Peter Berresford Ellis, London



Dr Peter Berresford Ellis,born 1943, is an historian, literary biographer and novelist who has written many books. He is a leading authority on the Celtic peoples of Europe. He contributed the “Anonn is Anall” column to the monthly “Irish Democrat” from the later 1980s onward. In his recollections of Desmond Greaves below, he refers to the fortunes of the monthly “Irish Democrat” in the period following Desmond Greaves’s death in 1988 until it ceased publication in printed form in 2007.

The first time “Anonn Is Anall” was used as the title of my regular column was in the October 1987 issue of the “Irish Democrat”.

Desmond Greaves had big plans for the publication at the time. I stayed with him at his house in Liverpool one weekend in February 1988, six months before his death.  The main reason was for me to give a talk to the Liverpool Branch of the Connolly Association. This was on the background to the IRB invasion of the provinces of British North America in 1866, following the publication of my novel about that, entitled “The Rising of the Moon”. However, Desmond wanted to talk to me about two other important topics. 

Firstly, back in August 1984 we had both been individual sponsors of a big “Demonstration for (British) Withdrawal” from Northern Ireland.  This demonstration took place in London. I had written a feature article for “The Guardian” newspaper advocating a phased withdrawal by Britain from the North, which resulted in my being involved in a Greater London Radio debate. It was a person-to-person debate on withdrawal with the “Daily Telegraph” leader-writer and former Unionist Parliamentary candidate T.E. Utley. The programme lasted two hours. I opened the debate proposing “troops out” and then Utley responded. Utley started off by being patronising and ended by shouting at me. Then came a listeners’ phone-in with questions, followed by a listeners’ vote. The vote came in two-thirds in favour of my arguments.

Desmond wanted to restart the momentum of mass protest that seemed to have been lost in the early 1980s. He wanted a Withdrawal Movement in Britain that would not merely be confined to the Left and therefore claimed as yet another “loony Left” protest. The Troops Out movement was fine, but they were the “usual suspects”, he said. He wanted a movement that would appeal to all sections of society, to all people across the political spectrum. 

The idea was to try to get a Charter of Demands which would be subscribed to by leading personalities in various fields, in the arts, sciences, politics and business, regardless of political affiliation, but who wanted Ireland’s “English problem” resolved.  Such charters had been used in many other political fields. I remember back in 1971 subscribing to one calling for the recognition of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) and an end to (West) Pakistan’s aggression there at the time.  I had, in the past, supported such published petitions on Anti-Apartheid in South Africa and for the recognition of Biafra in Nigeria.

There was a desperation about Ireland settling in at the time. It had become merely a war of attrition in the North that had gone on for twenty-five years, with no real political movement. I summed it up in the “Guardian” article by using the concept of W.B. Yeats – that it was now a question of “stone hearts versus stone minds”. 

At the time Desmond and I were “editorial advisors” on the magazine “Labour and Ireland” edited by Martin Collins, who was active in the Labour Party.  Martin became enthusiastic for the idea and soon, with his plentiful energy, the “Time to Go” campaign was started. Sadly, Desmond died that August, before this was formally launched – the launch being in November 1988, when Claire Short MP gave the opening salvo in the campaign. Unfortunately, it was not exactly as Desmond and I had envisaged it as it seemed to fall back on a purely Left agenda instead of trying to appeal on a broader front.

The second thing that Desmond wanted to talk about that weekend in February 1988 was his ideas about expanding the “Irish Democrat”. For him the “Irish Democrat” was crucial to the Connolly Association. He had, with “scissors and paste” as he put it, produced the “Irish Democrat” regularly every month for nearly four decades. One could guarantee the very day of the month when the paper would appear. He talked on that day of doubling the number of pages, expanding the book reviews and features. He realised that my time was fully committed, but that I was happy to have my brains picked or that I could be used to bounce his ideas off. 

Another topic that we talked about was the growth of “revisionism” in Irish historical writing at the time.  He was particularly concerned at the denigration of the Irish language and culture by various anti-national “revisionists” as well as the hysterical anti-republican outpourings then prevalent in much of the British media. He was planning, he told me, a conference of Irish scholars, historians and those working in cultural spheres of Irish life, to try to “counter-balance” this revisionism.

In view of this, after Desmond’s sudden death in August 1988, I was honoured to give the 1989 C.Desmond Greaves Memorial Lecture under the auspices of the Connolly Association, titled,  “Revisionism in Irish Historical Writing: The New Anti-Nationalist School of Historians”, which expanded on his ideas. The text of this was published as a Connolly Association Broadsheet in May 1990 and was later republished in the Sinn Féin magazine “Iris”.

The debate was finally launched and “big guns” such as Professor Brendan Bradshaw of Cambridge made devastating attacks on the orchestrated ranks of the apologists for empire. I knew Brendan, who had been a keen supporter of my own historical work and was a proposer of my Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society. As he joked, “We must get as many Fenians into the ‘Royal’ Society as we can!”

In the summer of 1988 I was due to spend a couple of months on the Isle of Man researching the history of the Manx Gaelic language and Desmond Greaves said to me on the phone that we should get together as soon as I returned and put some of our ideas on paper. 

The annual meeting of the Celtic League took place on the island that summer and I found myself elected as its international chair.  The Celtic League, which had been founded in 1961, had six national branches, one in each of the Celtic countries, and several other branches covering the Celtic Diaspora. It may not be widely known that Desmond Greaves not only supported the principles of the League, but was also a member of it.

Pan-Celticism was an idea that was centuries old, but was given some tangible philosophical outlook in the 19th Century by Charles de Gaulle – not the famous army general and later President of France, but his Breton-speaking uncle after whom he was named. Charles, the uncle, was a Breton language poet. In basic form the Celtic League concept was recognition of the common Celtic origin of the Irish, Scots, Manx, Welsh, Bretons and Cornish. In this respect Celtic was used as a purely linguistic and cultural definition. There had been  earlier Pan-Celtic movements that had been supported by people ranging from Pádraig Pearse, to Eamon de Valera and Seán MacBride. 

The Celtic League had been formed to foster co-operation between the national movements in the Celtic countries, particularly the efforts to obtain international recognition of their rights as nations and to share the experience of national struggles and exchange constructive ideas. Desmond Greaves fully supported this, as his membership of the League until his death showed. He knew that I had been a member from the mid-1960s and had been active with the progressive elements of the League. My book “The Celtic Dawn: A history of Pan-Celticism” was published by Constable in 1993, and has subsequently been republished in paperback in 1994 and then revised and expanded by “Y Lolfa Cyf” in 2002.

Many people, especially some in the English Left, attacked the Celtic League as “rightist” and “reactionary” and all the other derogatory names that were in use at the time. Desmond once dismissed them to me as “pseudo-Leftists” who, when scratched, were simply of the same English cultural imperialism as any of their ancestors. He often quoted the English socialist historian Frank A. Ridley, whom I was privileged to know, on the subject. Ridley believed that England’s “thalassocratic” empire began with its conquest of its Celtic neighbours and had to end with their independence from England.

I would like to think that he would be delighted to see today how far the Celtic nationalities have progressed on their road to asserting their distinct identities. Even the Cornish language has been reluctantly recognised by the UK State through its adherence to the Minority Languages Charter. Alas, only Brittany remains without any real recognition of its language and identity by France.

I accepted my position as Celtic League international chair in 1988, knowing that I would have Desmond Greaves’s support in trying to progress the movement.  Alas, that August came the news of Desmond’s heart attack and death.  The funeral service was in Liverpool and I was one of those who contributed a few words to the many that poured forth saluting his work (see the “Irish Post”, September 10, 1988, and “Irish Democrat”, October 1988).   Perhaps one of the saddest tasks I had was writing Desmond’s obituary for “Labour and Ireland”, No 22, (October/November,1988).

Desmond Greaves was an amazing man. Even in those last few months before his death he was so full of energy and ideas. I felt it was tragic that he was struck down in the middle of the plans that he had.  Some of them were followed through.  The “Time to Go!” Campaign was launched, although not exactly as he had wanted it. The confrontation with “revisionism” in Irish historical writing took off. And the debate on anti-Irish propaganda in popular literature was encouraged.  The study, “Gangsters or Guerillas: Representations of Irish Republicans in `Troubles’ Fiction’” by Patrick Magee (2001) has become essential reading on this subject. 

The “Irish Democrat”, so near to Desmond’s heart, did not fulfil all the ambitions that he had for it. At first, the transition of editorship following his death seemed to present no problem. Production of the paper went smoothly as a monthly until April 1994. There was only one hitch, when the February 1991 issue had to be entirely reset and reprinted due to problems created by a change of printer. 

There was debate among some younger members within the Connolly Association who argued that the “Irish Democrat” should be transformed into a theoretical Marxist discussion journal. That was the last thing Desmond Greaves would have wanted. He saw the monthly paper as primarily a broad-based news-sheet that could be used as an educational facility. With the June-July 1994 issue the “Irish Democrat” survived this debate, but only as a bi-monthly (twice monthly) journal. Soon after David Granville took over the editorship and was producing the paper not only regularly, albeit six times a year, but enhancing its layout and even, as Desmond Greaves wanted, expanding the number of pages and the book reviews. The quality of the reviews was such that soon many publishers were vying to get their books mentioned in the journal.

In 2003 David’s retirement as editor led to another series of production problems.  Following the December 2002-January 2003 issue the “Irish Democrat” became “a quarterly” for a few issues; there was an issue for February-April 2003, and then one for May-July 2003. Then there was an August-September 2003 issue and one for October-November 2003. Issues became irregular and people complained of the paper’s unreliable appearance. Issues appeared in March 2004 and May 2004. Then there was a gap until October-November 2005 and then nothing until an issue came out in March-April 2005.

Most people, including myself, thought that Desmond Greaves’s hopes for the paper were not going to be fulfilled.  Over forty years Desmond Greaves had produced, almost single-handily, a monthly newspaper on a set week at the end of each month. He had none of the facilities of modern production techniques. In his day printing meant setting by hot-lead type from typed or hand-written text. Layout was with scissors and paste.  Yet the problems occurred when his editorial successors had the facility of computers to work with. It threw Desmond’s talents and personal drive into sharp relief by comparison.

Several other contributors and I made a protest, and in mid-2005 under a new editor the “Irish Democrat” started to return to the kind of journal that it had been during David Granville’s editorship. But even that, as good as it was, was still a long way from Desmond Greaves’s hopes for an expanded and politically influential monthly. Unfortunately, this was not to be, as the “Irish Democrat” ceased publication in printed form in May-June 2007. While there have been occasional electronic issues since, it is a good thing to know that the entire series of the Connolly Association papers, from the first issue of “Irish Freedom” in 1939 until the last issue of the printed “Irish Democrat” in 2007, is now available on line.  This is an invaluable record of the political activity of the Irish community in Britain over that time and a special witness to the work of its extraordinary editor, C.Desmond Greaves

I was privileged and proud to have known Desmond Greaves and to have, even to a small extent, worked with him for a common cause. He was one of the great exemplars and influences on my life.  As I wrote in my obituary for him, “Anything remotely savouring of the cult of personality was anathema to Desmond Greaves.  ‘Everyone is replaceable,’ he used to say. Perhaps his shade will forgive me if I paraphrase Orwell and say,  ‘Yes, but some are more replaceable than others!’ He educated generations and his influence will be felt for generations to come.”

It was Desmond Greaves’s vision that kept this tired old scribe going, even through those later years of turmoil with the “Irish Democrat” production following his death and, of course, it has been a privilege to be allowed to express my views in such a radical and progressive journal, which is already a part of the history of the Left and the democratic movement in these islands.  In spite of my complaints from time to time, it has been great fun as well as very satisfying to have been able to contribute to the serious objectives that James Connolly enunciated and which the Connolly Association and the “Irish Democrat” epitomised.