Century of Endeavour
Politics in the 40s as seen by JJ and RJ
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This is the first decade in which the present writer RJ can claim to have come to some degree of political understanding of the world. So it is necessary to treat my own memoirs as a distinct section, below. Let me however treat my father's political role first.
JJ in the 40sThis was the decade when JJ had maximum influence in the Seanad. He had backed away from internal College politics, resigning his vice-presidency of the Gaelic Society, though he kept up his contacts with the History Society and the Commerce Society.
His Seanad speeches got press coverage, up to a point, but he was sometimes moved to strengthen the message with a published letter to the editor. He has preserved one such, dated March 17 1941, which was in response to a long letter from Judge WE Wylie on March 11, which the Irish Times published in full, under the header 'A Dream of Ireland in the Coming Times'. The Judges letter was an evocation of the situation which might exist if people did sensible enterprising things, without being told what to do; he presented it as a sort of piece of Utopian fiction.
JJ's response to the Wylie letter was to bring the dream to life with a set of practical policies, based on the Oireachtas taking on board the Judge's aspirations, with the support of voluntary agencies. The first priority was to increase the employment of agricultural labour, with wages subsidised by a family allowance, and a planned increase of agricultural production for export to Britain, with increased tillage in support of both food crops for consumption at home and expanded livestock exports, and with expanded national credit (ie deficit budgeting rather than increased taxation).
I don't have much evidence of the impact of his Seanad speeches during the 40s as seen from the media, apart from the above, and a brief account on July 28 1945 of the Seanad episode where Aiken had accused JJ of being the 'spiritual father' of the flag-burners of Trinity College. He had also kept a cutting which showed a photo of an LSF rally in College Green on December 6 1940, in which it had been suggested by Aiken that the photo had been deliberately slanted so as to include the Royal Arms on the pediment of the Bank of Ireland. The Irish Times denied this indignantly, in a feature entitled 'Arms and the Ban'.
He kept an Irish Times poster for Tuesday December 6 which I think must have been 1944, judging by the relationship between day and date. There is a cryptic mention in the Seanad proceedings, about the record of a debate being suppressed. The poster, of the type used by news-stands, reads 'Senator Johnston on Irish Re-union'. It seems from the subsequent Seanad record that there was an altercation between JJ, Sir John Keane and Frank Aiken. There is unfinished business here.
Towards the end of the decade, with the present writer an undergraduate and politically active in Trinity College, JJ accepted to become a vice-president of the DU Fabian Society, which was the focus for the student left. The President was Robert Lynd, and other vice-presidents were Louie Bennett (the women's trade union leader), RM Gwynn, AJ Leventhal, Arnold Marsh and JT Wigham. These were mostly names connected with JJ's co-operative campaigning past.
There is on record in the TCD Calendar as a 'staff publication' an article in the Irish Digest of June 1947 by JJ entitled The Function of Public Enterprise which in the context had a political aspect. The material of this was used in a public lecture in Athlone, which he referenced in his Seanad speech on April 16 1947, a report being published in the Irish Times on that day. I have summarised this in the Barrington stream.
There is also on record JJ's SSISI paper on Rural Civilisation, which represents another high point in his radical political evolution.
JJ used material from the foregoing in a series of three articles in the Manchester Guardian in 1949, on January 27 and 31, and on February 1; the title was 'Aspects of Change in Rural Ireland'. He maintained his long-term appreciation of the need to educate public opinion in Britain regarding the common interest between Britain and Ireland in Irish agricultural prosperity.
Towards the end of 1949, after his defeat in the Seanad elections, there are some indications that JJ reacted politically to the phony declaration of the 'republic' by the coalition government. He was at the time President of the Irish Association and must have sensed the alienation of the Northern members. The IA record of JJ's Presidency however is deficient.
He was however active at the level of being an invited speaker on the Protestant secondary school circuit, from which platform he received some publicity, and he almost certainly did this in support of his Irish Association Presidential role. He kept some records of these episodes among his papers.
There is a front-page photo on the Irish Times of October 7 1949 of JJ at the distribution of the prizes in Drogheda Grammar School; he was at that time Chairman of the Board of Governors, and had helped to turn around the fortunes of the school, enlisting financial support from Mrs Balfour, of Townley Hall, who was a daughter of John Kells Ingram, author of 'Who Fears to Speak of 98'. Ingram had died in 1907, and had become a Fellow of TCD in 1846, at a time when the Thomas Davis republican vision was making an impact in TCD. (This contact undoubtedly led later to the Kells Ingram Farm episode in the TCD School of Agriculture saga, treated in the TCD Board thread of the hypertext.)
This episode got the full treatment from Editor Smyllie on October 15, in his 'Nichevo' column; he had been invited by JJ to the event, and went at length into JJ's CV, and about the school, its background and current resurrection with local support. There had been also a feature on the school on October 7, headed 'Children who Should be Proud'.
Then on October 28 1949 JJ was the distinguished guest at the Dungannon Royal School speech day; he tried to counter the then current anti-partitionist rhetoric being promulgated by Fianna Fail out of office, via the anti-partition league and otherwise, calling for co-operation between north and south, and promoting, in somewhat veiled form, his long-held belief in all-Ireland government within the Commonwealth. He suggested that 'republicanism was only skin deep', given the attention paid by many in the South to the doings of the royal family.
He kept the letter of thanks, dated October 31, from the headmaster A de G Gaudin, who mentioned that a number of people had expressed to him in the previous few days their interest in JJ's remarks, referring to the pride with which the old school must consider his career. JJ was clearly holding out a hand to his home ground, in an attempt to preserve his all-Ireland vision, within which the Protestant community had a positive role to play.
There is among JJ's papers a copy of a letter to the Irish Times dated 01/06/50 in which he reacted to a letter from David Gray, the US Ambassador, on the previous day. It is worth reproducing in full:
"A propos Mr David Gray's letter in your issue of May 31 an episode took place in the early summer of 1940 which, if my interpretation is correct, places Mr de Valera's attitude in a very different light.
"At a time when German military power was sweeping over Western Europe I, in my capacity as a Senator, sought a private interview with Mr de Valera. I suggested to him that in spite of our neutrality our national safety was very precarious, and that it might be a good idea to suggest to neutral America the advisability of guaranteeing the integrity of our shores, and making good that guarantee by acquiring naval and air bases here by agreement with our Government.
"Mr De Valera discussed the suggestion in a most friendly manner and said he would make inquiries about the possibility of it.
"A few days later, when we were both going into the debating hall of the Senate, he told me that he had made inquiries and ascertained that it was utterly impossible. It was impossible to pursue the subject then, but I understood that American public opinion was at that time too neutral and too isolationist for President Roosevelt's Government, however sympathetic, to be able to entertain this suggestion.
"Am I right in this interpretation, and if I am who is to blame if America did not have bases in Eire when their country finally entered the war? "
Previously when the Germans had gone into Poland I had been spending the tail-end of the summer holidays in a caravan near one of the Wicklow beaches with my uncle Jack Young and family. Uncle Jack had a somewhat black sense of humour, due to his having served in the first world war, in Gallipoli. He assured my cousin John and I, dead-pan, that there would be no more 'poes' (in the sense of the word used colloquially for piss-pots) now that the Germans had gone into Po-land.
In school (Avoca School, Blackrock) we set up a war map on the classroom wall. People discovered books about the first world war, and brought them in. The general feeling in the school, being Protestant, was pro-British. There was a boy scout troop, somewhat on sufferance; the head master Cyril Parker disliked the scouts, as he felt they were too militaristic. He had also served in the previous war, and had become a total pacifist. He organised the building of an air-raid shelter in the school grounds.
But to return to the scouts: Erskine Barton Childers and I were in the same class, and were good friends; we weekended in each others houses occasionally. His father, who subsequently became President, was a Minister in de Valera's Government at the time. Erskine and I were in the scouts. The scout routine involved learning the National Anthem, and the norm at this time, in the Protestant school scout-troop environment, was God Save the King. Erskine objected to this, and I backed him up. We got our way. This was my first political act.
The war dominated my dawning political consciousness however from then on, and I identified with the British; I was conscious of Irish neutrality but aware of a general sympathy with the British, and a genuine fear of German invasion, grounded on the realities of the worst period in 1940-41. In the spring of 1941 I was still at Avoca, though as a border, JJ having moved to a farm near Drogheda; he felt safer in a rural environment in the threatening situation. I remember the physical training instructor, one Sergeant O'Neill of the Free State Army, regaling us with what the military view of the situation was at that time, to the effect that a German landing in the south was imminent.
JJ evidently was of the same view, because for the summer term of 1941 he took me out of Avoca School in Blackrock, and sent me as a day-boy to Drogheda Grammar School, along with my cousin Ian Nesbitt, who had been sent down from Belfast. If the Germans had landed, at least the family would have been in the one place, with access to food.
We went camping with the scouts in June 1941, and when in camp we got the news of the German invasion of the USSR. This immediately changed the scene as regards danger of invasion, and I was sent back in September 1941 to board at Avoca, where we followed the war on the classroom map.
I recollect following day by day the battle of Stalingrad on the copy of the Irish Times which was accessible in the junior common-room. We cheered on the Russians. There was a radio club in the school, but it was a bit exclusive; juniors like me were not allowed in. I managed however to get into building radios at home during the vacations; my sister when in college had been friendly with one Cyril Dugdale, in the medical school; he became an excellent dentist. Like most dentists, he liked working intelligently with his hands, and he had been a hard-core radio buff in the 30s; he has made radios for us. These had fallen into disuse, but I stripped them, and used the bits and pieces to build my own; I learned how to solder. In or about 1943 I made my first successful radio set, and I got it to work on the short waveband, so I could listen to the news of the war from all over the world, by-passing the Irish censorship.
I remember coming back to school in September 1944 and getting to talk to Paul O'Higgins, Dick Stringer and Paddy Bond, who it seems had already become the makings of a sort of Marxist underground group. The topic was the civil war then going on in Greece, which I had initially found incomprehensible from the news reports. They filled me in on what was going on: it was Churchill using the British Army to prevent the Greeks having a social revolution and installing a post-war government friendly to the USSR(1). From then on, the jig-saw puzzle of world events began to fit together into the Marxist world-picture.
Paul O'Higgins was unusual in St Columba's College, in that his parents had rejected the Catholic Church, and Paul was consciously an unbeliever. He went to the College Chapel, and fulfilled the necessary rituals, with the exception of bowing his head at the name of Jesus during the creed, which was then the norm; perhaps it still is, I don't know. This engendered a degree of respect in many, and I seem to remember one or two others following suit.
I e-mailed him recently as follows:
Paul I am currently trying to write up some of our earlier experience, and I am wondering if you can help with a few more insights.
1. Your own background: would I be right in saying that your father and mother were dropout Catholics, that your mother was a Deane from Ballycastle Co Mayo, that she was into anthropology at a scholarly level? Did she have any academic recognition? That your father, also a dropout Catholic, had spent time in Germany during the 30s, and had contacts with the anti-fascist underground? Was Peter Lisowski in this context? That he had served in WW1 and joined the Irish Army in WW2 out of political conviction? That you were sent to SCC after a traumatic encounter with the Catholic education system in Galway? That for a time during the war the family lived in Ceathru Thaidhg in Erris? What would have been the occasion of the move to 104 Lr Baggot St? I sort of feel that I need to give a bit of background about yourself as a key prime mover in the Promethean group as it emerged in school. There is also a need to assess the 'dropout catholic' aspect of the mind-set of the early Left in Ireland, which was actually more or less the norm, and which I think contributed to the way the movement evolved, or failed to evolve. Do you have anything written up yourself on such matters, to which I can refer?
2. Of the others who joined the PS in TCD, Rex (Cathcart) would presumably have been via de Courcy Ireland but through what channel did Justin (Keating) occur?
3. The interaction with OSS (Owen Sheehy-Skeffington) needs careful treatment. He spoke to us in 104 Lower Baggot St (where Paul was then living with his family, after having been expelled from St Columba's), and was initially friendly. Was there a particular episode which turned him hostile, or was it just his dawning realisation that the PS was apparently buying what came from Moscow, somewhat uncritically? What was the role of Gluckstein? Is he still at large, and called something else?
4. Who was involved in the talks between the old CP, the Connolly Group and the PS which gave rise to the IWL? Is there anything on record of these talks? At what point did Micheal O Riordain occur, leaving Cork where he was doing well? This was a disastrous decision and I am wondering what pushed it? Some of this is treated in Derry Kelleher's book.
5. How and when was contact first made with Greaves?
I am sure more questions will crop up when I get down to write it, but I'd appreciate some feedback on the above.
For example, your mother was in college with Tony Farrington, and he was familiar with her and referred to her in the 50s as 'Bessie Deane'; would they have been close? Was there a political dimension? When would they have been in college? Doreen Farrington was a crony of Markiewicz and knew Maire Comerford. What period would your mother have been in college? Would they have been there in 1918-19, and if so, did you ever hear any echoes of the Thomas Davis Society?
Paul replied as follows:
"I think my parents would have regarded "drop-out Catholics" as offensive. To my mind, the typical drop-out Catholic was Conor Cruise O'Brien who could never make up his mind whether he was an agnostic or a believer in the power of prayer and who compromised with the Church publicly bastardising his children.
"My parents in their late teens independently rejected all religion, which is why when we lived in Galway we were hounded by the local bishop, a hounding which continued in Dublin when I was summoned by McQuaid to attend upon him for interrogation, a demand which I ignored. We left Galway partly because of the hounding and above all because my mother was appointed as a Lecturer in Italian at TCD in the place of Mercy Simms who left the post to have a family.
Mercy Simms was a Goold-Verscoyle, a sister of Neil Goold who was the guru of the emergent post-republican left in the Curragh. Her, and Neil's, mother was a Goold; Neil took his mother's name because he believed in matriarchy. The full Goold story remains to be written; I hope to touch on aspects of it elsewhere; Goold occurs, for example, in the 1950s Greaves journal. RJ July 2001.
"My mother was the daughter of a Ballycastle shopkeeper. Her parents having set up one son in another shop and left their own shop to an older daughter, in order to provide for two other girls and a boy, were able to have them educated as scholarship-holders in Blackrock, and the Dominican convent in Eccles Street.They were extremely intelligent and my mother won every medal available in every subject at public exams in Ireland. She then first went, I think, to the Royal University and then proceeded on to TCD where she became a non-foundation Scholar. She was a native Irish speaker; studied ancient Irish under the tutelage of Liam O'Briain, but soon was tutoring him. She was a contemporary and close friend of Ben Farrington, who while he was alive was always "Uncle Ben" to me. She spent some time after graduation in Paris and returned to be an Assistant to Professor Rudmose Brown. She then obtained a Lectureship in French in Liverpool University, where she me my father.
"My father did not travel outside these islands except during the 1st World War as a soldier. It was Peter Lisowski's parents who had contacts with German opponents to Hitler. Peter's father was one of the leaders of the Munich Soviet. Peter's mother was Dr. Kate Muller-Lisowski, a prominent Celtic scholar.
"Before moving into Dublin, we lived in, anglice, Carratigue (Ceathru Thaidhg).....Our house in Galway was exorcised by the local bishop after we left.
Justin must have joined us through New Books..."
"As regards OS-S, there were a variety of reasons for his hostility. He was a big fish in a small pool who felt threatened by us. He chose at a time when we had no contact whatsoever with anything further left than John Strachey; he had no reason to attribute dishonesty to us. With the passing of time, he became increasingly paranoid."
Subsequently Paul expanded on this orally; it seems I had written up a review of OS-S's paper to the Promethean Society in the Promethean, a small duplicated paper we produced, without giving due emphasis to his criticisms of the USSR. We were no doubt still under the influence of the USSR's war record and inclined to discount such criticism. OS-S as a consequence increasingly came to regard us as a pernicious Stalinist cult. I was subsequently inclined to be understanding of OS-S's position, and his widow Andrée credits me with this in her biography, to which I contibuted some material at her request. This episode illustrates acutely the divisive effect of Stalinist policies on the development of Marxism in the west. Our group had so much in common with OS-S that under normal political conditions the relationship would have prospered, as apparently did that between JJ and the Thomas Davis Society. It could be argued that had OS-S been less paranoid and treated us with more empathy, he could successfully have weaned us away from an uncritical acceptance of the USSR as the fount of all wisdom. As it was, positions became entrenched. See also his widow Andrée's biography 'Skeff'. RJ August 2001.
"Gluckstein later became better known as Tony Cliff and wrote a number of important Marxist works.
"I have no recollection of any talks between the groups which gave rise to the IWL. My guess is that the meaningful background talks would have been with Denis Walsh and Sean Nolan. As regards the timing of Micheal O Riordain's leaving Cork, you would need to consult a file of the Irish Democrat. One possible reason for the move would be his wife's wishes.
"At an early stage I think I must have had contact with the Irish Democrat / Connolly Association with I think somebody called Pat Devine, of whom Greaves greatly disapproved. I think Greaves must have contacted me in response to my communicating with Devine. How he made contact with others like Denis Walsh I have no idea.
"I think my mother would have known Tony Farrington as the brother of Ben. Apart from progressive republican views, I can't think of any other political dimension. She never mentioned the Thomas Davis Society. I assume she was around in TCD up to about 1918, but I don't have her dates to hand.
Best wishes, Paul"
To return to the St Columba's College narrative: apart from myself our Marxist group consisted of Paul O'Higgins (background as above); Paddy Bond (landed gentry from Farragh, between Longford and Edgeworthstown; Oliver Bond of 1798 fame was ancestrally related; he went to Cambridge University and remained active in Britain with the Communist Party and the Connolly Association until his death in ~1990), Dick Stringer (went to Liverpool University and eventually became Dublin County Architect), George Fairbrother (studied law in TCD, supported the Promethean group in TCD, then became a solicitor in Cavan). George joined the group as a result of the performance of Stringer and myself in a school debate in which we promoted Marxist ideas.
There was a friendly teacher, one EL Mallalieu, subsequently a Labour MP for Colne Valley in England, winning a seat in the 1945 election. We kept our library of Marxist books in his room, with his blessing. We bought them in surreptitious visits down to Dublin, to New Books, 'Johnny Nolan's Bookshop', which was the residual contact point for the Irish Communist Party, then disbanded due to the war and the politics of neutrality.
We recruited a few more; Adrian Somerfield (who ended up teaching science as George Lodge's successor), Fred Marshall (who made a career in music in London), one Mercier who went to college in Scotland; we lost track of him. Adrian edited trenchantly a sort of 'wall-newspaper' called the 'Beresford Free Press' which developed a sort of muck-raking left-wing journalism. Fred played the organ in the Chapel and on VE day improvised around the anthem of the USSR.
Somerfield and I moved in on the Radio Club, its earlier denizens having lost interest. We attempted to develop a transmitter, with a view to conveying the liberating message of the Left to the Dublin masses. We managed to transmit from the radio club workshop to the senior common-room. We developed a portable test rig, which we brought up the mountain, to try to get a feel for range measurement, but this turned out to be out of range; we only had a few watts.
One of the earlier radio buffs, I should say, was the younger brother of a subsequent Stormont potentate. We learned from him the essential principles of Orange patronage: there was a weekly issue of toilet paper ('bumf') in the school latrine, it was somewhat scarce under war conditions. He used to get there early, stock up with it in his pocket, and issue it to his friends, illustrating effectively the essentials of bourgeois politics!
We celebrated the ending of the war in Europe in May of 1945; we got to see films which had been banned under the neutrality censorship. I happened to be down in town on the day of the TCD flag-burning, and I observed it from a distance, not fully understanding its political implications. I was with the Carmodys in Ballinaclough when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped; having a feel for physics I immediately grasped its implications. Later in September, back in school, it was a topic of conversation, and we tried to come to grips with the politics of the new post-war situation.
The Promethean group had been missing Paul O'Higgins, who had been expelled the previous summer, under circumstances which seemed to us to be discriminatory. We kept in touch with him, calling to his parents' flat in 104 Lr Baggot St if ever we were in town. When he entered TCD to do medicine in October 1945 my father, at my suggestion, allowed him to lodge in his rooms in #36. We took up a collection for him among his friends in school, and he bought books with the money, each of which he labelled 'munus ab columbanensibus'. Various meetings were organised, addressed by John de Courcy Ireland, RN Tweedy, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, Arnold Marsh and others. We used Deirdre MacDonagh's bookshop in Baggot St for Promethean meetings pre-TCD. We encountered Paul Keating and the TCD Fabians. We picked up contact with a floating population of disaffected critical intellectuals, such as John Jordan, Anthony Cronin, Arthur Reynolds, Rex Cathcart and others who we identified as the raw material of an emergent Left.
Our early attempts to contact the remains of the old Left via New Books, and via McCullough in Belfast, were not fruitful; they preferred to keep a low profile, and were somewhat suspicious of intellectuals. We did however support the Irish Review, and contributed our first political writings to it, such as they were. I remember being told by Johnny Nolan, having submitted a manuscript, that 'the material had been treated editorially', which I suppose was a relatively civil put-down.
We recruited to the Promethean Society mostly mature students with a British CP background: Phyllis Gunn, Denis Farrelly, Pat Robson; we attempted to develop a broad-based student politics based on principle. The role of Desmond Greaves in this context was on the whole supportive, though he did I think place too much reliance on a process of inducting us into the Marxist experience of the British Communist Party. We accepted this uncritically, but in retrospect it was mostly a valid transfer of relevant experience, not unduly dominated by the USSR; I am thinking of the historical analyses of people like Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and TA Jackson to which we were exposed. In some respects this CPGB contact, and implied USSR orientation, was however a negative factor, in that it soured our relationship with Sheehy-Skeffington, and focused too much attention on what was going on in Eastern Europe. Justin Keating, who had joined us from UCD, and the present writer, however bucked this trend, and we tended to seek our contacts in Ireland, among the politicising ex-republicans who had been interned in the Curragh during the war. There was however a tendency, where references to the USSR came up, for Greaves to be uncritically defensive, as he was in the context of the Lysenko episode.
In 48-49 Paul O'Higgins was Secretary, John Lee was Treasurer, with myself, Pat Robson, Malcolm Craig and Frank Oruwari on the committee. This remained nominally the same in 49-50; they must have forgotten to update.
In 50-51 the Presidency was vacant, Robert Lynd having died. I remember he had sent us a cheque, which became a claim on his estate. Additional vice-presidents were Helen Chenevix, Hilda Verlin and Professor Janossy from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. I was again the Secretary; Terry Brown was Treasurer, and the Committee included Barbara Thompson, Bill Watts (later Provost of TCD), Victor Hamilton, Paul O'Higgins and DH Jenkinson. Frank Oruwari was on the committee ex officio so he must have been Secretary the previous year.
The fact that I had to do a second spell as Secretary boded ill; the situation was dominated by the Korean war; recruiting had dried up; it was a rearguard action. Oruwari the previous year had filled the gap between PO'H and the present writer; according to PO'H he took on the job reluctantly under pressure from OS-S, and as a result failed his exams, a disaster for a Nigerian; he subsequently disappeared from our ken. This was evidence of our resources being overstretched; much of our attention was on getting the Students Representative Council to work effectively.
In 51-52 Victor Hamilton was in the chair, WG Simpson was Secretary, DA O'Sullivan was Treasurer, and the committee included myself ex officio (though by then in France), DH Jenkinson, Bill Watts and Geraldine McGrath.
The foregoing sequence relates to an evolving political scene which has been covered partially by Andree Sheehy-Skeffington in her biography of Owen, and I have managed to supplement that treatment, and give some insight into the 'roles of the key actors'; see my notes on 'Skeff'.
In 1947-48 the Students Representative Council was on the old constitution, with representatives of the student societies. WM Noyek was in the chair, officers were PL Allen, Helen Hackman, Joan Scales. This remained the same nominally up to 1949-50; I suspect people forgot to update.
In 1950-51 however the new constitution, under which each year of each school elected representatives, had become operative; the President was Barbara Thompson, Treasurer PM Patchell, Record Sec VM Spencer, Corr Sec Denis Farrelly. There was reference to details of travel bureau, book mart etc being available from the Secretary. I suspect this listing as referring to 1949-50.
In 1951-52 the Chair was Neidzwiedski, Treasurer PTK Sweeting, Rec Sec Helen Crookshank and Corr Sec RT Tattersall-Wright. The NUS Sec was RFB de Caen.
The foregoing is the surface appearance of a political epic, which deserves more detailed treatment. Although it has leaked into the 50s I treat it as integral with the 40s. My recollection is that the first elections under the new Constitution would have taken place in or about October 1948, and the new SRC was chaired by Paul O'Higgins. They omitted to register this in the Calendar. The next year SRC affairs prospered; there was a book mart, organised X-rays for detection of tuberculosis (then endemic), and a high positive profile under the Chair of Barbara Thompson, who was PO'H's girl-friend, and a Promethean stalwart. Her committee in 1949-50 is listed in the Calendar as being 1950-51, through an oversight in registration. The following year's committee represented a right-wing backlash, under the influence of the Korean war. This committee in effect allowed the SRC to lapse, and it sank without trace until revived over a decade later.
He arranged for some of us to attend a Summer School of the Communist Party of Great Britain, at Netherwood in Hastings; I went, along with Malcolm Craig and George Fairbrother. We encountered the cream of the Marxist philosophers, historians and economists, people like Rodney Hilton, Sam Aaronovitch, Maurice Cornforth and Douglas Garman; we picked up a feel for the history of the working-class movement and the politics of the post-war left, which seemed then on the ascendant, with the Labour landslide, and the post-war left coalitions in France and Italy. The Marshall Plan had not yet imposed constraints on who was allowed to be in government.
Greaves also arranged for some of us individually to attend the National Schools; in the context I encountered Eric Hobsbawm. Greaves left the selection of who was to go to the discretion of the TCD students' group; he must have had in mind that we might become leading lights in whatever Marxist organisation managed to come into existence. In retrospect, it is clear that the key flaw in this procedure was the lack of understanding on the part of the British Marxist of the complexities of the Irish national question. Greaves eventually came round to identifying this as the key obstacle to constructive interaction between the British Communists and the nascent Left in Ireland.
While this was going on, back in Ireland we as the Promethean Society were in touch with Sean Nolan, Jeff Palmer and the group around the Pearse St bookshop 'New Books', and also with John de Courcy Ireland. We were also in touch with the Connolly Group, mostly of ex-1940s internees, which included Denis Walsh, Sean Mulready, Ned Stapleton, and some others who joined subsequently, like Sean Furlong, Brian Behan, Alfie Venencia and others. This used to meet in Mulready's house, in Coburg Place, behind Amiens St Station, and I attended fairly regularly, being the link with the student group. We discussed various issues learnedly; representatives were sent to a meeting with the Bookshop group; Paul O'Higgins went to these meetings as from the student group. It was agreed to attempt to inaugurate an open Marxist political group, called the Irish Workers' League; the inaugural meeting was planned for some time early in 1948, and it took place in Deirdre MacDonagh's bookshop in Baggot St.
There was a good attendance, mostly of people with a 1940s republican background, who had their period of education and reflection behind the wire, and were keen to go political. Sean Nolan for the bookshop group and Denis Walsh for the Connolly Group were presiding at the table; also I think Paul O'Higgins for the students group. There was a draft document on the agenda, and we discussed it. It may turn up in the CPI archive, and if so I will reference it here. It was quite tentative and was a long way from being a founding document for a CPI.
I was present, and I remember during the discussion Greaves standing up and introducing himself as acting on behalf of the International Affairs Committee of the CPGB. He supported the proposal. The consequence of this was that the next meeting, when it occurred, was very poorly attended, and the IWL got off to a bad start. The negative image of Communism as imposed in Russia under Stalin dominated the scene. Greaves picked this up later when on his travels; the perception was dominated by Stalin's purges and the forced collectivisation. I think he later regretted his premature intervention on that occasion. He was then in his 30s and his thinking was dominated by the post-war euphoria; his knowledge of Ireland was superficial; he was only beginning to realise how much he didn't know.
Later, during the summer of 1948 Walsh, Mulready, Stapleton and I went travelling round Ireland; I had the use of JJ's old Ford Anglia (he had upgraded to a Morris 12), and we had tents. We called on 1940s IRA and other contacts, hoping to set up the IWL network in some sort of effective structured manner. I remember meeting Peter O'Connor in Waterford, Tommy Molyneux in Killarney, Bernard Kennedy in Cork, Jack Gavaghan in Loughrea, John Joe Hoey and Packy Gralton in Leitrim, Walter Dwyer in Swinford, Tommy Kilroy in Kiltimagh, and perhaps others. In the case of Hoey we had a living link with the 1934 Republican Congress, but he was living in poverty on a smallholding, with one cow, which he milked outside into a pail, for our breakfast porridge and tea. Later I heard he emigrated to the USA. I remember also hearing the Jim Gralton saga from Packy Gralton, by the light of an oil lamp in the latter's cottage, where we shared lumpy beds.
This was not a productive exercise. At the same time Gearoid Mac Carthaigh was reconstructing what became the 1950s IRA from a similar but unrelated contact network, and he succeeded. The vision which the IWL at that time projected was not a marketable package. It was basically flawed and not related to the needs of the time. The gap between the post-war European left experience, and that of Irish insularity and war-time neutrality, was far too wide.
Broadly speaking, the role of the ex-republican-left curragh-internees was, up to a point, a positive counter-balance to the doctrinaire Stalinist conservatism of the rump of the old CPI, in that they wanted to initiate actions among working people, insofar as they could, a subsequent example being the Ballyfermot consumer co-op, a 1950s episode. The role of the rump of the old CP was simply to run the bookshop, and to ensure that people became steeped in textbook Marxism and what then was being promoted as Soviet experience. The Greaves intervention attempted to develop an interface with the 'national question'; this was partially taken up by some of the ex-Curragh people, but rejected by others.
The 'student left', apart from the present writer, was mostly decoupled from this process, and tended to concentrate on student politics, with some success as regards broad student democracy, but this effort was counterbalanced by their tendency to look East for international affiliations which were perceived by most students as being irrelevant. On the whole we did not succeed with our analysis of the situation; we failed to lay the foundation for next-generation politics, and condemned the aspirant Connolly-Marxist movement to be by-passed by the 1950s republican revival and the IRA armed campaign.
There is a grubby copy of the 1949 Manifesto of the IWL, duplicated on foolscap, stapled at the top, as though to be read in a proclamation. It states the problem initially in terms of unemployment, housing, emigration etc, and harks back to the 1791 United Irishmen's Declaration. It then leans on the perceived positive political perception of post-war Europe, and mentions Partition as the main obstacle to independence, aspiring to unite the working-class in the whole of Ireland to achieve it. It then goes on the be critical of successive post-Treaty Governments. It concludes, after surveying the world, with a call to develop a strong Labour movement in the tradition of Connolly and Larkin. It is ill-edited and in the form I have it was not fit for distribution, but it probably was intended for a printed version. Even if well edited however its content would have been indigestible.
There was a conference in November 1949; this could be regarded perhaps as the fruit of our organising trips the previous year; there had been subsequent ones in the autumn. There are some notes towards an agricultural policy in my handwriting. There is an omnibus 'Main Resolution' with numbered paragraphs, running to 5 foolscap pages; the sections are headed 'British policy Towards Ireland', 'Policies of the Irish Ruling Class', 'Collaboration with Imperialism', 'Democratic Rights Assailed', 'No Serious Differences among Dail Parties', 'Only the Working Class can lead the Nation', 'Anti-Imperialist Front', 'Government Policy', 'Build the Irish Workers League', 'Powerful Allies' (in this they look abroad to the USSR and China), 'Trade Union Work' and 'Organisation'. Typically, it is all analysis and little of immediate practical utility.
A Constitution was adopted; among the objectives was the establishment of diplomatic relations with the USSR; the primary objective was 'to achieve socialism in Ireland, ie, a social system in which the means of production and exchange shall be publicly owned'. 'The establishment of a united, independent and democratic republic for all Ireland' was seen as an intermediate objective. A branch structure was envisaged, and an annual conference. The Executive Committee was to have Political and Organisational sub-committees. Membership was defined.
There were additional resolutions on Trade Union Work, on the Irish Workers Voice and on International Solidarity. There are associated with this cache of late-40s documentation a collection of leaflets and proclamations, including one on the Milne Report on Irish Transport, and one on the Transport Crisis. There are also notes on some classes given by Sean Nolan on the history of Irish working-class movements in the past. There is a May Day leaflet for 1950, warning of the danger of world war.
Clearly there was the makings of a genuine radical socialist movement here, which might have collected support had it not been for the negative impact of the international scene, the emerging 'cold war' tensions, and then in the summer of 1950 the Korean war, which drove the IWL practically underground.
The first issue of the IWL Education Bulletin is undated but from internal evidence would appear to have been produced in the spring of 1950, to have been edited by Paul O'Higgins, and to consist basically of a listing of the various Marxist publications available in New Books, 16a Pearse St. The orientation is towards Britain, France and Russia, and there is practically nothing with an Irish flavour.
The second issue, also edited by PO'H, has reviews of 'Women in the Land Of Socialism' by Nina Popova and Lenin's 'What is to be Done'; also 'Notes on Public Speaking'. There was also a discussion paper by the present writer on how educational classes should be organised and graded, and what their scope should be. The text emphasis was very USSR, including 'Stalin on the National Question'. I was concerned that people talking about 'developing the forces of production' should have been given some idea what it meant in real terms, and suggested Hogben's 'Science for the Citizen' as useful reading. Understanding and defending the USSR was high on the agenda.
Viewed in retrospect, this was a formula for producing boring autodidacts, decoupled from the real situation in Ireland.
The third issue, still undated, is slightly more 'feet on the ground'; PO'H is still editing, but apart from reviews of stuff like 'Lenin and Stalin on the Party' there are contributions by Sean Furlong (Brendan Behan's half-brother) reviewing Irish TUC publications, and Alfie Venencia on procedure at meetings. The work of the education committee is reviewed, the emphasis being very much on book-learning about experience abroad.
We then have #4 in the series, which is labelled #2, but still undated. There has been a change in editor, who is now Peter Lalor, one of the ex-Curragh 'Connolly Group', who attempts to steer the contents more towards action:
Editorially Peter Lalor calls for development of a sound theoretical basis by the analysis of the class forces in Ireland, and their relationships with external imperialism. He calls for a 'theory of allies'. He then goes on about tutorial methods. The next item however illustrates the gulf between the vision and the practice: it is a review by the present writer of Lenin's 'Materialism and Empirio-Criticism', a book of some interest to specialists in philosophy, but about as remote from the immediate needs of a struggling radical working-class party as one could get. This is followed by some notes on 'working-class journalism' aimed at getting copy for the 'Irish Workers Voice' which was beginning to be produced monthly for circulation in Ireland. There are some letters from readers, one critical of the bookish orientation of the aspirant educators, including the present writer.
Issue 5 in the series is at last dated: August 1950. It contains a valiant attempt by Sam Nolan to interpret what was going in in Eastern Europe, in the form of a review of a book by one H Minc in the leadership of the Polish CP. The aid of the USSR and its army is seen as crucial, and approved of. Due deference is given to Stalin. It is suggested that the 'Peoples Democracies' are at a stage analogous to the NEP in the USSR in the 1920s. The presence of the Red Army saved them from disasters of the type known as 'war communism' due to counter-revolutionary intervention from abroad. The 'discussion paper' published in Issue 2 and attributed to the present writer was apparently not intended for publication. There are more notes on tutorial methods, and a review by PO'H of Ralph Parker's 'Moscow Correspondent'; also more notes towards working-class journalism for the 'Voice'.
I continue to go through this material, picking out the few highlights; it is depressing to look back on it and to see how far the USSR-dominated theoretical vision was removed from the local realities.
The September 1950 issue has a note by Sam Nolan on the circulation of the paper Irish Workers' Voice; they had targeted 6000 and were attaining about 1000, of which about 400 were personal sales by members, a derisory amount.
I recollect trying to sell the paper in public places and encountering personal hostility, a consequence of the apparent promotion of support for the USSR and the post-war Eastern European scene. Anti-communism was ingrained in Irish culture, a consequence of the perceived attitude of Communist governments to religion. The atmosphere had been made much worse by the Korean war. Our earlier attempts to make contact with the CPNI and to begin developing some analysis of the national question, under Greaves influence, had foundered; the Northern comrades, mostly crypto-Unionists, were glad of any excuse, such as that presented by the priority of the 'peace issue' seen globally, for not discussing all-Ireland issues. Our failure to do this undoubtedly fuelled the 1950s IRA.
The October 1950 issue indicates severe internal dissensions within the IWL, and carries a heart-felt criticism by Joe Cole of the IWL education policy, as a generator of 'bookworm Marxists', and calling instead for the study of Irish history, democracy and local government. The November issue contains an article by the present writer (then 20 years old) attacking the sectarianism of leadership policies (forcing the electorate to choose between abstractions 'capitalism' and 'socialism') while at the same time urging opportunistically support for Labour. The present writer's vision was that the IWL should be prepared to unite with all democratic elements in defence of peace, national independence and civil liberties. It also contains an article by 'J Ready' (Sean Mulready) which links the development of an Irish language policy with the then recently published thesis on Linguistics by Stalin.
The December 1950 issue is dominated by feedback from the Warsaw Peace Congress and the November Cominform meeting. There is a 'Salute to Stalin'. There is a call by Mairin Mooney (whom the present writer was then courting and to whom he got married in January 1952) for the leadership to run special classes for women members on women's issues, and a review by Paddy Carmody of TA Jackson's 'Old Friends to Keep'. This book in its time was a serious contribution to Marxist literary criticism.
Thus ends the 1940s decade. The 'left' in Ireland had on the whole got off to a bad start; dominated by bookishness, by respect for Stalin and the Cominform, turned in on itself, doctrinaire, it provided meagre raw material for intelligent Marxist analysis of the Irish situation. There was, however, nowhere else for the aspirant radical critical intellectual to go. The present writer stuck with it, and fought for a genuine critical view where and when he could.
Notes and ReferencesWhat follows I am adding to cumulatively as I find out more about what was going on. The ordering will be successive as regards time of addition, rather than location in the text. I hope to use this as a mode of registering response to feedback from readers of the book who have delved into this hypertext support material. RJ 18/10/2006.
1. I have recently read Misha Glenny's book The Balkans 1804-1999, Granta, London, 2000, with fascinated attention; I was lent it by my son Fergus, who has family links with Bulgaria, after spending some time there in August 2006. It contributes very credibly to the currently necessary understanding of the history of the interaction with Islam, and of the complexities of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, including the background to Greek independence movement in Byron-time, and the recent break-up of Yugoslavia. I noted particularly the role of Stalin at the time of the Greek crisis in 1944, of which at the time we were not aware. It seems he did a deal with Churchill handing Greece over to British influence, in return for Russian influence in Rumania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary (cf p 522 in Glenny, quoted from Churchill's memoirs). In this context Stalin blocked support from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia for the emergent left-wing government under the EAM/ELAS Popular Front (cf p558), leaving the way open for a royalist right-wing government to be set up, with much bloodshed, thanks to British support. The subsequent relatively stable cold-war frontier was a consequence of of this concession by Stalin towards Anglo-US interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999
Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999