An Irishman's Diary


The Brazen Head pub in Lower Bridge Street, Dublin - almost opposite the Four Courts and just a stroll from Dublin Castle - is renowned as a clandestine meeting place of the United Irishmen. But it was also used as a rendezvous by at least one lodge of freemasons - by and Ireland's oldest printing trade union. Hence the old saying, in use to this day: "Have you got your Head money?" - not a demand to pay up for a bet on a horserace, but a coded request for union dues.

For in 1802, when Dublin's compositors formed a provident society to help unemployed or ill printers, their widows and children, there were heavy punishments for those found to be members of "combinations".

But in spite of the dangers, the Dublin Typographical Provident Society (DTPS) was soon thriving and solvent. It also kept excellent records up to the War of Independence. Unfortunately for anyone who wants to research the period, that probity then lapsed for the very good reason that many of the union's members were nationalists engaged in fighting a war. Whoever was then in charge of the DTPS's funds was supporting a substantial number of men on the run, who may or may not have been members, and, because the Crown forces had the power to go anywhere at any time and examine any records, he didn't put the payments through the books. Who'd be a historian of troubled times?

Memorial plaque

There is a plaque in one of the union's rooms that reads: "Sa seomra seo a bhi ceanncheathru Bhriogaid Bhaile Atha Cliath, Oglaigh na hEireann, ar feadh treimhse sna blianta 1920-21. I gcuimhne ar na baill uile de Chumann Solathrach Cloghrafnoir i Bhaile Atha Cliath a thug seirbhis d'Eirinn I rith an chomhraic fada ar son na saoirse chuir an Coiste Cuimhneachain 150 Bliain an taibhlead seo san ionad seo. "

("This room was the headquarters of the Dublin Brigade, Irish Republican Army, for a period during 1920-21. To honour the memory of all those members of the Dublin Typographical Provident Society who served Ireland during the long struggle for Independence this plaque is erected by the 150th Anniversary Commemorative Committee.")

At that time the house at 35 Lower Gardiner Street was linked by secret doorways that allowed volunteers to exit from the front or back door of almost any other house in the terrace.

I remember, as a child in the 1950s, accompanying my mother to "35" to collect pension money for my grandfather, who had been for many years a member of the Dublin Typographical Provident Society. (He had started his working life at 13 as a copyholder in the Freeman's Journal and finished it as head stoneman on the Irish Independent.) But it was only a few years ago, when I met a nephew of my grandfather's from the US, that I learned that newspaper work had been dangerous for printers in revolutionary times. Journeying home in the small hours with Black and Tans around was not comfortable. Once they took him away and kept him for days without informing his wife. And being held up at gunpoint by the IRA mustn't have been much fun the time they broke up the Free- man's Journal machinery at the start of the Civil War in the spring of 1922. I was young when he died and I didn't know about these things. But then people wanted to forget the Troubles, so they didn't talk about them.

Since the 1960s the DTPS has had a couple of name changes: the Irish Graphical Society was one title and it is now called the Irish Print Union. These new identities were in part a response to the effect of new technologies on a trade that was changing more in 25 years than it had done in the four-and-a-half centuries since Gutenberg's movable type replaced so many monks in their scriptoria with compositors and their cases of type.

Home computer

The trade moved away from the monasteries but printers still cling to the term "Father of the Chapel" (or, more recently, "Mother of the Chapel") for their shop steward. Journalists, who have taken over most of the compositors' work, also use the term.

As recently as the late 1960s the largest and best-equipped caseroom (where type was kept in cases and the compositors "made up" pages) held fewer typefaces and type-sizes than today can be generated by a cheap home computer - and that is just a small example of the tornado of change that has affected the industry and its workers.

Proposed merger

Some years ago the Irish Print Union membership voted against a merger with the National Union of Journalists, the journalists' union with headquarters in the UK; but soon ballot papers will be distributed for a vote on a proposed merger with the Irish union SIPTU.

If members vote to accept the deal, the Irish Print Union will become the Irish Print Group within SIPTU. Nowadays numbers count for a lot.

The union's funds have been rebuilt since 1922 despite the recent £250,000 loss resulting from the closure of the Irish Press group. However, its members are faced with the necessity to combine again, 189 years on from the DTPS's secret beginning that made it one of the oldest unions in these islands. Developments in industrial relations require it to have access to professional support services and financial resources available only to larger unions and small craft unions cannot afford time, money and personnel to provide legal or financial back-up to their officials.

As well as that, such benefits as group discounts on car and house insurance and health-care are important advantages of membership of a large union.

If the modern descendant of the ancient Dublin Typographical Provident Society does vote to become part of SIPTU, its members will be still be served in the 21st century from "35", where Dublin's printers, and occasionally others, have met during most of this 20th century.