Helga MacLiam, Dublin

Some reminiscences of Helga MacLiam at the symposium on Desmond Greaves held at the 2005 Greaves Weekend Summer School in Dublin.  Mrs MacLiam was born Helga Bohmer in Eslohe, Sauerland, Germany, in 1926.  She died in 2016.

I first met Desmond Greaves in England in the early 1950s through my husband Cathal MacLiam.  Cathal was sharing one of the rooms in the flat where Desmond was also living.  This was a three-storey nineteenth-century dark brick building  known as 6 Cockpit Chambers, 20 Northington Street, Holborn, in Bloomsbury, London.   It was a short distance from the Connolly Association office on Grays Inn Road where he worked each day.  The name Cockpit Chambers derived from the yard across the way that had been notorious for cock fights in the olden days.  

Desmond’s flat was very much a bachelor’s quarters. It was extremely untidy and dusty,  lined with bookshelves and with masses of books and papers piled all over the place.  I remember the heap of old telephone directories which supported the seat of an easy chair. If you came there for a meal you had to make room around the table and on the table itself before you could sit down to eat. 

I myself had come to England from post-war Germany in 1949 to work as a physiotherapist in Harrowgate, Yorkshire, and I met Cathal through his sister Myra, who had later on a flat in the same house where I lived with some friends.  They then moved into the country and rented a cottage and I often visited them.   I got an invitation to spend  Christmas with them and Cathal came from London  and we met then.  We got quiite engaged with each other.  He lived down in London and I lived in Harrowgate and he would come up by train or  I would go down to London and on one of those occasions – it may have been the first time – we got an invitation from Desmond to go  for a meal in Cockpit Chambers.  Cockpit Chambers, as I said,  was a bachelor’s  quarters.  Anyway, he cooked this meal and it was curry, which I had never had before. Cathal told me that I would enjoy it. Desmond had gone down to Soho to buy some German pumpernickel in my honour.  But the curry was so hot.  I was warned that the chillies were unexpectedly hot, and indeed they were much too hot even for him. They burned so much that we had  to resort to yoghurt to cool our  mouths, and  we had sweat on our foreheads.  That was my introduction to curry, which actually I later quite enjoyed. Desmond was a first-class cook. He used say that cooking was aplied chemistry and he was himsel of course by profession a research chemist. I had many meals with him afterwards.  He told me once that he planned to write a cookery book.  But it was one of several unfinished projects. 

All the active members of the Connolly Association would go selling the “Irish Democrat” around the Irish pubs in London at weekends.   In the 1950s and 1960s and later Desmond himself would regularly sell the paper, which he edited and wrote much of each month.   They were using it to try and 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 Brookborough’s  Unionist regime in the Six Counties.  I used to 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 sell the paper as it was such a strange and new environment for me.  Then one night a Donegal man who was supposed to be selling with Cathal did not turn up and I foolishly said that I would try it.  So I was hooked then and soon came quite to enjoy it. My German accent  was quite effective in selling the paper. The men in the Irish pubs were intrigued at seeing this German woman selling this Irish paper, so that quite a number bought it from me. 

This was a time of great Irish emigration and there were thousands of Irish men in the pubs of Kilburn, Camden Town, Paddington and Hammersmith – most of them working in Britain’s building trade.  Cathal pointed out to me the Connemara men, who were mostly quite tall and often wore  peaked caps, sometimes pointing backwards and with a cluster of hair sticking out on either side.  I was quite intrigued, knowing that Cathal came from Galway himself.  I remember the story of the man who told one of the “Irish Democrat” paper sellers, “Be off with you.  I wouldn’t 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.  It was in a Registry Office and the woman Registrar was a very impressive person.  We were just youngsters in our twenties,  each of  us from a country other than Britain.  The woman Registrar spoke very solemnly and movingly of the responsibilities a marriage contract entailed and the seriousness of what we were doing.  I nearly got doubts then when I heard her!  Cathal’s sister, who had got married some months before, was most impressed. She said that this lay woman 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 used say that maybe this woman was in turn impressed by the young Irish-German couple that she saw before her.  Ha, Ha.

After the wedding we went to Schmidt’s German restaurant in Charlotte Street for our wedding breakfast, but found it closed as it only opened later.  So we went into the lounge of a pub.   I remember that we breakfasted on crisps and babycham.  Then we  went on to Schmidt’s for lunch.  Desmond, I remember, had to leave to go to  Birmingham in connection with the “Irish Democrat”. We then went to Camden Gardens where we had our flat and where such  leading Connolly Association people as Gerard Curran, Eamon MacLoughlin, Desmond Logan and Eamon Lyons 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 then still in force.   He had tried to evade them so often, but they caught him once when he was visiting Desmond’s flat and they asked Desmond for Cathal at the door and he said, Yes he is here.  And they gave him his call-up papers, so that Cathal had to disappear very quickly.  On the day that he was supposed to be called up, he was on his way on my Vespa back to Ireland.  

When he went to Ireland he was lucky to get a job very quickly, which was a surprise to many because so many people were leaving at the time to come to work in Britain.  He had a job in Telecom in Finglas and I in the National Children’s Orthopaedic Hospital in Clontarf – until my two eldest were born; they were twins, a boy and a girl.

In the late 1950s and for many years after Desmond Greaves used to come regularly to Dublin every few months or so, especially when he was doing his researches and interviewing for his biographies of James Connolly, Liam Mellows and Sean O’Casey.  And for much of that time he used to stay with us,  initially in our house in  Beneavin Road, Finglas,  and from 1968 at our house in 24 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, where we had the Summer School social last night.  He would land from the Holyhead boat at Dunlaoghaire,  where Cathal would sometimes meet him.  They would  buy a bottle or a few bottles of wine and spend the evening talking at our place, often into the early or even middle hours of the morning.   

Desmond lived most of the time on his own in London, and later in his family house in Birkenhead,  Mersyside, which he inherited following his sister’s death in 1966.  As he was an intensly sociable person I think that he used to let his hair down when he came to Ireland.   Having people in Dublin to talk to for hours and hours into the night, it was a if he was making up for lost time.  He was a brilliant conversationalist, very lively, vivacious and with a vast range of knowledge.  He could talk with authority on such a wide range of subjects that being with him on these 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 he would keep Cathal and whoever else was there up half the night talking  about politics and gossiping.  Cathal has a  job to go to next day and had to get up early to go to it.  I noticed though that Desmond would take catnaps during the day. I often saw him with his head on his arms sleeping for fifteen minutes, and this enabled him to compensate for the late nights that he typically had in Dublin.

Our five children came along in due course: first of all Finuala and Egon, the twins, and then Conor, Bebhinn and Killian;  and Desmond always took a great interest in them.   He never married himself and I sometimes think that we provided a kind of alternative family for him, for with us he could share in a family life that he did not have  himself.  He was very good with the children and he had a natural understanding of  them and their ways. He never arrived at our place without bringing with him several bars of chocolate.  We used to call him “Uncle Desmond”; but with  the children he soon became known as “Onkel Kokolade”.

He was a botanist and a dedicated gardener of course.  Botany was in the degree that he 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.  There would be an endless flow of fascinating lore on every kind of plant along the road.  He was always thoughtful about what the garden needed.  He brought us quite a few plants. One in particular was a little laburnam tree, which was tiny at the time but is now several decades later a big tree in our back garden in  Belgrave Road.  In Germany we call them “goldregen”, golden rain, becuse of the yellow flowers that are so lovely hanging down.

One incident in particular stands out in my memory from our years in Finglas. One day a big polished glittering limousine stopped outside our small front garden.   A man in military uniform stepped out and knocked. Was Mr Greaves at home?  It happened that he was in town, but he would be back later.  This was President De Valera’s aide-de-camp, and the car was the Presidental 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 the letter that he would be staying at our place in Finglas.  De Valera had expressed an interest in giving his views on Mellows to the man who had written the Connolly book.  So when Desmond came 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 afterwards, that he had learned many new things about Connolly from reading the Connolly biography and undertstood his life and perod better.  He showed him 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 was highly significant.  I remember Desmond saying afterwards that he had got the impression that for De Valera 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 made.

He used also sometimes reminisce about De Valera discussing Mary McSweeney and the hard-line members of Sinn Fein from which DeValera had broken away when he founded Fianna Fail in 1926.  De Valera had remarked to him about Mary MacSweeney:  “She would have held her hand in that flame”,  pointing to the fire.  “I was not made of that metal.”   “And the more fool they,” Desmond used to 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 door and our house guest going to meet the President. It greatly raised our reputation in the neighbourhood.   

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 Gouldings’ first cousin. Cathal’s mother was a sister of Cathal Gouldings’ father, but the two first cousins had never met before as adults.  The meeting may have been suggesetd by Roy Johnston.  I think Roy had joined the Republican Movement at that time, though I am not sure.  But a group of them came one evening like a veritable delegation, it seems. Thus Cathal met his 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.  He was great company and was always considerate and polite in personal relations.  He was one of the really significant people that  I have met during the course of my life and I am glad to be able to contribute this modest series of reminiscences about him to this symposium.