Addendum: John deCourcy Ireland died 4 April 2006.
John deCourcy Ireland is the Irish President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Nearly 88 years old he has been involved in the socialist and working class movement for most of this century. He and I first met at a protest against Sellafield and recently (2001) I took the opportunity of our friendship to conduct this interview.
Oisin: When did you first become a socialist?
JdCI: When I was 17, various experiences that I had, in various parts of the world - I was at sea - shook me. The poverty in Brazil was unbelievably horrible. We were unloading cargo and I tried to speak Spanish, I said to a docker "you have a beautiful Cathedral here." He replied "I wish the bloody thing was burnt to the ground." I asked him why? He said "if you get a chance come and see my house." And I did. It was beaten earth for a floor, no water or electricity, but it was within a hundred yards of the Cathedral.
Oisin: And what organisation did you join?
JdCI: Having run away from school to sea I thought I better try and get a scholarship to some university outside of Ireland. So I slipped up to Oxford and took the history scholarship - which I got although I hadn't had a history lesson since I was 13. So I went there. There was a café there where Michael Foot and his older brother, G. D. H. Cole and the Oxford socialists met. I joined the Labour Party in 1931. After that, I've been in and out of various Labour Parties - I have at least one record: I'm the only person who has been thrown out of both the Northern Irish and Southern Labour Parties
Oisin: Did you know Jim Larkin?
JdCI: I was extraordinarily lucky and I believe I am not lying when I say I became a socialist because he became my mentor. In 1935, I had a holiday, and we (Betty and I) went straight to Dublin and the Workers' Union office where I was introduced to Larkin. So far from asking him questions - which I was longing to do - he was terribly interested in what we had to say. He asked Betty about the Catering industry; myself about the sea; as well as the conditions in Manchester where we were both members of the Labour Party. He was so determined to get the picture - typically of him - it came to 1pm and he said "listen, It's time we had some lunch, come home with me." So he took us to Wellington Street, number ten. Then he started talking about the movement here. We said we were in touch with Sinn Fein and the Republican Congress. So from that he began to develop his picture of the situation as it was then. Then he said "listen, it's getting late. Why don't you come and stay with me?" So for the rest of the holiday we did and it was absolutely stunning. He used to bring us to union meetings - he drove us to various meetings. I remember one enormous meeting in a big old building in Fishamble Street, where he surprised me by something he said to a group of strikers: "Now you know I'll stand with you and we're going to win this. But I have to tell you this. Don't forget when you are back at work that the working class are going to build a new society - and you must learn to do your work as well at the moment, as you are, as you will in a new society. " He really believed in the future socialist society. Imagine a trade union leader saying that today!
Oisin: Were the Blueshirts an issue at the time?
JdCI: The first big, long, march that I was on in Dublin was against the Blueshirts and it was led by Peadar O'Donnell.
Oisin: When we look back at that period we see Republican Congress as a very promising organisation - but do you feel it threw away the possibilities of building a strong socialist party by the decision to concentrate on achieving the Republic first, before raising class issues.
JdCI: Absolutely right. I'm certain you are right. This is what Larkin thought. Larkin had a very cynical view of Peadar O'Donnell. O'Donnell was brilliant and a very good speaker, but a very unsatisfactory socialist.
Oisin: You spent some time in the North?
JdCI: Yes. Before the war I had a contract to write a book about the border. Ever since I was on a protest against Basil Brooke in Manchester I had a lot to do with the B Specials. So we decided to live just outside the North, about a hundred yards from the border near Derry. We joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in Derry. There was a great crowd there, and very bipartisan. There was a fellow used to come to Sunday meetings of the branch in his bowler hat and orange sash and he was a very powerful trade unionist! Eventually we drew up a constitution that suggested a federation between North and South. We circulated it and that was why I was thrown out of the NILP by Harry Midgely. I was on the Executive at the time.
Oisin: Were you involved in the split in the Labour Party in the 1940's?
JdCI: Oh yes. Young Jim and Jim Larkin had decided to join the Labour Party because there were some first class people involved in Dublin. We had this Central Branch which really built things up. There were about 30 branches, which meant that young Jim and I had just enough days in the month to visit. They cohered into the "Dublin Executive", which is not in the Labour Party constitution but we set it up. Young Jim was made President of it and I was made Secretary of it. William O'Brien and the Union threw out our nomination of Jim Larkin for the 1943 election and that began the split. We called a meeting of the Dublin Labour Party immediately. We got someone to propose that WE stand Jim Larkin, and of course he got in, to the horror of O'Brien! And that was the beginning of my troubles. They had thrown out Owen Sheey-Skeffington and started a witchunt against me. The '44 election saw half page advertisments on young Jim and me: that we had been trained in Moscow to burn churches! Which was difficult for me as I taught in St. Patrick's Church Grammar School.
Oisin: Where were you during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and what was the effect here?
JdCI: I was in the Dun Laoghaire Labour Party. And that was the first time I said anything publicly against the Soviet Union. We began to see from that moment on - and it wasn't particularly easy to see - the extent of the dictatorship. It was a shock. In fact the first shock was in 1953 with the workers movement in East Germany. There was someone I knew in the Connolly Association in London and he was editor of Irish Freedom - before getting a very good job on the Observer. He spoke out against the events of 1953 and was thrown out of the Communist Party in 1956. And round about '64 was thrown out of the Observer for being too left!
Oisin: You have been a campaigner for peace since the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament here in 1958. How would you respond to the recent wars where the US and UK have claimed to be acting for 'humanitarian' reasons.
JdCI: It's a LIE. There is no question that it is an entire lie. It is a figment. It is something behind which they do the entire opposite and East Timor is the greatest example of that. I have no doubt that the really rich, the arms manufacturers and that lot in the US have no conception of humanitarianism. I learned that very young, I was in ships taking bananas from Columbia to Europe. And the first night in the first ship I was woken by an awful lot of firing. And I asked somebody the next day on deck that I knew was one of the bosses of the United Fruit Company of Boston which owned our ship "just what was that firing about?" and he said "when natives go into the banana plantation we shoot them." He said it just like that! In just so many words. In that little town the company owned the shops, the cinema, the clergy. Any little money that you did earn went straight back to them.