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Workers, Politics and Labour Relations in Independent Ireland, 1922–46: valuable and revealing

Understanding organised labour in the first decades of the new Irish State and its powerful establishment opponents

Workers, Politics and Labour Relations in Independent Ireland, 1922-46
Workers, Politics and Labour Relations in Independent Ireland, 1922-46
Author: Gerard Hanley
ISBN-13: 978-1801510783
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Guideline Price: €45

Most conventional histories and perhaps even many trade unionists see the Dublin Lockout of 1913 as the high point of Irish labour history. Yet it was the revolutionary era that marked the mass expansion of the unions and dramatic expressions of their potential power. The Irish Times asserted after the 1918 general strike against conscription that “it was the voice of Labour, not the voice of religion or politics, which yesterday stopped the wheels of industry … We think that April 23rd will be chiefly remembered (as) the day when Labour found itself”.

The Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), almost crushed after the Lockout, had 120,000 members by 1920, half of them farm labourers. There was strong evidence of political support too, with Labour candidates winning 324 seats in the local elections that year, second only to Sinn Féin. The RIC Gazette lamented how while once the police officer had been “a vastly superior man to the railway porter and the agricultural labourer … behold how they have advanced”!

The unions of course played a significant role in the independence struggle. They benefited from the generally friendly attitude taken to them by republicans, though this began to change during the truce. Gerard Hanley (no relation of the reviewer) takes up the story from the establishment of the Free State until after the Emergency. He asserts early on that “Labour must wait”, was an “apt representation of Sinn Féin’s attitudes to labour”. But no republican leader (and certainly not de Valera) ever actually asked labour to do this. If its leaders waited, it was their choice.

But Hanley provides compelling accounts of two very significant disputes during the Civil War. He shows how Cumann na nGaedheal treated both as essentially subversive and deployed force, both legal and illegal, to defeat the strikers. Postal workers struck against pay cuts in September 1922. They faced a determined enemy in postmaster general JJ Walsh, a veteran IRB activist, “1916 man”, GAA stalwart and an ex-postal worker himself. This did not hinder his use of troops and armed police against the strikers. Workers were arrested, beaten up and sometimes shot and wounded.


Walsh suggested cynically that strikers were unpatriotic and “had never dared say ‘boo’ while the British were here”. In fact, most postal workers had participated in the general strike of April 1920 demanding the release of jailed republicans; Walsh had been one of those prisoners. Another government minister with a history of trade union involvement, Joe McGrath, now head of The Cid [Criminal Investigation Department], presided over the harassment of union officials. McGrath played this role again during a 10-week strike by farm labourers in Waterford during 1923.

The Farmers’ Association leadership were determined to reduce the wages of labourers who had made large gains from 1917 onwards. They were also convinced that what they were fighting was “Bolshevism”. The government intervened on the farmers’ side, sending in the Special Infantry Corps, a section of the army set up not to fight the IRA but for use in labour and land disputes. Meanwhile, farm owners organised a vigilante “White Guard”. There were armed night-time raids on ITGWU organisers’ homes and the burning of striking labourers’ cottages. (Although something of a publishing industry exists on the destruction of Ireland’s big houses, there is much less written about the burning of these and other small houses.)

As Hanley notes, Cumann na nGaedheal ministers saw themselves “essentially as a Farmers’ Party”. The defeat of the Waterford strike effectively ended militancy among farm labourers and severely weakened the ITGWU. The Shannon hydroelectric scheme is rightly regarded as a triumph for the Free State in terms of modernisation, Kevin O’Higgins described it as “a vindication of Irish nationalism, of all our struggles to secure mastery of our own house”. However, its construction was marked by gruelling conditions and poor wages for its workforce. More than 40 men died in accidents related to the scheme but the government and the German contractors, Siemens-Schuckert, were determined that labour demands would not disrupt the project.

Challenged by Labour’s Tom Johnson about how these conditions betrayed the promises of Sinn Féin’s 1919 Democratic Programme, WT Cosgrave replied tellingly that the programme had been a product of “that great utopia that we imagined in the prosperous years of 1919 and 1920″. Joe McGrath, now an adviser to Siemens, used ex-soldiers as strikebreakers as attempts to organise the scheme were stymied. Among those attempting to intervene was Jim Larkin, back in Ireland since 1923.

Hanley’s portrayal of Larkin, described by the British as “a most dangerous man of great influence among the worst type of population” is disappointingly conventional I feel. On his return to Dublin Larkin had called for a ceasefire by the IRA, alienating republicans, and thus it is unlikely they were giving him armed support in his dispute with the ITGWU during 1925. The State was also clear that it wanted William O’Brien and the ITGWU to win that particular battle.

“Larkinism” as opposed to Larkin himself, had a long influence on Irish workers, accounting for what some called the “near mystical respect for the picket line” until the 1960s at least. But this book also helps us understand the importance of social and economic factors in securing popular support for de Valera’s party after 1932. While that story is complicated, Fianna Fáil generally pursued compromise rather than the class war policies of their treatyite predecessors. During 1932 for instance de Valera’s government restored increments and 19 days’ service to the postal workers who had struck a decade previously.

Understanding this relationship also helps explain how until the 1970s there was a large and often combative labour movement in the Republic, but a small and weak Labour Party. Hanley’s study is essential for anyone who wants to understand organised labour in the first decades of the new Irish State.

  • Brian Hanley is author of The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79: Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2019)