Most academic historians have chosen to concentrate almost exclusively on the military struggle and the political machinations of the nationalist leadership during the Civil War, ignoring the struggles of organised labour. Indeed, labour historian Emmet O’Conner has argued that ‘public history … remains inordinately engrossed with nationalism’. Kieran McNulty aims to address this omission, analysing the labour movement in Kerry during the years 1921-23.
As early as the summer of 1920, Maurice Neligan, Secretary, Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), Listowel Branch, a key organiser during the 1919-20 land war, made reference to ‘a Kerry soviet’. During this conflict there had been extremely tense relations between Sinn Féin, which generally supported the farmers and the agricultural labourers. This policy by nationalists towards the labourers was continued by the Free State though the land war in Kerry was less intense by then. The Republican leadership also continued to adopt coercive methods to suppress outbreaks of militancy among farm labourers. John Joe Sheehy in Tralee claimed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had to deal with ‘[P]eople trying to enlarge their holdings. Anyone who could claim that an ancestor had been evicted put the boot in. There were too many trying to take advantage of things’.
In early April 1922 when a Dáil Arbitration Court in a pay dispute between members of the ITGWU and Lord Kenmare ‘ruled that the men are not entitled to any increase in their present wages’. A few weeks later in May, in Culleenbeg, Beaufort, another altercation occurred in a seemingly ongoing dispute between the supporters of an evicted tenant named Murphy and the landlord, William Blennerhassett, who ‘was attacked by a number of armed and disguised men. They fired several shots but were unable to affect an entrance’. Once again, the local IRA took the side of the landlord class in opposition to the farm labourers. This is a stark, but unfortunately common example during the revolutionary years where radical Republicanism did not necessarily lead to radical social policies. Kerry TD Austin Stack, who also supported the farmers remained in Sinn Féin even after the Fianna Fáil split of 1926.
There were, however, exceptions within the Republican movement. Gobnait Ní Bhrudair was a nurse and member of Cumann na mBan who opposed the Treaty. She campaigned tirelessly for public health reform, and was a founding member of the Irish Nurses’ Association. Ní Bhrudair was also elected onto Kerry County Council. Women such as Ní Bhrudair were extremely rare in the labour movement in Kerry where they were often confronted by a less than enlightened leadership. This much is illustrated by the Tralee Workers’ Council (TWC) all men, in its attempt to tackle female unemployment. At the June 1922 meeting of the TWC, a resolution was passed unanimously requesting, ‘… that the Ministry of Labour continue the scheme of instruction in Home Crafts for unemployed women’. J. Quinn, TWC Vice President encouraged ‘unemployed women instead of getting doles at the Labour Exchange’ to get instruction in ‘domestic economy’. Although the scheme no doubt relieved unemployment among Tralee’s female workforce, it exposed the limited social vision of the TWC.
By 1922 the Free State was suffering mass unemployment. Prior to the truce, a steep rise in agricultural prices had dramatically increased rural unemployment while, by April 1921, ‘half of the ITGWU’s roadmen were idle’. In January 1922 the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress (ILP and TUC) claimed to represent ‘300,000 organised workers in the country’, with 100,000 in the ITGWU. In 1922 Tralee was the largest branch of the Transport Union in Kerry with a membership of 942 or 65.32% of the union’s members in the county. However, at the AGM of the ITGWU Tralee Branch on 11 March 1922, Mr. D. Murphy, noted that since the resignation of Mr. J. McCarthy, as secretary in 1920, ‘the branch has not been found in good working order, as the majority of the members had neglected their duty.’ This is possibly a reference to members failing to pay their union dues. In Kerry, the General Election of 16 June 1922, saw of eight ‘Sinn Féin’ TDs elected unopposed, including five anti-Treaty members. Nationally, the Labour Party won an impressive 17 out of 18 contested seats, receiving 21.3 per cent of the vote, nearly matching the vote for Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin.
During 1921-23 large sections of the population refused to accept the legitimacy of the state’s authority. The state’s ability to govern effectively would be further undermined if large commercial concerns were forced to yield to industrial action by their employees. The Free State viewed industrial action by trade unions as just as much of a threat to its authority as the IRA. According to Emmet O’Connor, while the ‘Anglo-Irish truce … presented an opportunity for rolling back the wages movement, only the biggest employers were able to avail of it’; the railway companies, the postal service and the shipping concerns.
Faced with the Government’s decision to decontrol the railways from 15 August 1921, the railway workers accepted arbitration under the auspices of Sir William Carrigan. In response to Carrigan’s recommendation for wage cuts and increased hours, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) proposed to postpone a national stoppage on the promise of further negotiations.
This did not prevent unofficial strikes by thousands of NUR members during early 1922 which the Irish Times deemed an outbreak of ‘Bolshevism’. The Kerry People reported that on 1 February ‘all hands employed at the Tralee end ceased work … and all train services to and from Tralee now cut off’. However, less than a week later the Irish Examiner claimed that the Great Southern and Western Railway company was ‘still running’ trains between Limerick to Newcastle West and that ‘a motor mails service has been instituted between Limerick and Tralee’. At the port of Fenit the Kerry People reported that the ‘unloading into trucks for the conveyance to Tralee … [was being] held up owing to the railway strike’. The Irish Times described how the employees of the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway ‘struck work in sympathy with the men of the other systems’.
Eventually a settlement was reached which included the ‘… principle of eight hours day’. However, in August 1922 Mr. Donnelly, the shop steward of the Tralee NUR branch, informed TWC that ‘most of the men were under notice and only worked from week to week’. In August 1922 Kerry Labour councillor, Mr. R. Heaslip, echoing the position of the ILP and TUC declared, ‘that the Government should take possession of the railways and provide a subsidy to run them’.
In response to government cuts to bonus payments, 10,000 members of the Irish Postal Union (IPU) struck on 9 September 1922, in defiance of government policy which refused to ‘recognise the right of civil servants to strike’. The Government attempted to minimise the impact of the strike by the use of ‘scabs’, which it ‘was determined to afford the fullest protection’.
The postal service remained paralysed until the strike ended on 29 September. In Kerry, as late as 27 September, the Irish Times reported that ‘it was stated by an official that mails had been sent to Tralee, but that they had been returned, the men on the boats refused to handle them’. The Irish Examiner noted that ‘all the indoor staff of the Tralee post office … are on strike’. According to the Irish Independent the cutting of telegraph wires by the IRA had meant ‘telegraphic communications from Tralee ceased more than a fortnight ago … so that the postal strike does not make matters very much worse as far as Kerry is concerned’. However, the Irish Examiner contradicts this account by claiming that ‘the postal strike had added to the trouble’ in Kerry.
Ultimately the position of the postal staff was undermined by the failure of the ILP and TUC to encourage sympathetic strike action. The dispute ended with the IPU being forced to accept pay cuts, and in 1924 postal workers were forced to accept a ban on strikes.
The dockers’ strike of 1923 represented the last attempt by workers to resist the Free State’s counter-revolution. Although Dublin was the epicentre of the strike, there was also much anger among dockers throughout the state. In correspondence of 22 May between the local ITGWU shop steward for the Kerry port of Tarbert, Thomas McGreevy and Thomas Foran, the union’s General President, the former complained ‘that workers had not been given a pay increase since 1919 and carters for whom 5/- per day is average wage’. On 27 May McGreevy again wrote to Foran informing him that if Limerick dock workers were ‘forced to come out over the same issue – workers in Tarbert will follow suit’. But instead of granting a pay increase, management attempted to force a resolution to the dispute by announcing two shillings per day pay cut from 13 July.
This resulted on 16 June, in a national dock strike by over 3,000 members of the ITGWU led by James Larkin. Although the ITGWU offered some financial support to the strikers, Foran distanced himself from the dispute and Larkin’s militant philosophy. Indeed Foran told McGreevy, ‘that the situation in Limerick may not escalate as the majority of boats are being worked’. C. Desmond Greaves asserts that Foran and William O’Brien had allowed themselves ‘to lose contact with the rank and file’ and this partially explains the dockers’ affection for Larkin. The dockers were forced to accept an increase of only one shilling per day. Many dockers felt betrayed by the leadership of the ITGWU and joined Larkin’s Workers’ Union of Ireland.
Defeat for the Workers’ Movement
As the dockers were facing defeat, a general election was called for 27 August 1923. The Labour Party, for the first time decided to participate in a general election in Kerry standing two candidates, Cormac Breathnach, former president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation from Caherciveen and Patrick Casey, of the Bakers’ Union and President of TWC. Nationally the results represented a significant reversal for Labour. While the number of seats in the Dáil increased from 128 to 153, Labour’s representation in the chamber fell from 17 seats to 14 and its share of the vote, 10.6 per cent was half what it achieved in the 1922 General Election. In Kerry the Party fared even worse receiving just 7.86 per cent of the total ballot.
By taking their seats in the Dáil, the Labour Party legitimised the Free State. The ITGWU essentially represented the trade union wing of the Labour Party and thus the latter’s acceptance of the Treaty seriously curtailed the former’s scope for militant industrial action. The postal strike, occurring when the Civil War was at its height, gave a glimpse of the potential of workers to challenge state power. However, its defeat also proved that there was never any real likelihood of the counter-revolution being defeated. The existing Labour leadership had no intention of withdrawing its TD’s from Dáil Éireann and declaring a general strike in order to force the collapse of the Free State Government.
In hindsight, an alternative viable strategy would have only been possible if there had already existed a mass political party directly accountable to the working-class through the Soviets, as had happened in Russia in the era of the Bolshevik Revolution. Such a party would therefore have represented a political alternative to Sinn Féin – advancing a political philosophy of revolutionary socialism capable of forcing the overthrow of the Free State Government by means of mass mobilisation of the working-class. It seems to me only fitting to end this essay here by quoting Mary Smith on the relevance of Connolly to the cause of revolutionary socialism in Ireland:
“I would like to add that the role of Connolly’s revolutionary Marxist perspective is difficult to overstate. He combined socialist theory and practice, bringing together in struggle, as circumstances permitted, the most progressive elements, male and female, in the fight for liberation … One hundred years later – we have a duty to shout about it.”
Kieran McNulty is a historian and author. He has written a paper on Class, Gender, Labour and Civil War in Kerry, 1921-23 and will speak at the Kerry Civil War Conference which takes place on 23-25 February this year.
K. Allen, 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition, (London, 2016), Pluto Press.
Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, (London, 1986), Bookmarks.
K. McNulty, Class, Gender and Civil War in Kerry, 1921-1923’ in F. Devine and F. Mac Bhloscaidh, (ed), Bread not Profits: provincial working-class politics during the Irish Revolution, (Dublin, 2022), Umiskin Press.
E. O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland, 1917-1923, (Cork, 1988), Cork University Press.
Mary Smith, ‘Women in the Irish revolution, in Irish Marxist Review’, 2015, Vol. 4, No 14