Daring to dream of an island of equals

Des Geraghty reflects on his family memoir about a century of working-class activism

Des Geraghty in 2006 as chairperson of the Affordable Homes Partnership, with Dick Roche, minister for the environment, heritage and local government at Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson

As much as my new book, We Dare to Dream of an Island of Equals, is a personal family memoir, it is also about the country we all inherited after the War of Independence and the consequences of the “two-state solution” essentially imposed by our old imperial masters, not unlike many other divided and partitioned countries left by them after their reluctant departure.

I wanted to chart how the events of the past hundred years impacted on the lives of my own family and also on the majority of the people of Ireland, North and South, and in doing so found just how far this country departed, in its early years, from the hopes and aspirations of the United Irishmen, the people of Connolly and Larkin, the poor and downtrodden, the workers, mothers and daughters, the unemployed, Travellers, migrants, homeless and victims of cynical sectarianism in both states.

The story begins in our our home in Number 3, Cornmarket, at the top of the Forty Steps, above the old city wall and St Audoen’s Arch. It was in the immediate presence of two impressive churches of different vintages and different persuasions. The oldest of the two is the medieval Church of Ireland St Audeon’s, overshadowed by the monstrous, stone-pillared St Audeon’s Catholic Church on High Street.

The proximity and relative size of these buildings are a statement in themselves of the centuries-old tensions between these two institutions in the centre of Dublin city. The spiritual needs of the community in that area were catered for more than adequately. There were two Protestant cathedrals, Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s, within easy walking distance. There was Michael and John’s Catholic Church ( Mickey and Jack’s, as we called it ), home of the famous Smock Alley on the quays.


The ancient, long-decommissioned graveyard at the side of the older St Audeon’s Church was our playground park, where we rolled amid the tall grass, the buttercups, the jinny joes, the daffodils and the daisies. Or, if we were making mischief, we might resort to the more forbidding and rugged “grass yards” of waste ground and old ruined buildings behind the remaining houses of Cornmarket.

One of the houses had a plaque identifying it as Napper Tandy’s house – Napper Tandy being one of the founders of the United Irishmen – while two of them, at ground-floor level, housed the office and warehouse of James Huggard and Sons. This was where my father, Tom, worked as storeman for over 23 years. We lived, there over the store.

Although this was undoubtedly a disadvantaged area of the city, we found it a rich and rewarding place to grow up in. When we lived there we knew from an early age that this thoroughfare had been trodden by such notables as Zozimus, the balladeer of old; PJ McCall, traditional musician, folklorist and song writer; James Clarence Mangan, poet and Young Irelander; and Robert Emmet and Lord Edward FitzGerald, United Irishmen, patriots and martyrs. For the most part, though, it was the home of decent, hard-working people; the men when they could earn a shilling, and the women who were always working to protect their children or to keep the wolf from the door.

In the last century, the area had been very familiar to James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, WT Cosgrave and many more. We knew also that this was the home of some great musicians and singers of our generation, among them Tommy Potts, master fiddler; Seán Potts and family, musicians; Tommy Reck, the great uileann piper; the Furey family, Travellers and musicians, who lived behind us on Cooke Street; Leo Rowsome, King of the Pipers, and the home of traditional music and song, the Pipers Club in Thomas Street. PJ McCall, writer of many rebel songs, lived in the shadow of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Patrick Street.

This book is both a personal and family memoir, perhaps subjective and somewhat impressionistic, but a genuine journey down memory lane. It’s concerned with the first hundred years of our country as a State.

Given the closeness and somewhat unusual nature of my family, as we all gravitated towards trade unionism and Larkinism, I have considered some of our collective experiences and responses to certain events in our lives. Each of us shared the hope that we might, in some small way, be architects of the future, rather than passive prisoners of our past. Our family were always participants in change, not always very wisely, but rightly or wrongly always involved in efforts to improve the lot of those ignored or neglected in society. T

he philosophy of Connolly, Larkin and the trade union movement provided us with both a spiritual and temporal guide for our direction in a very divided country. Although we were all very different in personality we shared very similar values inherited from earlier generations and particularly from both our parents.

Larkinism was undoubtedly the strongest influence in our home. I believe that the concept of “an injury to one is the concern of all”, the slogan of Larkin and the ITGWU, has an abiding and universal appeal to our common humanity and is one which has to be fought for over and over again. It transcends race or religion, gender or colour but requires the power of organisation and discipline of the many to enforce it in practice. Given the many serious crises now facing humanity, we will need to be constantly reminded of that concept, not just for the good of others but for our own survival.

On my journey along the rocky road of life, survival has been helped by the constant companionship of music, song and poetry. The spirit of these gifts is constantly felt, rather than seen or heard, but is always there, an inherited wealth of priceless riches which is there for all the people of our society to share.

We Dare to Dream of an Island of Equals, by Des Geraghty, is published by Red Stripe Press. It will be launched as part of an evening of music, song and poetry in Hodges Figgis on March 16th at 7pm.