevention of Terrorism Act resulted in thousands of innocent Irish people being arrested and detained for periods of up to seven days. Campaigning for the repeal of the PTA became a big issue with the Connolly Association for years afterwards.
Many innocent Irish people were convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four are but two examples. In the anti-Irish climate that then prevailed in the middle and late 1970s these prisoners were being ill-treated in prison. They did not have the facilities or the personal security of ordinary prisoners. Long before it was popular to even discuss these issues in public, the Connolly Association held a trade union delegate conference to highlight their plight. I recall trade union delegates being shocked by the revelations of ill-treatment. Sister Sarah Clarke was ecstatic that these issues were finally being discussed in public. It gave Sister Sarah and her group of people who were campaigning for prisoners’ welfare, access to and credibility with the trade union delegates.
In spite of these difficulties the Connolly Association carried on with its political activity. Our branches held regular meetings. The Irish Democrat was still sold on a weekly basis. There were also regular public meetings and conferences.
The late Miriam Daly spoke with Desmond Greaves at a public meeting on Roger Casement. George Gilmore spoke at what could only be described as an inspirational meeting. He recalled how the Republican Congress had succeeded in bringing a contingent of Protestants from the Shankill area of Belfast to the Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown in 1934. George broke down as he expressed his sadness that something like that would never happen again. I remember Elsie O’Dowling calling out to him from the audience: ‘Keep going. You are doing great.’
We also had summer schools on Irish music and the Irish language. But the good attendance at these events could not mask the political reality in the external environment. In the late 1970s the political climate in London was so bad that we enjoyed a virtual monopoly of this particular type of political activity. Other Irish organisations were not really functioning. Although we were working very hard, we were swimming against the tide of British public opinion on things Irish.
I have mentioned but a few of the public events that were organised by the Connolly Association at that time. Conferences and public meetings were always geared to meet the political requirements of the current situation. While this was high-cost activity, the money was always found to finance the events we held.
On one occasion I stayed overnight with Desmond at his family house in Birkenhead, Liverpool, before attending a delegate conference on Ireland that was being held somewhere in the Midlands. We had plenty of drink the night before and Greaves had that ‘Protestant thing’ about work: that you could drink as much as you wanted over an evening, but you had to go to work the next day. Initially, the delegates were taking the conference in an ultra-left direction, making all kinds of unrealistic proposals for Ireland. All delegates were requested by the chairman of the session to identify themselves by their name and their organisation. When Desmond rose to speak, as a delegate, the chairman reminded him to give his name and organisation. Desmond replied, ‘Desmond Greaves, Irish Democrat’. Then the chairman put his hand over his forehead and said, ‘I am sorry, I should have known.’ Greaves reminded the delegates that if they wanted to show solidarity with the Irish People they should be supporting their demand for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and their aspiration for Irish unity. His contribution transformed the situation at the meeting as all the sensible delegates started speaking after him, either quoting what he had said or saying that they agreed with him.
When we reconvened for the afternoon session the chairperson of the conference drew our attention to the fact that we had a celebrity amongst us. She paid tribute to Desmond’s work over the years and listed off the books he had written. For English people Ireland is a difficult subject, as they do not know much about the country or its history. When it comes to a complex political matter it is far easier to talk nonsense than it is to talk sense.
At this time Tony Gilbert was the driving force in the organisation Liberation, formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom. For decades Liberation had shown solidarity with colonial countries around the world that were struggling for their independence. Many British trade unions were affiliated to it and it sponsored a number of Labour politicians. These were amongst the best politicians on Ireland. Tony Gilbert had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Through his work in Liberation he had dedicated himself to the struggle against imperialism. The Connolly Association was one of Liberation’s affiliated organisations. Liberation generally left issues to do with Ireland to the Association. However, they were always there if we needed them. During the bleak period following the Birmingham bombing incident they held a joint delegate conference on Northern Ireland with the Association.
On one occasion we received a letter from Liberation announcing a meeting to discuss something along the lines of setting up a solidarity movement with the Irish struggle. Desmond was suspicious of this initiative, for the Connolly Association, a long-established solidarity movement, had been affiliated with Liberation and the MCF for years. At the time Sinn Fein the Workers Party in Ireland was trying to present itself on the world stage as an alternative to the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). They had already made some progress at cosying up to the CPGB through the annual event known as the “Communist University of London”. Greaves feared that this development in Liberation reflected SFWP influence and strategy.
I represented the Connolly Association at this particular ad hoc meeting. There were only three others present. One woman – I will call her Ms B. – was pushing the line for a new approach. I was painfully aware of the effort that we had put in over years to keep the show on the road and reported back to the Association that I didn’t expect this proposal to amount to anything. While there wasn’t a second meeting on it, the issue did surface again at Liberation’s AGM that year. Ireland was on the agenda and they had speakers lined up to speak on the situation in the North. Desmond was furious and accused me of miscalculating. I said that I thought it was only Ms B. who was behind this and that she was “at it” again. So he and I then went to the Liberation AGM as Connolly Association delegates. Desmond would not normally attend Liberation AGMs as a delegate. When Tony Gilbert saw him arriving, I think he felt honoured, and he asked Desmond to make a contribution. Greaves started accusing him privately of this, that and the other in relation to Ireland. Tony said to him that it was only that woman, Ms B., who had been responsible. Greaves was a bit hurt and sceptical and asked me what should he do. I could still remember the impact he had had on the delegates at the earlier trade union conference in the Midlands and suggested that he should definitely speak. His contribution had the desired result. So far as the delegates at this particular Liberation conference were concerned, it was business as usual, and their policy continued unchanged. They had heard before what a sensible policy was on Ireland and now they heard it again.
May 1st was an important date in the Connolly Association’s annual political diary. Most of our members were trade unionists and in one way or another were involved in the broader labour movement. May Day was a special opportunity to sell the Irish Democrat and meet up with friends from round the country whom we hadn’t seen for a year or more. The Association also had a stock of placards in the office to supplement its banner in parades and demonstrations. We would write up contemporary slogans on A3-sized sheets of paper and staple them on to the existing placards. On one occasion the weather was terrible, with high winds and very heavy rain. After a short period of time I could feel the wet coming through my overcoat, my jacket and then my shirt. The first casualty was the A3-sized poster slogan on my placard and I was left with a slightly out-of-date message. With persistent wind and rain my placard kept pealing, displaying other out-of-date messages: “End Internment” first. Then “Civil Rights Now”. Then the call for a “Bill of Rights”. Eventually all the covering paper was gone and painted on the plywood base of the placard was the slogan, “Release Joe Doyle”. Joe had been imprisoned as part of the IRA’s campaign in the 1950’s and the Connolly Association had run a campaign for his release. He was later a Sinn Fein representative in Wicklow and served on the local council with Seamus Costello.
During the latter part of the Labour Government’s term in the 1970’s the British economy was in poor shape. On one occasion Denis Healy, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had to turn back at the airport from a foreign trip because of a significant downward slide in the value of the pound sterling. Fascists in both the National Front and the British National Party were moving into the political vacuum and using racist calls to win support. There were even examples of Irish people joining them. Our members were active in various local Government committees opposing racism. Desmond was anxious that we do a bit more. Flann Campbell wrote a pamphlet called The Orange Card equating racism in Britain with the history of sectarianism in the North. We also got out a statement for Irish opinion-leaders in both Britain and Ireland to sign. Most Irish trade union officials in Britain signed it. Andy Barr was a prominent member of the ICTU at the time and he also signed. The playwright John B. Keane was another signatory. General Tom Barry in Cork sent me a letter declining to sign, but not for the wrong reasons. He referred to his age and said that he had given up all political activity. We were pleased that he had the courtesy to reply to our request. We got some publicity in the Irish newspapers for that, particularly in the Irish Post.
Social gatherings with live Irish music were also used to keep the show on the road for the Association. One publican in a prominent area Irish area refused to let us sell the Irish Democrat on his premises. Tadhg Egan, was one of his locals and had a word with him explaining what we were about and got the decision reversed. Not alone could we sell the paper in his pub, the landlord said, but we could have a room there for a social free of charge. At one of these socials Lord Fenner Brockway spoke, at the launch of Flann Campbell’s pamphlet against racism. Brockway was one of the Liberation-sponsored politicians in the Labour Party. After losing his seat in the House of Commons he finished his political career in the House of Lords. He was an old man in his eighties when we knew him, but he went on to live to be a hundred. As a young man he had been given a prison sentence because he was a conscientious objector against fighting in the First World War. At the Connolly Association social he recalled his time in jail with De Valera and the old Sinn Feiners following the 1916 Rising.
Every Sunday afternoon during the 1970s we used hold public meetings at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. On one occasion during the summer holiday period a lot of Orange supporters from Northern Ireland turned up at our meeting. For them, seeing the tricolour on display was bad enough, but hearing a speaker castigating British rule in the North was more than they could take. Unlike Desmond, I didn’t have a booming voice and they shouted me down. While Desmond never claimed to be physically brave, he was brave on that particular day. He climbed up on the platform and said that he wanted to address the British taxpayers that were financing the North. He went on along the lines that everybody is allowed to speak in Hyde Park. If these people were back in Northern Ireland they would bring out the lambeg drums to prevent free speech. He gave them ‘chapter and verse’ on how in 1920 when Stormont was first set up Orange mobs physically drove the Catholics out of the shipyards. When the fleeing Catholics had no alternative for their personal safety but to jump into the Lagan River, the mob fired rivets after them.
Real controversy was the key to gathering a crowd in Hyde Park. In no time at all a huge crowed had gathered on this occasion. As the hecklers quietly slipped away, I heard one of them ask, ‘Who is that man’? For me it was the best public meeting we had in Hyde Park. The Orangemen had been more of an asset than a liability. Unfortunately, most of the Hyde Park meetings were politically useless though. Some of us protested to Desmond that the place had become an “open-air asylum” compared with former times. Out of all the meetings we held there in my time, I do not think we got a single member. Desmond Greaves could remember better times in Hyde Park and he was reluctant to give up a long-held public forum.
We tried using Kilburn as an alternative venue for open-air meetings, but found that it was even worse than the Park. After advertising the event with circulars passed out in the pubs beforehand while we were selling the Democrat, nobody turned up. Desmond made a short speech, to nobody, announcing that we would be here again in the future. While one couldn’t vouch for the sanity of the people who gathered at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, at least one had a crowd. So we never went back to either Hyde Park or Kilburn again, and a long tradition of public meetings came to an end in changing times.
Generally speaking society was changing. By my time in London almost every household had a television. That was the first time most of us heard of the silicon chip, and the impact computers were going to make on the future. President John Kennedy’s and Harold Wilson’s use of television in election campaigns was legendary. Oratory and traditional public speaking were going out of fashion. The Connolly Association was very bad at utilising modern technology. Desmond always had problems using microphones. He said to me on one occasion that the only worthwhile modern invention was the optic lens. The future looked rather bleak during my early years in the CA.
Social change arising out of modernisation presents opportunities as well as challenges. One advantage was that the conservative influence of the Catholic Church on the Irish community in Britain was on the wane in my time, Eventually the tide started turning in our favour. For some unexplained reason, in early 1978 the political climate suddenly improved. The Irish community began to find a new level of confidence. We had a kind of cultural revival amongst second-generation Irish. Interest in Irish literature and music began to grow. Irish language classes came to be exceptionally well attended. Paddy Bond brought in thousands of pounds to the Connolly Association selling annual calendars with Irish scenery on them and other cultural material.
One of the second-generation Irish at the time was a radio presenter. He was also giving a series of lectures on Irish studies at one of the London colleges. On one occasion he came into the bookshop and invited me along to meet his students. He also had carried out some research on the Irish community in Britain. His research indicated to me that there was a vacuum where Irish History wasn’t catered for. I felt that we could satisfy this particular need.
Apart from the day-to-day political activity of the Connolly Association, our branch always held regular formal meetings, with speakers talking on a variety of Irish-related subjects. The Central London Branch always made a point of varying the subjects to cover history, culture, politics and current affairs at its weekly meetings. Visitors were impressed with the content of these meetings. Our only problem was that it was happening on too small a scale to have a significant impact. I thought that all we had to do was to elevate what was happening at the local branch level on to a bigger stage.
As an alternative to the Hyde Park and Kilburn meetings, I suggested to the Association’s Standing Committee that that we should do a comprehensive course in Irish History. We drew up a syllabus of five or six lectures, with suggested books as reading material. Desmond Greaves himself, Flann Campbell and Eamon McLaughlin delivered the lectures. We pulled out all the stops in terms of organisation and publicity. There was a very high level of interest in these lectures and the Marchmont Street Community Centre in Bloomsbury where they were held was packed, mostly with people whom we had never seen before.
This was a new initiative for the Connolly Association. We had experienced hostility; we had experienced indifference and now we were experiencing interest. We had what statisticians would call a self-selecting sample: namely, a group of intelligent people who gave up a Sunday evening to travel to Central London to hear a lecture on Irish History. These had the potential to be good members and supporters. It was important to create a welcoming Irish atmosphere. While there was an admission charge, the tea and biscuits following the lectures were free. We were able to adopt a kind of PR approach by engaging people in conversation and encouraging them to stand around talking. Our key members mingled with the crowd, introducing people with similar interests to each other. They were also welcome to come along to the local pub to join us afterwards for a drink. We succeeded in getting some new members for the Connolly Association that way and made a lot of contacts from this course of lectures.
This was also a self-financing activity. Jane Tate, the CA Treasurer, was able to get the Marchmont Street Community Centre for a very modest fee. With the admission charge and the sale of books we could generate a surplus to finance other political activity. Some of the lectures coincided with Queen’s Coronation Jubilee celebrations in 1978. All State buildings were decorated with red, white and blue at the time. The Marchmont Street Centre was no exception. On one occasion we arrived early to set up the bookstall to discover a predicament. While our audience would be offended by the royalist pageantry, interfering with the layout of the Centre would mean we couldn’t hire it again. Desmond suggested that we display our banners for the Four Provinces and we got away with that.
Every cloud has a silver lining; it is only a matter of finding it. Irish pubs were our main outlets for selling the Irish Democrat at weekends. Generally speaking there was a high turnover in the management of pubs. When a pub changed hands the clientele might also change. In most cases it depended on the nature of the entertainment being offered. When we lost an Irish pub as a paper-sale outlet it was very difficult to find a replacement. During the period of the Queen’s Jubilee we only had to drive around London and pick out the pubs not decorated in the jubilee colours. We found several excellent Irish pubs for paper sales that way.
There were also some welcome developments in the wider labour movement. By then more and more people were willing to discuss the conflict in the North. We were getting a lot of requests for speakers, particularly from Labour Party Branches. I represented the Connolly Association on a Committee for British Withdrawal from Ireland. This held its meetings in the headquarters of the Liberal Party. Liz Curtis was the driving force in it. Both the Young Liberals and Labour Youth were involved. There was also a sprinkling of people who had flirted with the Troops Out Movement in the past. We also had a British Army officer who had resigned because of the conflict in the North. All of them had a keen interest in Ireland and were anxious to avoid the mistakes of the past. They were very easy to work with. The most surprising aspect of this grouping was how the Young Liberals and Labour Youth managed to work together. I can only assume that it was because of their shared interest in Irish affairs.
This group held a big demonstration for British withdrawal from Ireland. The National Front lined the pavements carrying Union Jacks as part of a counter -demonstration. Around the same time the European Parliament accidentally flew the Union Jack upside down and Ian Paisley milked this incident in terms of publicity. Some of the National Front’s flags on the counter-demonstration were also upside down. Our people stated shouting and laughing at these ‘super Brits’ dishonouring their own flag.
At this stage Tony Benn had left the Cabinet. It seems extraordinary now that his position on Northern Ireland was still unknown. It was a burning question in most political circles. While we were having a drink in the Liberal Club the Labour Youth representative told me that Tony Benn was going to state his position on Northern Ireland in the near future. I relayed this information back to Desmond and was shocked to read in the main article in the next edition of the Irish Democrat that a leading British politician was about to make an important statement on Northern Ireland. I thought, don’t trust a journalist, no matter what kind. To the best of my knowledge it didn’t do any damage to my contact in Labour Youth.
During the early eighties both British television companies produced TV programmes on Irish History. All the innocent Irish people serving long sentences in English jails were eventually released on appeal because their convictions were unsafe. I suspect that these TV programmes and the prisoners winning their appeals had influenced British public opinion far beyond the sphere of the British Labour Movement.
After returning to live in Ireland I only met Desmond on his occasional trips to Dublin. When I had a car I drove him out to see Maire Comerford and Peadar O’Donnell in the Dublin suburbs. On a number of occasions he tried to persuade me to return to London and resume employment with the Connolly Association. Over time it was obvious that his health was failing. On his last trip to Ireland in 1988 he was keyed up about us all going over to a meeting in London to mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Connolly Association. I thought that he looked ill and I think he knew that the end was near. When Tony Coughlan informed me of his death in August that year I was very sad, but I wasn’t surprised.
His influence is still with us. The Good Friday Agreement appears to have a blueprint for future peace with progress in the North. While it is no longer referred to specifically as a Bill of Rights, the Equality Agenda for the two communities there, accompanied by a local Assembly in Belfast and cross-border institutions are on the broad lines of what I first heard Desmond Greaves speaking about at my first meeting with him in London over thirty years ago.