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Joseph Glenholmes: Immigrant, fighter and proud communist

SARAH DOYLE recalls the life of her grandfather, a Star stalwart in Birmingham who has passed away at the age of 85

READERS of the Morning Star may be familiar with the sight of my granddad Joseph Glenholmes selling the newspaper on picket lines, street corners and demonstrations. 

As an Irish immigrant to England, Joe felt at one with this country’s labour and communist movement while remaining committed to international struggles abroad, and dedicated his time on Earth to making the world a better place.

Born in 1933 into an impoverished Catholic enclave in Ballymacarrett, east Belfast, Joe’s formative years were lean ones, and marked by the systematic persecution that no Catholic could escape in this period of Belfast’s history. 

This first-hand experience of suffering as a minority — but having also the sense of belonging to a rich anti-imperialist tradition — shaped and nurtured Joe’s politics, and brought him into a lifelong commitment to the cause of Irish Republicanism.

At some time in the late ’50s, Joe moved out of the repressive environment that was pre-Troubles Belfast, making his home in Birmingham, where he became active in working-class politics. 

As an immigrant and a fighter, he found his political home in the Communist Party, where he quickly became an active and well-respected member. 

Though the ’60s and ’70s saw Joe moving to and fro from Birmingham to Belfast and back again, Joe could be found in the heat of the class struggle. 

As a young care worker and delegate to Birmingham Trades Council, he was side by side with the miners in 1972 when thousands of Birmingham engineers and hundreds of other sympathetic workers manned the picket lines at Saltley Gate and shut the plant down for the duration of that successful strike, and was involved with solidarity work for the other great battles of that era. 

He also raised six deeply politicised children, all of whom can readily recall fond memories of being taken as toddlers by their dad to marches against the National Front.

Joe was also very much involved in the Star Club, the venue of the Birmingham Communist Party. 

The Club boasted a range of activities, from ballads sessions compered by the former International Brigader Bob Cooney, to some of Birmingham’s first LGBT club nights.

This sort of cultural work was important to Joe, a working-class autodidact who was fond of quoting the Soviet slogan “Knowledge will break the chains of slavery,” and he spent many an hour in the Club with his best friend, the miner and Communist organiser Frank Watters.

Joe, who never forgot his anti-imperialist political schooling, was also highly active in the Connolly Association during the height of the Troubles. 

To have argued clearly and unambiguously for a socialist united Ireland in bomb-scarred Birmingham was, it goes without saying, a stance that required a real conviction and stoutness of character, and my granddad had no interest in backing down from his serious commitment to Irish freedom. 

He also visited Cuba on a union solidarity delegation and was proud to attend the Fete de l’Humanite, the festival of the French Communist Party, on behalf of the Morning Star.

After his retirement from working in the Atherstone House children’s care home, where he helped nurture many disadvantaged young people — some of whom were to become lifelong friends — Joe continued on as a retired activist in what became Unison and was involved in the local anti-war movement, taking his grandchildren to picket lines and the great 2003 march against the threat of war against Iraq. 

The splits in the world communist movement pained him, and he stuck with the Communist Party of Britain upon its refoundation. He remained a delegate to Birmingham Trades Council, even when ill health began to plague him. 

Although Joe was a Communist Party man through and through, he was overjoyed to see his grandchildren join the Labour Party to fight for Jeremy Corbyn’s political vision. The upsurge in support for causes dear to his heart bolstered him in old age and he felt encouraged by the renewal of interest in socialist publications like Tribune. 

However, it was the Morning Star that was particularly dear to him; he will be buried with the latest issue inside his coffin, which will be draped in the Starry Plough flag — a flag which so aptly symbolises Joe’s socialist, anti-imperialist convictions.

My granddad’s legacy shall be the joy that his family will continue to advance the cause that he dedicated his entire life to fight in, and that we will fight until victory. The values which he held so close to his heart are how we will remember him: a self-educated working man who demanded a better tomorrow and touched all those he met with his profound insight and kindheartedness.

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