Alliance for Irish Freedom

[This is Desmond Greaves’s last article. It was written a few days before his sudden death on Tuesday 23 August 1988 and was carried as a tribute to him in the “Morning Star” on Friday 2 September 1988 on the eve of the Connolly Association’s 50th anniversary conference, which was held in the Kenilworth Hotel, Great Russell Street, London WC1 on the Saturday and Sunday. Desmond Greaves was general secretary of the Connolly Association at the time, as well as editor of its monthly paper the “Irish Democrat”. His remains were buried in Bebington Cemetery, Birkenhead, Merseyside, following his funeral in the week following the conference.]

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The Connolly Association was founded on September 4, 1938, at the Engineers’ Hall, 39 Doughty Street, London WC1. But it did not come out of the blue. Three main strands composed it. The most important was undoubtedly the London branch of the Republican Congress which survived the disintegration of its parent body in Ireland. 

This had been established in 1934 in an attempt to reconstruct the revolutionary class alliance that had won a large measure of freedom for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties and to halt the drift to reaction that began with the disastrous Treaty of 1921 and subsequent civil war.

It split on a classic disagreement. Putting the matter in its simplest terms, Sean Murray and Peadar O’Donnell wished to continue the national freedom struggle to completion and then pass over to Socialist tasks.

Others like Michael Price and Nora Connolly thought it possible to undertake Socialist tasks before the establishment of the necessary democracy.

Failure to resolve this issue proved disastrous and the movement fell apart.

The London branch was established in 1934, its leader being the brilliant young poet and military student Charles Donnelly who was subsequently killed in action in Spain.

In 1935 it established a quarterly duplicated journal called Irish Front, whose editor was also a poet, Leslie Daiken.

This was printed as Irish Freedom in 1939.


Great assistance was given by the British section of the League Against Imperialism in which Reginald Bridgeman and Ben Bradley were active, and I think Joan Beauchamp.

The Irish members of this organisation in which James Larkin junior had been active, formed a second strand, closely linked with the British labour movement.

The third component comprised former members of the Irish Self-determination League founded by Eamon De Valera in 1919. These included. Molly Downes and Pat Dooley.

During 1938 some of its former members were trying to pull together what was left of the Republican Congress by establishing Connolly Clubs, the first and most important being in Belfast.

For that reason, when it was decided to form a united organisation in London, the title chosen was Connonly Club although there was no organic connection with the clubs in Ireland.

When “clubs” started springing up around England – Birmingham and Liverpool were I believe the first – it became necessary to link them in an association, and the word “club” was no longer used.

The historian Jim Fyrth remarks that the 1930s saw the greatest popular mass movement since the Chartists.

Looking back, I would say that it ensured that Britain did not succumb to fascism, even though it did not succeed in preventing the war.

Pride of place must be given to the International Brigade, many of whose returning members enriched the Association during its first year. Some like Bob Doyle are still with us.

Because of its mixed origins the Association took some years to ferment itself politically clear, for example on its attitude to events taking place in Ireland.

An exile usually leaves half of his or her heart at home, and sometimes members were unclear which country they were living in.

But the centre of the Connolly Association’s purpose has always been to organise the Irish in Britain for the attainment of both economic and democratic objectives in association with the British labour movement.


My own close connection with the Association began in early 1941 when I was staying with Esther Henrotte and she encouraged me to write a letter to the Daily Worker protesting at Sean O’Casey placing Britain and Ireland on the same level as “capitalist countries”.

Irish Freedom, now the Irish Democrat, had been running since January 1939, but after two years of war its editorial staff was getting thin.

I was an advantage to them because, as a scientist, I couldn’t be conscripted and I speedily found myself on the committee.

Those were busy days. We thought the war imperialist. There was anyway a strong resistance in Irish people to serving in the British Army.

The Association was largely responsible for a Government agreement that Irishmen should not be conscripted until they had been offered the option of going home. Sometimes they were not offered the option. 

When this was pointed out, the Army usually let them go, and I saw Pat Dooley get a man discharged over the telephone.

Even after 1941 we always defended Irish neutrality and the right to refuse military service.

As the war intensified, thousands of Irish workers were recruited for building aerodromes and war factories. At the request of the AUBTW, the Association sent Flann Campbell to tour the camp sites and persuade the new arrivals to join their appropriate trade unions.

Another pressing issue was that of lodging allowances, which were promised but not always paid. 

I ran the Exiles Advisory Service with three shorthand typists who turned out dozens of letters every week. 

When the war was over the men on the camp sites flooded into the cities for demolition and reconstruction work. But where were they to live? 

Jim Doyle led them in taking over empty hotels in central London.


The first years of the Association were thus largely taken up with social and economic issues.

Once the Cold War started an issue that is still with us appeared – the desire of the Western imperialists to undermine Irish neutrality for the sake of deep sea ports and useful air space.

Throughout its existence the Association has consistently exposed the evils of partition, both political and economic. For a time this was simple exposition.

But after 1956 this was supplemented by campaigns for the righting of specific wrongs due to partition, for which the British Government was responsible.

It is remarkable that until the early 1970s British Governments persisted in claiming that they were not responsible for the administration of the Six Counties.

It was D.N. Pritt who told us how to prick that bubble. It was based on the verbal quibble. The government had no power.  But Parliament had. And it later imposed direct rule – when the government wanted – at the drop of a hat.

Of great importance in this connection was the Bill of Rights, which the Association promoted through the agency of friendly MPs.

Taken as a whole the civil rights movement exposed British imperialism in Ireland unprecedentedly.

From the late 1960s on, the conviction has grown that only a British withdrawal followed by the reunification of Ireland can solve the problem.

Britain should say to the Irish Government: “Ladies and gentlemen, we now believe we are wrong to hold your territory. Will you discuss with us what steps we should take to give it you back?”

And that should be the policy of the progressive movement, quite irrespective of the issue of violence. 

It would still hold if the Provisional IRA did not exist. It is a British solution to a British-made problem.


Of late, the Association has been increasingly concerned with the threat to national sovereignty which gave rise to the Irish referendum on the Single European Act.

Not everybody who has fought for freedom from London is prepared for slavery under Brussels. The Association has called several conferences on this subject.

A whole range of issues have been taken up over half a century. When Irish people were being accused of bringing tuberculosis into Britain we proved that they caught it after arriving because it was not endemic in the Irish countryside.

A conference was held and a pamphlet published about the pollution and militarisation of the Irish Sea, issues on which government action followed.

Educational work has been consistently undertaken and the names of many of Ireland’s Republican and Socialist leaders and martyrs have been kept alive, above all the great James Connolly whose name the Association has borne proudly for so long.

Four of Connolly’s six children have been in one way or another connected with the Association. His son Roderick was its first president.

This weekend the Connolly Association conference will be attended by many former members who have returned to Ireland and now occupy responsible positions in the political life of their homeland.

They will be joined by others who wish to see a powerful and united movement for one independent Ireland playing its full part in a peaceful world.

(The Connolly Association 50th Anniversary conference will be held this weekend at the Kenilworth Hotel, Great Russell Street, London WC1. A grand social will be held at the same venue tomorrow at 7.30 pm.)