Gerard Curran was a member of the Connolly Association for over 60 years, having joined it in the late 1940s He was literary editor of the Irish Democrat for many years. His reminiscences below were given as the opening contribution to a symposium on Desmond Greaves at the 17th Annual Greaves Weekend Summer School in Dublin in 2005.
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I knew Desmond Greaves for 42 years. Apart from his literary work I greatly enjoyed and admired his wit and repartee.
I first met him in 1946 in Holborn at a Marxist class where he was tutor. He was a very incisive speaker. Afterwards he invited me back to his flat. He seemed interested in the fact that I’d had a play produced in the Dublin Experimental theatre and had written a number of short stories. The stories had been rejected by Sean O’Faolain, editor of “The Bell”, through his deputy editor, Harry Craig. O’ Faolain had asked Craig to say to me, “Have you read Saroyan?” The implication was that my style was too close to Saroyan’s. I was annoyed because at that time I had not even read Saroyan.
Desmond and I had a discussion on “What Is Art” and the styles of many writers including Tolstoy, Chekhov, Maupassant , Balzac, O’Flaherty, O’Faolain, O’Connor, Schiller and Strindberg. The latter two I had not read. The others I had read in translation. Desmond had read the French and German writers in their original languages.
After a couple of months I met Desmond again. He enquired what I was up to. I told him. He looked disappointed. “I thought you would have mastered Russian by now,” he said.
Some time later when I met him after not seeing him for a couple of months, he said to me, “How is married life?” “I’m not married,” I said embarrassed. “It fell through. But she had a big party to announce the engagement. Yes”, I said, “It was awkward.” He still looked nonplussed. “It was an infatuation, Desmond,” I said pleadingly. “You’re not as stupid as I thought you were,” was his response. _____________
Some years latter, when we were chatting together, Desmond suddenly said, ”Sheila, Sheila Murphy, keeps ringing up early in the morning to talk about her wallpaper patterns.” Hearing this story a friend of hers who was more street-wise gave her some advice: “Sure those fellows wouldn’t notice if you turned up on their doorstep in your skin.”
I was working on a busy switchboard in Central Books. Desmond rang me to ask if I would give a talk on Partition. Foolishly I said ,”I am not an expert on Partition”. Greaves retorted: “You’re not an expert on anything.” I pulled the plug on him and wrote him an indignant letter, the main gist of which was, “Don’t flog the willing horse.” When we got over this event, he told me my letter was a load of rubbish. I laughed with him. “I’ll do the meeting on Partition,” I said.
Once we were standing in a station waiting for a train. Greaves was holding forth on “the Revolution”. I noticed that a man with two children was listening intently. He suddenly said to us, “That’s strong language to be using this early in the morning. ” “You should hear what we say in the evening,” Desmond replied.
He had a slogan for the Irish Democrat: “Every name is a potential sale.” He gave me a column to write and called it “Round and About”. This meant interviewing people in the news who had done something related to the Irish Question. When I interviewed the ex-mayor of Stepney where commemorations related to Terence Mac Swiney had taken place, he said to me, “Isn’t that paper, the Irish Democrat, communist?” “No it isn’t,” I replied, “It stands for the unity and independence of Ireland and we look after the interests of the Irish in Britain.” After that, I said to Desmond, “A lot of people will always denounce us as communist.” “Never mind,” he said, “We’ll always be one step ahead of them.” Taoiseach Eamon De Valera was once asked in the Dáil by James Dillon to denounce the Connolly Association as a communist organisation. De Valera refused, saying that he would not criticise anyone who was doing something for the Irish people.
Desmond Greaves had a great knowledge of music. I once heard him discussing the structure of Beethoven’s Late Quartets with Jane Tate in a restaurant. On another occasion, when asked by a reviewer how best to do a book review, he said: “Use the structure of a symphony.”
Asked in 1956 to throw light on why the Russians intervened in Budapest during the Hungarian Rising, he said, “The Russians were in the suburbs. When the ‘insurgents’ began bumping off their friends in the centre of the city, they had to intervene to stop the slaughter.”
On another occasion he said: “I had money to spend in Russia and Eastern Europe as a result of book sales there. But I would not travel there. I don’t trust those blokes.”
The Arrest and Trial of Eamonn Lyons: Desmond was in our flat in North Kensington once when Maureen Maguire rang up to tell him that Eamonn Lyons, who was a leading activist in the Connolly Association, had been arrested by the police while speaking at a meeting in Arlington Road, Camden Town. This was some time in the 1950s. When Desmond phoned the Camden Town police to ask about Lyons they cut him off twice. The third time he said, “Don’t you cut me off again. I am the editor of the ‘Irish Democrat’.”
He was in the Magistrates’ Court for Lyons’s trial. Soon after Lyons’s meeting had started a police sergeant had ordered him to close it down. Instead of immediately obeying Eamonn had shouted to the crowd, “This is an attack on free speech.” The police then arrested him. When the police heard that we had got a leading QC, John Platts-Mills, to defend Lyons, they went out looking for extra witnesses to use against him. The police witnesses gave evidence that Lyons had been saying things which gave them grave offence and caused distress. They were mostly winoes and prostitutes. For example one of them alleged that Lyons had said, “John Bull should be kicked into the sea.” Surprisingly the magistrate defended Eamonn’s right to express himself freely: “A right which he was proud to say could be still exercised in Britain”. The result was a partial victory for the Connolly Association. Desmond referred to the Police Inspector’s disappointment by saying, “He looked as though he had lost at a round of golf.”
Not long after the Lyons trial we had a Memorial Meeting in honour of Fergus O’Connor at Willesden Green Cemetery. Soon after we had got there and were waiting for more people to come, the police arrived in force, in cars and on motor cycles. The inspector talked about by-laws we were infringing by making political speeches. Desmond explained that we were only saying a few words and it would be a quiet meeting. The police were concerned that we might cause trouble, the way Lyons had caused them in Arlington Road. The police sergeant looked quite apologetic. They left us in peace. There was a very good response from Irish people generally and Lyons’s friends to help pay the costs of his defence.
The Spy story: We were having a Connolly Association annual conference. Elsie Timbey came over to where I was sitting and whispered fiercely in my ear, “Nobody is looking after that teacher visitor. Someone should be making a fuss of him.” Then she went back to her seat. I looked over at the “teacher visitor”. There seemed to be something odd about him. At first I couldn’t decide what was disturbing me. He was dressed in a smart suit. That was not what bothered me. Then I realised what it was. He was not relaxed. You could sense it at a distance. It looked as if the speeches made him uneasy and he could not hide it. After a few minutes I came to a decision. I went to the back of the hall. I indicated to Desmond that I wanted him to join me urgently. “The teachers’ delegate is Special Branch,” I said to him. He did not question what I said, but looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’ll get my camera,” he said. His flat was not far away. After five minutes he came back with his camera. He started taking photos of the audience from different angles. Suddenly he went up close to the Special Branch man. The latter looked very startled as if he feared an attack. Desmond put the camera very close to the man’s face to photo him. The man came half out of his chair in alarm. Desmond arranged to have the private session put forward. Later he told me that he would spread the “spy” photo around the trade unions and the Labour Movement. The Special turned up later with a younger man, a ”trainee”, in Hyde Park. The young cadet was being trained in on the Irish Question.
Interrogation on the docks: Once when Desmond was approaching the mail boat at Holyhead with his briefcase, he was stopped by the police. They took him into an office and started questioning him. Who was he and where he was going and why? They went through all the papers in his case but seemed unable to find anything incriminating. “There’s just one thing, Mr Greaves,” one of them said. “Who is this Sean O’Casey person you are going to see?” Desmond later wrote to the Home Secretary suggesting that the Special Branch should get some educational training in Irish affairs.
Who bombed the barracks?: There was a knock on my door at home in Ludlow some time in the 1980s. My wife Dot went to answer it. There were two men in suits there. They ignored me and started talking to Dot. They explained that some person or persons had rung them up and said that if the police wanted to find the bomber or bombers who had let off a bomb in Shrewsbury barracks they should come to our address in Ludlow. At this point I intervened and said they had got this call because a lot of post came addressed to me as editor of “Irish Democrat”. I explained the policy of the paper and the Connolly Association, being careful to stress that we did not support bombing in Britain or anywhere else, and also that we had no control over events in Ireland. They seemed convinced but the atmosphere was still a bit tense. I decided to tell them a story about Desmond Greaves .
I told them about the time Desmond came off the boat in Belfast to be confronted by a very large Police Sergeant who began to question him. Seeing him, Desmond took out of his pocket a small notebook and pen. The Sergeant said, “What are you going to do with that, Mr Greaves?” Desmond responded: “I’m going to write down everything you say and put it on the front page of my newspaper” When I looked at the two policemen to see how the story had gone down, one said to me, “My name is Smith and his is Brown.”
I wish to end by repeating some tributes that were sent to us by various people at the time of Desmond’s funeral in 1988: One was, “He had the gaiety of a man dedicated to a worthy cause.” Another was, “He was a great man and modest with it.” And a third: “The world will be a darker place with his passing.”