Mick O’Reilly is former Irish Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union; he has been a member at different times of the Communist Party of Ireland and the Irish Labour Party, and is author of “From Lucifer to Lazarus, A Life on the Left”, Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2019. He is a member of the Committee of the annual Desmond Greaves Weekend Summer School
I joined the Communist Party in 1965 and from that time Desmond Greaves was known to me as a political theoretician who dealt with the Irish question and was the foremost authority on the life and legacy of James Connolly.
His books and writings were found to be invaluable, not only because of their historical content, but as source material to help deal with current political problems.
The books and articles that Desmond wrote upheld the idea put forward by Marx and Engels and supported by Connolly that the Irish people had the right to self-determination; that the Irish Labour Movement should champion that cause and that there was a political obligation on the British Labour Movement to support it.
The first copy of his book on the “LIfe and Times of James Connolly” was given to me by Johnny Mooney, who gave me a great insight into Desmond Greaves, having worked with him during the war years in the Connolly Association in England. Johnny Mooney’s praise of and respect and admiration for Desmond Greaves could not have been higher. He told me to read the book, to internalise its meaning and to treat it as a tool for advancing the cause of socialism in Ireland.
I first met Desmond at the reunification conference of the Irish Workers Party and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland in 1972. I was speaking at the rostrum on youth work in the party and the role of the
Connolly Youth movement, with which I was then involved, and in the speech I remember I mentioned the Bob Dylan song, “The times they are a-changing.” Desmond Greaves entered the hall and stood at the back while I was speaking. Later I was approached by Noel Harris of ASTMS who said, I want you to meet Desmond Greaves. Desmond shook my hand warmly and congratulated me on my speech. He asked me a couple of questions about the Connolly Youth Movement. What struck me about him was that he had a very enquiring face, and although we only spoke for a few minutes his sense of humour came through. The last thing he said to me as he was walking away was, who was this Bob Dylan fellow?
The next occasion that I met him was in 1975 at the annual conference of the ICTU, which I think was held in Limerick. There was a social organised by the ASTMS. I was in the company of Matt Merrigan Senior and Denis Larkin, and Noel Harris brought Desmond into our company. We conversed for a few minutes about the general political situation and then Desmond mentioned the fact that he had known Young Jim Larkin, who of course had been active in communist politics right through the 1930s. Denis became very uncomfortable with this trend of conversation – I imagine because he didn’t like his brother, Young Jim’s, relationship with the Communist Party being discussed. Greaves, sussing the situation, moved on to Big Jim – James Larkin Senior. In the conversation he remarked that Big Jim had been born in Liverpool and Denis, almost in an angry manner said, that may be so but he was conceived in Armagh, and he promptly left the company. Desmond remarked at once: “How could I possibly compete with research like that!”
The last occasion that I saw him was at a lecture on the European Union in the ATGWU Hall in Middle Abbey Street. There were a lot of Republicans at the meeting. When it concluded a number of us went for a drink and Desmond was in an argument with some of the Republicans about the armed struggle in the North, which was ongoing at the time. Like most people he neither condemned nor condoned this, at least publicly, saying that the blame for it lay fundamentally with the British Government. He reminded the young Republicans that the struggle was for the right of the Irish people to make their own laws, but that the EU was responsible for about 70% of Irish laws these days and they should give consideration as to how to deal with that. I don’t know if he converted them, but he certainly gave them food for thought.