Deaglán de Bréadún, Dublin
This is the text of an interview with Desmond Greaves by “Irish Times” political correspondent Deaglán de Bréadún. It was carried in that paper on Monday 24 February 1986, two years before Greaves’s death, and Mr de Bréadún sent it to this archive in response to a request in 2021 for any reminiscence that he might have of Desmond Greaves. It was originally published under the headline below:
An Irish exile in spirit who defies passage of time
If a week is a long time in politics, then 50 years must be an eternity, yet C. Desmond Greaves, historian, propagandist for Left-wing causes and supporter of Irish nationalism, is spry and lively at 72 and shows no sign of calling-off the increasing struggle for his beliefs.
He has been the editor of the Irish Democrat for the last 38 years. This is the paper of the Connolly Association, which Greaves describes as a group of Irish people living in Britain and their friends who would like to see an independent united Ireland and seek to persuade the British political parties, especially Labour, to adopt that policy.
Over the years of political activity he has worked with an astonishing variety of people ranging from Michael O’Leary (briefly) through Justin Keating to Seán O’Casey. He has fond memories of O’Casey, who he says was “gloriously cantankerous”.
Once, an American academic called to the playwright’s home in Devon. “I want to see Mr. Seán O’Casey,” he said, “Well you’ve seen him,” said O’Casey and banged the door.
“I liked him personally very much,” Greaves recalls. “But he was not a politician.” Some critics tried to use O’Casey’s plays to show that he was an opponent of Irish nationalism, but this was untrue. During the Second World War, for instance, he was a strong supporter of Irish neutrality and had written on this subject for the Irish Democrat.
One of Greaves’s books is “Seán O’Casey: Politics and Art”. He says O’Casey’s decision not to take part in the 1916 Rising was probably out of concern for his aged mother, rather than cowardice or ideological opposition. The disillusionment to be found in “The Plough and the Stars” was a product of the Civil War, which had created a mood of national bitterness and frustration.
His best-known work is “The Life and Times of James Connolly”, published in 1961. “Connolly was a Socialist and in internationalist, but he understood that you’ve got to be national before you can be international,” says Greaves.
The purpose of 1916 was to establish Ireland as a nation-state and this process was still to be completed. Greaves would like to see a British withdrawal from Ireland, albeit not a precipitate one. “You couldn’t do a Katanga,” he says. There would have to be a preliminary agreement between the two governments.
Born of Irish descent in Liverpool, where he still lives, he has university degrees in chemistry and in geography. Academic historians try to ignore him for the most part, but Greaves is not discouraged by this fact. In a way, it’s a compliment to a man who has been a member of the British Communist Party for 52 years.
Although it is not an immediate prospect, he has no doubt that in the long run a British disengagement from the North is inevitable. “Winston Churchill said, ‘We won India by the sword and we’ll hold it by the sword.’ Well, the sword broke in his hand.”
He is also the author of “Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution”, published in 1971. “Mellows in his last year moved very close to Connolly.” Peadar O’Donnell had best described him as “a radical Fenian”. Irish republicanism has always been inherently radical. Greaves points out that John Devoy was a member of Marx’s First International, even though he never described himself as a Socialist.
Executed by the Free State in 1922, Mellows “epitomizes a revolution which reached a very high level and then was pushed back half-way – and he was the victim.”
Not only Irish republicanism, but in fact “the entire Irish nation”, is at bottom radical. Greaves says this is due to the fact that we lost our aristocracy at the time of the Flight of the Earls. Although this left the country leaderless for a time, ultimately it meant that only the middle class stood in the way of a radical change.
Greaves has also published a volume on the early history of our largest union, entitled “The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years”. His own formative years, politically speaking, were the 1930s when he was involved in campaigns against fascism and in support of the Spanish Republic. “I remember being in Stepney when Mosley (the Blackshirt leader) tried to march: we went to Hyde Park where we were locked-in and had to pull up the railings to get out.”
The international capitalist system has changed its character since then, he believes. “In those days governments decided and boardrooms followed; now boardrooms decide and governments follow.”
As a Marxist, he takes the long view of history. “In the early years of the 21st century I believe revolution will sweep the Third World – if we’re not blown-up in the meantime.” One of his current causes is opposition to the dumping of nuclear waste in the Irish Sea. “They’re using the seas as a cesspool for radioactivity.”
But back to O’Casey. The real reason why he split with the Irish Citizen Army may have been a piano. The widow of the Labour leader Tom Johnson told Greaves how Countess Markiewicz used to borrow the Army’s room in Liberty Hall. She left a piano in the room and O’Casey felt slighted that he was apparently expected to remove it for her. After that, he began to object on political grounds to the involvement of the Countess in the Citizen Army and, before long, he left. But as another radical, A.J.P.Taylor, points out, accidents often play a crucial role in history,