Category Archives: Labour History

Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.

[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.


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Jarveys, Jarveys, Gerry Mac Arowner: Hackney Carriages in late nineteenth century Cork

From The South of Ireland illustrated: with descriptive letterpress and maps. Cork: Guy & Co., 1904(?). Source:

From The South of Ireland illustrated: with descriptive letterpress and maps, Cork: Guy & Co., 1904. Source:

When we think of way transport shaped the modern city, we usually think of light rail like trams, of undergrounds or else the railways. We almost never seem to think though of the hackney carriage. In addition to the role of these forms of transport, the hackney carriage similarly had a role to play in cementing the increasing ability of Cork’s middle classes to loosen the previously necessary proximity between home and work. Indeed as Angela Fahy notes:

Members of the predominantly Catholic middle classes lived in the suburbs in substantial terraced and detached houses; set in neat gardens, behind walls, safe they hoped from poverty, crime and ill-health associated with much of the city’s population.[1]

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Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland

In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not. Continue reading

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The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London



The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

As well as the many more straightforward entries into the books of the business over the course of almost sixty years, many other entries that form part of the digitised collection stand out.

In that period, before the motor car was common, hearses were typically pulled by horses and the records reveal something to us about these. For instance, entries in the books that run from 1874 to the early 1900s, we see that Thompson’s bought a good number of horses. In April 1892, for instance, the business bought a bay horse from a Mrs. Murphy for £20 even, while in 1893, they bought a brown horse from a Mr. Knox of Bakehouse Lane for the considerably more pricey sum of £30. [1] Horses were a vital part of the business, and had to be kept healthy. Thus in one set of records we find recipes for various ailments afflicting horses, like this one “for soars [sic] or galds on horses also Greece in heels” from 1905:

1 pennyworth of ground Alum

1 pennyworth of Sulphur

1/2 Pint of Vinegar

add a small quantity of warm water and then put in a bottle

Or this one, from the same time on worms in horses:

get some Guilea from the country

and grind it up in the oats

it will kill all the worms

There’s also a rather more involved recipe for treating mange:

6d worth tincture of iodine

3d soft soap

4d Black Sulphur

I dram Arnicker (spirits)

This is just once facet of the day to day running of the business which emerges from the books. Among the most fascinating elements of these records is that it shows that more than simply catering to the needs of individuals who were bereaved and had dead to bury, who went to Thompson’s in  a personal capacity,  Thompson’s were also involved in collecting and burying the dead from a variety of institutions including the District Lunatic Asylum (“A Silum” as it appears in some of the very earliest records), The Little Sisters of the Poor, The Poor Law Union, and Waterford’s Prison. [2]

Going through the records and seeing the many nameless in the books who belonged to institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor makes for difficult reading, but shows something of the way in which the destitute were treated in Irish society, given over to charity, the only ones who would in death, see they were buried in something approaching respectable circumstances. Over two remarkable pages, at the beginning of the books that cover the period 1910-1918, almost seventy entries of paid funerals come from the Little Sisters of the Poor. [3]

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Click to enlarge.

Equally distressing when you delve into the books is the number of “small coffins” or “very small coffins” which are required by various families to bury children who did not live long. In no instance was I able to find a case where the child themselves was named, but usually the entries followed the form of “for Mrs. x’s child”. Unlike the burials of adults, there was no extensive list of hearses, broughams, sidecars, or drink. These were quiet, sad, heart-rending affairs which to judge by their frequency in these books, were indeed very common. Indeed, one set of figures looking at mortality rates in Ireland across the twentieth century indicates that around 1 in 13 or 14 children born died soon afterwards in the 1920s and 1930s, when these digitised records end. [4]

Thompson’s business though wasn’t solely undertaking to bury the dead, as in the case of their individual customers, or organisations like the Poor Law Union or the Little Sisters. Their business for instance with the prison service in Waterford was mainly to do with the transport of prisoners. In one of the books now available online, there are terms of an agreement with the prison set out, including the price of fares for different jobs which reads as follows:

Contract for Horsing Vans And Supplying Cars to H.M. Prison Waterford from April 1st 1909 to 31st March 1910.

No. 1) Horsing Van when requires from Prison to Courthouse and Vice Versa at per day 15/-
No. 2 ) Horsing Van when required between Prison Railway Station at per double journey viz. from Prison to Station in the morning & from Station to Prison in the evening 6/-

3) Horsing Van for any one run viz. between Prison & Station or between Station & Prison 4/– 3/-

4)Inside or Outside Cars when required from Prison to Rly. Station or Steamers or vice versa at per journey from and to Prison 1/3

5) Inside or Outside cars when required from Prison to COurthouse, Workhouse or Asylum at per double journey viz. come to the Prison when ordered go to any of the above places and return to Prison 1/9

6) Rate per single journey between Prison & the above mentioned places not returning again to the Prison 1/3

Date this 19th day of March ’09

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson's cars for the Prison Service.

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson’s cars for the Prison Service. Click to englarge.

Thompson’s contract with the Waterford Poor Law Union about the price of coffins is also present in the records. For the Union, Thompson’s provided three sizes of coffin, as follows in 1907:

Adult coffins 4/3

middle size 2/6

small size 1/6

This small tidbit about their coffin prices for the Poor Law Union are made all the more interesting by the recording of their competitor’s prices, which are given as follows:

Whittle’s prices




Whittle’s offered cheaper on the middle and small coffins, but both businesses offered the same for adults to the Union. Incidentally, both firms appear to have helped each other frequently, charging each other for the use of spare horses, broughams and the like, presumably when one or the other was short of these things but had more than one funeral a day. This is one small glance at the more business oriented side of undertaking, and is invaluable in showing us how such things as the Poor Law, charities, and the prison system operated locally and on a day-to-day scale in either transporting or burying those in their care.

We’ve already seen the highly pragmatic inclusion in these records of a variety of recipes for looking after the horses which were so central to the running of the business, but the books contain recipes relating to human ailment too.  Take for example this entry on “Mugworth” [sic] :

Boil a handful in two qrts of beer

then leave Mistletoe simmer for one

hour strain bottle & Cork.

Dose:- Half a cupfull every

morning. if full dose proves too

difficult to take reduce it to a quarter

cup Morning and Night.

Or this one on Mistletoe:

1/2 lb of Mistletoe boiled in two

quarts of Water. leave simmer

until the liquid is reduced to about

a quart. Mix 1.2 pt. of common black

Treacle with it. liquid to be strained

before Treacle is added.

Dose:- Wineglass full every

morning fasting

“Mugworth is useful in

female irregularities.”

Equal quantities of Pennyroyal

and Southernwood added to it increases

its value.

Mistletoe – Useful in Hysteria, Epilepsy, St Vitus dance

and other nervous complaints, also used

as a tonic especially for the heart:-

These are but a few of the many recipes from the books, more of which I’ll be sure to post in time. For now though, this brief examination of these wonderful records, which are available for anyone to view truly do provide a unique insight into what was and remains one of the most intriguing aspects of social history.


[1] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1874-1892

[2] These are scattered throughout all four sets of the funeral books which have been digitised.

[3] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1910-1918 under “L”

[4] These figures are based on the following working paper:

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‘Viva Chile!’ Remembering 11 September 1973

Allende addresses a crowd

Salvador Allende addresses a crowd

History cannot be stopped by either repression or crime.

Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973

On 11 September 1973 troops moved into position in the major cities of Chile, occupying telecommunications, water and electricity plants, securing road and rail junctions and surrounding the presidential palace in Santiago, La Moneda, trapping inside the nation’s president, Salvador Allende.

Allende had been voted into the office of president in September 1970, his left-wing coalition Popular Unity (UP) having secured 36.6 per cent in the popular ballot. The UP was composed and dominated by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, along with smaller left-wing organisations and the centrist Radical Party. It was elected on a broad progressive programme that advocated widespread agrarian reform, increased provision to health and education for the poor in the cities and the countryside, and the nationalisation of the key sector of the economy, the copper industry, controlled by US companies. These reforms would be accompanied by the gradual introduction of worker and community representatives in the decision-making process in the workplace and in state institutions. This top-down ‘revolution’ was dubbed the Chilean road to socialism. Despite the seemingly narrow victory for Allende himself, this programme was very similar to the one advocated by the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), although not carried out in practice while it was in government. Embarking on the election campaign with similar policies, the PDC candidate received 27.8 per cent of the vote.  These suggested reforms then, had a far wider base in society than the vote for Allende at first suggests. The bill to nationalise the copper industry, advocated by Allende for the past thirty years, had become such a widely accepted idea that it was passed unanimously in Congress and signed into law on 22 November 1970. Not everything would go so smoothly.

Allende’s reforms threatened the vested interests not only of the Chilean elite, but also of the United States. The US had since the early nineteenth century pursued a policy of domination in what it called ‘its own backyard’, i.e. Latin America, as advocated in the Monroe Doctrine, exploiting the continent’s resources for its own benefit through clientelist relations with often corrupt governments. The Cold War exacerbated these tendencies, prompting major investment in finance for right-wing media and political parties, and overt and covert military training to stop the spread of what it called ‘communism’ in Latin America. Any mildly reformist government in the region posed a threat to the US domination of the continent’s resources, and so could be tarred with the communist brush and overthrown as with Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 inspired thousands of Latin Americans, and intensified US concern with the region. Thus the CIA spent between $800,000 and $1,000,000 trying to stop the election of the UP in 1970. When this alone failed to have the desired effect, a new strategy was required.

President Nixon famously instructed his people to ‘make the economy scream’, and ordered the CIA to begin preparing for what was called ‘Track II’ – a military coup. Right-wing terrorist groups funded by the CIA carried out bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations, assigning blame to left-wing paramilitary groups in order to create a climate of fear. Despite this, the UP increased its vote in the municipal elections of April 1971 to over 50 per cent. Violence intensified between left groups and the fascistic ‘Land and Liberty’ group, and street demonstrations involving the wealthy became common. In October 1972, a national transport strike organised and supported by business, the PDC and largely funded by the CIA inflicted large damage on the economy. Allende rallied hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily transport goods, consolidating his own base, but the failure of the strike also  intensified the calls for a coup among the right. In many ways Allende was too wedded to the idea of freedom of speech, and naive regarding the role of the military. In March 1972, documents were released demonstrating efforts by US multinational ITT to undermine the UP government, supported by the CIA and right-wing groups in Chile. Throughout that year, sections of the media openly called for a coup, but Allende failed to sanction them. Furthermore, Allende had an unwavering belief in the constitutionalism of the Chilean military, and failed to significantly reform it during his time in office. During the transport strike, he even appointed three military men to cabinet. Despite an unsuccessful coup attempt by the 2nd Armoured Regiment on 29 July 1973, defeated by officers loyal to the government, Allende failed to act. This lack of action would in the end undermine him.

In the weeks following, more and more officers loyal to the government were replaced in their positions by supporters of a coup. On 11 September 1973, upon the orders of General Pinochet, they struck.

allende moneda

Allende defends La Moneda

At 6 a.m. naval forces took the port city of Valparaiso, and cut communications with Santiago. At 8 a.m. the military moved in the capital. The coup was relatively quick and bloody. Allende, however, holed up in La Moneda with a group of defenders, refused to surrender. At 9.15 a.m., Allende gave his last speech to the nation:

This will surely be my last opportunity to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación. My words contain not bitterness, just disappointment. They should stand as a moral castigation of those who have been traitors to their oaths: Chilean soldiers, titular commanders-in-chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself commander of the Navy, and even more señor Mendoza, the cringing general who only yesterday manifested his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has named himself Director General of the Carabineros. In the face of these deeds it only falls to me to say to the workers: I shall not resign!

Standing at a historic point, I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people. And I say to you that I am certain that the seed we have planted in the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, cannot be reaped at one stroke. They have the power, they can make us their vassals, but they cannot stop the social processes, neither by crime nor by force. History is ours, and it is made by the people.

Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always had, the confidence you placed in a man who was only the interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who pledged his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who did so. In this final moment, the last in which I will be able to address myself to you, I want you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital and imperialism, united with reaction, created the climate for the Armed Forces to break their tradition, which they were taught by general Schneider and which was reaffirmed by commander Araya, victims of the same social sector that today will be be expecting, with an alien hand, to reconquer the power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.

I address myself to you, above all to the modest woman of our land, to the campesina who believed in us, the mother who knew of our concern for the children. I address myself to the professionals of the nation, to the patriotic professionals who continued working against the sedition overseen by their professional academies, classist academies that also defended the advantages of a capitalist society.

I address myself to the youth, to those who sang and who brought their happiness and their spirit to the fight. I address myself to the man of Chile, to the worker, to the campesino, to the intellectual, to those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has now been present for several hours; in the terrorist assassinations, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railways, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to behave.

They too were committed. History will judge them.

Radio Magallanes will surely be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. That is not important. You will continue to hear me. I will always be with you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to the nation.

The people should defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves. The people should not allow themselves be subdued or persecuted, but neither should they humble themselves.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will go beyond this grey and bitter moment when treason tries to impose itself upon us. Continue to know that, much sooner than later, we will reopen the great promenades down which free men pass, to construct a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the least, I will be a moral lesson to castigate felony, cowardice, and treason.

Following his speech, Allende released anyone not in state service. Meanwhile, he and a few others, remained to defend the building. As fighter jets bombed La Moneda, and helicopters fired tear gas through the flames, Allende and his  cohort fired from the windows at the attackers. When the ammunition was spent, he ordered the surrender of the remaining defenders to spare their lives while he closed the door behind him, and refusing to surrender, committed suicide.

Allende's glasses, discovered in the ruins of La Moneda. Author's photo.

Allende’s glasses, discovered in the ruins of La Moneda. Author’s photo.

In the massacre that followed, thousands were rounded up, tortured and executed, most famously in the National Stadium in Santiago, as graphically depicted in the 1982 film Missing. Amongst these was the popular Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Thousands more simply ‘disappeared’, a practice to become common in Latin America over the next two decades. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile, including the playwright Ariel Dorfman and the film-maker Patricio Guzman, director of The Battle of Chile which documents the three years of the UP government and the Pinochet coup, and the 2004 documentary Salvador Allende.

Pinochet’s junta, with the assistance of US advisors including the ‘Chicago Boys’, would become an experimental ground for what would be termed ‘neo-liberalism’. Privatisations of areas including health and education would become the norm, lauded by Reagan and Thatcher. Despite the transition to democracy in 1990, the effect of the coup and dictatorship is still strongly felt in Chile.

Statue of Allende keeps watch over La Moneda. Author's photo.

Statue of Allende keeps watch over La Moneda. Author’s photo.

Forty years on, Allende and the UP continue to inspire. A statue of Allende now keeps watch over La Moneda, and the efforts of the UP have been emulated to an extent by a new wave of left-leaning governments throughout the continent. Forty years on, it is important that we remember not only the coup, but the  efforts of millions in Chile and throughout Latin America to change society for the benefit of the majority, and that we learn from their experiences. In this way, the disappeared will not have vanished.


Filed under Chile, Communism, Labour History, Latin America, Memory, Social History, Socialism, Twentieth Century

Intermission: Musicians on Strike in Dublin, 1921-1925

Infinite Variety: Post-Independence Leisure

Following Irish independence and the end of civil war hostilities, leisure pursuits in Ireland experienced unprecedented growth. The Football Association of the Irish Free State and the new Free State League following the split from the Belfast-centred Irish Football Association (IFA) would form a cornerstone of popular working-class leisure, particularly in Dublin, where the first new league season saw all eight teams coming from the capital. Over the course of the 1920s, these Dublin clubs would be joined by Athlone, Fordson FC formed by workers the Ford marina plant in Cork and by 1930, Waterford FC. Many of the staple sides of the League in that era were from the factories of Dublin including Jacobs and St. James’ Gate. Dalymount Park was then the home of Irish soccer, and the game was in such rude health that as well as the Freemans Journal Saturday supplement, Sport, for a few brief years at least, a soccer-only newspaper, the Football Sports Weekly came out. As well as clicking through the turnstiles at Dalymount and elsewhere, you could find your favourite footballers in the back of cigarette packets, as cigarette cards with sporting heroes were reproduced for the Irish market. Better again, you could relive glorious goals and near misses watching, for a couple of pence, the newsreels before the main feature.[i]

If soccer wasn’t your thing, Shelbourne Park hosted from 1927 onwards greyhound racing as well as soccer. The sport, which began in the United States, soon found its way to the United Kingdom, with a track at Belle Vue Park opening in Manchester in 1926. Only a year later, the first greyhound races, with the electric hare whirring around the track, began at Belfast’s Celtic Park and followed quickly in Dublin. If you fancied a flutter but hadn’t the price of a special train to the races, or the price of admission, you could walk your way down to the newly opened licensed betting shops and lay a half crown on a horse, and if your luck was out there, there was always the hospital sweepstakes.

The development of this infinite variety of entertainments, argue Kevin and Emer Rockett, were part of the process that led to the development of cinema, but were also part of creating entertainment venues that could be controlled, unlike the unruly fairs and pattern festivals of the eighteenth century and earlier, such as the notorious Donnybrook; this was a process similar to that which drove the modernisation of sport.[ii] While the legitimate theatre developed in the late nineteenth century for Ireland’s emerging middle class, working-class people had their own theatre: music hall and vaudeville, described by Kevin and Emer Rockett as “a form of entertainment that emerged from an altogether more basic source: the pub or public house.”[iii] Of course, the music halls and similar venues frequented by working-class people often used the forms available in these theatres to poke fun at their social superiors.[iv]

The music halls, argues Christina Herr, occupy an important place in the work of James Joyce in his rendering of Dublin in Ulysses, particularly in the “Circe” episode of the novel, reflecting the importance of the music halls in the Dublin of Joyce’s time for working-class people.[v] Cinema in the 1920s in Dublin would occupy a similarly important place. Kevin and Emer Rockett write that the appeal of the cinema, not unlike the music halls was “of a shared communal space, which was characterized in the first instance as pleasure-giving rather than being as part of, or governed by, the instrumental rational order of capitalism, the state, or the church.”[vi] This demand for the cinema was all a result of greater purchasing power of unskilled workers, the regulation of opening hours for the cinemas, particularly on a Sunday – the most important day for adult attendance at the cinema, and a boom in the building of cinema spaces.[vii] Such was the demand and interest in the cinema in post-independence, that hundreds of people were employed in the sector. These hundreds worked as ushers, projectionists and did other work in the cinemas, along with hundreds more musicians who, solo or together as orchestras, provided the soundtracks to the newsreels, cartoons and feature films watched by people in their thousands.

The theatres and cinemas in Dublin had a body called the Theatre and Cinema Association (TCA), an employers’ organisation, who set wages and conditions for staff. Most of the cinema and theatre workers were part of the ITGWU – ushers, bar attendants, and projectionists, although there was also a cinema operators union. The musicians who provided the sound in the silent film era had a union too, a union unafraid to speak up on behalf of their members. Amid the troubles of the war of independence in 1921, for instance, a minor dispute between the Musicians’ Union and the TCA over employment conditions saw the musicians threaten a stoppage of play which resulted in representatives of both bodies meeting at the Theatre Royal, a meeting that ended amicably.[viii] Close to twelve months later, a dispute between staff and management at the Theatre Royal that involved the TCA, ITGWU and the Musicians’ Union was resolved by a settlement, in talks held by the government’s Department of Labour.[ix] These disputes were relatively minor by comparison with what happened in 1923, when a draft proposal by the TCA was rejected by ballot of the cinema workers who were members of the ITGWU.

The draft proposal asked that the employees take a wage reduction of between 12.5 and 15%. As a result, the management of the city’s cinemas, theatres and music halls threatened that they would lock-out the workers. This decision to reject the ballot and the possibility of a lock-out meant that the musicians, who played and earned their living through the same theatres, would also lose out on work and pay. As the Irish Times noted what this meant in real terms was a reduction in pay of 2s 6d for women cleaners in the theatres, as well as wage reductions, apparently depending on the standing of the theatre, for bar attendants, checkers, ushers and stage workers. For cinema workers it meant reduced pay as well rolling back on ‘certain rights peculiar to the trade, which had become established by custom’ which had been recognised in the previous agreement.[x] When matters came to a head on June 17 1923, the Sunday Independent ran a story with the headline “No Plays No Pictures” and quoted a manager of one of the theatres as saying “we are locking up tonight and taking keys from staff. There will be no performance here, nor in any other theatre in Dublin, on Monday night, and we don’t know when we are opening again.”[xi]

A 1923 newspaper report on the lock-out of part-time workers in cinemas and theatres.

A 1923 newspaper report on the lock-out of part-time workers in cinemas and theatres.

FJ 1923

According to a member of Dublin Corporation interviewed in the same article, it was estimated that some 25,000 people went through the doors of the various theatres, cinemas and music halls a night on average. The lock-out was expected to have a knock-on effect for everyone from the restaurant trade to printers and bill posters. The Freemans Journal meanwhile was reporting that the management were firm on the issue writing that one manager said ‘with great determination’ that “my house will remain closed until the staff returns to work on the terms already laid down. We are quite prepared for a long period of idleness.” The same report, reproducing figures the same as those in the Sunday Indpendent, reckoned it affected roughly 250 theatre employees.[xii] The closures would last roughly a fortnight, when an agreement between the workers and the management was reached at a conference held in the Mansion House by Alderman A. Byrne.[xiii] The settlement of this dispute seems to have satisfied the workers in the cinemas, theatres and music halls for a period at least, although the difficulties experienced by the ever-growing and ever-popular entertainments industry wouldn’t have to wait too long before trouble reared its head once again.

The Main Event: The 1925 Lockout

It was 1925 which proved to be a watershed year in the rumbling disputes between cinema and theatre workers and musicians on one side and their management on the other. This time the dispute was being led by the musicians, rather than the other staff. According to a report in the Irish Times the Musicians’ Union demanded a new agreement for wages and conditions, which it was felt, had the potential to lead to a serious dispute. The musicians demanded a pay increase of 25% along with double-time pay for all Bank holidays, and a fortnight’s paid holiday. It also sought the right to refuse playing on Sundays, Good Fridays and Christmas, unless the show was open by permission of the authorities, and in which case they demanded double-time for playing.[xiv] In June, the Irish Independent ran a piece on the demands of the musicians with the headline “Grave Theatre Crisis”.

The Irish Independent describes the seemingly inevitable dispute as a "grave crisis"

The Irish Independent describes the seemingly inevitable dispute as a “grave crisis”

According to one theatre manager interviewed for the article, musicians in the theatre orchestras of Dublin had big wages during the day and could not claim to have a living wage. By July, with no apparent agreement reached on these new terms looked for by the musicians, the newspaper was reporting that the musicians were “out” and the TCA were offering to engage musicians on the old terms if they were willing to take that pay in order, the management insisted to prevent inconvenience to the public.[xv] The same day that saw this story run, there was an ad placed elsewhere in the Irish Times by the musicians’ union’s secretary HJ Leeming. Leeming’s ad sought to rectify that a 25% increase in salary had not in fact been asked for, but rather an increase by that degree in minimum rates of pay and that the management use union-only musicians instead of hiring foreign musicians. It also insists that the situation was the fault of the TCA, since they jumped the gun by locking out the musicians before there was a conciliation board arranged by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.[xvi]

The Irish Independent is certain this will be a long, drawn-out affair

The Irish Independent was certain this would be a long, drawn-out affair

The employers, for their part, we busily engaged in hiring non-union musicians and it was ‘anticipated that the managers would have no difficulty in getting full orchestras after a short time.’[xvii] Likewise the Irish Independent ran a story with the headline “Amusement as Usual” assuring readers that the shows would go on. [xviii]Some 250 or so musicians were involved in the dispute, and after the first week, the picketing of the musicians appeared to have had little impact as managers reported that their business had been unimpaired and the improvised orchestras were described as “working satisfactorily”. One band who were engaged from England to play the Theatre Royal, the Frank E Lubin’s band, returned by night mail boat when they learned of the dispute. The band’s leader explained that as members of a similar union in England they didn’t wish to cross the picket line. According to the newspaper report, AT Cullen, President of the musicians’ union, thanked Lubin’s band for “their manly action.”[xix] In another show of support, the Irish Dance Bands’ Association agreed to co-operate with the musicians’ struggle in the cinemas and theatres. There was almost no popular support for the dispute it seems, or very little. People continued to attend the cinemas and theatres.

As the month of July wore on, and positions became entrenched there seemed less and less hope of a conciliation board being arranged for a discussion of terms. One theatre manager interviewed by the Irish Independent felt that many of the musicians had no grievance and felt that the terms of the old agreement, given the apparent depressed state of the economy was a fair one.[xx] Indeed for that newspaper, the musicians strike was just one among many in what it called the “city of strikes”, before detailing the “latest menace” of hotel and catering workers about to begin a dispute with the Hotel, Restaurant and Caterers’ Association.[xxi] Pickets outside of the theatres continued, and marches through the street by a band of fifty took place, while they also played at the East Pier in Kingstown and another band played a garden party at Shankill.[xxii] HJ Leeming continued to write to the Irish Times insisting that the dispute had been misrepresented generally in the press, insisting that this was not a strike action but a lockout by employers, and that they were willing and waiting to engage with the management to work out a deal at a conciliation board but they had not yet heard from either the secretary of the department in government or from the managements’ association.[xxiii] The strike would last right into August, with the Irish Times reporting its collapse in the middle of the month, and the comprehensive defeat of the musicians in their hopes of improved pay, conditions and use of union musicians.

A few years after the 1925 lockout, as the talkies made their way to Dublin, some in the Irish press were sceptical, quoting great silent film star Charlie Chaplin as saying “I can say anything I want to say by a gesture”; the intermission imposed by Dublin’s unionised cinema musicians was itself a gesture that said loudly as any of Chaplin’s movements, fair wages, good working conditions and the right to union membership while at work were worth fighting for.

[i] See the appendices of Chambers, Ciara, Ireland in the Newsreels, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2011 for a fairly comprehensive list of newsreels produced about Ireland and to get some sense of how much of this material was sport related

[ii] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786-1909, Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, pp. 169-216; On the suppression of Donnybrook see Ó’Maitiú, Séamas, The Humours of Donnybrook: Dublin’s Famous Fair and its Suppression,  Dublin: Irish Academic Press 1995

[iii] Rockett and Rockett, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows, p. 205

[iv] See Selenick, Laurence, “Politics as Entertainment: Victorian Music Hall Songs”, Victorian Studies, Vol. 19 No. 2 December 1975, pp. 149-180. For some good general reading on music hall see also Bratton, JS (ed.), Music Hall: Performance & Style, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986 and Bailey, Peter (ed.), Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986; Vicinus, Martha, The Industrial Muse: A Study of nineteenth century working-class literature, London: Croom Helm 1974 and most recently Maloney, Paul, Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850-1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2003. Little is written on music halls in Ireland except for Watters, Eugene, and Murtagh, Matthew, Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall, 1879-97, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1975 and McDowell, Jim, Beyond the Footlights: A History of Belfast Music Halls and Early Theatre, Dublin: The History Press Ireland 2007

[v] Herr, Christina, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp.189-221

[vi] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010,  Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, p.42; See also Daly, Mary, Dublin: The Deposed Capital, a Social and Economic History, 1860-1914, Cork: Cork University Press 1984

[vii] Rockett and Rockett, Film Exhibition, pp.41-47

[viii] Irish Times, 29 July 1921

[ix] Irish Times, 15 May 1922

[x] Irish Times, 6 June 1923; 12 June 1923; 28 June 1923

[xi] Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923

[xii]  Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923; Freemans Journal, 18 June 1923

[xiii] Sunday Independent, 1 July 1923

[xiv] Irish Times, 21 May 1925

[xv] Irish Times, 6 July 1925

[xvi] Irish Times, 6 July 1925

[xvii] Irish Times, 7 July 1925

[xviii] Irish Independent, 7 July 1925

[xix] Irish Times, 14 July 1925

[xx] Irish Independent, 9 July 1925

[xxi] Irish Independent, 20 July 1925; to judge by the pages of the Voice of Labour during the summer months of 1925 this other dispute centred largely on staff in the Metropole.

[xxii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925; 27 July 1925

[xxiii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925

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Filed under Employment, Irish History, Labour History, Social History, Twentieth Century, Unemployment