Media Library


John Cunningham:

Thursday 27th May, 2021

A Uachtaráin, a chomhleacaithe, agus a chairde. Is onóir dom a bheith páirteach san ocáid tábhactach seo. Beidh mé ag caint faoi ghluaiseachtaí lucht oibre le linn na tréimhse réabhlóideacha.

In 1967, Martin O’Sullivan, a retired Athlone train driver, contributed two articles to the Irish Independent. Martin was originally from Galway, and he grew up in a railway family in the shadow of the Augustinian church in Middle Street – a place President Higgins knows very well. In the articles, he discussed his part in the munitions embargo, a trade union action which impeded the movement of British military equipment between May and December 1920 and which, for that reason, loomed large in the calculations of Michael Collins and his colleagues.

That it involved large numbers is established by the figures for those dismissed or suspended for taking part – 1,000 railway workers and 500 dockers.

If the trade union embargo had a major impact on the conflict in 1920, it did not have the same impact on historical narratives, and nearly fifty years later Martin O’Sullivan concluded his account in the Independent by expressing his bewilderment that “those important events were not recorded in any recent history of Ireland”.

The embargo is the subject of a recent publication by railway historian Peter Rigney and it features obliquely in the opening scene of Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but it would be fair to say that it remains part of the hidden history of the period. The same might be said, more or less, about other contemporary labour mobilisations. To give two examples: the Irish Trade Union Congress’s anti-conscription strike in April 1918 played a large part in changing the course of events during that fateful year; while the general strike of April 1920 forced the British government to release hunger-striking prisoners within two days.

Martin O’Sullivan’s indignant disappointment has relevance to the Machnamh theme of ‘imagined futures’. Defying the military, he and unarmed comrades risked their lives as well as their livelihoods in defence of the incipient republic. They had the reasonable expectation of having this acknowledged, but in the dominant narrative of the struggle, their contribution was ignored – relegated by the drama of ambushes and elections, but also by the state-making imperatives of a conservative polity.

Social remembering and commemoration, as Margaret O’Callaghan reminds us, has involved selective forgetting. Some of the forgotten things, one hopes, may be recovered in contexts like the present one.

Behind the mobilisations I’ve mentioned lay other imagined futures. Trade unions could put boots on the ground because of the increase in their membership, itself a reflection of a widespread determination to fight for a better life. The most remarkable growth was in the ITGWU, founded by the absent Jim Larkin, which grew from 5,000 in 1916 to 100,000 in 1920.

Of the 100,000, approximately half were farm labourers, and their embrace of the ITGWU represented the impulse of a marginalised group to exert some control over their working lives. Strikes, workplace seizures, ‘soviets’, were among the weapons they used. As scholars including Emmet O’Connor, Pamela Horn and Fintan Lane have shown, rural labourers had fitfully organised in previous decades in bodies like the Irish Land and Labour Association.

They had exerted pressure, especially after labourers won the right to vote in local elections in 1898. The key achievement of the earlier collectivities was a transformation in housing. In the thirty years before the First World War, under the Labourers’ Acts, almost 50,000 labouring families had swapped their unsanitary hovels for council houses with tillage plots. The process is treated informatively and engagingly by the Loughrea writer, Séumas O’Kelly, in his one act play Meadowsweet. O’Kelly was familiar with the arcane workings of the Labourers’ Acts from his day job as editor of the Leinster Leader.

But if labourers’ secured decent houses, wages and conditions were a different matter – in those respects, labourers had remained at the mercy of farmers and landlords. War would change the balance of forces in the countryside.

Wartime demand brought price inflation – good for those like farmers with something to sell; bad for those dependent on wages. Other developments, though, gave workers a bargaining position. With military enlistment reducing the numbers available, compulsory tillage increased the demand for labour. An Agricultural Wages Board was established in 1917 to guarantee the wartime food supply by encouraging labourers to remain on the land.

However, it was necessary for labourers to become unionised to claim their new entitlements and their share in agricultural prosperity. Initially there was something of a resurgence of the older Associations, but most were soon absorbed by the burgeoning ITGWU, which mushroomed in those parts of Leinster and Munster where farm labourers were most numerous.

Even for a county like Mayo, with relatively few labourers, Francis Devine lists 19 ITGWU branches in 1918-19, including Achill Sound, Belmullet, Ballycastle, Kilkelly, and Shrule. The story in Ulster was rather different, with complexities that I can’t do justice to here. It merits separate treatment – perhaps in a future Machnamh.

The ITGWU, of course, promised more than wage increases. In its periodicals and in the rhetoric of its organisers, it also promulgated an imagined future of its own, encompassed in the idea of the Workers’ Republic. It was an idea formulated by James Connolly, and that union laid claim to its martyred leader and his legacy, increasing its authority throughout nationalist Ireland, while pointing frequently to the Russian revolutions as current manifestations of the Workers’ Republic. The Manchester Guardian reported in May 1920:

“The ITGWU, Connolly’s body, is particularly active all over the country and penetrates to such remote spots as Clifden the far end of the desert of Connemara … It brings with it into the towns of the West an entirely new magazine of ideas; it proclaims that patriotism is not enough and that though Sinn Féin may be all very well in its way, the republic will be no good unless it is a Workers’ Republic…”

While Guardian readers were digesting all this, another wave of unrest was sweeping from the west, this one involving small farmers – so-called ‘congests’ – anxious to add to their uneconomic holdings while there was still the chance. Land held by graziers was targeted, and the repertoire of agitation – cattle-drives, land seizures – was drawn from decades of agrarian struggle.

The context is well analysed in works by Heather Laird, Fergus Campbell, Tony Varley, Michael D. Higgins and others. Of many dramatic episodes, I’ll mention one where J.G. Alcorn, high sheriff of Co. Galway and landholder at Kilroe, Corrandulla, was dipped in Lough Corrib, and threatened with drowning if he refused to sign over his grazing land. He didn’t refuse.

So alongside military engagements, separatist victories in elections, and the creation of Dáil courts, these social struggles were taking place. The overlapping and intersecting phenomena have been collectively characterised in recent decades as the Irish revolution.

But was there really a revolution? The question is posed by Marc Mulholland who identifies features associated with revolutions, including a fundamental change in the social order, and found most of them lacking. If there was an Irish revolution, he suggests, it started in 1879 and one of its key achievements was the wresting of control of the land from the landlords.

And if the process was protracted, the context was also very broad. In March 1919, Prime Minister Lloyd George, wrote in confidence to the Paris Peace Conference:

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution… In some countries … the unrest takes the form of open rebellion; in others … it takes the shape of strikes and of a general disinclination to settle down to work — symptoms … just as much concerned with the desire for political and social change as with wage demands.”

Whether we conclude that there was in fact an Irish revolution, Lloyd George’s ‘spirit of revolution’ was certainly at large in the years around 1919. In addition to the examples I’ve given, there are many others in an imminent publication of that title, “Spirit of Revolution”, that Terry Dunne and I have been putting together. And thanks to Terry for bringing the Lloyd George document to my attention.

Frequently we see IRA Volunteers involved in contemporary labour and agrarian struggles, but this was discouraged by IRA and Sinn Féin leaders. Sinn Féin courts and dedicated land courts quickly clamped down on agrarian agitators, and from the period of the Truce, there was less tolerance of labour militancy. By the early Free State period, strikes were being labelled ‘labour irregularism’.

The servants of the embryo state generally saw social agitation that was outside their control as opportunistic, destabilising, and illegitimate. Vigorous interventions to stamp out agrarian militancy in 1920 were followed by similar stands against labour unrest – ‘soviets’ early in 1922; farm labourer strikes in Kildare and Waterford in 1922-23. Research for the ‘Spirit of Revolution’ suggests that there was little to distinguish between the attitudes of pro- and anti-Treaty camps in this regard.

The historiography has often echoed the architects of the state in treating social agitation as opportunistic and largely peripheral, which is puzzling insofar as influential social science writings, notably Charles Tilly’s, have recognised ‘popular contention’ or mass mobilisation as key markers of revolution. It is to be hoped that a more holistic view will be a legacy of Decade of Centenaries research.

However, there is the risk that over-reliance on newly-available sources such as Bureau of Military History witness statements and military pensions’ application — exciting and informative as they are — will tend to give even more attention to ambushes at the expense of creamery soviets and land seizures. Contemporary newspapers and police reports tend to have more on popular contention.

My paper has focused on male manual workers, but their success in greatly increasing their wages drew others to trade unionism. There was an influx of women, and of professionals who would not hitherto have identified with labour. There was the Irish Nurses Union, which was established in 1919, there was a new Irish Bank Officials Association which went on strike in the same year. Established bodies, including the important INTO, treated definitively by Niamh Puirséil, affiliated with the trade union congress. In May 1920, at the peak of the cattle drives, the ASTI placed pickets on Christian Brothers schools, outraging the religious employers, some of whom would victimise the teachers involved when things settled a few years later. Other clergy, it should be said, were supportive of labour, acting as intermediaries and arbitrators.

Through all the ferment, some were looking forward to putting the spirit of revolution back in the bottle, and we can see this, inter alia, in debates on social issues in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. I’ll mention one that is topical, drawing on research I’ve been doing with Sarah-Anne Buckley.

An anonymous ‘Sagart’ writing in the Record in 1922 on ‘How to Deal with the Unmarried Mother’, argued that any new scheme should shield ‘the girl in trouble’ from further ‘degrading and corrupting influences’ by placing her in care, and should also have a ‘deterrent effect on the girls of her neighbourhood’. Continuing, he suggested that if the new Mother and Baby institutions were …

“… brought into touch – quietly of course – with people throughout the country who would be likely to cooperate with them, people such as the clergy, nuns, members of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic doctors, district nurses, social workers, etc., they would receive a much greater number of cases.”

That all came to pass; the Workers’ Republic did not. The fact that radical visionaries were not as coherent or as cohesive in their vision was only part of the reason.

Concluding, I’ll return to Martin O’Sullivan, so irked by the version of events in the history books that he put pen to paper himself. Before going to the Independent with his account of the rail embargo, he had written to RTÉ and to the history departments of all Irish universities. He got no reply.

The theme of ‘imagined futures’ reminds us to be more attentive to stories like his.