Joe Deasy: A Life on the Left – An Extract

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The following is a short extract from the recently published biography of political activist and former Labour Party Councillor Joe Deasy by Brian Kenny, published in association with the Hugh Geraghty-Crumlin, Drimnagh, Walkinstown Branch of The Labour Party. Details of how to get Joe Deasy: A Life on the Left are at the end of this extract. The audio interview with Joe, recorded prior to the publication of his biography, was originally posted on ILR in November.

Life as a Councillor

Times were tough for many people in post war Ireland, with poor housing and completely inadequate health services. Almost every weekend people were calling to the Deasy family home with the same question ‘Joe, can you get us a house?’ TB was a major public health problem and as Noel Browne wrote in his autobiography “A nearly hysterical fear of tuberculosis was universal. It affected all classes, and as death took a long time and could be painful, this fear was understandable.” Joe regarded the disease as ‘merciless and rampant at the time with a house near us in Goldenbridge losing two young girls’.

The need for decent housing for poor and working families was the key issue which dominated Joe’s five year term with Dublin Corporation. The problem was severe, with the City Manager in 1946 notifying the council that there were 18,000 applicants on the housing waiting list.

Joe raised the issue whenever he could and a few months after his election he spoke at a Corporation meeting of the difficulties newly weds were having in finding affordable houses, noting that “thousands of young men were getting married in Dublin on wages of £2-10s a week and were having to pay 30s and 35s in rent”. Joe’s comments had the support of ‘Big’ Jim Larkin who was also a councillor and chairman of the Housing Committee.

One of the first motions Joe put before the Corporation called on it to record “its sympathy and appreciation of the heroic struggles being waged by the Carndonagh Tenants Association against extortionate landlordism and calls upon the government to introduce legislation to deal with the whole question of ground rents which inflicts so much hardship on the common people….” The fact that Carndonagh was in Donegal didn’t deter the young councillor from raising the issue in the city council chambers.

Other motions and questions on housing issues featured during Joe’s term. In 1948, for example, he pursued the City Manager, to say “when the tenants of Keogh Square can expect to have electric light functioning in their flats”. A year later he raised the same question but still didn’t get a definite answer. Ironically, as far back as 1943 this matter was raised by the Inchicore Branch which had been told by a Corporation official that “estimates for this work were being sought and considered”. The housing situation was so poor that, in 1948, the Corporation took up an offer of a £100,000 loan from the ITGWU for financing capital requirements under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts.

Despite the chronic housing shortage, different rules seemed to apply when the Catholic Church was involved. On one occasion the Corporation’s housing committee received a proposal to allocate two houses to two priests on Clogher Road in Crumlin. Joe was almost a lone voice in opposing the application. He spoke strongly against it and recalls saying that ‘we are driving a coach and four through every rule regarding the allocation of housing in this city’.

As he spoke his party colleague, Barney Conway, kept nudging him saying ‘don’t Joe, just don’t’. The priests got their two houses and when Joe told this story to his parents his father remained quiet but his mother simply said ‘Joe did the right thing’.

The chronic health epidemic caused by TB was also pursued by Joe. In 1947 his motion “expressed grave dissatisfaction with the further serious delay to the provision of a proper TB sanatorium for the people of Dublin”. A report prepared by Joe on the Crooksling TB sanatorium exposed shocking conditions and a meeting of the Corporation’s public health committee was convened to discuss it. The meeting was memorable for Jim Larkin’s contribution where he “nearly lifted the roof off City Hall with a roar of indignation”.

There were, however, also some lighter moments. In February 1946 Larkin proposed and had passed a motion granting the Freedom of the City to George Bernard Shaw, a motion Joe was more than happy to support. With characteristic style Shaw responded that “I shall be gratefully proud to become an honorary freeman of my native city… in spite of my incessantly controversial past and present I have not disgraced her”. (Privately, Shaw had written to Larkin saying he would not have accepted the honour but that the motion was proposed by him). The Corporation were keen for Shaw to attend the ceremony in person but he observed, “I am too old to be present, but there is so little of me left that I will hardly be missed”.

Jim Larkin

Joe served as a councillor alongside Jim Larkin from his election in mid 1945 until Larkin’s untimely death at the end of January 1947. Larkin, an imposing figure, was a ‘domineering man’. As one Fine Gael councillor ruefully remarked to Joe, ‘Larkin gets his own way, all the officials are afraid of him’. Larkin could be rough but also had the sensitivity to want to see the artistic contribution of people like Shaw recognised.

Joe had first hand experience of Larkin’s volatility. At one council meeting he praised Joe as an ‘intelligent young man’, which didn’t stop him from walking out of a subsequent Labour meeting after some remarks the same youthful Joe Deasy had made.

The ‘intelligent young man’ comment followed a letter Joe had published in The Irish Times on the issue of child welfare.

Sean MacEntee, never one to miss an opportunity to criticise Labour, had complained of the delay by Dublin Corporation in responding to his new maternity and child welfare scheme for the city. Joe responded strongly and pointed out that “… it takes Mr MacEntee’s government fourteen years to formulate a scheme of this nature despite the appalling infant mortality rate in Dublin…”. He went on to note that the Corporation’s public health committee had unanimously accepted the principle of the project and strongly defended his fellow councillors “who are trying daily, without remuneration of any kind, to give service to their fellow citizens”.

While Larkin could be difficult to deal with, Joe’s overall assessment was that he was “personally grateful… and intensely proud that he so closely passed my way”.

The Inchicore/Ballyfermot Co-op

Amidst his busy working and political life, Joe found time to be involved in the development of the Inchicore Co-operative. The co-op was initiated by Tim Graham, an old school friend of Joe’s and a fellow member of the Inchicore Branch of the Labour Party.

The co-op set up a grocery shop in Grattan Crescent in Inchicore and, with Joe’s assistance, also got tenancy of a larger shop in Decies Road in Ballyfermot. Following a request from Tim Graham, Joe subsequently took on the position of chairperson.

The co-op was ‘…very successful, we had 700 members and we were able to pay dividends’. It was also hard work, as every weekend members of the co-op committee were out canvassing for members and collecting subscriptions. A few years later a large scale ‘red scare’ controversy was to blow up over the running of this valuable community effort.

If you would like to buy a copy of the full biography please contact either Brian Kenny at kennybj@eircom.net or Eric Byrne at ericbyrn@indigo.ie .

The audio recording where Joe talks about the Ballyfermot Co-op was posted by Conor McCabe in his post Joe Deasy: Irish Marxist on the 27th of November last.

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Donagh is the editor of Irish Left Review. Contact Donagh through email: dublinopinionAtgmail.com
 

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