Muriel Saidlear was a member of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society in the1970s. She has been active since in Ireland’s EU-related referendums from 1972 to 2012 and in the general Peace Movement. She married Anthony Coughlan in January 1984.
My account of Desmond Greaves is of the man and personality rather than his political work, as when I returned to Ireland in 1971, having worked in Rome for some years, I had never heard of the Connolly Association or the Irish Democrat or Desmond Greaves. I hadn’t read any of Desmond’s books and was wholly unaware of his importance regarding political developments in Ireland.
I had joined the Wolfe Tone Society and very quickly found myself on its committee, which sometimes met in Cathal MacLiam’s house at 24 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, Dublin. Some of the Wolfe Tone Society members had been members of the Connolly Association, including Anthony (Tony) Coughlan who one day, as he didn’t drive himself, asked me if I would take him in my car to pick up Desmond Greaves from the Holyhead mailboat at Dun Laoghaire.
Having by now heard of Desmond Greaves and the Irish Democrat, I was curious about this small-sized middle-aged energetic man with glasses and a glint in his eye getting into my car. He conversed enthusiastically with Tony about various people he had met on the boat and the political goings-on of the time and in due course, after having had a few drinks in one of the pubs in Dun Laoghaire, I dropped him up to Cathal MacLiam’s house in Belgrave Road, where he was staying. I collected him in a similar way on a number of occasions after that. Helga MacLiam, Cathal’s German wife, used greet him with open arms on these occasions. Cathal had been a member of the Connolly Association in London in the early 1950s and Desmond had been the best man at their wedding. They now had five children and their house was a real centre of political activity.
After Wolfe Tone committee meetings in his house Cathal sometimes invited some of us to stay on and I encountered Desmond there many times. He appeared to be always “doing” something with great energy – coming or going, talking, drinking, helping in the kitchen, mending his bicycle, but never idle. Later I learned that his visits were for the purpose of collecting or checking material for his books on James Connolly, Liam Mellows and Sean O’Casey, and later for his history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. When he was in Dublin he spent most of the day in the National Library and he would relax at Cathal MacLiam’s in the evening.
When word got around that Desmond Greaves was in town, inevitably several people would call round with a bottle of wine to chat with him and listen to his words of wisdom, for he was a very lively and entertaining conversationalist. He preferred to drink whiskey himself and was happy to expound on all sorts of topics as well as politics. I remember him telling someone that it was a good idea when giving a talk or lecture to try to start with some amusing anecdote to lighten the mood and get the audience relaxed and prepared to take in the serious content that followed. He enjoyed a bit of gossip and would chuckle at the foibles of others. He loved gardening and was an excellent cook. I still have the large wok that he used to cook with in his home in Liverpool. Desmond could not come to our wedding in January 1984 as he was busy getting out the next issue of the Irish Democrat at the time, having been its editor for nearly forty years, but he did put a short notice of the event in the next issue, with the headline, “Dublin activists wed.”
Micheál O Loingsigh would often be at these gatherings in Cathal MacLiam’s house, as well as Daltún O Ceallaigh, Kader Asmal, Roy Johnston and others. Desmond didn’t mince his words when it came to controversial matters and he could sometimes be quite cutting. Sometimes the discussion went on late into the night and disagreements could arise, with vehement words being used.
He once said that he knew more about music than any other subject and I remember him mentioning the music of Haydn, but as no one present offered any comment, he dropped the subject. Some years later after I married Tony Coughlan he came to stay with us in Drumcondra, Dublin, where I had my father’s piano. One morning early I heard a loud strumming of chords, but nothing more. He was probably testing the tuning and having found that it was severely out of tune, must have decided not to mention it to us.
Tony brought me to visit Desmond in his family house in Birkenhead, Merseyside, where he lived on his own following the death of his sister Phyllis in 1966. In one room where there wasn’t enough room for all the books on the shelves that lined the walls, he had made more bookshelves in the centre of the room and criss-crossed the remaining space with even more bookshelves. He used anthracite instead of coal in the front room and said that it gave so much more heat that part of the grate had melted away.
One day himself, Tony and I were on our way to a Connolly Association meeting when he decided to show me a bit of Liverpool’s history. He brought me into several buildings with shabby or nondescript facades, usually public houses or one-time hotels, where the palatial interiors with rich mahogany furnishing, some with pillars, wonderful tiling and brightly coloured glass, recalled the 19th century when Liverpool had been the biggest seaport in the world and these places used be patronised by the sea captains and their passengers.
In June 1984 Ronald Reagan, the Republican President of the USA, came on a State visit to Ireland. A parade was organised to protest against USA foreign policy and it was called the “Ring Around Reagan”. The aim of the organising committee was to attract enough people to form a complete circle around Dublin Castle, where Reagan was being entertained at a State dinner by the Government. The numbers that turned out greatly exceeded expectations. It was a calm and good-humoured demonstration, with people from all walks of life – nuns carrying symbolical coffins, homosexuals dancing around, trade unionists, peace activists, etc. The flag sellers were the only people who were disappointed because they had no sale for their American flags.
Later that evening there was a knock at the door of our house in Crawford Avenue, Drumcondra, Dublin, where Desmond was then staying on one of his research visits. I answered it and found a tall American man standing there enquiring about Desmond Greaves. I left him standing outside, as Americans were not my favourite people at the time, and went to tell Desmond who was busy in the kitchen bustling around with Tony preparing dinner. When he heard my message, he said, “Oh, I’ll deal with him,” and off he went. After a short while he came back to tell us forget what we were doing: “You must come and meet this man. He has read my books and knows his stuff,” or words to that effect. It turned out that the visitor was Joe Jamison, then research officer with the AFL-CIO in New York, who was active in the Irish-American Labour Coalition and the MacBride Principles campaign there, and later in the Morrison Delegation during the Northern Peace Process. He was in Dublin for a trade union conference, had gone to the parade and had been told where Desmond Greaves was staying, whom he had not met before. Desmond was quite delighted and the evening developed into an enthusiastic session, with others joining in and the wine and whiskey flowing. Even though Joe was not much of a whiskey drinker he survived the night and we have been good friends ever since.
Desmond died in 1988 and while going through his papers as his literary executor Tony discovered an unfinished epic poem, Elephants Against Rome, (four books of an epic comedy; there were to be twelve in all). I thought it was a wonderful work and should be published, even in its unfinished form. I approached publisher Michael Adams who had been a colleague of mine at Irish University Press and with his assistance it was finally published for the Desmond Greaves Summer School in 1999, with an introduction by poet Anthony Cronin. It is a scholarly work which shows an amazing breadth of knowledge and human insight, while at the same time being an amusing and very readable story of the life of Hannibal Colqhoun against the time and political background in which Desmond himself lived when he was a child and young man. There is an introduction by Anthony Coughlan, who discovered in Desmond’s workbooks some notes on its envisaged ending. I am very pleased that this literary jewel has not been lost to posterity.
I recently came across a letter that Desmond wrote to me referring to a minor illness that I had. It gives something of the character of the man and reads as follows:
Muriel, a chara,
Nobody ever tells me anything. I just got Tony’s letter by the second post and I understand that you are lying in bed groaning with fifteen diseases in one nefarious combination. But I also gather that you anticipate their departure at the rate of one a day so that you will be skipping down O’Connell Street and (to quote Jack Bennett) singing “Sally by the river” in a fortnight’s time.
I very much hope you will be able to persuade them to take their leave at the rate of two or even three a day and so bring the skippery and cantation closer.
I could tell when I spoke to Tony on the ’phone that he had something on his mind. But of course nobody ever tells me anything. Also I thought it odd that when I rang it was never yourself that answered the phone. But that might only be the mark of a dutiful husband springing into instant action.
Anyway, get well as quick as you can.
Desmond Greaves made the best of life and enthused many others with his energy, wit and wisdom.
Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.