Tag Archives: labour history

The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

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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Filed under British History, Irish History, Labour History, Literature, Social History, Socialism, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

‘Any Jobs Going?’ Career Advice in Post-War Ireland

From October 1949 until March 1950, the Irish Press ran a series of articles under the title ‘Any Jobs Going?’ with the aim of giving advice to teenagers about to enter the workforce. A weekly feature that covered over a hundred different trades and professions during its six month run, the articles in it are notable both for their clinical frankness and the research that went into them. Tom Garvin, in his popular history of 1950s Ireland, News from a New Republic, argues that this series of articles represents a rich and untapped source for students of labour history. Indeed, ‘Any Jobs Going?’ represents a unique snapshot, not only of the contemporary labour market, but also of the lives of working people and Irish society more generally in the post-war period.

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Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely write that Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s was ‘class-divided, patriarchal and repressive in many aspects.’[1] Similarly Diarmuid Ferriter wrote that the same period was characterised by ‘the huge gulf between the rhetoric of aspiration that coloured so many of the supposed advantages of Ireland as an unsullied classless, rural idyll, and the reality of a society that failed hopelessly to live up to such rhetoric.’[2] Ireland’s unequal and class-polarised society is blatantly demonstrated in ‘Any Jobs Going’. Professions such as medicine or law, for example, were far beyond the reach of working class people. The cost of becoming a doctor was estimated to be between £1500 and £2000 at a time when even a relatively good job like glass worker brought in an income of just £8 to £10 per week.[3] Another article noted of barristers that it was a common belief that ‘no young man should come to the bar unless he has a private income of at least £300 a year’.[4]

Any job requiring a university degree meant several years of tuition fees and, especially for those living outside of Dublin, much more to be spent on food, accommodation etc. To become an architect through the course in University College Dublin cost £45 in fees per year over a period of five years though, if your home was not in Dublin, it would take ‘well over £1000 to make an architect of you’.[5] Given that most Irish teenagers left school at 14 in order to contribute to the family income, the likelihood that anyone from outside the ranks of the elite could climb the ladder to a profession was unlikely. Similarly, while it is almost certain that scholarships and the like were a possible means of advancement for the working and lower middle classes, these were rare and not mentioned in ‘Any Jobs Going?’ as a reasonable means of social advancement. In my own oral history research on manufacturing workers in Cork, I found that when narrators were asked what they would have liked to have done after leaving education, most cited either craft jobs or unskilled but relatively well-paid work, demonstrating the limited (and accurate) horizon of expectations held by working-class people in a deeply unequal society.

IT Sep 4 1950 - 1

Job Advertisement in Irish Times, 1950

‘Any Jobs Going?’ also reflected the highly gendered nature of employment in 1950s Ireland. The number of occupations covered that were geared towards women was minimal and concentrated in traditional ‘feminine’ spheres of work such as hairdressing, millinery, dressmaking and waitressing. The series also paints a clear picture of the discriminatory practices that existed in relation to payment. In Cork, in 1949 for example, a waiter earned 55/- compared to the 33/- per week earned by his female counterpart, while, after ten years working as an assistant in a grocers or off-license, a man would have a weekly wage of 105/- compared to the female rate of 75/-.[6] Professions and high-status jobs were almost exclusively male domains, with only a handful of female exceptions, such as hotel manageress. The series also gives an insight into the brevity of women’s working lives. Better paying and high-status jobs for women in state bodies or semi-state companies, such as national school teacher or railway clerk, were inevitably cut short at marriage: ‘But girls, a word of warning, if you want to get married and still hold your job, national school teaching is not for you.’[7]

Even in jobs where there was no formal, legal requirement to quit upon marriage it was still the case that gender ideology ensured that the majority of women usually exited employment once they were married. As one working-class woman from Cork commented in her memoirs: ‘Every husband liked to convey the notion that he could support his wife on his own income and a working wife was tantamount to an admission of failure in that regard. It made him feel less of a man.’[8] For an older generation of women workers, the phrase ‘She got married then’ was also a shorthand way of saying ‘She exited employment’. Though married women gradually began to remain in employment from the 1970s, to the point where it is now the norm, the old notion of a male breadwinner and female caregiver had a long shelf life. Indeed, I recently interviewed one woman who recounted feeling guilty when she returned to work in the mid-1980s because she felt she was betraying her role as a mother.

Even within traditionally working class spheres of employment, many avenues were closed off due to restrictive work practices. As the first article in the series comments, ‘some jobs are easy to enter’ but others are ‘hedged about by all kinds of barriers, fees, waiting-lists, trade union regulations, age limits’.[9] These were not the only restrictions. To be a Garda, one had to be ‘not less than 5’ 9’’ in height (barefooted) with a mean chest measurement of 37 in the event of his being 5’ 11’’ or over, and at least 36’’ if he is less than 5’ 11’’ in height.’[10]

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Leaving aside the barrel-chested giants of the constabulary, the most significant barriers to employment were in the trades. Many skilled jobs in this period were dominated by a guild mentality that owed more to early skilled trades societies than modern trade unionism. Carpentry for example, a well-paid and high-status craft, was effectively closed to those without relatives in the occupation: ‘If you are not a carpenter’s son or do not have relatives who are engaged in the industry, your chances are not so bright.’[11]  Similarly, the majority of those involved in the confectionery business were ‘closely connected to the trade by family ties and preference is given to those who have relations in the trade.’[12]  These practices tended to prevail much more in the older, more traditional trades such as those mentioned above. Other were less restrictive. To become an electrician, a profession whose ranks were being rapidly expanded by rural electrification, was a more reasonable prospect for a young worker. While the sons of electricians ‘naturally get some preference’, nominations of apprenticeship were shared equally by trade unions and engineering firms, meaning that there were a number of avenues available to those seeking an apprenticeship.[13]

While craftsmen had higher status, pay, conditions and bargaining power than other workers, to become a tradesman also required a lengthy apprenticeship. As Garvin notes: ‘Apprenticeship periods were far longer than in other countries . . . the international norm was three or four years for most trades, but Irish apprenticeship periods amounted to six or seven years of essentially underpaid labour.’[14] Indeed, one of the most striking things about the series as whole is the sheer number of jobs that required an apprenticeship. Even bartending, which is today an unskilled job that doesn’t require a qualification, required a four year apprenticeship in 1949/1950, while to be a grocer’s assistant necessitated a training period of three years.[15]

INNISFALLEN-A

The Inisfallen, which carried thousands of emigrants from Cork to England

Ultimately, ‘Any Jobs Going’ paints a picture of a highly closed and stratified labour market. After the miniature industrial revolution that coincided with Fianna Fáil interventionism in the 1930s, the limits of protectionism had been reached by 1950. The Irish economy was stagnating and, as a result, there were not enough new jobs and industries to provide fresh opportunities for the young. Beyond the jobs described in the Irish Press, the single most common occupation in the country was that of the unskilled worker, whether factory hand, docker or agricultural labourer, not to mention the thousands of unemployed.

The restrictive practices of many craft unions, which sought to maintain exclusivity within their trades, are understandable in this regard. With a vast reserve army of unskilled workers and the unemployed waiting beyond the factory or the workshop, lowering the barriers to entry would have meant that the industrial power of the craftsmen would have been decreased and the importance of their skills diluted rapidly. For most ordinary people in this period, who lacked the wealth of the elite, or the connections and trade protections of the craft workers, employment prospects were bleak. It is no surprise then that during the decade that followed the publication of ‘Any Jobs Going?’ more than half a million people left the country, seeking a life that the declining and stagnating emerald isle simply could not provide.


[1] Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely, Irish Women at Work, 1930-1960: An Oral History (Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2012), pp.6-7.

[2] Diarmuid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000 (London: Profile, 2005), p.506.

[3] Irish Press, 9 December 1949 and 23 February 1950

[4] Irish Press, 7 November 1949.

[5] Irish Press, 26 October 1949.

[6] Irish Press, 20 October 1949 and 26 December 1949

[7] Irish Press, 8 November 1949.

[8] Eibhlís de Barra, Bless ‘em All: The Lanes of Cork (Cork: Mercier Press, 1997), p.139.

[9] Irish Press, 15 October 1949.

[10] Irish Press, 19 November 1949.

[11] Irish Press, 17 October 1949.

[12] Irish Press, 25 October 1949.

[13] Irish Press, 27 October 1949.

[14] Tom Garvin, News from a New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2010), p.149.

[15] Irish Press, 21 November 1949 and 26 December 1949.

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Filed under Irish History, Labour History, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized