Some memories of C.Desmond Greaves, given as an oral presentation at the 17th Greaves Weekend Summer School, 2005, held at the Irish Labour History Society premises, Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin 4.
Sean Redmond (1936-2012) was full-time General Secretary of the Connolly Association in London during most of the 1960s and he shared the same office as Desmond Greaves during that time. He also represented the Connolly Association on the executive committees of the National Council for Civil Liberties (later Liberty) and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (later Liberation). He returned to Ireland in the early 1970s and became a trade union official with the Irish Municipal Employees Trade Union and later IMPACT. He wrote a history of the former union, “The Irish Municipal Employees Trade Union 1883-1983”. In the 1980s he and some colleagues established the lobby group, Trade Unionists for Irish Unity and Independence (TUIUI). He was also active in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and was a member of the committee of the Annual Greaves Weekend Summer School in its early years.
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This is the building of the Irish Labour History Society where we are meeting. I am on the committee of the Society and despite that, my colleagues there still managed to spring something on me. They recently presented me with this framed picture of leaflets advertising four meetings that I spoke at in Britain in the 1960s. I shall pass it around for you to see and you will notice that in three of them Desmond Greaves was also speaking.
I first met Desmond in London when I joined the Connolly Association there in 1957. I was in the Association’s North London branch, and that was the branch that Gerry Curran also was particularly involved with. I became fairly active selling the Irish Democrat and I was elected to the Executive Committee of the Connolly Association in 1958. I met Desmond very early on when I first joined and then I met him much more frequently when I was on the Executive. Then I went full-time as General Secretary of the Association in 1961. Anthony Coughlan has been full-time organiser in 1960-61, supported by a special organiser’s fund, and that was the first time, I think, that there were two full-time people working for the Association. Desmond was full-time on the Irish Democrat and was paid by the company which brought that out , Connolly Publications, and I was paid by the Association. I was full-time General Secretary until 1970, so I had that position for nine years and in those nine years I worked closely with Desmond and we shared the same office.
Now of course during that period he was working on his biography of Liam Mellows, which was published in 1971. He was away from the office a lot, much of it at his family home in Liverpool which he took after his sister, Phyllis, died in 1966, and it was there that he did much of his work on the book, and from there he would make regular research trips to Ireland. But we would meet regularly when he came down to London. I used do the proof-reading of the Irish Democratin Ripley, Derbyshire, each month and I would then go up to Liverpool to meet him and talk things over, even if only for a few hours, before coming back to London.
Of course I learned an awful lot from him, on a variety of subjects. Wine was one of them. He liked his glass of wine and, as Helga MacLiam has said, food. He knew a lot about a great variety of foods. Remember that I had come from Ireland, where at that time food was very traditional. When I went to England in 1957, there were not even Chinese restaurants around the place, not to mind other kinds.
He was also a very keen musician. That interested me too, for I have an interest in classical music and I picked up a lot of information from him about that. I was often in his upstairs flat in Cockpit Chambers, Northington Street, Bloomsbury. He had a piano there and he used usually play it with a hard pedal; so sometimes I would knock on the door and he would not hear it as he would be playing Mozart or whatever, and of course he would be banging away at the piano and it would sometimes take quite a while before he heard my banging on the door. He had a wide range of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, but of course especially on politics and history.
Regarding politics, he was full of ideas. He had a great understanding of strategy. It wasn’t just a theoretical understanding. He had an understanding of how to apply strategy to a particular situation.
On the civil rights campaign: when the Association first launched its campaign for Northern civil rights in the late nineteen fifties and early 1960s, our first objective was to demand an enquiry into the place. We had to convince people in Britain that the North of Ireland was a sordid mess of civil liberty abuses. In 1936 the National Council of Civil Liberties had published an analysis of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. In 1949 the Tribune Group published a booklet, written by Geoffrey Bing QC MP, called “John Bull’s Other Ireland”, and that again exposed not just the Special Powers Act but all the abuses of civil rights that prevailed in the Six Counties. But then there was a ten or twelve-year period when there was absolutely nothing of that kind.
So we had to work in that context. Our first emphasis was to demand an enquiry into what was going on in the North of Ireland. At the time there were a lot of people interned without trial in Belfast in the aftermath of the 1950s IRA Border campaign and we launched a campaign in Britain to free the Republican prisoners. It was very successfully done. I think it was Chris Sullivan who went to Belfast on behalf of the Connolly Association and who met Betty Sinclair, who was then secretary of the Belfast Trades Council. She gave him the names of some of the internees and the Trade Unions they belonged to. So when Chris came back with this information we were able to feed it into the Trade Union Movement in Britain.
One important union for us was the Amalgamated Engineering Union, one of the most powerful unions in Britain at the time, which had many workers in the car industry. We had very good contacts there, especially in its North London branch, whose secretary was George Anthony and he was very sympathetic to us. So he put down a motion listing the names of the Belfast internees who belonged to their union and calling for an enquiry into why they had been locked up for several years without charge or trial in a part of the United Kingdom. This went through his branch and then to the London Regional Council of the union, and then up to the National Executive, and that in turn went to the Engineering Union’s sponsored MPs in the House of Commons. That was the way we worked.
So when the call for an enquiry became widespread and we had shown widely that the North was a sordid political mess, the next step in the strategy was to demand change there. And when the change was slow in coming, the Connolly Association promoted the concept of a Bill of Rights to be enacted at Westminster as a kind of straitjacket on the Unionists in Stormont, while leaving an elected assembly there. This was in 1968, following the 1968-69 civil rights marches, when the way the Unionist Government at Stormont had reacted to them brought the whole situation there to world attention.
When it was difficult to get anyone to draft a Bill of Rights, it was Desmond who drafted it in proper parliamentary form. I remember being at a meeting in London with Fenner Brockway, Lord Longford (later Lord Pakenham), and Geoffrey Bing. Longford wanted a Bill of Rights to deal only with abuses in the electoral system. He did not want things like the Special Powers Act or religious discrimination mentioned. The reason for this was that the multiple vote in local elections, which Barney Morgan has referred to in his earlier contribution, affected both communities in the North, and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which existed then, did not want the situation affecting just the Nationalist-Catholic community to be raised. So the electoral system was the only civil rights issue the NILP was prepared to take up. So Lord Longford dropped out and it was Desmond Greaves who actually drafted the Bill of Rights in proper legal form to be printed in due course by HMSO and submitted to the House of Commons and House of Lords. This Bill was presented on the same day in May 1971, in the House of Lords by Fenner Brockway, who was now a Lord, and in the House of Commons by Arthur Latham MP, who represented Paddington North there.
It was like building brick upon brick. And that showed Desmond’s strategic sense.
His books of course are of the utmost importance. I think everyone will agree with that. Donal Nevin is bringing out a new book on James Connolly shortly, of 800 pages, and it will contain valuable new material, including material based on the William O’Brien papers, which O’Brien refused Desmond permission to have access to when he was writing his Connolly biography. These included Connolly’s letters to O’Brien. Even though Desmond’s biography does not refer to these, I have no doubt that his book on the politics of Connolly and his political evolution will still stand as the definitive work on those topics.
Of course working with Desmond was not always sunshine. Sharing an office with him meant that one saw the different sides of him. He could be quick-tempered. Barney Morgan will probably agree with that, and Tony Coughlan as well. He could flare up very quickly and you would sometimes wonder why. I remember one occasion that has stuck in my memory. We had the same office. Desmond had his desk on one side of it and I had my desk on the other and for some reason an argument started between the two of us, and it got really heated, and he stood up from his desk, as if he were about to come over to me threateningly. Now I was in my 20s, so I do not know what he was going to do; but he had forgotten that the bottom drawer of his desk was open. So he came as if toward me, stumbled over the desk drawer, landed on his behind on the floor, and to his credit he started laughing. And that was the end of it.
You could get periods of silence. Gerry Curran, I think, encountered them as well. I remember once, for about a month, we were coming into the office and I was working and he was there and he would not say a word. I don’t know why. I was in my twenties then. If I had been a bit older I would have said to him, “Now, Desmond, what the hell is biting you? Did I say something? Did I do something?” Again, if one is in one’s twenties it is quite possible that one has said or done something or other that can offend people and as one gets older one realises what one has done. It is possible that I had said or done something like that, but I was not aware of it at the time. I did not challenge him. One would have odd periods like that, but they would blow over after a while. He would go up to Liverpool and would come back as if nothing had happened.
He also was very quick at coming up with explanations of things. I remember one time the monthly edition of the Irish Democrat came into the office from the printer’s and I was looking at it. We had a meeting coming up three weeks later. I was looking at the front page, which carried the advertisement for the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was stated on the advert, the venue of the meeting, and the time of the meeting, but there was no date. The date had been left out. I said to Desmond, “Look, Desmond, you have forgotten the date of the meeting.” He did not have one pair of glasses, like I have now, but two pairs. He took off the glasses he was wearing and rushed to put on his reading glasses and went over to look at the advert. “Hm. . . Hm. . . Yes. That was deliberate.” “How do you mean,” said I, “That was deliberate?” “Oh”, he said, “It will arouse interest. People will be ringing up wanting to know when the meeting is going on.” Needless to say, we were not swamped with phone calls.
He was born in England and educated there. I think he must be regarded as a product of the British Labour Movement, as a product of the best elements of the British Labour Movement. He was a committed anti-imperialist and he had a profound understanding of the national question.
It is not surprising that, from what I can recall, and maybe other people – Cathal MacLiam perhaps – might remember as well: I think that the person whom he most admired in the British Labour Movement was probably Tommy Jackson, whose book, Ireland Her Own, is still in print. It is a marvellous book and when it was reprinted later Desmond did the introduction to it and wrote a final chapter, which brought it up to date. The other person whom he especially admired was Rajani Palme Dutt, and Palme Dutt’s understanding of the colonial question accorded with his own views.
The last time that I met Desmond was in Leicester in the late 1980s. I was in London on trade union business and Desmond asked would I speak at the Connolly Association annual conference which was in Leicester that year, which I did. I noticed one thing and it concerned me a bit. These conferences were held every year or eighteen months or so and were strategic occasions to which we would invite our own members and other bodies that the Connolly Association was in touch with – trade unions, Members of Parliament and so on – and they would come along, or some of them would. These were strategic affairs, to assess where we had advanced in pursuance of the demands of the Association and at them decisions would be taken as to what should be done in the British Labour Movement in relation to Ireland. During the course of the day lots of things would be said. Desmond would usually take the chair and he would then sum up at the end. And his summings-up were brilliant. He could bring the whole day’s conference together into about ten minutes and pick out the essentials, and the way we had to go forward. But at the conference in Leicester now, I remember he asked me would I do the summing up. I could never have done as good a job as he did, and it struck a note of concern in my mind that he was maybe beginning to fail a bit. I remember that quite well, for I think it was the last time I saw him.
A colleague of ours in the trade union movement, Sam Nolan, Secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, remarked about Desmond one time that when one was in his company the sparks were flying off him. That about sums it up. There were sparks all over the place – ideas, interesting comments, witticisms, insights into all sorts of things, I think of him a lot in the quiet moments. I am doing some work at the moment which entails using his books, and that also reminds me of him. And in summary I just want to make the point that I will remember him as the most interesting person I have met in my lifetime.