Remarks at the unveiling of a Memorial Sculpture to commemorate the Wexford Lockout of 1912
Wexford, 12th May 2012
Is mór an onóir agus an pléisiúr dom a bheith libh i Loch Garman inniu don ócáid thábhachtach seo. I would like thank the Mayor of Wexford, Councillor David Hynes, for his kind invitation to come to The Faythe to inaugurate a public work of art marking the centenary of the Wexford Lockout of 1912. That historic struggle secured a return to work for those involved and vindication of the right of the workers to establish a union to represent all foundry workers.
We know that Wexford Borough Council and its Centenary Committee have been working hard to commemorate the strength of the workers, their families and community and the origins of foundry work in Wexford. They took their inspiration from a seminal historical account of the Lockout written twenty five years ago by the late Michael Enright, “Men of Iron: Wexford Foundry Disputes 1890-1911”.1 Michael’s booklet was published by the Wexford Council of Trade Unions and Wexford Historical Society has to be commended for re-publishing his monograph.
The important archival work carried out by the Irish Labour History Society and other bodies has helped to re-awaken both amateur and professional interest in the subject of labour history. This year we embark upon a ‘Decade of Commemorations’ relating to the 1912 to 1922 period and it presents an opportunity for us all to reflect on the struggles and achievements of Irish citizens in the early 20th century. The strategic possibilities of labour history as an academic and intellectual discipline can help to break fresh ground in researching how distinctly Irish some forms of industrial conflict or types of labour organisation in Irish labour history actually are and how much they are variants of more general phenomena that recur in early European and North American labour history.
The selection of Peter Hodnett to undertake this work is particularly fitting. As someone who has worked for over thirty years in the engineering industry before he decided to follow his passion for art and sculpture, Peter’s work reflects his own background as a factory worker in steel and as a Wexford man, an artist and a trade unionist. He has framed an iron gate at the entrance to a foundry - one that is chained shut reflecting the infamous lockout in the town’s three foundries.
The events in this town one hundred years ago marked a significant development in the rise of a new era in the history of modern trade unions – the struggle to extend union organisation for the first time to the mass of unskilled workers. These workers were refused the most basic rights, including the very right to organise. Working conditions were often very poor and wages were extremely low. Of the thousands of manual workers in Ireland, many worked a 70 hour week for as little as 70p.2
Wexford’s industrialised character was unique in southern Ireland and derived from the town’s seafaring and trading links with Bristol. The foundry industry had become well established by the end of the nineteenth century. Three foundries - Pierce’s Foundry on Mill Road, the Selskar Iron Works and the Star Foundry –serviced the agricultural machinery needs of this premier tillage county but also supported a thriving export trade with world-wide markets.
The traditional exclusivity of the earlier organisations of skilled artisans had already begun to give way to a more generous recognition of the essential solidarity of all wage-earners. A branch of the National Union of Dock Labour had been set up on Wexford docks in Spring 1890, only a year after it was established in Great Britain. In June 1911, dockworkers became the first members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Wexford and soon after ironworkers in the foundries were joining the union.
The foundry disputes stemmed from the dismissal of a known union member by Pierce’s foundry in August 1911. The recourse to a lockout on the part of foundry owners was a pre-emptive blow aimed at ensuring that the newly emergent Irish Transport and General Workers Union would not get itself established in the industry in Wexford. The result was that over 700 men were thrown out of their employment. Nor should we forget Michael Leary, an innocent bystander, who died in September 1911 from wounds sustained in a baton charge after police reinforcements were brought in to the town.
What was witnessed was a bitter and prolonged dispute against the background of an upsurge of trade union activity among seamen, dockers, carters, and railway workers throughout Great Britain and Ireland. The action of the Wexford employers in combining to pose concerted opposition to the new union was to be followed by the Dublin employers in the tragic and historically renowned struggle of the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
The commitment and organisational ability of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union under the leadership of James Larkin, James Connolly and P.T. Daly - all of whom were to address meetings here at The Faythe during the course of the dispute – distinguished the new model of trade unionism from its more sectional predecessors. What set it apart was the vigour of its industrial action, its mobilisation of all sections of general workers to support other workers in less strategic positions and its advocacy of the principle that an injury to one is the concern of all.
The workers affected by the lockout were successful in winning support for their plight from the townspeople, from friendly societies, from local newspapers and from the local shopkeepers upon whom the workers were dependent for credit through the winter months. James Connolly commended the Leinster Council of the GAA and local teams, the Wexford Wolfe Tones and Castlebridge GAA club for the games and parades they organised to keep up the spirit of the workers during the five bitter months of the dispute.
D’éirigh leis na hoibrithe tacaíocht a fháil ar son na cúise ó mhuintir na háite, ó chara-chumainn, ó pháipéir nuachta agus ó siopadóirí áitiúla. Bhraith na hoibrithe ar na siopadóirí le haghaidh creidmheasa le linn an gheimhridh. Mhol James Connolly an Comhairle Laighean den Chumann Lúthchleas Gael agus foirne áitiúla, Wolfe Tones Loch Garman agus Club Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Dhroichead an Chaisleáin as na cluichí agus na paráidí a chur siad ar siúl chun ardú meanman a thabhairt do na hoibrithe le linn na hagóide a mhair cúig mhí.
Connolly also saluted the local organisational effort of Richard Corish, who had been previously employed as a skilled fitter at the Star Ironworks before becoming an activist in support of the new union. James Larkin and James Connolly, the leaders of the union, had been invited by Corish to stay in his home in William Street in the course of the dispute. At its conclusion he was appointed the president of the foundry workers union – which did not take long to be absorbed back into the ITGWU. We are indebted to Kieran S. Roche’s recent biography of Richard Corish3 which tells of how he went on to secure a seat on Wexford Borough Council a year after the lockout concluded in early1913 and to later be elected Mayor of Wexford in 1920.
In December 1911, Richard Corish was convicted, along with another local activist, Richard Furlong, and the ITGWU’s organiser P.T. Daly for actions taken in pursuit of the dispute. Contemporary police reports in the National Archives4 reveal how the authorities in 1911 had barely come to terms with the relatively recent status of legality granted to trade unions by a series of enactments culminating in the Trade Disputes Act of 1906. Their activities had been removed at last from the ambit of criminal law and could no longer be automatically deemed to constitute conspiracy or restraint of trade. The new labour law reforms created a legal framework for industrial relations that was to remain the basis of modern Irish trade union law for over eighty years.
In Connolly’s address to the workers following the settlement which allowed for a return to work and the establishment of a union for all the foundry workers, he told the workers that they were returning to work as:
“A body united, joined together, realising what their position is …one solid body to act in unity for a common purpose.5”
The achievement of the Wexford foundry workers in securing the right to have their own union anticipated the guarantee later enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann, our 1937 Constitution, for the right of citizens to form associations and unions. Freedom of association is also guaranteed in a number of international instruments which the State has ratified and which it is, therefore, bound to uphold under international law. The objectives upheld by the Wexford people through a long and bitter struggle in 1911 and 1912 were ultimately to be championed by the International Labour Organisation founded in 1919. (The right or freedom of association and the right to organise were given specific and detailed protection by the International Labour Organisation in Convention No. 87 of 1948 and Convention No.98 of 1949 both of which have been ratified by Ireland and now constitute a corner-stone of the social dimension of the European Union.)
Peter Hodnett’s fine memorial attests to the spirit and resolve demonstrated by the people of Wexford in support of the foundry workers a hundred years ago. The strong engineering tradition created in Wexford by the three foundries is still evident today. Former employees of Pierce’s are now employed in local companies such as Kent Stainless, Ace Compaction and Killane Engineering. These companies manufacture products that keep the tradition and skills of iron and steel workers alive to this day.
The Wexford Lockout is an important chapter of Irish labour history. The struggle required great courage, commitment and solidarity from ordinary, hard-working people. We should never forget that as Irish people we benefit, to this day, from the changes that these people fought so bravely for. Today, as we face our own difficult times, I believe that Irish people have the same determination and resourcefulness to bring about positive changes and to help create a society that we can be proud of – an inclusive society based on the important values of participation, respect for all and fairness.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
1“Men of Iron : Wexford Foundry Disputes 1890-1911” published by the Wexford Council of Trade Unions in 1987 (when Michael Enright was chair of the Trades Council) and recently re-published by the Wexford Historical Society
3Richard Corish – A Biography by Kieran S. Roche, Original Writing Ltd, Dublin, 2012
4 Police report on the Wexford troubles, 1911-1912, pp 137 -144, Workers in Union: documents and commentaries on the history of Irish labour / edited by Fergus A. D'Arcy and Ken Hannigan, published for the National Archives by the Stationery Office, 1988
5See full text in “Men of Iron : Wexford Foundry Disputes 1890-1911”