Cathal MacLiam, Dublin

This contribution was made from the audience in general discussion following the presentations at the symposium on Desmond  Greaves at the 17th Greaves Weekend Summer School in Dublin in 2005.  

Cathal and Helga MacLiam were long-standing friends of Desmond Greaves, who had been witness at their wedding in London in 1955.  For many years he used stay at their Dublin home, first in Finglas and then  Rathmines, whenever he came to the city. He was fond of the five MacLiam children and  the MacLiam household provided a kind of vicarious family for him, as he never married.

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I shared a flat with Desmond Greaves for a couple of years in the 1950s 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 not know that he did translations from various languages for the Communist Party, from Spanish, Italian, French and German. He translated abook 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 edition of Desmond’s book on 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 Connolly.   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 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 Connolly  and Mellows.The first was quite widely reviewed – by Roy Jenkins,  British Home Secretary and later EU Commissioner amongst others – whereas the Mellow 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 in the times we are living in now, when we are all supposed to be dutiful supporters of European supranational integration.