‘Work Or Maintenance’: Unemployment, Unrest and Organisation in the South-East, 1931-1945

Over the weekend I was in Waterford to give a lecture to the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society on the topic of rugby and soccer’s development from the 1880s to the end of the 1930s. In the Central Library’s Local History Room, digging around for material to give a greater sense of Waterford life in the 1930s I came across the memoir of International Brigader Peter O’Connor. In his memoir, A Soldier of Liberty, he gives us a remarkable insight into the economic life of Waterford in the 1930s, in the years before he joined a number of other Waterford men in going to fight for the International Brigades in Spain in 1936. O’Connor says of those times that

[the] unemployed were well organised from 1931 to 1934. Many meetings were held in the Park and City Hall. Some of them boisterous. In November 1932, hundreds of unemployed marched through the city led by a band and carrying a banner inscribed “Work or Maintenance.” In May 1931, a meeting held in the large room, City Hall to select candidates to contest the municipal elections on behalf of the unemployed. Two candidates, Thomas Purdue and David Nash were elected to Waterford Corporation. Their platform was “Bread, Blood and Work”.[1]

Other things about O’Connor’s memoirs pointed to a forgotten aspect of Waterford life in this era – the worker’s reading circle which met in Coffey House Lane near the quays in the heart of the city but the organised unemployed was the thing that stood out most for me. Following independence  unemployment rose in Waterford, and a quick glance at the census reports on occupations bear this out. According to Emmet O’Connor’s Labour History of Waterford around 2,000 men and women idle in the city, and the active labour force falling from 8,017 in 1926 to 7,625 in 1936.[2] Amongst men, 53.9% of those unemployed in the city were single while an overwhelming majority, 87.2%, of single women were unemployed in 1926. By 1936, things had only marginally improved for single men in Waterford, where they still made up 52.9% of unemployed men. For young single women, the problem had become even more acute, they now accounted for 90.4% of all unemployed females.[3] Given this state of affairs it is hardly surprising that organised unemployed would find a voice in the city.

In 1927, in Dublin, there were reports in the Irish Times of public demonstrations by members of the National Unemployed Association.[4] By the early 1930s things were hotting up a little further south: October 1932 saw the organised unemployed in Cork demand an increase in the home assistance[5] then being offered and the same month in Waterford saw Thomas Purdue who Peter O’Connor mentions above, saying to the crowd gathered in the People’s Park that:

We should see that we are treated as human beings. It is now or never, and our grievances should no longer be left in abeyance.  If unemployment is not dealt with as a national question, it will become a living cancer on the life of the state. We exceed in number, by far, any other party in the country, and our demands are the largest. It is up to you to concentrate on the goal you set before yourselves… work for every unemployed man.[6]

Becoming increasingly incendiary Purdue exclaimed that ‘if we are not going to get what we want, we will have the city like the Temple of Jerusalem. We won’t leave a stone upon a stone.’ A meeting of the unemployed in November though saw the chair of the meeting denounce openly and strongly communism, saying that ‘they saw no reason why they should follow in the path of Trotsky, Lenin or Stalin.’[7] This was not however to say they wouldn’t threaten violent tactics, as there was a threat to loot in Dungarvan if the demands for increased assistance weren’t met only days later in the pages of the Irish Times.[8] Though such demands were met, little seemed to improve in terms of opportunities for many.

In Kilkenny, and parts of South Tipperary, the same problem could be found, similarly in Wexford.[9] In Kilkenny, a branch of the Able-bodied Unemployed Association was formed in late 1932 as well, as a dispute arose over part-time work and rotation of hours.[10] Though small victories it seems were to be won here and there, and an organised unemployed was stronger in voice than an unorganised one, unemployment continued to plague the south-east right to the end of the 1930s. Things had gotten to such a state in Waterford that an Unemployed Men’s Club was founded, taking up residence in the unused Airmount House, including a large farm. A large number of people, including businesses, subscribed money to help provide for the new club:

Munster Express, March 15 1932

Munster Express, March 15 1940










From early 1940 and right through the next five years, this institution created a positive space for many. Its establishment, as well as being local news, was also national news being described in the Irish Press as Ireland’s first ‘provincial’ Mount Street Club.[11] This was an apt comparison since the idea was that it would also adopt the tallies system where working up tallies could be exchanged for items such as food, clothing etc. Although far from a permanent or ideal solution to the problems of unemployment, it was nevertheless a successful venture for several years until its membership declined heavily as emigration became the preferred option for many of the men for whom it served its purpose. It is in precisely that kind of context that ‘Any Jobs Going?’ in the Irish Press offered advice, which Liam Cullinane  brought to our minds yesterday.

[1] Peter O’Connor, A Soldier of Liberty: Recollections of a socialist and anti-fascist fighter, MSF: Dublin 1996, p.2

[2] Emmet O’Connor, Labour History of Waterford,  p. 223

[3] Report on 1926 Census, (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1931), Vol. VI: Table 32, p.126; Report on 1936 Census, (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1941), Vol. VI: Table 27B, pp.101-102

[4] Irish Times, December 1 1927

[5] Irish Times, October 13 1932

[6] Munster Express, October 21 1932

[7] Munster Express, November 18 1932; Irish Times, November 15 1932

[8] Irish Times, November 17 1932

[9] Mention of the Wexford branch comes from Munster Express, September 23 1932

[10] Kilkenny People, October 1 1932

[11] Irish Press, June 1 1940



Filed under Communism, Employment, Irish History, Labour History, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century, Unemployment

2 responses to “‘Work Or Maintenance’: Unemployment, Unrest and Organisation in the South-East, 1931-1945

  1. Anne Phelan

    I presume you already know that Emmet is the son of Peter O Connor!

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