George Derwent Thomson (Irish: Seoirse Mac Tomáis), English classical scholar, Marxist philosopher, and scholar of the Irish language, dies on February 3, 1987, at his home in Moseley, Birmingham, England.
Thomson is born on August 19, 1903, in West Dulwich, London, the eldest of a family of three sons and two daughters born to William Henry Thomson, an accountant, and his wife Minnie (née Clements). Inheriting an interest in Ireland from his maternal grandfather, an Ulsterman of Orange stock, and his mother, he attends Irish language classes run by the Gaelic League in London while a pupil at Dulwich College (1916–22).
Awarded a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1922, Thomson studies classics, where he attains First Class Honours in the Classical Tripos and subsequently wins a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). At TCD he works on his first book, Greek Lyric Metre, and begins visiting the Blasket Islands in the early 1920s. He becomes lecturer and then Professor of Greek at University College Galway.
Thomson moves back to England in 1934, when he returns to King’s College, Cambridge, to lecture in Greek. He becomes a professor at the University of Birmingham in 1936, the year he joins the Communist Party of Great Britain. He pioneers a Marxist interpretation of Greek drama. His Aeschylus and Athens (1941) and Marxism and Poetry (1945) win him international attention. In the latter book he argues a connection between the work song and poetry, and that pre-industrial songs are connected to ritual.
Thomson first visits the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1923. Mac Tomáis, as he quickly becomes known to the islanders, had attended rudimentary Irish classes at a branch of Conradh na Gaeilge in London before he went to Cambridge. When he arrives on the island, he immerses himself in the language. In six weeks of walking around, talking with Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and others, he achieves near complete fluency in the language.
Thomson spends several years with the people of the islands studying their language, history and culture. He maintains a special study of the now extinct community in Ireland, in which he perceives elements of surviving cultural resonances with historical society prior to the development of private property as a means of production. He becomes a champion of the Irish language.
Thomson has a role in the publication of the memoirs of Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Fiche Bliain Ag Fás (Twenty Years Growing) in 1933. The introduction to Ó Súilleabháin’s autobiography by E. M. Forster can also be attributed to Thomson.
When Thomson applies for the new position of lecturer of Greek at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 1931 he, in the words of Richard Roche, “astonished the interview board with a flow of Blasket Irish” and is awarded the post.
In 1951, Thomson is the only member of the Communist Party’s Executive Committee to vote against the Party’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, because “the dictatorship of the proletariat was missing.” He also serves on the Party’s Cultural Committee.
The Chinese revolution of 1949 has a profound effect on Thomson and leads to differences with the British Communist Party, from which he eventually drifts. He never loses his political beliefs. He is committed to working class education, including giving lectures to factory workers at Birmingham’s Austin car plant. He also maintains a special affection and support for the Morning Star in his later years.
Thomson authors three popular expositions on Marxism published by the China Policy Study Group in the early 1970s. From Marx to Mao Tse-tung: A study in revolutionary dialectics (1971), Capitalism and After: The rise and fall of commodity production (1973), and The Human Essence: The sources of science and art (1974). He is also the author of Marxism and Poetry (1945).