Some reminiscences of C. Desmond Greaves (1913-88) by people who knew him - presented as a contribution to the 17th Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin, 2005
Helga MacLiam, Dublin
I FIRST met Desmond Greaves in England through my husband, Cathal MacLiam. Cathal was living in one of the rooms in the house where Desmond lived - a three-story, dark-brick, 19th-century house at Cockpit Chambers, Northington Street, Holborn, around the corner from Bloomsbury and a few hundred yards from the Connolly Association office where he worked each day.
Desmond's flat was very much a bachelor quarters, extremely untidy and dusty, lined with bookshelves and with masses of books and papers piled all over the pace. I remember that a pile of old telephone directories held up one of the chairs, so that one had to clear a space around the table when having a meal. Cathal lived in another flat downstairs.
I had come from post-War Germany to work as a nurse in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1949 and had met Cathal through his sister, who was also a nurse, in Harrogate five years later. When I came down to London, Cathal, who was very active in the Connolly Association and had become a kind of protegé of Desmond's, who was of course the older man, brought me to meet him at the flat.
I can still see him in his shorts - for it was summer - and his string vest, for he did make many concessions to appearances, at least at that time. He became somewhat more conservative later when he got older.
And Desmond's flat was something else again. I saw a mound of old bed linen piled in the bath; for instead of washing it he would go out and but new linen all the time, to save time and trouble.
As I was soon engaged to Cathal, Desmond allowed me to get rid of the mound of bedlinen by washing it, for he had kept several other offers of help from various females at bay. And later he actually allowed us wall-paper and thoroughly spring-clean his flat.
That first evening he introduced me to Indian curry. I had never had a curry before. Desmond had also gone down to Soho to buy German pumpernickel in my honour. But the curry was so hot! "I was warned that the chillies were unexpectetdly sharp," he said, and indeed they were. They were much too hot even for him, so that we all has to resort to yoghurt to cool ourselves afterwards.
Desmond of course was a first-class cook - he used say cooking was applied chemistry, and he was by profession a research chemist of course, and I had many meals with him afterwards. He told me once that he planneed to write a cookery book, but it was one of several unfinished projects.
All the active Connolly Association would go selling the Irish Democrat around the Irish pubs at weekends in the 1950s and 1960s. And Desmond himself would regularly sell the paper that he edited and wrote much of. They were using it to try to draw the attention of the Irish community in Britain, and through it the British labour and trade Union movement, to the misdeeds of prime minister Lord Brookeborough's Unionist regime in the six counties.
I used drive my Vespa on the paper runs and Cathal would sit on the back of it and pop into the pubs. I had resolved that I would not personally sell the paper, as it was so strange and new an environment for me. But one night a Donegal man who was supposed to go selling with Cathal did not turn up and I said that I would try it. So I was hooked then and soon I quite came to enjoy it. My German accent was quite effective selling the Irish Democrat. I think the Irish men in the pubs were intrigued at seeing a German woman selling this Irish radical paper, so that quite a number bought it from me.
This was a peak period of Irish emigration and there were thousands of men in the Irish pubs in Kilburn, Camden Town, Paddington, Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith - most of them working in Britain's building trade. I remember the story of the Irishman who told the Irish Democrat paper-seller, "Be off with you. I would not wipe my behind with that paper". . . And the reply, "You should be careful doing that, for there are sharp points in it!"
Cathal and I got married in 1955 and Desmond Greaves was the best man at our wedding. The first wedding we had took place in a registry office - we had a second one in church later - and the woman registrar was a very impressive person. We were just youngsters in our twenties, both of us from countries other than Britain, and the woman registrar spoke very solemnly and movingly of the responsibility that a marriage contract entailed. And the seriousness of what we were doing. Cathal's sister, who had got married some months before, was most impressed. She said that this lay woman registrar spoke more impressively than any sermon she had heard in church on such an occasion. Desmond used often refer to this woman registrar afterwards. He use say that maybe she was impressed in her turn by the young Irish-German couple whom she saw before her!
After the wedding we went to Schmidt's German restaurant in Charlotte Street for the wedding breakfast, but found it closed. So we went into the lounge of a pub where I remember we breakfast of crisps and babycham.
Then we went on to Schmidt's for lunch, while Desmond, I remember, had to go to Brimingham in connection with the Irish Democrat. We then went on to Campfield Gardens where we had our flat, where such leading Connolly Association-ites as Gerry Curran - whom we have just heard speaking here today - Eamon MacLouglin, Pat Bond and Desmond Logan joined us and we drank and talked until midnight.
In January 1957 Cathal and I moved to Dublin as Cathal was threatened with being called up under Britain's conscription laws, which were still in force. He had a job in Telecom in Finglas and I in the Orthopoedic Hospital, Clontarf , until my two eldest children were born . . . They were twins.
In the late 1950s, 1960s and for two decades after, Desmond Greaves used come regularly to Dublin every couple of months or so, especially while he was doing his researches and interviews for his biographies of James Connolly, Liam Mellows and Sean O'Casey. And for much of that time he used stay with us, initially in our house in Finglas and from 1968 at the house in Belgrave Road Rathmines, where we had the Summer School social last night.
He would land from the Holyhead boat at Dun Laoghaire, where Cathal and sometimes I would meet him. They would then buy a few bottles of wine and spend the evening talking at our place - often into the early and middle hours of the morning. As Desmond lived most of the time on his own in London and later at his family house in Birkenhead, Merseyside, which he inherited after his sister's death, and as he was an intensely sociable person, I think that he used "let his hair down" when he came to Ireland, having people to talk to for hours and hours into the night. It was as if he was making up for lost time.
He was a brilliant conversationalist, very lively and vivacious and with a vast range of knowledge, as he was both a scientist and a historian and literary person. He could talk with authority on such a wide range of subjects, that being with him on those occasions was always interesting. He was great company, and we had lots of fun and many good laughs.
I sometimes got quite cross though because I thought that he kept Cathal and whoever else might be there up half the night talking about politics and gossiping. For Cathal had a job to go to next day and had to get up early to go to it. I noticed though that Desmond on the other hand, would take regular cat-naps during the day, and I often saw him with his head on his arms sleeping for 15 minutes or so, which enabled him compensate for the late nights he typically used have with us in Dublin.
Our four children came along in due course, and Desmond always took great interest in them.
He never married himself. I think he felt that doing the political work he was so commited to, on a tiny wage in the conditions of the 1950s,when he went full-time on the Irish Democrat, was not compatible with the responsibilities of a wife and family. I sometimes think that we provided a kind of alternative family for him, where he could share in the family life that he did not have himself. He was very good with children, had a natural understanding for them and their ways, and from the early days he never arrived at our place without bringing with him several bars of chocolate. We used call him "Onkel Desmond" to the children, but he soon became known as "Onkel Coco-lade" to them!
He was a botanist and a dedicated gardener of course. Botany was one of the degrees he had got at Liverpool University as a young man in the 1930s, and to go for a walk in the country with him, which we often did when he was in Dublin, was to get a continual informal botanical lesson, with an endless flow of commentary and fascinating lore on every kind of plant along the road.
He was always thoughtful about what our garden needed. He brought us a little laburnum as a tiny plant, and it is now, several decades later, a big tree in our back garden in Belgrave Road, Rathmines, where we live. We call it "Golden regen" in German, Gold Rain, when it is in flower. And he brought us many other plants as well.
DESMOND GREAVES'S MEETING WITH EAMON DE VALERA:
One incident in particular stands out in my memory from our years in Finglas. One day this big polished limousine stopped outside our front door and a man in military uniform stepped out and knocked: "Was Mr Greaves at home?". It happened that he was in town at the time, but he would be back later.
This was president de Valera's aide-de-camp and the car was the presidential limousine itself. Seemingly Desmond had written to president De Valera seeking an interview with him about the time he had spent with Liam Mellows in America in 1919 and he had sent the President a copy of his biography of James Connolly with the request. He had said in his letter that he would be staying at our place in Finglas on his next visit to Dublin.
De Valera had expressed an interest in giving his views on Mellows to the man who had written the Connolly book, so when Desmond returned home he got in touch with Aras An Uachtaráin and the next day the presidential limousine came down again and brought him up to the Park to meet De Valera, with whom he spent a couple of hours chatting.
De Valera told Desmond, according to what he told us himself afterwards, that he had learned many new things about Connolly and understood his life and period better from reading the Connolly biography. He showed Desmond around some of the rooms in the Aras and pointed out the big tree in the garden which he said Queen Victoria had planted, as if this were highly significant.
I remember Desmond saying that he had got the impression from De Valera's words that the fact that he was now living in the place where Queen Victoria had once planted a tree, summed up for him the significance of the Irish revolution, and the advances it had achieved!
He used also reminisce sometimes about De Valera discussing Mary MacSweeney and the hardline members of Sinn Fein from which De Valera had broken away when he founded Fianna Fail in 1926 with him. De Valera had remarked to him about Mary MacSweeney, "She would have held her hand in that flame, pointing to the fire. . . But I was not made of that metal". "And the more fool she was", Desmond used comment afterwards. "De Valera had far too much sense than to be holding his hand in a flame!" .
Of course our neighbours in Finglas were greatly impressed by the presidential car arriving at our front door and whisking our house-guest up to see the president. It greatly raised our standing and reputation with some of them!
It was while we were in Finglas in the middle 1960s that Cathal Goulding, Sean Garland and some other leading Republicans came to see Desmond for the first time. My husband Cathal MacLiam was Cathal Goulding's first cousin, although they had never met before, or at least not for years.
This meeting may have been suggested by Roy Johnston, who had joined the Republican Movement at that time, although I am not sure. But in any case a group of them came one evening, a veritable delegation, it seemed. Cathal met his first cousin for the first time and they stayed talking about politics as usual until the early hours, when it became too much for me and I went to bed.
I remember Desmond Greaves as a quite extraordinary person. . . Full of life and good humour. Full of interesting things to say and point out. Great company and always considerate and polite in personal relations.
He was one of the really significant people that I have met in the course of my life and I am glad to be able to contribute these modest reminiscences to this symposium about him.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2005 Helga MacLiam