Below is an abridged and edited extract from Kieran McNulty’s article, War and the Working-class in Kerry 1919-1921 published in Saothar, Vol. 45, 2020, (Irish Labour History Society).
The high prices during the First World War, followed by the economic depression in Ireland, led at the turn of the 1920s to increased demands from workers and farm labourers for better pay and conditions, resulting in a number of strikes in Kerry and also a major land conflict in the county which frequently erupted into violence.
There were two strikes by local government workers, all members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), during the first six months of 1920. According to the RIC, the first of these actions involved ‘800 county and district road men’ in support of a demand for a five shilling per week pay increase, and ended with the workers receiving ‘a considerable increase’.1
In May 1920, a strike by employees of the Cleansing Department of Tralee Urban District Council (UDC) lasted over a week, and resulted with the Transport Union wining a pay increase of 6 shillings per week for permanently employed workers who were over 21 years of age.2 On 4 December, correspondence between the Tralee branch of the ITGWU and the centre at Liberty Hall records union members at Tralee Bacon ‘recently fought a successful strike for pay increase’.3
However, union militancy often came at a cost to activists who also had to contend with the fact that the leaders of the unions often displayed a distinctly conservative and bureaucratic attitude towards such rank and file militancy.
In correspondence dated 8 December 1920, just two days before martial law was about to come into effect, Jeremiah Murphy, secretary of Tralee ITGWU Branch and local councillor, wrote to the president of the Irish Labour Party Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC), Thomas Farren, asking for support for union members at Tralee Gas Works wishing to take strike action to win their demand from Tralee UDC for an increase in the days allocated as public holidays.
Farren curtly replied that the Transport Union was opposed to the members ‘even talking of closing down the gas works and thus dislocating industry’, and that,
‘… the present time was anything but one when men should give employers a chance of penalising or victimising them … If your members take unofficial action such as this and are penalised as a result the union can-not be held responsible …’4
Rather than encouraging the militant instincts of a radicalised union rank and file keen to defy the authority of the British Crown in Kerry, Farren, as with the rest of leadership of the ILPTUC, seemed more concerned to ensure that the membership acted within the law. The president of the ITGWU, Tom Foran, who succeeded Farren as president of the ILPTUC, adopted a similar position towards the role of the union rank and file.5
He seemed to have a particular obsession with regard to the financial status of the Tralee branch of the Transport Union and demanded to know why it was that ‘union dues [were] still not up to date by many members’.6 This despite the fact that the RIC describes an atmosphere of anarchy prevailing in the county and reported IRA flying columns roaming about the countryside at will.7 The evidence here further underlines the essentially subservient nature of the relationship between local union officials in Kerry and the national leadership of the movement in Dublin.
Union militants in Kerry, and throughout Ireland, often remained isolated because no viable alternative party to the left of Labour existed that could offer them practical support and solidarity. Despite this, Clare Turvey notes the courage of union activists in Kenmare who were frequently being arrested and their homes raided by the RIC for such activities as selling copies of the Watchword of Labour.8
The level of working-class consciousness in Kerry was such that at the June 1920 meeting of Killarney UDC, a motion proposed by Cllr. Daniel O’Sullivan (Labour) condemning the imprisonment of Jim Larkin in New York ‘for his stand against capitalism on behalf of the workers of the world’ and calling for his immediate release, was passed unanimously.9 A few weeks later, in July, at a ‘special meeting’ of the Listowel branch of the ITGWU, a similar resolution was also passed unanimously, calling on the branch to strongly condemn:
‘… the action of the U.S. Government in imprisoning Jim Larkin which was a diabolical outrage and a blot on the hitherto unsullied and unstained star-spangled banner of freedom, and demands his immediate release and return to Ireland. 10
However, it was the militancy of the agricultural labourers that caused the most friction between the unions and Sinn Féin at this time. As J. Anthony Gaughan argues, the land issue represented a serious dilemma for Sinn Féin during the winter of 1919/20 due to rising prices, rising unemployment and the sudden increase in the value of land resulting in the rise of farm produce.
The situation was made even more urgent from Sinn Féin’s perspective by the declining influence of the RIC.11 Tom Crean argues that Kerry ‘where farms were generally smaller than in the east,’ in common with elsewhere in the west and south-west, ‘the demands of farm labours were an amalgam of trade union objectives and traditional peasant land hunger’.12
North Kerry became a centre of this new militancy.13 Initially the demands of the labourers were focused on pay and conditions, but eventually shifted to a demand that ‘an extra acre’ of land be granted by farmers to each of the labourers they employed. Some 68.3 per cent of Kerry’s male work force was employed in agriculture, and the Transport Union had embarked on an intensive campaign of recruitment of farm labourers.14
Wages for Land Labourers
The intelligence reports of the RIC County Inspector at the beginning of 1919 show that the simmering tension between labourers and farmers arising from disputes over land and wages suddenly ignited into a violent conflict.
One night during January, in Killflyn, a village six miles north of Tralee, ‘an armed gang entered the house’ of a farmer named Morgan and ‘assaulted him and his wife, cutting off parts of his ears’. On 28 January, in Killarney, in a ‘dispute over labourers cottages’ another farmer, Michael Foley, had his ‘home fired on and windows broken’.15
By the spring the County Inspector made reference to ‘the killing of animals’ and how, ‘bands of 50 to 80 men were roaming the county calling on farmers’ houses and taking out labourers who had not joined with them – some intimidation was used [resulting in] two cases to be tried by court martial’.16 Also at this time in Newtownsandes, farm labourers, all members of the ITGWU, began strike action.
On April 29, the Kerryman reported that 140 labourers, ‘armed with sticks’, assembled in the centre of Newtownsandes, and continues by describing how a violent confrontation with the Farmers’ Union was only narrowly avoided through the mediation of the local parish priest. A meeting was arranged to negotiate a settlement to the dispute, which was attended by a delegation of the Farmers’ Union led by William Collins and the branch secretary of the Transport Union, Thomas Fitzgerald, who was also a member of the North Kerry executive of Sinn Féin.
Wages, hours, overtime and the provision of meals during work time were to be standardised in the form of a written employment contract. All labourers employed before the strike were to be reinstated in their previous jobs and crucially ‘the employment of non-union labourers to terminate agreement’.17
Fight for ‘an extra acre’
At the end of 1919, the focus of the farm labourer’s movement in Kerry was shifting to the demand for ‘an extra acre’ of land to be granted by the farmers to each of the labourers who worked for them. Terry Dunne has argued that the origins in this ‘particular north Kerry innovation’ lay in reforms initiated by the government in London to grant ‘council houses and adjacent plots of an acre for the notoriously poorly housed Irish farm labourers’.18
The ITGWU gave full support to this struggle, leading to what O’Connor has described as the eruption of a ‘more deadly conflict’.19 However, he also notes that, ‘… this persistence of the land issue was exceptional. Only in Kerry did the ITGWU accord it as a priority. Elsewhere, agricultural trade unionism turned aside to the more attainable goal of wage advancement’.20
In Lixnaw, a village lying between Tralee and Listowel, on 25 January 1920, a meeting was held to establish a committee of farm labourers. The Kerryman described the presence at the meeting of ‘a very large and enthusiastic’ crowd. Thomas Houlihan was elected as chairperson of the committee and Maurice Neligan of the ITGWU was elected county organiser. When he addressed the meeting, Neligan drew comparisons with the Land League and concluded by stating that;
‘It was the workers who kept the wheels of the world going and in looking for an acre of land from the farmers they were only … asking for a share of the debt due and long outstanding … Those people who … call [the labourers] Bolshevist (sic) Revolutionaries … could not stop their movement for self-determination if the workers had loyalty and discipline firmly established amongst them’.21
When the farm labourers’ demands were rejected by the farmers a virtual war developed, with the labourers organising a boycott, sending threatening letters to farmers’ homes and burning their houses and crops. The farmers retaliated by shooting into the labourers’ cottages at night.22
The RIC reported that during October 1919, farm labourers ‘on two occasions … fired into’ the home of a farmer named Thomas Walsh of Cappagh, Kilflyn, because he refused their demand to divide up his land amongst the local labourers.23
On 19 January 1920, five labourers’ homes were fired into and it was widely believed that the farmers were responsible for these actions.24 Later, on 12 February, ‘armed men’ entered the home of John Purcell, a farmer and publican also living in Kilflyn, and shot his daughter in the leg.25 Police were convinced the motive for the assault was a dispute over land.
In response to this intensive series of strikes, boycotts, and violence by labourers against farmers the farmers also organised themselves into a union. They were determined not to give into the labourers’ demand that they be granted ‘an extra acre’ of land.
The chairman of Listowel Farmers’ Union, Patrick Trant, claimed the labourers were using intimidation to win their demands while other farmers asserted that the labourers were influenced by ‘Bolshevism’. The Bishop of Kerry, Reverend Dr. Charles O’Sullivan, condemned ‘socialism’ in a Lenten Pastoral, issued to every parish in the county.26
In the month of February alone, the RIC in Kerry recorded 102 ‘indictable offences’ which were of an ‘agrarian’ nature.27
Sinn Féin Sides with the Land Owning Class
To begin with it would seem that Sinn Féin in Kerry were somewhat sympathetic to the plight of farm labourers as is evidenced by an observation in the County Inspectors report for August 1919:
‘Farmers who previously took a leading role in Sinn Féin were helpless when labourers organised and they had to fall back on police protection. They no longer meet with labourers in Sinn Féin clubs’.28
However, the land conflict was soon viewed with some considerable alarm by Sinn Féin who relied on both the labourers and the farmers for support, while the local RIC could hardly contain themselves at the prospect of a violent split in republican ranks. 29
In an attempt to bring a halt to the alarmingly high number of agricultural disturbances, Sinn Féin Arbitration Courts were set up to deal with disputes arising from labourer’s wage demands, while the Land Commission was established to settle conflicts concerning the distribution of land. However, these bodies invariably sided with the farmers.
An example of the class bias common to many in the leadership of Sinn Féin is displayed in stark relief by the Minister for Home Affairs, the North Kerry T.D, Austin Stack, who declared that republicans were not about to allow ‘the mind of the people [to be] diverted from the struggle for freedom by a class war …‘30 and on another occasion warned that ‘[t]he forces of the Republic’s war will be used to protect the citizens against the adoption of high handed methods’.31
Stack is clearly referring to the militancy of the hired labourers, who were seen as of less financial significance to Sinn Féin than the farmers, and explains why the former were the target of such socially repressive republican policing methods.
Dunne has revealed how, in late April 1920, in Ballyheigue, also in north Kerry, ‘a strong force of Sinn Féiners marched forth and – this being a Sunday morning before mass – posted up placards ordering parishioners to desist from any land claims’.32
Soon after this incident, the IRA newspaper An t-Óglách declared on 1 May ‘The Irish Republican Army has found it necessary to take drastic steps for the enforcement of law and order’ particularly in relation to what the paper referred to as ‘land-greed’.33 Even the Kerryman, as Crean has argued, was only ‘sympathetic to the cause of labour’ so long as it ‘did not go too far or challenge Sinn Féin.’34
Nevertheless, Connor Kostick claims that the struggle of the rural labourers was ‘creating a climate of revolutionary change much deeper than that created by Sinn Féin’.35 Crean underlines this view by asserting that if the farm labourers’ movement was ‘linked to a wider working class offensive, it might have become socially explosive. Isolated, however, the farm labourers faced enormous obstacles’.36
All in all, Kerry one hundred or so years ago was a hot bed of radicalism and working class struggle. There are many lessons to be found in these upheavals which are relevant to the issues of today, for those who care to look.
Kieran is also completing a book on similar topics, Working-class Radicalism in Kerry, 1913-1923: A Social and Political Analysis, to be published next year.
- Public Record Office [PRO], CO 904/111, February, 1920, p. 279.
- Minutes of Tralee UDC meeting 10 June, 1920 and related correspondence, pp. 68-9, 72-3, Tralee Urban District Council Minutes of Meetings, 7 November 1919-30 June 1922, (KCA/TTC/MIN/5).
- Tralee 1921, Wages’ movement and disputes, Tralee 1920 file, (ILHS), 4 December 1920.
- Tralee 1921, Wages’ movement and disputes, Tralee 1920 file, (ILHS), correspondence from Thomas Farren to Jeremiah Murphy , 8 December 1920. O’Connor suggests little effort was made by the Labour leadership to challenge the rise of Sinn Fein, see O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland, pp. 83-5.
- For a time Thomas Foran occupied the positions of both president of the ITGWU and the ILPTUC, Padraig Yeates, ‘Irish craft workers in a time of revolution’, in Saothar, 33, (ILHS, 2008), p. 13.
- Tralee 1921, Wages’ movement and disputes, Tralee 1921 file, (ILHS), correspondence from Thomas Farren to Jeremiah Murphy , 23 March 1921.
- PRO, CO 904/115, April 1921, pp. 276-9.
- Claire Turvey, ‘Politics war and revolution: The Kenmare District, 1916-1923’, Journal of the Kerry archaeological and historical society, 2 (6) (2007), p. 109-10.
- Minutes of Killarney UDC meeting June 18, 1920, p.91, Killarney Urban District Council Minutes of Meetings 30 January 1920-17 September, 1920, (KCA/KTC/16).
- Kerryman, 17 July 1920.’
- J. Anthony Gaughan, Austin Stack: portrait of a separatist, (Dublin, 1977), Kingdom Books, p.134.
- Tom Crean, ‘From Petrograd to Bruree’ in David Fitzpatrick, (ed.) Revolution? Ireland, (Dublin, 1990), Trinity History Workshop, p. 153.
- PRO, CO 904/109, March 1919, p.670; Ferriter, A Nation and not a rabble, pp. 229-235.
- Census of Ireland 1911, County Kerry, p. 82.
- PRO, CO 904/108, January 1919, pp. 231-2
- CO 904/108, March 1919, pp. 699-700.
- Kerryman 3 May 1919.
- Terry Dunne, ‘The agrarian movement of 1920. “Cattle drives, marauders, terrorists and hooligans”’, in History Ireland, July/August 2020, Volume 28, No. 4.
- O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland, p.42.
- Ibid, p. 38.
- Kerryman, 31 January 1920.
- Gaughan, Austin Stack, pp. 134-5.
- PRO, CO 904/110, October, 1919, pp. 445-6; National Archives, Census of Ireland 1911.
- PRO, CO 904/111, January 1920, pp. 232-3.
- PRO, CO 904/111, February 1920, p. 487.
- Paul Dillon. ‘Maurice Neligan: A labour organiser in Kerry, 1918-1920’ in The Kerry Magazine, Kerry Archaeological & Historical Society, Issue No. 30, 2020.
- PRO, CO 904/111, February 1919, p. 273.
- PRO, CO 904/109, August, 1919, p. 949.
- CO904/111, January 1920, pp.232-3.
- Mike Milotte, Communism in Ireland: the pursuit of the workers’ republic since 1916, (Dublin, 1984) Gill and Macmillan, p .32.
- Gaughan, Austin Stack, pp. 122-35.
- Dunne, ‘The agrarian movement of 1920’ Terry Dunne, ‘The agrarian movement of 1920. “Cattle drives, marauders, terrorists and hooligans”’, in History Ireland, July/August 2020, Volume 28, No. 4.
- An t-Óglách, 1 May 1920, as cited by Dunne, ‘The agrarian movement of 1920’.
- Crean, ‘From Petrograd to Bruree’ p. 148.
- Conor Kostick, Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917-1923, (Cork, 2009), Cork University Press, p. 124.
- Crean, ‘From Petrograd to Bruree’, p. 153.