Workers in the Free State faced a world of economic stagnation. In Clare the farmers were the new aristocracy, even though there were poor farmers in the west. The state was most responsive to their needs.
The shopkeepers were the bourgeoisie, and the proletarians divided into two distinct groups: those who had regular employment (transport workers, workers in big merchant stores, workers in institutions), who were badly paid but paid regularly, and the great pool of casual labourers who had no regular work and frequently for long periods had no work at all. In Ennis there was a great pool of at best only partly-employed people.
Karl Marx contrasted the proletariat under capitalism with the proletarians of the ancient world in a well-known epigram: “The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, while modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat”.
In Ennis and Clare, most of the proletariat lived in the margins of a society of owner-occupiers where farmers mainly employed relatives, where division of the land had eliminated many of the old hired-labour jobs, and where there was very little industry. They were very much a surplus population. So were many of the sons and daughters of the farmers, who became emigration-fodder.
It was thus that the economic slump triggered by the 1929 Wall Street crash, and the political upheavals following Fianna Fail’s election victory, found them.
We know of some of the militant actions by the Ennis unions only because they “made the papers”. The incident that led to the trial of the 24 labourers in 1934 did not make the papers until they were charged. Most likely there were many more incidents that did not go on the public record.
The first appearance in the press of the distinct Ennis labourers’ response to the crisis, and of the millenarian atmosphere created by the second coming of “President De Valera” and his opponents’ loudly expressed fears and expectations, is in a report in the Clare Champion in December 1932.
“400 members of the local Labourers Organisation marched in processional order, headed by their fife and drum band, to the Kilrush Road, where seven men were... excavating... for sewers...
When the procession reached the scene of the work, the employees continued working, but almost immediately an altercation arose and they were set upon... and beaten... The workers resisted for the short time, but they were, naturally, powerless to resist the attack...”
The EULU men picked up abandoned shovels and used them to fill trenches that had been dug.
“The four or five Gardai on duty under Inspector Hall were powerless to stop the replacement work... A few shovels were [then] broken, and cheers rang out as they were flung into the adjoining field.
The replacement work finished, the processionists again lined up and proceeded... to the courthouse [at the other side of town], where Michael Glynn (vice chairman of the organisation), Dan Burke (secretary), M Malone, J Ryan, Thomas Dinan, and W Ryan interviewed Mr F Dowling, the county surveyor [in charge of all County Council work]”.
Michael Glynn spoke from the courthouse steps:
“There is one thing I am proud of today, and that is that the old spirit and determination of Ennis men is still there”.
Headed by the band, the EULU marched through the town, were addressed by P J McNamara, and dispersed.
Mr Glynn later explained to reporters that this work was Urban Council work, and the issue was [it] was being done by country men”.
We get a picture of how things worked in Ennis from the account of the conference to resolve the dispute published in full in the Clare Champion on 10 December 1932.
“The dispute that led to the [forcible closing down of] the sewage works on the Kilrush Road was discussed at a two day conference between Mr Meghen, Commissioner administering Urban affairs, four representatives of the Ennis United Labourers Organisation... and the contractor, Mr P McMahon.
Michael Glynn explained the point of view of the workers. “On Thursday, the Union Chairman, Mr M Malone, and the Secretary, Dan Burke approached Mr McMahon, contractor for sewage work in Ennis... They asked him if it was true that he intended starting this work at two shillings per cubic yard, and he said it was.
I informed him, on behalf of the Ennis United Labourers, that we could not agree to any contract on the piecework system, as we considered that it was establishing competition between man and man, which should not be. After a long discussion Mr McMahon agreed to pay 33 shillings (the union rate was 35 shillings a week... A mass meeting of the union members... unanimously rejected wages below the standard rate.
McMahon started the work on Monday afternoon, and... told applicants for work that [it would be] two shillings per cubic yard. The men put [this] to the union committee...
McMahon [told union representatives] he had not broken his agreement: they could start work in the morning at 33 shillings a week. The union leaders advised them to start work on the Tuesday morning, and wait until the Town Commissioner had pronounced on the issue.
At eight o’clock the following morning when they turned up for work, Mr McMahon told them he had no work for a couple of days... Mr McMahon broke his word to the deputation and... did not want any Ennis men on the job. The committee then appointed T Dinan and Michael Glynn to see Mr Dowling the County Surveyor, but he was not in town. The men decided on a protest march to the work site.
They called upon the men at work to cease, and one of the men working on the job raised a shovel in an intimidating attitude, which was resented by members of the demonstration. We realised that the situation was rather serious and dangerous... There was a bit of a melee.
I tried to get Mr Dowling to get the work stopped, for, to be candid with you, as a member of the Organisation, I was afraid something serious would happen. There is no man in the Organisation felt the position more than I did. For nearly two hours on Sunday night I advised the men to go to work and to adopt a peaceful attitude.
Their point was that he wanted to appoint no Ennis men. Yet the grant for the work is being giving to provide work for the unemployed within the Urban area of Ennis. We have completed a register I have of all the unemployed in Ennis today, and if there is any work within the Urban area, the Urban men are entitled to it now, undoubtedly”.
The Commissioner said that the work had been given to Mr McMahon in the understanding that town men were to be employed. He is surprised that this trouble has arisen. He doesn’t quite understand why.
Mr Dinan (union): “I can tell you what the state of affairs is now, sir , that McMahon and Mr Smyth are going to have a Hell of a lot of trouble with the labourers at this town... We don’t care if Mr McMahon comes from Timbuktu. We don’t object to working for a man who pays the local Trade Union rates.
The Commissioner asked what rate of wages they where “insisting” on. Glynn: “35 shillings a week”. The Commissioner agreed that this was “fair enough”.
Dinan made sure he understood: “For casual labour. Michael Glynn: “there is nothing extreme in that”. The Commissioner agreed, adding that Mr McMahon was supposed to take men from the Labour Exchange. The Commissioner: “not hearing his side at the moment I can only say you did seem to have reason on your side.”
Michael Glynn: “Though he believed he bore a name to the contrary, he was always out for peaceful methods.”
Dinan: “The whole thing is that Mr McMahon did not meet us fair and square”.
Dinan expressed what the feelings of many workers about the Labour party backed Fianna Fail government in its first year: “I’d like to thank the government of the present-day for the way they are meeting the unemployment question”.
Dan Burke, who is and will remain for decades a leading Ennis trade unionist, is apologetic: “It is not an easy thing to keep them under control”.
He nailed down the attitude of the Ennis United Labourers Organisation: “They had no objection at all to outsiders coming into town, provided, of course, that there was work available for them”. In other words, in the given situation, they did object. Behind the apologetic manner and the stance of moderation, there is steely defiance there in that “provided, of course”.
Dinan underlines it again: “that is, providing the men in the town have already work. Then we have no objection to outsiders, no matter where they come from”.
Michael Glynn thought that McMahon, the contractor, may not have anticipated having to pay 35 shillings a week wages.
The Commissioner: “Mr McMahon’s reason for the piecework was that of any other contractor – to get more work done”.
The next day the same delegation from the union confronted Mr McMahon. Glynn told him:”They would not be intimidated by any man. Ennis men would not be allowed to work outside Ennis, and they had decided that the rate for workers on this job would be 35 shillings per week.”
McMahon presented his case. “The Labour representatives asked that a wage of 35 shillings be paid to the men in the sewerage work at Kilrush Road. I pointed out that is also another and bigger relief scheme adjacent – the Fergus Drainage – where the rate of wages is 27 shillings. After discussion a rate of 33 shillings a week was agreed upon [and the Labour representatives said they would present it to the men]. I told them that I had already promised work to about eight men registered at the local Employment Exchange.
They asked under what conditions was I employing the men. I said I was giving them the option of doing excavation by the cubic yard. The alternative was a weekly wage. The representatives requested also that no one be employed employed unless he was a member of the Labour Organisation, and that they... would supply me with a list of good men.
I told them I would not agree under any circumstances to this arrangement...
I told them he would probably need men on Monday but found afterwards that this was impossible. On Monday I started clearing the site with five of the men I had previously promised work. Shortly after starting the work a number of men, about 30, arrived at the scene with the object of obtaining work. I informed them I was not yet ready to employ. These men told me that they would not work at the rate of two shillings per cubic yard. I told them that was optional.
Next day when I arrived at work I was confronted with over 50 men looking for work. I was not yet ready, and had not made the necessary arrangements at the Employment Exchange, I told them I could not take any men that day. On hearing this the men became very restive and issued threats, etc. Now this dictation by the men as to how I was to conduct my own work I would not accept under any circumstances. Nor could I take a large number of men indiscriminately.
[Later the same day] I found a procession of men formed up in marching order and headed by a band. I also found three of the men who had been working with me bleeding from the face and some of the implements broken...
If the Labourers’ Union repudiates the agreement arrived at between us, I feel at liberty to also repudiate it, and will adhere only to the rates presently existing in the adjacent relief works [27 shillings].”
Dinan questioned the assertion that they had broken their agreement.... “We had the members of our Association waiting and wanted to go to work. When we came there on Tuesday morning you had either other men at work from within a radius of 10 miles of the town, to do this work for two shillings per yard”
The Commissioner asked the names of the men employed on this work.
Mr McMahon: John Hinchy of Market Street, Ennis, a married man; John O’Connor, single and registered at the Labour Exchange with an address at the Upper Jail Street.
Mr Dinan: He lives within 7 miles of the town, so it is not fair where there are over 300 men idle in the town that Mr McMahon or any other contractor should go outside the town... He considered a town man to be a man who is in the town a couple of years.
The Commissioner concurred: I would say a couple of years anyway.
Mr McMahon: the next man he had employed was John Hallinan, a married man. Mr Glynn said that there was a great objection to him. He had recently sold a farm of land for £900, and had purchased two houses in Ennis. There were more deserving cases than this. Mr McMahon: that man should get a chance to explain. The Commissioner agreed.
Mr McMahon: There was also John Bradley, a married man living in the vicinity of Clarecastle in a labourer’s cottage. He had worked for him for about four years, but had been temporarily employed for the past three months.
The Commissioner: I think we must rule him out. He did not think that men of this type should be employed. This scheme is being financed from the rates. No man from the countryside should be employed. No man but an Ennis man, a man with two years’ residence in Ennis, should get employment. He asked the Labour representatives what their attitude would be to these men if it were agreed to restart the work.
Mr Dinan: they had no objection to working with these men as long as there was no unemployment in the town. [In other words, they had very strong objections: there were 300 in the town without work].
The Commissioner said he had a list containing 217 names from the Labour Exchange, and Mr McMahon was entitled to employ any man on that list, no matter who he might be.
Mr Glynn: They would like to see Bradley working. He was in bad circumstances and had seven children to support...
Commissioner: “As far as I am concerned, McMahon is entitled to take any man from that [Labour Exchange] list”.
Mr McMahon: “I should get a free hand in this matter, as otherwise I would have no real supervision over the men, and the whole thing would end in chaos”.
Mr Glynn: we can guarantee that we will give you men who will be able to do the work. I think that is all you want. Reading the list from the Labour Exchange Mr Glynn said: all these men are from the urban area or within a mile of it. I have no objection either to a man named Purtill
Mr Dinan: Purtill was the one man he would like to see working. He was badly off and was living under terrible circumstances at the present moment...
The Commissioner said he would be inclined to be sympathetic with the labourers. [Not to be outdone] McMahon said: “So am I, too”.
[On wages] the Commissioner made a “sporting offer” to Mr McMahon. Go on with the work at the 35 shillings a week rate, and at the end of the job, if he can show me from his books that the thing has worked out wrong for himI am willing to meet him. I can not make him him a definite promise at the moment. The Commissioner asked if he would accept a limit to the number of men from outside the town and he would employ – would 10 out of 60 be enough? [McMahon] said that it would.
Michael Glynn asked McMahon to say definitely how many men he would want of his own choosing. McMahon said: about eight. Mr Glynn: I see no difficulty. McMahon agreed he would put 60 or 70 men opening the road in preparation for sewage pipe.
Now came the pious homilies.
The Town Commissioner said he did not want any bad feeling to persist between McMahon and and the labourers. McMahon had developed a business and was creating more employment.. Strikes and disturbances were additional expenditure. The work that had been interrupted on the Kilrush road would have to be done again. They had no excuse for demonstrations as was always willing to come and try and meet any reasonable grievance that they might have.
Calling men out on strike was putting them out of employment for three or four days. He appealed to everybody to do their best to keep men from going out on strike because it was a ridiculous thing to do nowadays when they had the sympathy of everybody in authority. He would like to see a good spirits in Ennis. The workers were not beating Mr McMahon and he was not grinding them.
Mr Glynn said that they did not want to do any injury to any man. They realised the position a contractor was placed in, but it must also be realised that they were catering for a lot of men. They themselves were stampeded, but he could say that very few did as much as they to prevent the demonstration. But they got beyond them.
[It is hard not to think there was a big element of “hard cop, soft cop” in the union leaders presenting themselves as moderate men and their members as dangerous if provoked].
The Commissioner said he would like if things were made as dignified as possible in Ennis. Any dispute should be settled... It would turn out better for the labourers and the employers in the end
Dan Burke: my own desire is to create harmony and peace between Mr McMahon and workers in the town. He hoped that in future they would live in peace and harmony. I am sure I’m speaking for the labourers when I wish him success and prosperity any future undertakings.
Mr Glynn... said that he considered McMahon’s statement that he would know how to deal with the Ennis Labourers Organisation as a threat.
Mr McMahon came back: when one statement is made it means raising another. You’ll know that a statement was made at the Labour Room by a certain gentleman addressing the crowd... Weren’t gun-bullies referred to?
Michael Glynn: I never heard those words
Mr Burke: I did not hear that remark.
Mr Dinan: He made no references to gun bullies..
Mr McMahon replying to Mr Glynn:n, maintained that when fight was put up to a man he was no man if he did not accept the challenge. He could not put men on indiscriminately and he had to take them from the Labour Exchange. But the men were too impetuous and that was the whole cause of the trouble.
Mr Glynn on behalf of the labourers of Ennis offered sincere thanks to the Commissioner.
The proceedings ended with Mr Burke and Mr McMahon shaking hands before the Commissioner.
The general strike, February 1934
Ennis labourers went on a three-day general strike in February 1934. Essentially the issue was who got jobs in the town: members of the union, or whoever the Labour Exchange and the employer chose.
In the build-up to the strike, the calibre of the EULU members and the strength of their commitment to labour solidarity was tested, and they passed the test magnificently.
In 1933, seven men were sent from the Labour Exchange to begin preparations for the building of five dozen houses at what is now Ard na Griena. Of those seven, one was not a member of the union.
The union members struck work, demanding that only union members be employed. The job was formally shut down, and the men discharged.
After an interval, the job was started again, and men were sent from the Labour Exchange, union members. The union insisted that the six men who had struck work were being victimised and by rights the jobs were theirs. The men sent from the Labour Exchange accepted that. So the Labour Exchange sent another batch of men.
The union ruling stood and the new men accepted that.
The men sent from the Labour Exchange would have been chosen on the basis of most need. These were people with no resources to fall back on, who sometimes went hungry and, worse, had to see their children hungry and sometimes without shoes. They believed in working-class solidarity, in the principles of the union, in the necessity of a common front. They knew the union would protect them and fight for them and with them.
They accepted the discipline of the union, labour solidarity, even when it cut painfully against their immediate interests.
The Saturday Record reported on the February 1934 general strike after it was over.
“Up to 4 o’clock on Monday last [12 February] the town of Ennis was in the throes of a general labour strike. Following the cessation of work of steamrollering the entrance to the sites of the new houses last week in Ard na Griena... a strike took place owing to the objection to the employment of seven particular men whom it is alleged refused to recognise the Ennis Labourers Association.
That was on Wednesday [7 February] and up to Wednesday evening everything was peaceful... Things, however, took a different turn on Thursday.
About 90 extra Civil Guards were observed to be on duty at various points at eight o’clock in the morning. The men who refused to go on strike were afforded strong protection. Strikers in groups paraded up and down the road where the men were working but there was no interference with them. At the same time, there was an unceasing parade through the streets of the town by a number of workmen carrying banners.
A conference was held on Thursday night at which it was decided to call out all the labourers and shop-porters, messenger-boys, etc. employed in the various establishments in the town. This order came into effect on Friday morning, with the result that business of all kinds was completely dislocated.
Over 1000 men headed by the band took part in the general parade through the streets at three o’clock on Friday. There was a complete suspension of the delivery of coal, bread, and other commodities and it was strongly rumoured that the delivery of milk would be stopped...
Mr Paddy Hogan TD, in reply to a telegram from the Labour Organisation, arrived from Dublin on Friday night and addressed a conference in the Labour Hall.
The town suffered most on Saturday as a result of the dislocation of business. The gates of the market house closed, and people unable to dispose of their produce had to bring it home again .
There was practically no business transacted in the shops. The village of Clarecastle [two miles from Ennis] was besieged on Saturday evening by people from the town for their supply of coal [which came there up the Shannon, on ships]. Those who are not fortunate enough to be able to get an ass-cart were content to take supplies all the way on an ordinary handcart while in some instances a sack of coal was carried all the way on a man’s back!
About 1500 men headed by the Ennis band again paraded the streets on Saturday, after which a public meeting was held outside the Labour Rooms and addressed by Deputy Hogan from one of the windows.
Hogan said that since midnight on Thursday the town of Ennis had been in the throes of a general strike and with the unity and solidarity they had amongst the workers in every country, the workers and Ennis had accepted the challenge thrown down to them. Many on strike were not members of the Ennis United Labourers Association, but had gone out to support their fellow workers. Even some traders in the town had indicated to their workers that because of the justness of the case they were perfectly pleased that their employees would take part with their colleagues.
I want to say to the people of Ennis people and to the traders in particular that the Committee of the Ennis United United Labourers’ Association regret the dislocation in trade and business necessarily caused. We would like to extend the same statement to the people of the country who came to do business in the town and found the markets and general business dislocated, but the fault is not ours.
This fight is not of our seeking. The challenge was thrown down to us in no uncertain fashion and we would be unworthy if we did not take up that challenge.
What is the history of this strike? Around the Christmas time a grant was given for the relief of unemployment in the town. A few men who were not members of the Ennis United Labourers’ Association were employed on that work. They were asked to join the Association. They were given every facilities in the matter of paying arrears that might have accrued or entrance fees, but they definitely refuse to belong to the Association.
Workers demonstrated at the place where the men were employed and a dispute occurred which is at the present time before the courts, so I will not pursue it any further.
Immediately after, when the first work opened in the town, we find that these men were the very first to be sent on the work of steamrolling at Ard na Griena. The members of the Ennis United Labourers’ Association refused to work with them as non-union labour, and the work was closed down.
Yet again we find that when steamrolling is begun on the Doora Road, that these same men are sent out. Sometimes we find that the Surveyor has taken one of these men and if I be organised workers of the town and put him on the County Council van and sent him to Ballynacally, to spread the trouble in that area.
In fact of that challenge by the County Surveyor, there was nothing left to do but to take the drastic step [the union took]. The County Surveyor says he is bound to accept the names sent him from the Ennis Employment Exchange. That statement is not true. The County Surveyor has powers of discretion.
Further, if the County Surveyor says he must take all names from the Labour Exchange. It would be interesting to know how he could reconcile that statement with the fact that he took Keane – one of the men concerned – and sent him on than to Ballynacally without getting his name from the local Labour Exchange?
Again, there is on the books of the Clare County Council a resolution proposed by Mr Sarsfield Maguire [the owner of the Clare Champion newspaper, and a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order]. when he was Vice-Chairman of the Clare County Council. The County Council deliberately ignored that resolution.
There is also a resolution passed by the Clare County Council that wherever possible stones will be quarried for steamrolling purposes in order to absorb the unemployed. The County Surveyor in as many cases as possible for him to do so, is buying stones from the largest farmers all over the county. In fact some farmers have opened quarries on their own land and are supplying the material to the roads as the workers stand idly by.
I have asked the Minister for Local Government for an enquiry into the working of direct labour in the county and I intend to press that as far as I can, because we are determined that no tools, used by whom we do not know, will smashed the Labour Organisation in this county. We will not allow the County Surveyor steamroll us into submission.
Whilst I say that this fight has been forced upon us, and whilst I say that we are in no way responsible for it, we should at all times be prepared to confer on the basis of fair play and just recognition of our demands, but only on that basis, because the justice of our cause is clear, and we intend to pursue it to victory”.
The County Council resolution: the workers seem to win
The militancy of the Ennis working class was of course political, no matter how limited its trade unions focus at any given time. Its fundamental day-to-day politics were trade-union-style bargaining within the existing system. The Ennis workers also used militant direct action in politics.
The decisions that shaped the lives of an Ennis working class dependent on relief work were taken by the Urban and County Councils. There too the union made itself felt. Just how much they made themselves felt can be read off from the headlines in the two weekly papers published in Ennis, after a mass demonstration outside and inside the County Council chamber in February 1934 in support of a motion there which would secure the demands of the general strike.
The EULU advocated the recognition of trade union wages and conditions on all works under the County Council, and that all work was to be be given to trade-unionists, members of the EULU.. The Finance Committee of the Council had adopted a resolution to this effect and the question was now on the agenda for consideration by the General Counsel.
“Yahooism” and “claptrap” shouted the Clare Champion (18 February 1933) the paper backing Fianna Fail and De Valera, but picking up the words of a fascist, “Blueshirt”, Councillor, Falvey.
“Unprecedented in the history of Clare”, headlined the Blueshirt-friendly Saturday Record of the same date. Four smaller headlines, in decreasing size, outlined its view of the affair: Labourers march to County Council meeting/ And refused admission by gardai/ Protests by Labour deputy and others/ Recognition of Trade Union wages and conditions advocated.
The labourers were debarred from entering the courthouse where the monthly meeting of the Clare County Council was in session, although notification had been received of deputations on behalf of the Ennis United Labourers’ Association and the Kilrush Transport Workers’ Union.
Before the meeting about 700 members of EULU assembled at their headquarters in Market Street, and headed by their fife and drum band, marched to the courthouse. There were met by a large force of Gardai. The leaders were informed by Superintendent Casey that only a deputation would be allowed to enter the courthouse.
As the councillors arrived, the Garda authorities informed the leader of the EULU, Paddy Hogan TD, and other members of the County Council of this decision.
An anxious Hogan addressed the workers from the steps of the courthouse. He knew of no previous occasion on which citizens of the County had been refused admission to the Council Chamber. Deputations and Labour representatives had been admitted to the space reserved for the purpose on numerous occasions and there never had been the slightest damage done, nor was the public peace endangered in anyway. How it had come about that they were refused admission to the Council Chamber now, he could not say.
He did not know on whose authority such an order had been issued. He had phoned the Department of the Minister for Justice, and had been informed that they knew nothing about it. He had just got in touch with the Police Commissioner’s department to see if the order could be countermanded.
He appealed to the workers to do nothing that would in any way endanger their reputation as respectable citizens and workers. Their rights had been filched from them and he would raise the matter in the National Assembly.
He again asked them in the interests of their reputation as sensible, decent men. Their interest in the Council Chamber would be well looked after. While the meeting was in progress they should do nothing that would lead to a disturbance with the Gardai. The majority of the rank and file of the Gardai are in sympathy with Labour.
Later on the person responsible for the order opposing the right of entry to the Council Chamber would be found out and dragged into the limelight.
Hogan raised the exclusion of the labourers at the beginning of the Council meeting. “The Civic Guards were at the moment downstairs preventing the workers of the town and a portion of the County from coming into the Chamber. He did not know on what authority or what order. He knew simply they that force was being used to keep them out. The Council Chamber was being closed to a section of the community by force, with the threat of violence, on the part of those who should be the public peace preservers. He protested emphatically, on his own behalf, on the part of the democracy of the state, on behalf of the Labour Party, and on behalf of right-thinking honest men”.
Hogan was still anxious: “He hoped that the locking out of these men would not have a worse effect than letting them into the Council Chamber would have”.
Councillor Henchy supported the protest. He said that at any time the labourers had been present during a meeting of the Council, they had conducted themselves decently. Other councillors also joined the protest. Paddy Hogan moved that the council adjourn as a protest against the action of whoever was responsible for locking out the labourers.
The chairman announced that if the feeling of the council was that the men should be admitted, then he would get in touch which Chief Superintendent Gilroy. The Council was unanimous for letting in the men.
When they reassembled the Chairman delivered a message from Chief Supt Gilroy: he had taken it on himself to exclude the men in the interests of peace, and his action was upheld by the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana. The Chairman reported that he had given Gilroy an assurance that there would be no breach of the peace.
The hundreds of labourers then entered the public gallery. There were some policemen in the chamber. The Council received deputations from the labourers of Ennis, Kilrush, Ennistymon and Ballynacally.
In the resumed council meeting, Hogan advocated a direct-works council scheme. “There are at the present time a good many people unemployed. There is a big bill for Home Assistance, and he thought it was false economy to keep people from work and at the same time sustain then, because if they did not give them work they would have to sustain them. What was their game?
“He put it to the people who said that the present administration was not doing as much as they might to relieve unemployment, to show what the Clare county council would do in the matter of relieving unemployment. There would not be any advantage accruing to the ratepayers by toning down this scheme. What was lost on one hand was gained on the other. It was of no advantage to ratepayers to pay Home Assistance. The workers did not seek Home Assistance; they sought work”.
The 300 or so workers who had come in had not been quite as gentlemanly as Paddy Hogan had asked them to be. Councillor Kerin asked the Chairman to ask them to allow the council to carry on, and not to make any demonstration.
Councillor Crow was all for giving work to the workers, but not at the 35 shillings a week union rate. Many labourers were happy to work for 24 or 25 shillings a week. “If Mr Hogan is satisfied to take that, I’m with him; but I certainly will not give him 35 shillings a week”.
This was greeted by derisive cheering from those in the gallery. The Chairman had to appeal for order twice before he could make himself heard. He told those in the gallery that councillors “have the right to use their voice and vote in this issue and they will not be intimidated”.
Councillor Falvey, a Blueshirt, said that no-one “liked to cut the wages of labour. But there were plenty of decent labourers who would prefer a cut in wages and to get more work”.
During Falvey’s speech, and after, there was almost continuous shouting by those in the gallery.
The resolution was carried by a vote of 16 against 12, with two abstentions. When the chairman announced the result, there were prolonged cheers from the public gallery. Hands were raised high and if shouting continued even though Mr Hogan TD stood up on his chair to appeal for order.
Opponents of the resolution interpreted the position of Hogan and the EULU to mean that only men who were members of trade unions would be eligible for employment in public works.
Paddy Hogan explained that he wrote the resolution so that the most needy people would get work given on the relief schemes. “It was well known to every councillor in the Chamber that people were employed on relief work who were not really in need of that work, why around the corner they were needy people idle. There were farmers with anywhere between £10 and £40 valuation employed on relief work, while they were workers in the same locality, with possibly nothing but four walls of a house, without work”.
At the end of the general strike, and the passing of the County Council resolution moved by Hogan, the EULU seemed to have won a victory. But it was a victory that the ministry in Dublin could, with a flick of an official’s wrist, cancelled.
And that is what happened. The ministry overruled the council a couple of weeks later, and some of the councillors who gave the resolution its small majority probably voted for it knowing that they could rely on the government to sort it out for them.
The trial of the 24
The general strike was followed by the trial, in April 1934, of union members arrested on 24 December 1933 after the union demonstration at the quarry on 21 December, involving similar issues of non-union labour to those in the general strike over the work at Ard na Griena.
The charges of intimidation, assault, and conspiracy had been reduced to the charge of unlawful assembly.
On 21 December 1933, thirty men had been working on relief work at a quarry in Fountain, two miles outside Ennis. Twenty were members of the EULU (referred to colloquially as “the Labour Room” or “the Room”). Ten were not.
Let the prosecutor in the trial on 12 April 1934 at the Circuit Court, Mr Griffin, tell what happened next. Only details of the story are in dispute, not the main lines.
“At the end of last year money was allocated to the Clare County Council for relief and as a result work was opened at preparing road repairing material at Fountain. In all about 30 men were employed, 20 of whom were members of the Labour Room, the others being non-members.
On 16 December, Andrew Butler, one of the accused, went to the quarry and asked the men why they would not join the union. The 10 men said they would not join the union. Butler said that he would give them a few days to become members, and approaching them subsequently asked them for membership subscriptions. The men again refused to join the Association on 20 December, and the members of the association who were employed were withdrawn from the work and it was announced that there was going to be a strike.
On 21 December the 10 unassociated men were at work about an hour when they heard the beating of drums and music and saw a band followed by two or three hundred men coming towards the quarry. Some men got over the wall and approached the workers.
The workers refused again to become members of the Room... workers were injured and the work was stopped. The men at work are prepared to identify the 24 accused as being among the men came to the quarry and formed part of the unlawful assembly that took place there”.
John Joe Reidy, secretary to the Ennis United Labourers’ Association, put the union’s side of the story.
On 21 December only two men, in himself and Butler, went into the quarry. He asked the men if they would join a union. Molloy at the same time came into the quarry to get his shovel, which Arthur Power had. They had some argument, and it was then that the crowd came in over the wall.
The incident only lasted a few minutes, and the injuries the men complained of were sustained when they fell over themselves running away.
The Association had no objection to non-members working in gangs by themselves. The objection was that having members and non-members working together. Only about 30 men entered the quarry from the road.
The men did not go to the a quarry with the intention of frightening the men who were working there.
John Maloney said he was one of the crowd. He did not go into the quarry until George Molloy and Walsh fought over the shovel. He struck somebody, but not until he was struck. He was hit with the handle of a pick and he then hit back.
George Molloy stated that he was one of the crowd, and when he saw Power using his shovel he went to get it. As he was going towards Power, to get his shovel, Walsh struck him, and he hit Walsh back.
The judge took a ten minute break, during which he seems to have proposed to Reidy that they plead guilty, on a promise that he would not send any of them to jail. The proposal was evidently rejected. The judge could of course have kept his word and given suspended sentences that would have tied up the militants.
In the summing-up, Judge E J McElligott made it plain why the charges had been brought. He even went near to instructing the jury to convict.
“This charge of unlawful assembly was a particularly grave one, but he had intimated to Mr Reidy that none of the accused would be sent to jail.
Labour was absolutely entitled to organise and form trade unions. Trade unions should be and almost invariably are of great faith in the advancement of the cause of Labour. They can conduct negotiations between employers and workmen in a peaceful and harmonious spirit. They are a great protection for the hard-working people who belonged to the labouring classes.
He admired trade unions very much, especially when, as a result of peaceful negotiations, they were able to advance the cause and interests of hard-working, decent people.
Sometimes, unfortunately, these organisations get out of hand and they violated the law. It might not be a serious violation, but at times any real violation of the law that was for the protection of the whole community was to a certain degree a serious matter.
This demonstration started out from Ennis, two miles away. What was its object? Was it for the peaceful persuasion of the three men who were members of the organisation to leave the work? If it was that, an intelligent man like John Joe Reidy would be able to exercise peaceful persuasion without the crowd.
As a result of the first visit from the union, 20 men had withdrawn their labour from the County Council, and gone to claim unemployment benefit at the expense of the ratepayers of the county.
Witness after witness comes forward to say that the Labour leaders came over the wall into the quarry. That in itself was an illegal thing to do. It was a trespass on the property. The action of the 20, 100 or 250 men as described even by themselves, constituted beyond any doubt an illegal assembly and that was the offence with which the accused were charged.
Do you believe, gentlemen of the jury, that these men went to the quarry for the purpose of peacefully persuading three of their members to abandon the job, and introduce seven or eight non-members to join the Association? He was amazed when he was told the sad history of these men, one of whom was without work 12 months, and another who had only two months’ work in the previous year. Certainly it seemed to him that it was a terrible burden on their resources, that they should be asked to pay out of two weeks’ charity money – for that was what it was – of 35 shillings a week, a subscription of two shillings and sixpence to what probably was a very deserving society. It could be well imagined that the men would resist having to meet this burden.
He pointed out that as a matter of law, when these men came across the fence into the quarry, they invaded property other than their own, and they constituted an illegal assembly. He always told a jury if there was a doubt the prisoner was entitled to the benefit of it. There was no doubt whatever in the present case, even on the evidence of the accused themselves.
He did not like appealing to the conscience of the jury, to remind them of the sanctity of the oath. The oath was a sacred thing. Unlawful assembly was a crime, but not much harm was done on this occasion. He had intimated to Mr Reidy that if a certain course was taken he would not send the accused men to jail. That course was not taken, but I have never broken my word with the jury”.
The judge directed the jury to acquit one defendant, Joseph Moroney.
But then, after a 20 minutes’ absence, the jury brought a verdict of not guilty for all 24 accused, and they were discharged.
When the verdict was announced somebody clapped in the back of the court, and McElligott’s bad temper burst out: if there was any more noise made in court, he would send the person responsible to prison. The clapping at the back of the court continued and the judge directed the Gardai to take the person into custody.
The Gardai could not identify the person who clapped, and the people left the court quietly.
Solidarity against the odds
The labourers of Ennis were proud people, condemned to endless humiliation, quick to take offence and willing where they could to avenge themselves. They cared how they appear in each others’ eyes and in their own.
The poverty of this proletarian underclass was dire and permanent. There were big families and bigger clans of extended families in the streets of “hovels”. There was much sporting competition — a “town league” of hurling teams from the different streets and districts — and some feuding. Somehow out of this bonding together in families, hurling teams, named local clubs that hunt on foot with local packs of beagles, card schools and street patriotism, a magnificent culture of labour solidarity developed.
Where you might expect savage competition for the little work there was, there grew up the opposite — a culture of working class solidarity. In the period 1932-34, in the euphoria around the change of government, this took the form of labour demonstrations that led to three three-day General Strike in the town and the mass trial of 24 picketing workers.
The workers in Ennis maintained their union, which was to a serious extent a union of the unemployed — the unemployed of a pre-welfare society, who had to rely on a pittance of “Home Assistance” at the discretion of a “Relieving Officer” and on the Catholic charity of the St Vincent de Paul organisation. The members of the union maintained a magnificent solidarity and coordination of its members in action.
As a corporate body the union played its part in the life of the town. As we have seen, it had its own fife and drum band that took part in town parades other than union parades, including some political parades. They welcomed De Valera to the town, for instance, in 1932 and 1933.
The national organisation it was affiliated to — the “Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party”, a single organisation until 1930, when the industrial and political wings were made separate organisations — proclaimed its goal to be the workers’ republic, “Connolly’s workers’ republic”, a “red” republic as its opponents sometimes put it. It would maintain that commitment to a workers’ republic until 1938, when it retreated under church pressure.
Yet the Ennis labour movement could go nowhere politically. It was a minority in the society, and cut off by divergent ideas and identities from the “big battalions” of labour in the industrial north of Ireland. In a town like Ennis the militant labour movement was like a squirrel in a cage — active but captive, and still captive, no matter how active it managed to be.
When World War 2 made jobs in England, these workers flocked across the Irish Sea to English towns and cities. Many of them settled permanently, bringing families with them.
The great lesson they can teach us today is that working-class militancy, whatever the odds against us, is always a power for the ruling class to reckon with. And in favourable conditions it will allow us eventually to destroy the capitalist ruling class.