Peter Mulligan, Northampton

Peter Mulligan joined the Connolly Association in 1960 and was its elected President for a period.  He was the central figure in the Northampton Branch of the Association from the 1970s until he moved, together with his wife Golnar, to live in France in 2021, where their son has been working for some years. He was for decades a key figure in the cultural work of the Association, particularly around the Irish bookshop the CA maintained and which he had initiated, as the chronological outline that he contributed below indicates.  He compiled these notes for this archive in 2021 at the request of its editor. 

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A life lived here 

From over there, 

In the search for Liberty,

Equality and Fraternity

I came to Britain from Ireland in 1957.  I was following a well-established road trod by thousands who had emigrated before me – invited and uninvited.  We were young then and our devil-may-care youthful attitude carried us through many initial traumas: adapting to the new environment of Britain, where to find work, where to find accommodation, finding out what the going rate was for work and lodgings.  The food was different from back in Ireland, the traffic was more intense, the escalators on the tube were a new experience, not to mention the challenge of comprehending the route map for the London Underground.

London was a busy and noisy metropolis to be explored and experienced. We were a net loss to the country we had left and a net gain to the country we now entered.

A friend brought me to a few meetings of the Connolly Association and I eventually joined it in 1960. I remember that Charlie Cunningham gave me a gift of a fountain pen when I got my membership card. 

I craved company that did not involve drinking and smoking and had some kind of belief system and vision. It was a need brought on by the big city itself, which made one feel like a cog in a vast machine. I craved human understanding at the time. My drift into “the Connolly” was part of that. I attended a few meetings and had some banter with Sean Redmond and Desmond Greaves; then I joined.

The CA office at that time was a single room over Mole Jazz at 374 Gray’s Inn Road, on the triangle of buildings across the road from King’s Cross Railway Station: two desks facing each other with a Gestetner duplicator in the middle, folding chairs and some book shelves. The telephone number was TERminus 4826. Upstairs was the Movement for Colonial Freedom, led at the time by Ian Page, a formidable organiser. On the top floor was a room with the sign, “London Committee for Inter-racial Unity”, led by Edith Christer. The building was a buzz of political activity, with sundry activists churning out leaflets, pamphlets and organising demonstrations for different political causes

THE 1960s

The Connolly Association Central London Branch meetings were held on Wednesdays at that time. The small meeting room looked full if a dozen people showed up. Activities were agreed for the following week and conferences or lobbying planned for the future. A rota was set up for weekend “Irish Democrat” sales, and political events of one kind or another at which we should be present were identified. 

Either Desmond Greaves or Sean Redmond usually chaired the weekly branch meeting and we ran to an agreed agenda. “Any other business” at the end of the meetings brought up a myriad of issues.

Every Sunday afternoon we collected the platform steps, the Irish flag and a bag of literature and headed for Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. We told the Sunday meetings there that the Partition of Ireland could not hold without the financial and military support of the colonial power, Britain, and that the continuing anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic discrimination in the Six Counties and the division of the two communities there were detrimental to the freedom of people in Britain too, and that a reaction was  inevitable. We warned, we warned and we warned. 

Were we a lost cause proclaiming this message in Hyde Park in the early 1960s? Subsequent history has surely vindicated what we said.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings we would sell the “Irish Democrat” in the pubs of the Irish districts around London. Most active members gave at least one evening to this effort and we went out in pairs. The Central London Branch covered Camden Town and Holloway Road, with some area scattered in between. Then there was the whole of the Kilburn Road onward to Willesden and Harlesden. There had been a North London Branch, but it had disintegrated by my time.  There was also a Paddington sales run. The West London branch met in Ladbroke Grove Labour Party Rooms and had the whole of Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush and part of Ealing to cover. South London Branch had the whole area from Waterloo Station to Clapham Common and beyond. Under the direction of Paddy Bond and with the support of Marcus Lipton, the local Labour MP for Brixton, South London was a very active branch. It even brought some children over from the Six Counties for a holiday on one occasion and arranged entertainment and tours for them.

I occasionally sold the “Irish Democrat” in other areas, but my main run in those early years was Camden Town and sometimes Kilburn, which I often covered with Christy Sullivan.  I also sold the “Irish Democrat” with Desmond Greaves on a regular basis. Usually after the sales we would go for a drink at King’s Cross or in one of the hotels in Russell Square. He was good company and I learned a lot on our outings and when relaxing at the end of a sales run.

Desmond Greaves was in many ways our mentor.  We watched him set out things and we learned. He, for his part, had to work with the manpower that volunteered for the sales effort, with all the different personalities that entailed. He could not do everything himself and he had to mentor and educate us youngsters, who were sometimes under or over enthusiastic, and see that we did not inadvertently damage the good name of the Connolly Association. Understandably, he had to keep a watchful eye on the proposals of activists who sometimes came out with weird and wonderful ideas that were not practicable. I was one of those in the early period; but I was learning.

The editor of the “Irish Democrat” had to educate us to get the best from us. That sometimes started with his urging us to write a simple letter on the Irish question to one’s MP. Then perhaps he would ask one to do a book review, and that could be a challenge if you had not done it before. Luckily I could type and I did learn. My first effort was a review of a book on the Algerian war of independence against the French, which was going on at the time. Then Desmond gave me a particular task: to write a review of reviews of J. Archer Jackson’s book, “The Irish in Britain”, which had been publlshed in 1962. I had to get a list of published reviews from the book’s publisher and then write to each newspaper with a stamped addressed envelope, seeking copies of their reviews, and then write up a review of each review. I set to with great enthusiasm, perhaps too much, for I wrote six pages on my Underwood typewriter which I then showed to Desmond. He looked at it askance, crossed out three quarters of it and said leave it with me. In hindsight what I had written was wild and rambling, but when edited down by 80 per cent it was published in the paper under my name, and for me that was the encouragement I craved.

Selling the “Irish Democrat” around Camden Town with Desmond Greaves was not a great intellectual debate; we spoke of trivial things: office procedure, who was reliable for doing this or that, who was coming into the office, and the need for a new office as the Association was growing at the time.  But I could see that he was assessing me as he was observing the Irish who bought the paper in the public houses and analysing the predicament of the Irish building workers who were building castles for their erstwhile colonial conqueror.

There was nothing dour about Desmond. He was vivacious and enjoyed life and gossip and sometimes he invited activists to an evening meal at his Cockpit Chambers flat in Northington Street, Bloomsbury. He liked to cook with his cast-iron skillet. Later I dined with him at his family home in Birkenhead on Merseyside following a Liverpool CA conference, when he introduced me to German wines and played his piano with gusto for me.

Our activities must have generated some concern among those who would deign to police our thoughts, if not our actions. On one occasion Detective Constable J. Black phoned my employers in London and asked if I was still working for them. He was put through to me and he said that he knew that I spoke in Hyde Park on the Irish issue and he wanted information. He came to my workplace to question me, but I refused to speak to him there and told him that I would make a complaint. This resulted in a file of protracted correspondence. Eventually an apology was received from the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, with a copy sent to my employer. This was the first of many such battles that I experienced. The British State was clearly not on our side.

We moved in time to a new Connolly Association office at No.283, further down Gray’s Inn Road. This was upstairs over a shop, where we had a front-room office on the first floor and a side room and back meeting room with storage facilities. The meeting room had pictures of Connolly and Pearse in it and a desk for whoever chaired our weekly meetings, and there were ample chairs. We had a decent meeting room at last.  Some CA members painted the place.

Around that time Joe Deighan, the leading light in the Manchester Connolly Association, moved to London. A former President of the Gaelic League in Belfast, he became chair of the Central London Branch and I was elected its secretary. I had always been interested in graphic presentation, as I felt that our rough stencilled leaflets were no match for what was produced by the professional capitalist press. I tried to make presentation more attractive by buying special pens from Gestetner in order to improve the appearance of our press releases. We launched a monthly Branch Programme of political talks. We had speakers from the Trade Union movement, the Labour Party, the Civil Liberties people and of course our affiliates, as well as the Workers’ Music Association and others. Our range of invited speakers was diverse, as were the subjects they spoke on.

I was now the Connolly Association representative on the London Committee of the Movement of Colonial Freedom. We met regularly in the House of Commons under the auspices of the MCF chair, Fenner Brockway MP – later Lord Brockway. Tony Gilbert and Kay Beauchamp were the other leading lights in the MCF at the time.

THE 1970s

In 1971, partly on my suggestion, we decided to add an Irish bookshop to the office in 283 Gray’s Inn Road. The small room next the office was set aside for this purpose.  Bobby Heatley from Belfast put up the bookshelves and as I worked in a Bookshop I set up accounts with relevant publishers and replicated the book filing system used by the shop in which I worked, even down to a half-filing-card for each book, with all relevant stock details.  Thus the  “Irish Democrat” Book Centre was born. It was publicised as being open each Saturday from 1 to 4 pm. However, Desmond was not too happy if customers called in during the week, as he had to deal with them and they could sometimes take up quite a lot of time, and he complained about that. He used say that he had a newspaper to run, not a bookshop.

To raise our profile in the Borough of Camden I joined the Camden Committee for Community Relations and was later roped in to be joint editor of a small journal, “Camden Community”, which ran for a few issues. I did an article about landladies, and another on local newspapers that published the nationality of individuals in court cases if they were not British. I called this a form of hate-mongering and some North London local papers were notorious for it.

The number of conferences organised by the CA greatly increased in the years after the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement got going in 1968-69. So did the number of our protest marches, with us carrying placards drawing attention to the Police State in Northern Ireland. We would be escorted by the police, and many tourists would take photographs, but the British media generally looked away. However, publicity does help and as time went on we got more and more calls from various groups seeking speakers on the growing conflict in Northern Ireland, where the reactionary state of affairs there had been hushed up for so long.

An annual Connolly Association rally and demonstration march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square helped to keep the Irish issue in the public domain. Led by bagpiper Larry O’Dowd, we annually took Oxford Street and Regent Street by surprise. Friendly MPs and trade unionists spoke on our platforms.  Ben Parkin MP, Clive Soley MP, Marcus Lipton MP and Fenner Brockway MP were regular supporters. We also had an annual St Patrick’s Night dance in the Porchester Hall, Paddington, with two bands, and on one occasion half a dozen Labour MPs turned up at this.

We definitely generated interest and questions about the Northern situation  started to be asked in the House of Commons. In the 1970s we could call on approximately eighty MP supporters there. However, maintaining such support required hard work; people were looking for answers and background information as the British media was so one-sided on the Irish issue that  many turned to the Connolly Association for that 

I got roped in to speak to all sorts of groups that requested a speaker on the Irish question. Not being experienced at this, I stumbled and mumbled through a number of such invites, ranging from the Caledonian Road Communist Party to a meeting in large private house with a grand piano near Milton Keynes, which I still vividly remember. I was learning the hard way. Lobbies of Parliament were organised at least once a year.  We would go in through the Saint Stephen’s Gate to the main lobby where we had arranged to meet friendly MPs. Sometimes Tories called by their constituents would come out and look at us with alarm, nod or gesticulate and say that they would look into the Northern situation. It was mostly Labour MPs whom we saw of course. However, Joe Grimond of the Liberal party was always friendly.

Our weekly routine was a Branch meeting each Wednesday with a guest speaker.  On one occasion we had Cheddi Jagan telling us about colonialism in what was then British Guiana; he later became Prime Minister of that country. We had Alan Bush, the famous composer, telling us about music and folk song. We had education talks on a wide variety of subjects, not all related to Ireland. 

In those years I worked in a bookshop in Gower Street and many a lunchtime I would travel down to Grays Inn Road to post out parcels of books and attend to the incoming post, so that Desmond Greaves would not be too disturbed at his desk. On and off I spent many days and evenings building up the stock and profile of the Book Centre, which became quite a success. The “Irish Post” gave us good coverage. Catalogues were produced and sent to libraries and universities.  We sent Irish books to universities in the USA, Japan and the Netherlands, and UK universities were developing an interest in Irish literature, which led to orders. 

Of course we had to rely completely on volunteers, many of whom had no commercial experience, so there were bound to be problems. However, Irish publishers helped by printing leaflets with lists of their titles along with the “Irish Democrat Book Centre” address, and these were gladly circulated. Also the “Irish Democrat” had by now built up a good list of its own publications – mainly pamphlets. The Connolly Association was affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Movement for Colonial Freedom and we had representation on the executives of both these bodies. We had contact with the university students also and on one occasion Jack Straw, who was leader of the London University Students Union at the time and later became a Labour Minister, came into our office. At another time the novelist Iris Murdoch phoned our shop with an enquiry. We also ran poster campaigns and went out fly-posting at night with buckets of paste and a long-handled brush. On one such adventure we were arrested and had to appear in court, where we pleaded guilty by merely saying that we were following common practice. There was a two-pound fine, which was a fair sum in those days.

In January 1972 the British Army shot dead fourteen civil rights demonstrators in Derry. The Lord Widgery report blamed the victims and exonerated the army. Later the Lord Saville report exonerated the victims and blamed the army. But to date no particular person has been found guilty of a single one of those murders. The State protects the servants of the State.

Then I got married and I had to plan my activities and future with some degree of security and certainty. Accommodation was a problem in London, which was obviously too expensive, and eventually my wife and I moved to Northampton, where I got a job in a bank.

In November 1973 we were barely two months settled in a temporary development in a Northampton Corporation flat when there was a knock on our front door. Detective Sergeant O’Connor was out to make trouble. The search for IRA “terrorists” was on at the time and he knew that they were Irish, as he was himself. He threatened intervention in any meeting that we held and wanted us to be quiet on the Irish issue. He was nervous and awkward and had come to visit us on his own account.  A file was opened. The local Chief Constable was forced to defend one of his officers who had gone out on his own to find possible “terrorists”. He declined to apologise or give a reason for his visit or to confirm that he had been instructed to make such. I complained to the Home Office, which then asked for the police file, and correspondence continued. Eventually the Chief Constable complied and stated that Detective Sergeant O’Connor had visited our home to advise on the inadvisability of sending political literature to local trade unionists. And that was the best result we could get.

We were living in strange times and irrational feelings about Ireland and Irish people abounded in Britain’s cities. Fear of terrorism was in the air and the police pretended to know who the terrorists were. Was it me, was it you?

Just as the rightwing elements within Britain supported continuing White rule in Rhodesia, so too they continued to support their kind in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. This became more obvious when Enoch Powell MP was welcomed in the Ulster Unionist Party after he was expelled the Tory Party in 1974. Powell was duly elected a Unionist MP for South Down and returned to Parliament for a further twelve years. The British media downplayed his role in the North. It was as if there was an unwritten policy not to expose the Ulster Unionists who, after all, they often said, were on the British side. Powell was on the right side against the IRA.

In 1974 Home Secretary Roy Jenkins got the Prevention of Terrorism Act  (PTA) passed, following the Birmingham bombing of that year. In the years that followed thousands of Irish people were detained under the PTA. Random trawling of the Irish community became the order of the day. Some were charged under the PTA. Others were charged under other Acts following detention.  Exclusion Orders were signed without any charges being made against those excluded. The police were on a roll; easy promotions could be made out of the Irish issue. The Shackleton Review in 1978 concluded that the PTA legislation should remain in force until the IRA threat had been removed and that it should not become permanent. Some 50 Labour MPs voted against renewal of the PTA, an issue on which the Connolly Association lobbied vigorously.  

The PTA was a major shift to the right from a State that felt that it was under attack. It generated action by the forces that protect the State and reaction from those who were its victims. The media went into overdrive in their effort to find “terrorists”.   Anybody would do as long as they were Irish, if they could be fitted up, and indeed a number were.

The constant trawling of the Irish community by the security services produced some horror stories. The incipient fascism that we warned about was taking root in the security services. The Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the Guildford Four were security and judicial scandals that gradually were exposed. The British security forces were getting very emotional and wanted revenge. They got convictions in these cases despite the innocence of the accused. The mainstream media echoed the official press releases at the time.

The Northampton Branch of the Connolly Association was launched with a showing of the film “Mise Eire” in the Guildhall and we got a few members. A few years before that Kerryman Mick Clifford, a local builder, had organised events for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and he had asked to use the local church hall, which he and other Irish contractors had actually built. His request was turned down. So he moved his events to the Guildhall with great success. In many ways we were following in his footsteps.

In 1978 we invited Betty Sinclair, secretary of the Belfast Trades Council, to come to Northampton and speak to a meeting of local trade unionists and members of the Labour Party and Communist Party in the Northampton Co-op Hall, Exeter Road.  She warned of the sectarian game Britain was playing in Ireland.

We made contact with the local art centres and arranged talks and film shows under their control. Phillip Donnellan came and showed his banned BBC film, “The Irishmen”. Irish authors like Donall MacAmhlaigh spoke to our branch and James Plunkett, author of “Strumpet City”,  came from Ireland to speak to us.  He remembered my Dad as they had both worked for the Gas Company in D’Olier Street, Dublin, at the same time some years before.  

At every opportunity we took marquee space at local community festivals and displayed the “Irish Democrat” along with our other literature.  The way that we were seen and covered by the local Northampton media always bugged me. It was as if many people could only see us through their inherited anti-Irish prejudices, which were mainly projected onto them via the media. Now there was a need to react against this prejudice on the local radio, in the local paper, on the students’ rag mag, “Mensa”, and indeed the British Council itself, which supplied material with anti-Irish jokes to foreign students who came to learn English. 

For example the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges published the following for the use of foreign students at the time: “Every country has one other country which it thinks is particularly stupid. For the English it’s the Irish…” This pronouncement was accompanied by a satirical cartoon and ten sample Irish “jokes”. We objected. Reactions varied.  Some accepted our protest, apologised and backed away; others threatened legal action and when told where to send the writ to, gradually backed away too. An apology was received just prior to adjudication of the matter by the Press Council. It was an anxious time, entailing some stress, but stamina and conviction prevailed. 

The “Irish Post” published a lot on this campaign and its editor, Brendan MacLua, gave his whole “Frank Dolan” column over to one episode – our correspondence with local Northampton Town Clerk A.C. Parkhouse, who was trying to defend the Mayor’s ill-advised support for a racialist mag. The “Irish Times” also gave this campaign of ours some publicity. We were not shy at sending out press statements to all and sundry.

In an effort to break down anti-Irish prejudice we approached the local Teachers’ Training Centre. The multi-ethnic teachers there told us about packages of material they had been given for Africans, West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis and others; but nothing about the Irish. One of them was proud to find one book in his library about Ireland! We gave them an Irish history book and some poetry books, but I could see they were uneasy. We also gave them a copy of “Irish writing for Secondary Schools”, which had been produced by the multi-ethnic GLC Inspectorate.

THE 1980s:  

In June 1980 the Connolly Association Executive Council held its Annual Conference in Northampton and booked the Grand Hotel for it. It was also agreed that we would hold an outdoor meeting in the Market Square. The event was advertised in the local paper and it was as if we had arrived from Mars. The local paper stirred things up and asked the local right-wing Tory MP for comment. He duly condemned the event with appropriate alarmist words. Then Northampton Council officials began to quote by-laws constraining public meetings in the Market Square. Eventually it was sorted out and things went quite smoothly; ignorance and prejudice had been defeated.

In 1981 Lord Denning refused the Birmingham Six the right to claim that they had been assaulted, with his famous remark:  “If these six men win it will mean the police were guilty…It cannot be right that this action should go any further.”  So back to jail they went although they were wholly innocent. Was he protecting the State by denying justice? Find the full quote and judge for yourself.

In that year we in Northampton went into film-shows in a big way.  We showed “The Dawn”, the first Irish feature film containing sound, which the Connolly Association owned a copy of.  Made in Kerry in 1936, it reenacted an ambush of Black and Tans by the IRA. People came a long way to see this gem of film history. The room was packed, but the University Centre was uncomfortable about the showing and forbade further use of its premises. I sought an apology and after correcting their misinterpretation, this was duly received with excuses. We then showed Phillip Donnellan’s “The Pilgrimage of Ti-Jean” and “Our Daily Bread”, a film about Robert Noonan, alias Robert Tressell,  author of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist”, based on the story of the same name, a British Council Film.

In May-June 1981 we held an Irish Season featuring films, songs, poetry and the novel in the local Northampton College Arts Centre. Patrick Galvin read his poetry and Kenneth Griffiths came with his film, “Curious Journey”.

In 1982 we held an event on Working Class writers at the Northampton Art Centre, with guest speakers Jim Allan, Donall MacAmhlaigh, Nigel Gray, Edward Bond, John McVicar and G.G.Newman. That year we also showed Carlo Gebler’s film, “Over Here”, in the University centre, Northampton.  Our Connolly Association branch was countering anti-Irish prejudice in this new way.  We thought that it was politics at its best

In 1983 we rescued the Thames TV series, “The Troubles”, which gave the history of the creation and development of Northern Ireland. The director agreed that we could have copies of this seven-hour series. We secured a tutor from the University of Leicester and organised a course around it titled ”The Troubles: a political analysis of Ireland’s history in twelve sessions”. Philosopher Dr. John Hoffman travelled each week from Leicester University to chair these sessions.

In February 1983 our local Tory MP foolishly called for the withdrawal of voting rights from the entire Irish community in Britain. Again the local newspaper stirred up a controversy, but we got a chance to reply and had the last word.

In 1984 a number of Connolly Association members from other places came to stay with us in Northampton, including Desmond Greaves, Toni Curran and her two sons, Paddy and Stella Bond, Charlie Cunningham, Bobby Heatley, Chris Sullivan and Pegeen O’Flaherty. Jane Tate also came on a regular basis. Desmond Greaves stayed with us a number of times, usually on his way back from meetings in Birmingham or at the Secular Hall, Leicester.   

In that year also we showed “The Irishmen” at a community centre in Milton Keynes and got the semblance of a Connolly Association branch going there.  In Leicester we attended lectures on “Irish Dimensions in British Education” at Soar Valley College and displayed our literature.  We put on another film show in the Roadmender Youth Centre,  “The Irish 1847”, which we got from the Canadian High Commission and “Let us Dance – Bimís ag Rince” which was supplied by the Irish Embassy. This was a free event.

On 5 March 1984 we were invited by Luton Public Library to present a display of Irish art and literature, with books supplied by the CA’s Four Provinces Bookshop.

On 31 March 1984 representatives of our branch attended the Connolly Association annual delegate conference at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London and spoke to two resolutions that were adopted there, ”Towards a United Ireland” and “Irish Neutrality and World Peace”.

In the mid-1980s our group in Northampton thought of a new way of presenting the Connolly Association’s message. We decided to venture into print on our own account and print our own material. The challenge was how to do that; our method had to be independent, effective and cheap. A visit to the local College culminated in our adoption of a screen-printing process. We hand-printed posters at first and then progressed on to printing postcards – bilingual Celtic art greeting cards, Christmas plus Patrick’s Day cards, and later Rebel cards and May Day Cards on a wide variety of political themes, as well as specially designed bookmarks.  

In 1984 I was elected to the board of Arts Development, a community arts company that was sponsored by Northampton Council and Midlands Arts. This helped to engender interest in our screen-printing workshops, which were regularly held in youth centres, art galleries, church halls and so on.  We were invited to present workshops in Wood Green Shopping Centre and Kilburn Library in London, at which children brought their T-shirts and took home special prints to colour in.

In those years I had my hands full with my own projects in Northampton. At least ten free silk-screen workshops were held and we put on a similar number of films, not to mention two community computer workshops.   We took regular monthly copies of the “Irish Democrat” and organized stands at many local festivals in adjacent counties, as well as travelling with our stock of literature to the annual Hammersmith Irish Centre Book Fair. We became in effect an extension of the Irish Book Centre, and later of the Four Provinces Bookshop in the CA office in London. In the 1980s many first and second-generation Irish people were becoming aware of their parents’ great contribution to the rebuilding of post-war Britain.

In May 1985 in London, following Toni Curran’s death, I was elected Company Secretary of Connolly Publications Ltd., the Connolly Association’s publishing company which produced the “Irish Democrat”.  At the time I thought that this just entailed signing off the audited company accounts each year. Little did I know!

In November 1985 the Northampton CA Branch ventured into publishing an anthology of poetry by Irish poets living outside Ireland.  The contributors who donated work included Samuel Beckett, Roger McGough, Tom Paulin, Desmond Greaves and others, and it led to a small perfectly bound book titled, “Beyond The Shore: The Irish Within Us”. This was pre-computer days and the typesetting had to be done line by line. It was a major learning curve for us, and we gave thanks to Sean Hutton for guidance. “Beyond the Shore” was launched in the College Arts Centre, which got a grant to bring three Irish poets up from London.  The local people in Northampton were now becoming more aware of Ireland and its culture. Shaun Traynor, Deirdre Shannon, Mathew Sweeney and Nigel Gray attended this event.

In November 1985 also we attended the important Connolly Association conference on “The Defence of the Nation State” in the Conway Hall, London, whose sponsors included Sean McBride, Kadar Asmal, Barbara Castle and a number of Labour MPs.  This was a particular initiative of Desmond Greaves and presaged a concern for a fundamental democratic issue whose importance is only being fully appreciated today, nearly forty years later. 

Sometime in 1985 also, with the support of local building firm Kyle Stewart, we hired a long boat and took ten local children and two adults out for a day. Each child got its photograph taken in front of the longboat and they all sang, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” as they went off for their picnic on the River Nene. This event was organised by our CA member Kevin Murphy.

The Standing Committee which runs the day-to-day affairs of the CA met every two weeks at that time, and the Executive Council met every two months. For me this meant a lot of traveling up and down between Northampton and London.

In May-June 1986 it was brought to our attention that the “Daily Mirror” had published a vile racial description of the Irish. Again we went into battle. The author of the racist slur was Paul Callan, who described himself as “special writer” for “The Mirror”. He procrastinated and claimed to be Irish himself but later claimed to be Jewish. Our complaint went to the Press Council. At the same time we were in correspondence with Giles Gordon of “The Times” and with the editor of the “Daily Telegraph” on similar expressions of anti-Irish  prejudice in their papers.  Some of these papers seemed to have hired a news agency to scour the provincial press in Ireland and report any nonsensical oddities or rubbish that they could pick up, which were then carried for their readers to laugh at.  Was this war propaganda or racism? In my representations to these papers I used quote the well-known remark of Sydney Smith (1771-1845), the 19th century Anglican journalist and founder of the “Edinburgh Review”, who said:  “The moment the name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.”  

At this time also the well-known Irish writer Donall MacAmhlaigh, who lived in Northampton and was a member of our CA branch, was our tutor at the Irish classes held on the premises of the Northampton Council for Voluntary Services. There was a regular attendance of some ten people at these, ranging from twelve years to fifty.  We showed the film “An Bóthar Fada” to a new generation. The local Community Relations Council asked us to assist in community police training by addressing new police recruits. I remember speaking to three young police officers about the Irish community in Britain and the stereotyping that it often suffered, the bad effect of this on our children and about our battles with the media and the lack of inclusiveness when it came to media coverage of the Irish. They fall silent and then one asked enthusiastically: “But Peter, is there much support for the IRA in Northampton?” And that, more or less, was the only way they could see us at the time. It was sad really.

In those years the local radio stations usually called us on every Saint Patrick’s Day to explain to their listeners why was the Irish national festival was so popular.

On 13 June 1987 we organised local poetry readings by Tom Paulin, who had contributed to our collection, and Paul Muldoon.

In 1988 there were, between the army, the police and auxiliary forces, some 32,000 State armed personnel patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland looking for terrorists. The propaganda machines were rolling and no expense was spared in getting an anti-Irish Republican message across. The British Broadcasting Act was amended so as to make it an offence to repeat or report Sinn Fein statements.  It was illegal to record them or repeat their words. For some newspapers interpreting the law become a dangerous puzzle. Few objected and most complied. 

In London the “Irish Democrat” Book Service at 283 Grays Inn Road was now running smoothly, albeit mainly on a Saturday; but new premises had to be found as the landlord wanted the building. So we moved to 244-246 Grays Inn Road.  These new premises were found by Jane Tate. We now had a proper bookshop at street level, with a window display and a sizeable office next door. Again our volunteer workers installed shelving and fixed the electricity.  Desmond Greaves decided on the name: so the “Four Provinces Bookshop” was born and the new shop flourished. Now the Connolly Association could afford a full time organiser once again and we leased a heavy-duty photocopier. The eternal problem though remained getting volunteers to donate regular time in which to manage the shop. Sometimes there was tension between the commercial activity and the Connolly Association’s political campaigning. 

In the local Labour Club in Northampton we showed the banned film “Curious Journey”, in which veterans of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence were interviewed by the Director Kenneth Griffiths. This had been commissioned by Harlech Television, but was never broadcast. In the 1970s and 1980s banning films about the Irish conflict was commonplace, and few in the media complained.

I met Desmond Greaves at his invitation in the waiting room of Rugby Station about a month before he died. He was planning an East Midlands meeting and wanted to build it around Northampton. We sipped coffee in the waiting room and projected an outline. A further meeting was planned. We discussed the continuation and format of the “Peepshow”, a column in the “Irish Democrat” devoted to views of the British press on the Irish and the continuing Northern conflict. The emotional and often silly comments of politicians and journalists about Ireland and the Irish were exposed in the “Irish Democrat” columns for some thirty years.

In August 1988, when Desmond Greaves died, I was acting President of the Connolly Association. The funeral march to Anfield Crematorium, Liverpool, was led by a piper, who was followed by some hundreds of Liverpool people and CA supporters. I travelled back on the train with Sean Kettle from Corby. A Memorial meeting was held in the Kenilworth Hotel, Bloomsbury, London, where I was tasked with reading out the many messages and telegrams of condolence from British and Irish politicians, academics etc.  Desmond was certainly held in high esteem. Joe and Dorothy Deighan came from Belfast for that occasion and an old political antagonist, Gery Lawless, sent his condolences.

In 1989 Donall MacAmhlaigh died in Northampton. He was a big loss to our group and the Irish language movement as a whole, as he reflected in his writings the trials and tribulations of the Irish people working in Britain. He wrote in the “Irish Post”, “Irish Democrat”, “Irish Times”, “Ireland’s Own” etc. The cemetery was packed for the funeral. The Irish Ambassador came, and a film unit from RTE. The oration was delivered by Brendan Mac Lua (Frank Dolan) of the “Irish Post”. 

In that year we invited the Gloucester Irish Theatre company to present the play, “The Freedom of the City”, by Brian Friel. The company director, Sean O’Neill, agreed and we hired the local Lings Theatre for this event. An Arts organisation agreed to cover our losses, which were minimal. We were now listed as theatre promoters!

THE 1990s: 

At all of our events there was a small book-stand displaying the “Irish Democrat” and Connolly pamphlets, and of course our now home-produced Celtic Art Carts.  The list of Rebel Cards expanded as public interest increased. With the support of the Bedford Museum we organised our second workshop there and there was a good turnout.

Then Paddy Bond, the manager of the Four Provinces Bookshop, died in situ. We all had to rally around. I gave the oration for Paddy at the South London crematorium.  My position as company secretary of Connolly Publications Ltd. was about to become active in a way I had not anticipated. The first post-Desmond Greaves annual conference of the Connolly Association was held in the Cromer Centre in Russell Square. As chair I handed the Presidency of the Association to new younger blood.  

In 1994 our Northampton branch published “The Irish Republican Congress Revisited” by Patrick Byrne (former Joint Secretary of that body with Frank Ryan) for the Connolly Association. We added Robert Owen and Thomas Paine as themes for our Rebel Cards.

Bobby Rossiter, who had for years been a major speaker at our annual Trafalgar Square rallies, died, and I gave the Oration at his funeral in South London crematorium.

All this may indicate that we were short on direct political organizing; but not so. We associated ourselves with local Colleges and Student Unions, and local Trade Unions received the “Irish Democrat” from us and some occasionally asked for a CA speaker, but as the IRA military campaign was still on, as well as the state-sponsored anti-terrorist campaign, many people were cautious, although some were brave. We liaised with the brave and laid on appropriate events.

“The Imprisoned Society: human rights in Northern Ireland” by Andrew Puddephatt, General Secretary of Liberty, was published by the Connolly Association. It pointed out that “Between 1800 and 1921, 105 Coercion Acts were passed for Ireland” and “Normal judicial process ceased in exist.” It pointed out that between 1971 and 1986 there were altogether 75,000 arrests made in connection with the Irish “Troubles”. We attended the launch of this.

In one of those years Camden Council announced that they were going to sell one side of the building where the Connolly Association shop was located and we were forced to move the shop into the office next door, albeit still with a front display window. This halved our office space and we had to send the photocopier back, which brought us into conflict with those we had leased it from, as the contract stated that we had to use their paper and commit to a fixed volume of use. They threatened legal action and gave the case to a collection agency that harassed us. A protracted legal correspondence ensued. Then the Electricity Board read the wrong meter for our office and we received a bill for thousands of pounds as well as the threat of immediate legal action. As Company Secretary I had to deal with these issues for quite a while before the other parties admitted their mistakes and backed away. I had some window graphics done for the shop in London and brought a large perspex shop-sign down from Northampton.

 In Northampton in the 1990s we discovered Charles Bradlaugh. His statue dominates Northampton Town Centre. It is on an island in the middle of the road. He was obviously thought highly of in his time, as a number of offices and streets were named after him, as well as a park. But who was he? Some research revealed that when he was seventeen Bradlaugh joined the 7th Dragoon Guards and was dispatched to Ireland. On one occasion he was used to help the bailiff evict tenants from their homes in Inniscarra, County Cork. The trauma never left him.  It changed him and he became the bane of the British Establishment of his day. As Radical Liberal MP for Northampton he founded the National Secular Society. Our group on Northampton established the Charles Bradlaugh Society some 20 years ago and he is now commemorated each year around the base of his statue. The Northampton Museum commissioned us to set up a small exhibition on the life and times of Charles Bradlaugh. We got local radio time for that. Do look him up. 

THE 2000s

In May 2000 Northampton CA had correspondences with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office concerning the murder of Robert Hamill, which the police had tried to play down.

That year also we started the Annual John Clare Reading of National Poetry. The poet John Clare had opposed the 18th century Enclosures Act, which decimated the community rights of country people by expropriating the common land and open field system that had traditionally been used by the rural poor. Clare’s poem “The Mores” is a political gem. He was the first and is still the greatest Green poet. We met by his statue beside the Northampton Guildhall each year on National Poetry Day and read his work. We got some local radio time for that as well.

The annual Northampton Umbrella Fair always gave us space, if not in a marquee, and we made our own hand-painted Gazebo. In time local people came to know us and our literature was appreciated. The security people looked on at a distance and did not bother us. I think we got five annual events out of this.

We added to our production range in our poetry cards. Louis MacNiece started us off in this vain. We then took on board Gustav Holst and Annie Besant.

In 2001 In association with the Birmingham Central Library we helped lay on an exhibition on the life and times of Professor George Thomson, Seoirse MacThomáis, the professor of Greek at Birmingham and noted Gaelic scholar and Marxist historian. He had taught Greek through the medium of Gaelic in Galway for a period.  He lived for some time on the Blasket Islands off West Kerry and was associated with Maurice O’Sullivan, who wrote the book “Twenty Years A-Growing”.

 In 2001 we published “The Selected Short Stories of Donall MacAmhlaigh”. These were all taken from back issues of the “Irish Democrat”, which Donall regularly contributed to.  A small grant from the Ireland Fund made this possible. Our obituary in Irish was read out at a commemoration of MacAmhlaigh in Galway Cathedral. Donall MacAmhlaigh’s brother Noel and his son Jimmy attended the launch of this book in the Irish Club, London.   

In 2002 we sponsored a meeting in the Northampton Labour Club on what had now become the “Northern Ireland Peace Process”.  This was addressed  by Tony Clarke MP, a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee in the House of Commons. 

In Birmingham in 2002 a spin-off from our Celtic Arts cards was a connection with Celtic artists world-wide. We proposed an international exhibition of Celtic art forms and approached the Birmingham Central Library, which agreed to be co-sponsor this with the Four Provinces Bookshop. Thus was born a major international exhibition entitled, “Celtic Art– an exhibition of the art form”.  Curating such an event took many months and much headache, as works had to be shipped from all over the place and the customs and VAT people were not always helpful. Celtic artists from Canada, the USA, Spain, Britain and Ireland contributed. Jim Fitzpatrick and Courtney Davis were the big names, but some eighteen artists displayed their work, mostly graphics, but also jewellery, glassware, leatherwork, pottery, an Irish dance costume and a facsimile of the Book of Kells. It was an amazing event and the advertising poster for it was designed by Vitor Gonzalez, the Celtic and Nordic art authority. This was taken up by the local Careers and Education Business Partnership, a government body, and it has since been repeated in the Hammersmith Irish Centre and the Camden Library etc.

 In November 2002 we were into another battle with the “Northants Post”– a local paper which published a racist attach on a family of Irish travellers.  The local council instructed lawyers and successfully obtained an indefinite court injunction against a Mrs Kay Connor and her traveller family, forbidding them from staying on public or private land in the borough of Northampton. The injunction was signed off by Judge Hugh Mayor and made British legal history as only the second known such case. The “Northants Post” was also attacking the McDonagh family and the Borough Council was banning the Connors family from entering its jurisdiction. There was a shortage of rationality and justice and the media was riding a wave of hate-mongering that was not confined to the Irish.  We did our best to counter this.

On 19 December 2002 leading Connolly Association activist Jane Tate died. I spoke at her funeral at Golders Green Crematorium and the get-together afterwards in The Lamb hostelry near Hunter Street, where Jane had lived.

In London on 16 February 2003 we took our banner and joined nearly one million people who were demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq. This was a human tragedy of holocaust proportions, carried out by various advanced industrial countries on bogus pretexts against those who had little defence. Cold, calculated and brutal, it was just the start of further “Western” savagery in the Middle East.

In 2004 our Northampton CA group became aware that Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was buried locally, and this opened up a new venture for us. We held our first Bloomsday by her graveside that year and each year thereafter. Everybody dressed for the occasion and most people did a piece, reading a song, a poem or a relevant short story. This is now an established Northampton event, with a theatre company dressed in period costume. We sought to relate Lucia Joyce’s life to our own as part of the Irish diaspora. James Joyce had to seek work abroad, as we had done, but he took a map of Dublin with him. German radio covered one of these occasions. Our old friend Donall MacAmhlaigh, writer, is buried in the same Northampton graveyard  as Lucia Joyce, artist and dancer; also Violet Gibson the anti-fascist Irish woman who attempted to assassinate Mussolini, as well as hundreds of Irish people who came to that city over the decades to help build Britain and  re-build it post-War

That year also the Connolly Association published “The Missing Piece in the Peace Process: why British people must campaign for Britain to withdraw from Northern Ireland”, by Ken Keable, with an introduction by Tony Benn MP. There was such demand for this that it went into three editions.

In April 2006 our Northampton group organised a centenary commemoration event by the graveside of Samuel Beckett, in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. Beckett had previously donated a poem to the publication I mentioned above. Various Paris friends of Beckett turned up, including the Gaelic poet Derry O’Sullivan, who knew Beckett personally, and Anne Anderson, the Irish ambassador to France.  There were pictures of this event in the “Irish Times” and a few international papers via AFP and Getty Images.

During all this time sales of the “Irish Democrat’ were maintained and having a shop-front always helps. The core of strong and resilient volunteers kept going and new young people who had some knowledge of journalism were modernising the paper. David Granville and Martin Moriarty were the heroes of the 1990s and early 2000s.  The paper was keeping going but the shop was moving into deficit. Then Camden Council told us to vacate our premises as they wished to sell the property. Again the “Great and Good” of the Borough rallied round and the Council was swamped with petitions and letters of protest, but to no avail. New premises were explored, but rocketing Central London rents had gone outside our range. As the shop was now losing money, perhaps the end was inevitable. 

We continued to publish the “Irish Democrat” for a while and stocked our books at a small community centre in Camden Town.  Connolly Publications, the publishing company of the “Irish Democrat”, was now registered at my home address in Northampton.  Myself and the other five directors of Connolly Publication met.   We got some further issues out before the paper finally ceased publication in printed form in 2007, nearly twenty years after Desmond Greaves’s death. It had been established 68 years before, in 1939 and it was a miracle of political conviction and vision that had kept it going for nearly seventy years.  The “Irish Democrat” web site was established, with initially over a thousand subscribers, and there have been occasionael  electronic issues of the paper on that since.

When this happened I finalised the Microfilm copying of the entire film of “Irish Freedom” and ”Irish Democrat”, which are now available on the internet.  A number of universities bought copies of this microfilm version.  That preserves a unique record of near seventy years political campaigning for Ireland in the Irish community in Britain and the British Labour movement.  The Connolly Association of course kept going, although no longer with its monthly paper.

In 2011 in London Stella Bond, who had preciously taken over management of the shop from her husband Paddy Bond, died in turn. Stella had acted as CA treasurer and she used come to stay with us each year while the financial records were compiled.  An Englishwoman who gave decades of political commitment to the Irish cause – as did Jane Tate, Antoinette (Toni) Curran and other English members of the CA also – Stella Bond was one of nature’s gentlewomen. She was an idealistic person who was also utterly practical and was always a fierce critic of grandiose proposals that did not consider the  human resources likely to be required.  I was honoured to speak at the reception following her funeral in South London.

In April 2020 CA member Doris Daly died. She was a former book editor of the “Irish Democrat” and a leading light in the annual Jimmy Gralton commemoration in Leitrim and founder of the Sugawn Kitchen theatre company. I gave the oration at her funeral in North London

In 2020 also we republished the poem, “From the Republic of Conscience”, by Seamus Heaney which was written in response to an invitation from Amnesty International and which we had originally brought opt on Human Rights Day, 10 December 1985.

The above outline is just a selection of events from notes that I kept and from memory. It is in no way a full account of the work of the Connolly Association or its Northampton Branch over the six decades that I was active in them.  But I can say that many of these things happened because I had joined the Association way back in 1960.  Doing that had certainly challenged my mind. It gave me a political purpose which enabled me to fight various manifestations of ignorance and prejudice over the years. Altogether it has been a positive exercise. 

Peter Mulligan, 2021