An enthusiastic volunteer when the Rising came

Trade unionist Thomas Leahy came home from England to work on the Dublin docks in 1914

British soldiers keep watch over the banks of the Liffey from a rooftop vantage point.

British soldiers keep watch over the banks of the Liffey from a rooftop vantage point.

Thu, May 23, 2013, 10:00

When the first World War broke out Thomas Leahy was working as a riveter in Vickers’ navy yard at Barrow-on-Furness because employment was “very bad” in Dublin for the engineering trades.

He had joined the local Irish club and was disappointed to find it had “a very mixed crowd”. It was “more of a social club instead of national minded”. There was nothing to match political life in the Irish capital, where he said he had “attended all meetings, lectures and talks by James Connolly, Jim Larkin, PT Daly and other labour leaders, and [by] well-known leaders in the Republican movement”.

Despite its apolitical nature the Barrow-in-Furness club organised collections, dances and concerts for workers locked out in Dublin and, at the end of 1913, a company of Irish Volunteers was formed. The debates on the Home Rule Bill were “closely followed” and, when the Volunteers split, the majority of local members decided “to have no further dealings with the [Irish] Party”.

Anxious to return home, Leahy found a job as a boiler-maker in the Dublin Dockyard Company by November 1914. The firm thrived on naval and munitions contracts. Skilled workers in the yard shared a strange medley of political allegiances ranging from the Orange Order to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Leahy joined “E” Company of the Irish Volunteers 2nd Battalion, based in the north inner city.

On Easter Monday 1916 he took part in the attack on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. His main qualification appeared to be possession of a bicycle, given the distance to be covered from Liberty Hall in time to reinforce the men already there. He later served in Fairview, Ballybough and the O’Connell Street area.

He was interned in Frongoch, where he shared a hut with Richard Mulcahy and Abbey actor Arthur Shields. Released at Christmas 1916 Leahy was re-employed by the Dublin Dockyard Company, as were several other rebels.

Among them was Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army, and he may have recruited Leahy and other employees. It was unusual but not unknown for activists in Dublin to switch between the two organisations. It did not prevent Leahy co-operating with volunteers in using the yard’s facilities and their own skills to make “train wrecking tools . . . and everything that would be useful when required”.

Arms and ammunition were regularly stolen from naval vessels in for repair, but Leahy presumably bought war bonds like every other employee, which gave them all a vested interest in an allied military victory. Like many other veterans of 1916, especially married men, he does not appear to have been very active militarily in the War of Independence.

Leahy was “active in the Labour movement from 1912 and learned, through it, the way the workers of Ireland were being treated. With wages and working conditions and long hours of employment forced on them by the employers, somewhere and somehow, if these were not changed or improved, revolt against some employers must come.”

At the same time it was in Sinn Féin rather than Labour that he chose to become politically active. This was possibly because many craft workers saw Labour as the party of general labourers and the working poor. In the 1918 election he campaigned for the Sinn Féin candidate in the north docks area, Phil Shanahan. “While canvassing in the slums it was awful to behold where human beings had to sleep, eat and drink. No wonder the working classes were always ripe for revolt.”

Alfie Byrne was the sitting MP and fought hard to keep the seat, in the literal sense, with the use of Irish Party “bludgeon men”, but times had changed and his strong-arm supporters were quickly routed by the volunteers and ICA men.

Leahy’s most important activity came in 1920 when he became a trustee of the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Workers’ Trade Union. The idea of an Irish union for craft workers was first proposed by Countess Markievicz at the 1917 Sinn Féin ardfheis. It was intended to emulate the ITGWU, which Jim Larkin had established as a breakaway from the National Union of Dock Labourers.

There was a lot of resentment among Irish members of British unions who had to apply to head offices in Britain whenever they needed unemployment benefit or strike pay. Frequently there was little sympathy for Irish strikes, which were often seen as “political” rather than trade disputes. Finally, “there was a very large amount of money leaving country”, Leahy said. “At least half of it, or some amount, should have been invested in Ireland for their Irish members.”

When Markievicz became minister for labour in the Dáil Éireann government Leahy was among the group of men, mostly IRB members, who entered discussions with the Countess and subsequently Michael Collins, as Minister for Finance, on establishing the new union.

The first meeting was held in the Abbey Theatre on June 20th, 1920. How the union was financed has never been adequately explained and the secret probably died with Collins at Béal na mBláth. Its new premises at Gardiner Row had the active service unit of the Dublin Brigade as a tenant and Collins’s Squad operated out of the offices of the Stationery Engine Drivers.

In the Civil War Leahy took the anti-treaty side and was arrested.

Despite his heavy involvement in the Troubles his job as a highly-skilled shipyard worker in the first World War and post-war boom enabled him to acquire a house for his family. By the end of the Civil War the boom had ended and, on his release from Mountjoy, Leahy found his job gone and other employments temporary.

He had to emigrate once more to Britain. He moved his family to Glasgow where he resumed his career as a riveter in the shipyards. “My family had opportunities they would never have got at home . . . and now they are married and have no regrets for coming here,” he would later recall.

Interviewed by the Bureau of Military History in 1952 he had not lost hope “that God in his mercy and own time will spare all those who fought the good fight for the Republic to meet again . . . with all our people, north, south, east and west under the flag of a United and Gaelic Free Ireland.”