Tony had some particular childhood memories that were very important to him and which I think contribute to the person he was. One concerned the stories his father told him of growing up on the North Strand, witnessing the Strike and Lockout in 1913, the Easter Rising 1916, the War of Independence, the Tans. He particularly liked the story of his grandfather who helped rescue two R.I.C. men from an irate crowd, the same grandfather who had such admiration of Pearse and Connolly. The other story concerned the family’s personal experience of the housing issue. His parents began family life in James Larkin House, then in one room in Charleville Mall with no running water and no indoor toilet. And then when his mother, with two sons, came looking for a flat from Dublin Corporation was told to come back when she had four more children and this was a woman who was nearly 50 at that stage.
His mother had a major influence on his life; she was particularly committed to education and encouraged him to achieve the scholarship which made it possible for him to go on to O’Connell’s Secondary School. One of his regrets was that his mother was not alive on that first election success to Dublin City Council – we actually drove out to Croghan Hill, Co. Offaly, a night later and I think he needed to feel a sense of her nearness.
To the day he died, Tony remained a committed Republican and Socialist, faithful to both traditions. But he never allowed those political beliefs to distort or take from his role as the elected public representative of the North Inner City.
His political hero, and it was no secret, was Seamus Costello. I will always remember his grief and sense of loss, the day of Seamus’ death. We were bringing some teenagers off on a hike to the Dublin Mountains, having collected them along the North Strand, not far from where it happened.
He often said it was the example of Seamus Costello that led him to becoming involved and that example was – it was not enough to be a theorist. And the nature of the North Inner City required active political involvement. He was an incredible political activist – with an unbelievable work rate. His core philosophy, or guiding principle, was service to the community. He wasn’t there simply to conform to restrictive Dáil procedures. He believed it was the role of the public rep to serve the community on issues presented by the people. We know the issues he championed and was proud of doing so; issues which for many years virtually no other politician took on. On the first day he was elected to the Dáil, he used the occasion to draw attention to the social and economic needs of the people of the inner city – housing, employment, the Docks, drugs. Another issue he championed was animal rights, a hugely divisive subject, but one of his regrets was that more progress was not made on this in the 21st century. He sought solutions based on rights, not charity, not clientism. He was the Independent City Councillor, the Independent T.D. and he abhorred the way politicians put the interests of the party first and not the interests of the communities who elected them. He didn’t pretend to do things; he did them.
His death and funeral, out of respect for him, were not going to be a showcase for hypocrisy. He had genuine respect for some politicians but the fact is that despite his commitment and prominence in all respects on Dublin City Council, he was for 25 years systematically excluded by every political party, from the position of Lord Mayor or any other prominent position on the City Council. Just as for the most part of his years in the Dáil he was also excluded; apart from the time leading the Technical Group which he said showed how Independent T.Ds could participate very effectively. A tribute he would most relish was from someone, who said that, without his encouragement and belief in her she would not have gone on to do the valuable work she is now doing in the inner city. Tony believed in her and she came to believe in herself, that she and people in the inner city could do anything.
I remember the early days in the ‘70s; Tony in his duffle coat, scarf wrapped around his neck – jet black hair, his scowl – but above all the vision he had; setting up and working with residents and community groups. I remember the newspapers –Tony wrote the articles, edited and was responsible for printing and delivering. The early days saw him getting bread boards from Mother’s Pride to put posters on. Women made the rosettes for the canvassers. We borrowed ladders and boy was he economical with the posters – some of the early ones re-appeared in later elections. Tony’s passion and commitment came from his direct involvement with people, his voluntary work with N.C.C.A.P, the Wexford and Cavan Centres, all with marginalised young people. He helped set up The Cavan Centre in the late 70’s. There, he took up the paint brush, pick and shovel, did sponsored cycles from Dublin to Cavan; also a sponsored canoe trip around Lough Sheelin. Typical Tony – the only one not to get wet. And remained Chairman of the Management Committee till he died.
He continued to work during his illness, getting into the Dáil most days until the last month of his life. Having made a tremendous effort to get into the Dáil to speak on the education cuts, he was not given speaking time. There were only two days in that year when he was not in contact with his secretary. Politics was his life; he was always available.
The Tony I knew for over 30 years had a great sense of humour, was great company, a great teller of stories; an outdoor person who loved the sea, walking, the sun. I have lovely memories of the times he came to Cape Clear with me. Yet he could be exasperating and grumpy and of course he was always right. He was a very loyal friend. And I miss him.
He loved the Irish language; fear speisialta e, d’oibrígh se gan stad. Sheas se suas agus labhair sé amach. Choinnígh se a fhocal i gcónaí.
Maureen O’Sullivan succeeded to Tony Gregory’s seat on Dublin City Council