Editor’s Introduction to the Journal of C.Desmond Greaves (1913-1988)

The labour historian and political activist C.Desmond Greaves kept a journal on and off throughout his life. There are volumes for several years in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, as well as a continuous daily or near daily record covering the quarter-century prior to his death in 1988. This is a valuable source of information on Irish and British left-wing and national politics from the 1930s to the 1980s and on the political life of the Irish community in Britain during that time. It is of special interest because of its record of meetings, sometimes with reconstructed conversations, with people whom Greaves met in the course of his historical researches and political activity. The former related to his biographies of the Irish political figures James Connolly and Liam Mellows and the playwright Sean O’Casey, as well as the history of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which that union’s Executive commissioned him to write, and the first volume of which he completed.    

The Journal is also of interest because of the information it gives about the life, character and times of a remarkable man and the many insights into life and public affairs that it contains.

For an outline biography see C.Desmond Greaves 1913-1988, An Obituary Essay, Irish Labour History Society,1991(ISBN 0791-2838), by Anthony Coughlan, who is responsible for transcribing, editing and compiling the index of Greaves’s Journal for publication. See also an entry by the same writer in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (ISBN 9780521633314).  

Desmond Greaves wrote his Journal in longhand in 38 hardback copybooks, which are referred to here as “Volumes”. The manuscript volumes are for deposit in the National Library of Ireland in accordance with its author’s wishes when the full text is edited. The periods they cover are listed below. There are gap years when Desmond Greaves did not keep a journal and he may not have retained all of his Journal record, especially for the early period. 

Volume 1 begins with Desmond Greaves aged 20 in September 1933. He came from a cultured lower-middle-class family. His father was a post-office official and his mother had a degree in music.  He was living at home with his parents and sister at the time, while attending the third year of the B.Sc. degree course in botany and chemistry at the University of Liverpool. This is the year when he first became actively involved in politics, at a time when many of Britain’s young university intelligentsia were moving to the left in the context of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler and the fear of another war. Fifty years later, before his death in 1988, he copied anew the first three volumes of the Journal dealing with the 1933-35 period, with a commentary on various persons and episodes mentioned in them. Presumably he did this for the benefit of biographers. 

In a comment on the entry for 1 June 1933 Greaves refers to excerpts from pages 2858-3000 of an older journal that he had kept during his youth, but which he destroyed. There is no journal for the 1936-8 period.  In 1944 he commenced a Retrospect of his first months in London in 1935-36, when he had his first paid job, and this is inserted as Volume 4A in this edition to maintain the chronological sequence of life events even though it was written later than Volume 5, which is a Journal of Greaves’s first cycle tour of the South of Ireland in 1939.  Volume 4B gives the final sections of this Retrospect, covering the years 1942-3. He did not retain the middle sections of the Retrospect.

There are parallels between Greaves’s experiences as a young man as set out in this Journal and various fictionalized incidents in the first books of his unfinished comic epic poem, Elephants Against Rome. He had completed four of the envisaged twelve books of this work before his death and these were posthumously published.  This poem may usefully be read in parallel with the first volumes of the Journal as exemplifying possible connections between life and art in Desmond Greaves’s case.

He occasionally pasted photographs in the manuscript text of his Journal and it is envisaged that these will be reproduced in due course in the final electronic version.      

The late Dr Roy Johnston (1929-2019) requested the editor to permit him to read the original manuscript Journal for purposes of checking information relating to his own autobiography, which was published in Century of Endeavour, 2006 (ISBN 1 84351 080 4). As Dr Johnston had known Desmond Greaves from his student years at Trinity College Dublin in the 1940s the editor acceded to this request. When reading the originals Dr Johnston wrote some comments on various entries by Greaves, mainly relating to the post-1950s and 1960s. In this edition these comments are inserted beside the entries in the Journal volumes they relate to, as they may interest some readers.  Some time after Dr Johnston wrote these comments the editor learned that he had also made summaries of some volumes of the Journal and had put these summaries, together with extensive excerpts from the text, on the website which accompanied his book. He did this without informing or seeking the permission of the editor, who would have refused such permission if it had been sought. In the event this action once done could not be undone. Some of these Journal excerpts have been quoted in works by various authors that have been published since, mostly dealing with the late 1960s Northern Ireland civil rights period. Any such excerpts should be assessed in the context of the full Journal text which is now being made available on this Greaves archive web-site. 

The editor has inserted explanatory notes in italics in the text where relevant. Desmond Greaves’s handwriting is sometimes hard to decipher, so that sometimes it has not been possible to make out a word or phrase. This is indicated where it happens. Occasional typos in the original have been corrected and contemporary stylistic and spelling conventions have been followed so far as possible. Mistakes of fact and form are likely to occur in a near two-million-word text, including in the Index to each volume. There may well be mistakes regarding place names, especially Welsh ones, and technical terms in such areas as botany and chess.  If readers notice any mistakes and care to inform the editor at he will be grateful and will take steps to correct them.

A personal name and subject Index, as well as an Index of organisations, is given at the end of each volume. It is envisaged that these separate volume indices will be combined into one consolidated Index when all 38 volumes are up on this site.  The Index does not seek to give the names of all the persons with whom Greaves interacted during his life, but only those that seem more important to his personal biography.  

Please note: The Index entries refer to the month and day of the relevant entries, with the month coming first. Thus Index entry “6.6” is June 6, “12.4” is December 4, “1.30” is January 30 etc. 

Desmond Greaves died on 23 August 1988, two days following the last Journal entry.