Some reminiscences of the late C. Desmond Greaves by people who knew him - presented as a contribution to the 17th Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin, 2005
Bernard Morgan, Liverpool, England
CHOU EN Lai, the Chinese foreign minister, was asked in Paris in the 1960s by a French reporter what he thought of the French Revolution, and he said it was too early to say!
I think the same thing could maybe be said of Desmond Greaves. He was an extraordinary man. I first met him in the 1950s. I was a seaman out of the port of Liverpool and was not much in the country, and it was only around 1959 or so that I settled down in Liverpool, where Desmond had grown up. He was not living in Liverpool, or rather Birkenhead, then, but his sister lived there. She was a headmistress in one of the city schools. Then after her death he inherited their family house and he came to Liveroool regularly, and of course he was very active in the Liverpool branch of the Connolly Asssociaton.
I think it should be pointed out, as others have done, that he was a multi-talented man. He was a chemist, a botanist, a poet, a writer, a political organiser, an environmentalist. In any case he knew a few things, and he was the driving force in the Connolly Association for decades. He had given up his job in the chemical industry in 1948 to become editor of the Irish Democrat. He had been principal chemist for a large firm and I know that he used get quite a lot of money in his former job and he never got anything like that when working for the CA or the Irish Democrat. So he was a man of principles. He was also a pragmatic person. He was both principled and a pragmatist. There are lots of politicians these days who tell you how pragmatic they are, but when it comes to principles, they do not have many of them.
He was responsible for many things that people have now been long since forgotten. For example, Gerry Fitt, the northern MP, died on Friday last. Now Desmond invited Gerry Fitt to Liverpool when he first became an MP, and I drove him and Fitt up to Manchester for other meetings, for Fitt was the only person in the north of Ireland speaking out at that time about the dire situation there.
At that time in the 1960s, whenever Connolly Association people in Britain tried to raise the situation in Northern Ireland, the standard answer was that people in this country had nothing to do with it. As I said this morning, the face of the clock was over in Befast, but the machinery was here in Britain. Desmond Greaves went to see the lawyer D N Pritt QC, and asked him about this, and Pritt brought down the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and pointed out Section 75, which indicated that anything to do with the Northern Ireland government was the ultimate responsibity of the British parliament in London. So when this came out, people began to ask questions in parliament.
I am not saying that this achieved very much, but at least it began to put things on the table. Those were the days when in the north you could have up to eight votes for certain people in local elections and other people had no votes. And this was accompanied by gerrymandering, discrimination against Catholics in allocating jobs and houses and so on. When people nowadays give out about about the IRA and its activities, they need to look back and appreciate how bad things were for the nationalist minority in those days before the IRA came on the scene. Desmond helped Fitt to bring about this change.
He was also an environmentalist before that became fashionable. Together with Dr Brian Stowell, who is a physicist who worked in John Moors University here in Liverpool, we ran a conference in Liverpool on the pollution of the Irish Sea. This issue became quite important and we published a pamphlet on it. Nowadays people take for granted that the Irish Sea is polluted, but at that time they did not appreciate this at all. It was due to people like Desmond Greaves that this change occurred.
He was, how shall I put it, a feisty character in many ways. He reminds me of myself sometimes! Although he could have his moments like the rest of us of course.
Nowadays you have Irish studies courses in many universities and Desmond regarded these as being set up to ensure that those who attended them got the right message - and by that I mean the "right" message, the one the government approves of. To counter them Desmond set up Irish history lectures, in London, Liverpool and other places. He also started to run history tours around Liverpool, for the city is full of Irish history, especially relating to the 1920s, when so much went on there relating to the Irish War of Independence.
We used run these lectures in the Liverpool Irish Centre and we would go along there of a Sunday evening and Desmond would have speakers from Ireland to speak at them, for he had a vast knowledge of people in Ireland, north and south, east and west.
One evening there was a priest who used play cards occasionally in the Centre and when he came through the door and saw Desmond sitting with his glass of Jamison after the lecture, he said, "Oh Hallo, Desmond, How's the reds." And Desmond replied, "Well, it may be red, Father, but there's a fair share of green in it." Then he asked the priest, "And where in Ireland do you come from, Father?" The priest replied, "Roscommon." And Desmond said, "I remember interviewing this man in Roscommon who was an active person in the War of Independence", and he mentioned the man's name. And the priest said, "Heavens, that was my first cousin." And they got talking animatedly, so much so that an hour or so later at the end of the session I was wondering to myself whether the priest was going to join the Connolly Asssociation or whether Desmond was going to become a Catholic.
That was Desmond's way. He used say to me, who was not known for being the most diplomatic person, "You will meet enough enemies along the road without making many more for yourself." He believed in using more honey than vinegar, in other words.
He was a very witty guy, was Desmond. My mother had fought in 1916 and had crossed from Liverpool to be in the GPO and was involved with a Captain Turner who was the guy who was in charge of the defence of Hopkins and Hopkins, which used be a jeweller in O' Connell Street. My mother came to this lecture and I drove her to it. She was over 80 at the time and she stumbled a bit getting out of the car and she said to Desmond, "Do you mind if I put my arm in yours, Desmond." And quick as a flash, he said, "Ah No, Mrs Morgan. It is the nearest I will ever get to 1916."
The way he did his lectures, he was not, like myself, a stumbler over words. He was a word-smith in the true sense of the word. He used have this note-book and he always wrote in pencil in it. He would start off the lecture in a slow voice and with a very light touch. He would get everyone's attention, for they could hardly hear what he was saying at first. And he would tell a joke and talk very slowly until he had got them all, and then he'd be off. And he would talk vividly without a note for an hour or longer, for he knew his subject backwards and forwards. He knew it all very well
Sometimes he would get people in the audience, English people, who would say to him, "What about the IRA? What about the terrible things the IRA are doing?" This would from a bunch of people who had raped the world, you know! And he would say to them: "Give them nothing to IRA about." That was his reply to them. "If they have nothing to IRA about, there won't be an IRA." For they were not suicide bombers like we have now. They were men of principles, and women of principles, and if they have "nothing to IRA about", things would be so much better.
When he gave those lectures you would think he had been trained in RADA. It was unbelievable how clear and interesting he was. It was a pleasure actually to know Desmond.
He was editor of the Irish Democrat for 40 years and I used work in a psychiatric hospital near where he lived. I used call into his house of an evening and sometimes he would ring and ask me to call over. When you went into the house he would sometimes be working preparing the Irish Democrat and there would be bits and pieces of the paper here, and bits and pieces there, all over the place. One day I sat down on a particular chair and Desmond jumped around agitatedly: "Jesus, Barney, you have your arse on the front page of the Irish Democrat." That was the only time I was ever on the front page of the Irish Democrat, for I never got on it again.
Whenever people died, he had the view: "Ok. They have died. Let us mourn, and then get on with it." He was not a hard-hearted man or cold in any way. He was very gentle and he used write letters to people commisserating on the deaths of those close to them. He used get letters himself from many people.
I remember he used get regularly what he called "epistles" from Paddy McLaughlin, a very nice Donegal man who knew Peadar O'Donnell, who had indeed fought with Peadar in his flying column in the 1920s. Then Paddy went on to fight in the Spanish civil war and then he joined the English air-force fighting fascism. But he used write what Desmond called "epistles". These would be 10 or 12 pages long, and their subject would typically be whether the Chinese or the Soviets were right in certain things. And Desmond would say to me, "How the heck do I know? I have got to struggle with the Irish question, not to mind what Joe Stalin or the Chinese get up to in their parts of the world.
Go, Barney," he would say, as if I were a Rottweiler, "Go and tell Paddy McLaughlin to stop writing me these letters." And once I said I would go down and see McLaughlin and give him a strong blast; but as I was going out the door, he said, "Now, Barney, take it easy, take it easy if you see him. He's a very good man, you know. His heart is in the right place."
I think the same could be said of Desmond himself. His heart was always in the right place. He never criticised the Republican Movement throughout all the troubles. He would not always agree with them, but he never criticised them. He would say sometimes in the paper that if the republicans would try to bring more influence to bear on English politicians, as they had done maybe on American ones, things might get better; for as I said myself this morning, while the clock-face is in Belfast, the works are in London, not in New York or Boston or Washington, and it is only in England that you are going to be able to make any difference to the north of Ireland
As I said, he was a wonderful guy in that way. I won't say anything about the civil rights movement, for our next speaker, Sean Redmond, will be dealing with that, but he was one of the driving forces behind that.
He brought a lot of other questions to the forefront in his work and writings, and he was really a quite remarkable man, and I must say I miss him a lot.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Bernard Morgan