As David Granville retires, after aseven and a half years, as editor of the print edition of the Irish Democrat, Peter Berresford Ellis looks back on the sixteen years he has been writing this column
IT WAS in August, 1987, that the then editor Desmond Greaves (1913-88) phoned me and asked me if I would write for the Irish Democrat. He wanted a comment on an industrial tribunal's ruling which made it racial discrimination for a Welsh employer to refuse to employ a person on the grounds that they could not speak Welsh.
The case had been brought to the Colwyn Bay tribunal by an English woman, who had just moved into Wales, and who was upset because she had been turned down for a local government job in the housing department of Arfon Borough Council where her job specification meant dealing with the public in an area that was over 70 per cent Welsh speaking.
She could not speak Welsh and, more importantly, she was not willing to learn the language. Let the natives damn well learn English!
Amazingly, the tribunal said that refusal to employ her was racial discrimination. Imagine a French industrial tribunal ruling it was racial discrimination to reject a non-French speaking applicant for a job dealing with the French public? My article analysing this ruling was carried in the Irish Democrat of September, 1987.
Greaves, who shared my enthusiasm for Italian food, then suggested we get together in Mama Cucina at the top of Gray's Inn Road, opposite King's Cross, and have a talk.
Oddly enough, it was almost next door that I had addressed my first Connolly Association meeting. The Connolly Association was then at 283 Grays Inn Road, WC1. Seán Redmond, then branch secretary of the central London branch of the Connolly Association, was the chairman of the two lectures I gave on the development of the Irish working class on 3 and 10 May, 1972.
Victor Gollancz had published my History of the Irish Working Class in March that year and Greaves had contacted me, inviting me to give the lectures.
1972 was the first time I had actually met the redoubtable Chris although I had been involved in reporting Irish affairs and active in the Socialist movement since 1964. Greaves, of course, had become editor of the Irish Democrat in 1948.
I had been writing in a freelance capacity for quite a lot of left newspapers and magazines -- Peace News, Socialist Leader, Tariq Ali's The Black Dwarf and Tribune.
These articles were in addition to my contributions to the illustrious newspapers that paid my wages as a journalist, such as the Irish News, Herald of Wales, Birmingham Post and Evening Standard.
At the time that Greaves asked me to do the piece for the Irish Democrat I had just become involved in the magazine which Martin Collins was producing -- Labour and Ireland -- a magazine for British withdrawal. I later became one of its editorial advisors.
Greaves plied me with good Italian wine and then asked me if I would write regularly for the Irish Democrat. "There's nothing in it but a free copy of the publication and free membership of the Connolly Association. And you have a completely free hand to write about whatever you want to write about."
In those days, the Irish Democrat was a monthly, and Greaves produced it by the time honoured scissors and paste method. Few people had computers then -- I certainly didn't and so my copy was typed, posted and set up by the hot metal press.
I have to confess to nostalgia when I recall my early days in journalism. Often you had to read copy 'on the stone' and edit it. This was looking at the metal type setting, being able to read it backwards, and cut words and sentences by extracting them. The highlight was returning late at night to watch as the chief printer pressed the klaxon and see the presses roll.
Call me old fashioned, but I do not get the same excitement these days over computers. I agreed to produce a monthly column for Greaves and the first 'Anonn Is Anall' (Here and There) appeared in the October issue. Che Guevara's father Ernesto Lynch had just died in Cuba at the age of 87. I'd had a correspondence with him before his death and so this first piece was on 'Che's Irish father'.
I was in the Isle of Man during the August of the following year. When I returned I found that Desmond Greaves had died on August 23. He would have been 75 years old in September.
I had last seen him in Liverpool a few months before and he had put me up overnight. He was still full of ideas for the future of the Irish Democrat and, at the time, the Connolly Association was increasing membership, and he felt it would permit an expansion in the size of the publication.
In 1989 the Irish Democrat also lost a major contributor when Dónall Mac Amhlaigh (b. 19926) died. His best-known book was Dialann Deoraí (which was translated into English as An Irish Navvy, 1964).
The enthusiasm of those who succeeded Greaves in the editorial chair kept the Irish Democrat going month after month. There were hiccups, of course. But that was the same with any publication. The February, 1991, issue was printed and distributed with some typographical absurdities. This was the responsibility of the then printers, however, and it was reprinted and distributed a week later at their cost.
Anonn Is Anall seemed to be popular and a variety of publications have asked the editor for permission to reprint certain articles over the years. There were problems which eventually caused the Irish Democrat, having built up its reputation as a monthly since 1939, to become a bi-monthly with the June-July, 1994, issue.
But its reputation did not diminish and although it was only to appear six times a year, the previously eight-page paper underwent a professional redesign and re-emerged as a 12-pager in March 1997.
It has been a fascinating period and Desmond Greaves' invitation to write about whatever I wanted to write about has been respected by subsequent editors even when they did not entirely agree with my views. Gerard Curran, Martin Moriarty, Conor Foley, Helen Bennett and, most recently, David Granville have all contributed to keeping the Irish Democrat serving an essential need of the Irish community in this country. It has been a joy to work with them all.
I was once asked at a public meeting in Cork to clarify my position. Did I regard myself as an historian, a writer of popular fiction, a biographer or a journalist? I confused the questioner by owning up to all of the descriptions. Although I secured a first class honours degree in Celtic studies and then my master's degree, my first love has always been journalism. My father had started his journalist career on the Crosbie's Cork Examiner and there were several scribes on both sides of my family. I served my time as a junior journalist on the old Brighton Herald before making my way to London early in 1964. My first book in 1968 was a journalistic account of the rise of Welsh political nationalism. At the end of 1969 Brendan MacLua invited me to become deputy editor of a new newspaper he was launching for the Irish community in Britain -- the Irish Post. That was launched in February, 1970. In May, 2000, I completed a full circle when I was invited to write a regular column 'Anois agus arís' by Martin Doyle, then Irish Post editor. Again I was given a free hand on subject matter but, as I could not commit myself to a weekly column, I agreed I would write every fortnight.
It was even more curious when, in April, 2003, the Irish Post was bought by Thomas Crosbie Holdings, the owners of my father's old newspaper -- the Examiner.
Some time after the Irish Post was launched in 1970, I needed time to work on my History of the Irish Working Class.
Once complete, journalism beckoned again, and I was asked to become editor of a publishing trade weekly magazine, which was about to be launched early in 1974. It was successful but it tied me down too much. In October, 1975, I took the decision to become a full time author.
It was a good decision. Since my first book was published, 1968, I have been fairly productive. In fact, I confess to being a compulsive writer. Next March will see my 34th book published under my own name -- Eyewitness to Irish History. The 41st book under my fiction pseudonym of Peter Tremayne will appear this October. And I have to confess, that I have also written eight novels under the name Peter MacAlan. There have also been a half dozen pamphlets and about 80 published short stories, even half-a-dozen poems, several written for the Socialist Leader back in the 1960s and 1970s when one had literary fire in the belly.
My work has been translated into over a score of languages -- I was particularly impressed when A History of the Irish Working Class was published in Japanese. It would be disingenuous to say that I have not been flattered with the accolades that have fallen to my lot along the literary way. Of course, with the accolades there have come the brickbats. Sometimes the criticisms have been deserved, more often they have not. But I would say that, wouldn't I? The stories I could tell -- perhaps one day I will.
One theme has been constant, and usually emanates from 'academic critics' -- that a 'mere journalist' can't be a 'serious historian'. Well, there is a long tradition of journalists who have also been first class historians. I am equally proud of my journalism as I am of being an historian and novelist.
When all is said and done, I would argue that I have always considered my role as a communicator of information. I abhor the snobbish idiocy that one has to be exclusively an 'academic' and that a journalist is something a few rungs down the literary level.
Last year I published 45 articles of signed journalism. I hope to continue to do so. I take my motto from Thomas Osborne Davis (1814-1845) from Mallow, Co. Cork. He coined the aphorism: 'Educate that you may be free.'
That has been the basic dynamic behind the seventeen years that I have written 'Anonn Is Anall'. During these years I have been educating myself and I hope others along the way. Education is a process that never ceases until one is dead.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2003 Peter Berresford Ellis