Contributions made during a general discussion following the presentations of Gerard Curran, Helga MacLiam, Sean Redmond and Bernard Morgan to the 17th Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin, 2005)
Cathal MacLiam, Dublin, Ireland (from the audience, in general discussion after the presentations)
I SHARED a flat with Desmond Greaves for a couple of years and being young at the time, I was given to not getting up very early in the morning. Whereas Desmond would be up at 6 o'clock. So when he really wanted to get me up he would start on the piano, and it was very strident. It was better than any alarm clock.
One of the many things that have not been referred to by the speakers today was his linguistic ability. A lot of people will now know that he did translations from various languages for the Communist Party, from Spanish, Italian, French and German. He translated a book on biology by Marcel Prenant from the French. He was very able in that way. One example is when a mutual friend, an Italian lady, Nicoletta Comi, came to our house once and brought with her a copy of the Italian version of Desmond's book The Irish Crisis, called Le Crise Irlandese, and she presented him with it. He paged through it and said after a while, "That's a bloody bad translation." She expressed surprise, for she had read the book and said, "What is the matter?" He said, "Look at that word. It is not the word I used. That means something completely different." Later she said to me, I am Italian and I know Italian, but I never saw the difference in meaning until he had pointed it out to me.
Another language that he knew was Russian, and I think Lithuanian as well. So he started me off on a lifetime's search in etymology. I must say that it has been a very rewarding interest, and at least one of my children is often going through dictionaries and finding out the different meanings and origins of words, how they develop and so on, and I have always found that subject fascinating.
He knew Britain very well, having travelled the length and breadth of it, and he seemed to have an intimate knowledge of British railway timetables. He could tell you how to get from one place to another quite easily, off the cuff. I remember once being with him coming from Scotland on the train where he had gone to interview some people who had known James Conolly. One of these had spoken about Connolly going from Edinburgh to Glasgow in a particular time, and Desmond said, "I did not believe he could have done that." But he had got some old train timetables out of a library and studied them and found out that Connolly could indeed have done it by taking various routes and so on.
I remember him referring to the public reactions to his two books, his biographies of James Connolly and Liam Mellows.The first was quite widely reviewed, by Roy Jenkins, the British Home Secretary and later EU Commissioner amongst others, whereas the Mellows biography fell on deaf ears. Desmond said that he put that down to the fact that the Connolly book was socialism, and the political establishment had no fear of that, but the Mellows book dealt with revolutionary republicanism, and that was a much more dangerous thing at this particular time.
Roy Johnston, Dublin, Ireland
I DON'T want to be hagiographical, for I was always critical of Desmond. I came in touch with him in the mid-1940s, about 1946 or 1947, at the student left in Trinity College. We were the student left in Trinity and he came to see us. He was the Irish expert in the British Communist Party at the time and he had the idea that it would be possible to inject some kind of understanding of the Marxist view of the Irish question into the student left in Trinity, and we interacted with him in that group.
He was very helpful and he certainly taught us a few things. At the same time he was very embedded in the orthodox Marxism of the time. He was an expert on Lysenko for example, and he seemed to accept the whole Lysenko thing. I was a bit sceptical of that at the time myself, but looking at it in retrospect it suggests to me that at that time he was very much in orthodox communist mode.
But at the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s he had this concept of strategic thinking and the importance of the independence of the Irish movement in Britain, and he got the Connolly Association to develop into a group in its own right and not just into merely a left-wing thing. He gave the Connolly Association its new constitution in the mid-1950s and in that form it has survived the Communist Party. That is something.
But when he came over in our time he had a hand in attempting to initiate the Irish Workers League as it was then and I think he realised after that that he had gone off on a wrong tack slightly and that the northern thing was more important. He evolved into an understanding of the importance of civil rights in the north in the course of the nineteen-fifties and he observed the complete failure of the Irish Workers League to have any impact on the labour movement in Ireland. Or at least it did not have very much. It had some, but not very much though.
His understanding of the importance of the need to channel the NICRA was the key thing, and the attempt, successful in his case, to extract the movement for democracy in Ireland from what one might call the dead hand of the left that was dominated by the USSR.
I went through his journal to some extent and got the impression that towards the end of his days he was attempting to analyse what was going on in the USSR in the mid-1980s. And he had high hopes that there would be internal reform and that it would flourish, and he certainly looked to democratic reforms within the USSR under the leadership of Gorbachev. He did not survive and those hopes were not fulfilled. But that in fact was one of the last entries in his notebooks. I found it slightly moving to see that.
In our time as the student left he certainly was influential on us and a number of people from that epoch have remained involved in the progressive and radical movement to the present.
David Broderick (Daithi O Bruadair), Galway and Dublin, Ireland
DESMOND GREAVES was born in Liverpool and lived most of his life in Britain, and therefore it was a little hard for him at times to understand everything that was going on here, where the power was and what the pressures were, and so on. . .
He stayed with me in Galway once when he was doing his researches on Liam Mellows's activity in Galway during the 1916 Rising. He was the first up in the house in morning and then he drank a very large mug of tea, after which we set out for Clarenbridge to see where Liam Mellows cut some tree down in the local wood to block the road, so that the British troops coming in from Gort would not be able to get into Galway city. They would be stuck in Clarenbridge with this tree. So we had to find where the base of this tree was, for the tree itself had of course been long removed. But where it was cut was still there. He did investigate things like that.
The last thing that was mentioned was whether the academics were reliable or not; but then you must understand that up until recently any of the academics would not have got a post in UCD or in Trinity College or anywhere else, if they were in any way left-wing. They certainly would not. They had to be part of the establishment. That has changed, and you have to take these things into consideration.
Tom Redmond, Dublin, Ireland
DON'T FORGET that Desmond Greaves spent all his life in Britain, as an activist in the British labour movement. And one of the things flowing through his generation was the importance of Marxist historical study. You had A L Morton, E P Thompson, T A Jackson, Christopher Hill and others. He was of that generation and they had a respect for history. They also had a respect for each other, for they were not just academic historians. They were political activists and were involved in all sorts of progressive campaigns in the 1930s, 1940s and later. ************************
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