Editor’s Introduction to the Journal of C.Desmond Greaves (1913-1988)

The labour historian and political activist C.Desmond Greaves kept a journal on and off throughout his life. There are volumes for several years in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, as well as a continuous daily or near daily record covering the quarter-century prior to his death in 1988. This is a valuable source of information on Irish and British left-wing and national politics from the 1930s to the 1980s and on the political life of the Irish community in Britain during that time. It is of special interest because of its record of meetings, sometimes with reconstructed conversations, with people whom Greaves met in the course of his historical researches and political activity. The former related to his biographies of the Irish political figures James Connolly and Liam Mellows and the playwright Sean O’Casey, as well as the history of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which that union’s Executive commissioned him to write, and the first volume of which he completed.    

The Journal is also of interest because of the information it gives about the life, character and times of a remarkable man and the many insights into life and public affairs that it contains.

For an outline biography see C.Desmond Greaves 1913-1988, An Obituary Essay, Irish Labour History Society,1991(ISBN 0791-2838), by Anthony Coughlan, who is responsible for transcribing, editing and compiling the index of Greaves’s Journal for publication. See also an entry by the same writer in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (ISBN 9780521633314).  

Desmond Greaves wrote his Journal in longhand in 38 hardback copybooks, which are referred to here as “Volumes”. The manuscript volumes are for deposit in the National Library of Ireland in accordance with its author’s wishes when the full text is edited. The periods they cover are listed below. There are gap years when Desmond Greaves did not keep a journal and he may not have retained all of his Journal record, especially for the early period. 

Volume 1 begins with Desmond Greaves aged 20 in September 1933. He came from a cultured lower-middle-class family. His father was a post-office official and his mother had a degree in music.  He was living at home with his parents and sister at the time, while attending the third year of the B.Sc. degree course in botany and chemistry at the University of Liverpool. This is the year when he first became actively involved in politics, at a time when many of Britain’s young university intelligentsia were moving to the left in the context of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler and the fear of another war. Fifty years later, before his death in 1988, he copied anew the first three volumes of the Journal dealing with the 1933-35 period, with a commentary on various persons and episodes mentioned in them. Presumably he did this for the benefit of biographers. 

In a comment on the entry for 1 June 1933 Greaves refers to excerpts from pages 2858-3000 of an older journal that he had kept during his youth, but which he destroyed. There is no journal for the 1936-8 period.  In 1944 he commenced a Retrospect of his first months in London in 1935-36, when he had his first paid job, and this is inserted as Volume 4A in this edition to maintain the chronological sequence of life events even though it was written later than Volume 5, which is a Journal of Greaves’s first cycle tour of the South of Ireland in 1939.  Volume 4B gives the final sections of this Retrospect, covering the years 1942-3. He did not retain the middle sections of the Retrospect.

There are parallels between Greaves’s experiences as a young man as set out in this Journal and various fictionalized incidents in the first books of his unfinished comic epic poem, Elephants Against Rome. He had completed four of the envisaged twelve books of this work before his death and these were posthumously published.  This poem may usefully be read in parallel with the first volumes of the Journal as exemplifying possible connections between life and art in Desmond Greaves’s case.

He occasionally pasted photographs in the manuscript text of his Journal and it is envisaged that these will be reproduced in due course in the final electronic version.      

The late Dr Roy Johnston (1929-2019) requested the editor to permit him to read the original manuscript Journal for purposes of checking information relating to his own autobiography, which was published in Century of Endeavour, 2006 (ISBN 1 84351 080 4). As Dr Johnston had known Desmond Greaves from his student years at Trinity College Dublin in the 1940s the editor acceded to this request. When reading the originals Dr Johnston wrote some comments on various entries by Greaves, mainly relating to the post-1950s and 1960s. In this edition these comments are inserted beside the entries in the Journal volumes they relate to, as they may interest some readers.  Some time after Dr Johnston wrote these comments the editor learned that he had also made summaries of some volumes of the Journal and had put these summaries, together with extensive excerpts from the text, on the website which accompanied his book. He did this without informing or seeking the permission of the editor, who would have refused such permission if it had been sought. In the event this action once done could not be undone. Some of these Journal excerpts have been quoted in works by various authors that have been published since, mostly dealing with the late 1960s Northern Ireland civil rights period. Any such excerpts should be assessed in the context of the full Journal text which is now being made available on this Greaves archive web-site. 

The editor has inserted explanatory notes in italics in the text where relevant. Desmond Greaves’s handwriting is sometimes hard to decipher, so that sometimes it has not been possible to make out a word or phrase. This is indicated where it happens. Occasional typos in the original have been corrected and contemporary stylistic and spelling conventions have been followed so far as possible. Mistakes of fact and form are likely to occur in a near two-million-word text, including in the Index to each volume. There may well be mistakes regarding place names, especially Welsh ones, and technical terms in such areas as botany and chess.  If readers notice any mistakes and care to inform the editor at he will be grateful and will take steps to correct them.

A personal name and subject Index, as well as an Index of organisations, is given at the end of each volume. It is envisaged that these separate volume indices will be combined into one consolidated Index when all 38 volumes are up on this site.  The Index does not seek to give the names of all the persons with whom Greaves interacted during his life, but only those that seem more important to his personal biography.  

Please note: The Index entries refer to the month and day of the relevant entries, with the  month coming first. Thus Index entry “6.6” is June 6, “12.4” is December 4, “1.30” is January 30 etc. 

The dates of the different Journal volumes are as follows and the main themes of the first sixteen are also given:

Vol.1: 22 September 1933- 31 October 1934  

Student days at Liverpool University: reading, poetry, chess, science, politics, cycling tours, companions; joining the CPGB   

Vol.2:  1 November 1934 – 30 September 1935

Leftwing politics at Liverpool University – anti-war and peace activity   

Vol.3:  1 October 1935- 24 November 1935

Liverpool University student politics – United Front activity on Merseyside 

Vol.4A: December 1936 – September 1937

Sections I and II of a Retrospect, commenced on 31 December 1944, covering his first months in London and his first job there, December 1936 to September 1937- reasons for interrupting the Journal – general assessment of the 1930s as “a difficult time to spend one’s youth in” – applying for jobs in Liverpool and London – getting his first job through his aunt’s husband, George Peachey, a director of the Costains building firm – working as a clerk in an estate office in Elm Park, East London –  flat-living in Ilford and digs in East Ham – mental gloom in the East End – obtaining a job as a research chemist in Epsom through a relation of his mother’s – office politics at Synthetic Oils – the Association of Scientific Workers – local leftwing politics in Wimbledon – David Guest – visit to the Rhondda Valley       

Vol.5:  14 July – 31 July 1939 

First visit to Dublin and the South of Ireland – Sean Murray and Brian O’Neill –  Dublin, Athlone, Castlebar, Westport, Clifden, Galway, Newcastle West, Killarney, Cork – Michael O’Riordan and Jim O’Regan in Cork –  Impressions of Ireland on the eve of World War 2 – Back at Epsom Oils 

Vol.6:  1942 

Sections VII (contd.), VIII and IX of the Retrospect, dealing with 1942 – Editor of “Irish Freedom”- becomes chairman of the Connolly Club, with Pat Dooley as organizer – working on plastics in Messrs Catalins – quarrels among the plant executives – Jimmy Shields – party work in Golders Green – on the CPGB Colonial Bureau and national speakers’ panel – KS Shelvankar, Krishna Menon, Z.Rado – wartime firefighting – holiday in Snowdonia – first Christmas at home in Liverpool since 1939  

Vol.4B:  25 May – 28 June l944  

Renewal of the Journal after a gap caused by war work – secretary of the Connolly Association – scientific work with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association – political change in India, Canada, America – popular reactions to the Normandy landings and Hitler’s rocket bombs – scheme of priorities for 1945, followed by the first sections of the Retrospect given as Vol.4A in this edition of the Journal.

Vol.7: 13 November 1945 – 16 May 1946

Research chemist at Messrs Powell Duffryns – disputes among the company directors and staff – mooted research trip to post-War Germany – publishing his first book of verse with Alan Morton – health worries –  on the CPGB International Affairs and Irish Committees – retiring from formal Connolly Association commitments – meeting pre-war school and college mates following their demobilization – family visits to Liverpool – cycling in Wales and Southern England – personal assessment for 1945, with a plan of priorities for 1946 which mentions three parts of the Retrospect as having been completed and a planned book on Ireland  

Vol.8: 17 May 1946 – 30 September 1946

Lecture to Trinity College Dublin Fabian Society – first postwar cycle journey around Ireland  –  Chemical research at BCURA/Delanium/Powell Duffryn, with some theosophical encounters – moving towards a political commitment to Irish affairs

Vol.9: 18 February 1949- 7 May 1950, a few entries

Flat problems at Cockpit Chambers, Northington Street, Holborn – Mrs Muriel MacSwiney – part-time editor of the Irish Democrat  – research for book on the Irish Labour movement – Connolly Association pamphlet on Partition  – running the Carbon Lab at Messrs Powell Duffryn – brushes with Ouspensky-Gurdjieff theosophy through J.G.Bennett                

Vol.10: early 1951: Sojourn in Curraun, Achill, Co Mayo – Early research on James Connolly – Walter Dwyer of Kiltimagh – finding a cottage at Doobeg – Michael Roughnean’s story – Mulranny and its environs – potato-growing and turf-cutting – Irish general election of May 1951 – Trinity College Fabian Society – Dorothy Macardle and “the Pope” O’Mahony – visit to Clare Island  

Vol.11: 17 November 1953-8 September 1954, and some

entries from 2 March 1956 to 14 August 1956 

research on James Connolly –  anti-partition campaigning in Nottingham and Glasgow – Captain Monteith, Donal Nevin – Catholic Standard attacks on the Connolly Association – growth of the Association on the basis of its anti-Partitionist and anti-Unionist policy expressed in its new Constitution adopted in 1955  

Vol.12: 12 September 1956-10 June 1957

Research for biography of James Connolly –  Tom Johnson – Russian intervention in Hungary – Irish Workers League – Peadar O’Donnell – Muriel MacSwiney – Visits to Dublin, Belfast, Kerry and Cork 

Vol.13: 11 June 1957-17 August 1957 and 28 August 1960-31 December 1960:  

Further research on James Connolly – Holiday on Uist in the Hebrides; Research on Liam Mellows – anti-internment campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain – publication of ‘The Life and Times of James Connolly’     

Vol.14: 1 November 1962 – 31 March 1964

Work on “The Irish Question and the British People” – the Wolfe Tone bicentenary – physically assaulted – campaign for release of Joe Doyle – Scottish and Welsh holidays – Gerry Fitt at London meeting – death of aunt, Mary Greaves –   research for Liam Mellows biography – Bulmer Hobson – Northern Nationalist MPs visit London – Connolly Association work with the National Council for Civil Liberties and Movement for Colonial Freedom – Connolly Association campaign for an enquiry into the working of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act   

Vol.15: 1 April 1964 – 31 December 1964

Campaigning in Britain against the Northern Ireland Unionist regime –  conflict with Irish communists over fund-raising socials being held in England – legacy from aunt – research for biography of Liam Mellows – tracing Mellows’s movements in Galway during the Easter Rising – meetings and interviews with  James Connolly’s three daughters, with Mrs Tom Clarke, Stephen Jordan, Padraic Colum, Frank Robins, Rory Brugha, Sheila Humphreys, Moss Twomey, Hugh McAteer, Peadar O’Donnell, Maire Comerford, Denis McCullough and Mrs Frank Fahy – meetings with Republicans in Belfast, with Nationalist MPs in Stormont, with Dr Conn and Mrs Patricia McCluskey of the Campaign for Social Justice in Dungannon and with IRA leader Cathal Goulding in Dublin.

Vol.16: 1 January 1965 – 31 October 1965

Reactions in the Irish community in Britain to the Harold Wilson Labour Government  – campaign on the Government of Ireland Act – chauvinist attitudes to Ireland in British leftwing circles – tracing Liam Mellows’s family background and political activity in Galway, Cork, Callan, Waterford and Wexford – interviews with Ernest Blythe, Bob Briscoe, Stephen Jordan, Jim Donovan, Eamon Dore, Tom Barry, Pax Whelan – National Council for Civil Liberties conference on Northern Ireland in London – Tensions with Clann na hEireann in London – political attacks by Gery Lawless’s Irish Communist  Group – Belfast Trades Council conference on discrimination in Northern Ireland – Fenner Brockway and the Movement for Colonial Freedom – J. Roose Williams – foundation of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster – working on the Ernie O’Malley papers – illness of his sister Phyllis with cancer – visiting her in Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Clatterbridge Hospital and Ince-Blundell nursing home, Merseyside

Vol.17: 1 November 1965- 31 May 1966

Vol.18: 1 June 1966 – 31 May 1967

Vol.19: 1 June 1967 – 30 June 1968

Vol.20: 1 July 1968 – 31 August 1969

Vol.21: 1 September 1969 – 31 May 1970

Vol.22: 1 June 1970- 31 July 1971

Vol.23: 1 August 1971- 30 June 1972

Vol.24: 1 July 1972 – 31 May 1973

Vol.25: 1 June 1973 – 31 March 1974

Vol.26: 1 April 1974 – 30 April 1975

Vol.27: 1 May 1975 – 31 May 1976

Vol.28: 1 June 1976 – 31 December 1977

Vol.29: 1 January 1978 – 31 August 1979

Vol.30: 1 September 1979 – 31 August1981

Vol.31: 1 September 1981 – 31 December 1982

Vol.32: 1 January 1983 – 31 December 1983

Vol.33: 1 January 1984 – 30 November 1984

Vol.34: 1 December 1984 – 30 September 1985

Vol.35: 1 October 1985 – 30 September 1986

Vol.36: 1 October 1986 – 30 June 1987

Vol.37: 1 July 1987 – 30 May 1988

Vol.38: 1 June 1988 – 21 August 1988

Desmond Greaves died on 23 August 1988, two days following the last Journal entry.