Ennis, Christmas Eve 1933
On Christmas Eve, 24 December 1933, in the West of Ireland town of Ennis, County Clare, members of the Gardai visited 26 labourers. They handed each one of them a summons to appear in Court on charges of intimidation, assault, and conspiracy, in mid-January 1934.
All of those summoned were members of the Ennis United Labourers’ Union. The charges arose out of a mass picket of 250 to 300 members of the union at a quarry outside the town. The total membership of the union was about 500, all of them in Ennis and its three-mile surrounding area, which the union claimed as its catchment. The mass picket, which had assembled behind the union’s fife and drum band in the town, and marched, drums beating, to the quarry, had been an attempt to compel non-union members working there to join the union.
There must have been deliberate malice in the timing of the delivery of the summonses. Christmas was a great religious festival in the town. On Christmas eve, virtually all the Catholics, and that was not far from being all the people, in the town would flock to Midnight Mass at the Cathedral and at the Franciscan chapel. It was an event much anticipated and much looked forward to, as were Christmas Day and the rest of the twelve days of Christmas.
For years, every December the labourers in the town had demonstrated to beg the council to organise relief work for them – such as breaking stones which would be used in road repairs, or the quarry work – in order, as their placards invariably said, “That we may may have a Christmas dinner”. It is not hard to imagine some police man, or some other Jack in office, muttering as the summonses where being arranged: “We’ll give them a Christmas dinner!”
For the previous two years at least, the labourers had shown a spectacular militancy and combativity, organising marches and pickets of hundreds of people to intervene in what were in fact very small disputes. Now someone in authority had decided to teach them a lesson. The summonses – so those who decided to prosecute the labourers must have intended — would teach them a lesson and put an end to it.
On that, the authorities were mistaken. Within two months of that Christmas Eve “present” from the police and those they served, to the labourers of Ennis, and before the men had been tried, there would be a three-day general strike in the town.
The events that are going to be described here took place long ago in a place which needs to be described in some detail to make sense of the story I am telling.
Ennis is the capital town of County Clare. In its range of functions it was and is a small city, the centre of the administration in the county, location of colleges and schools and lawyers and markets in livestock.
It is a very old town, founded in the middle of the 13th century, on an island in the River Fergus, initially around a Franciscan Abbey and the court of a local small king. It became an incorporated borough early in the 17th century, a Protestant borough, as all such towns where then. Protestants alone had the franchise. The town elite was an island in a surrounding Catholics sea.
Even so, in the 1730s, when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism attempted to speak at what is known locally as the “Height of the Street”, he was shouted down by a large crowd of Catholics.
County Clare knows itself as the “Banner County” – the vanguard in Catholic, nationalist and republican advances. There Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, won the election in 1828 that heralded the emancipation of Catholics from the apartheid-like disabilities that still made second-class citizens of Catholics, even after active persecution was long in the past and many of the Penal Laws against Catholics had been abolished.
There in 1880 Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of militant constitutional Irish nationalism, made a speech urging that any tenant who broke the solidarity of the tenants against the landlords should be “shunned”, propounding the policy that came to be known as “boycotting”, after its first target, a land agent called Boycott.
There de Valera won a famous by-election for Sinn Fein in 1917. There the last three men of the 77 captured Republican prisoners shot by the government during the Civil War, were killed, two of them after it was clear that the civil war had ended. There in 1923, not long after the Civil War ended, De Valera, now the political leader of the defeated Republicans, attempted to speak to a large crowd, over the heads of which soldiers fired shots and proceeded to take him into custody.
The town in the 1930s, and for a long time afterwards, is much smaller than it is in 2011 with its large surrounding housing estates. Then open countryside with narrow, hilly roads bordered by dry stone walls, scraggy bushes, ferns, and trees, begins at the edge of the town.
One consequence of the town’s island origin (Ennis means island), is that some of the houses and one of the main streets, Parnell Street, are subject to flooding when the Fergus overflows, as it often does.
Ennis has a cathedral with a tall spire, dating from the 1840s, and a large and stately courthouse from the same period: around the walls of its grounds are ranged a number of small cannons from the Crimean War of the 1850s, decorative not functional. It has a friary, a Franciscan church, and a convent.
It has a high column, topped by a statue of Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator” of Catholics from old legal restrictions, rising above its central square — “the Height of the Street” to Ennis people, officially O’Connell Square.
From O’Connell Square branch out the town’s four main streets. One of them, a place of banks, solicitors’ offices, and big upper-class houses, is wide. The other three are narrow and almost medieval-seeming. So are the mazes of narrow lanes in which much of the Ennis working class then lived.
The ruins of the Franciscan abbey remain in Abbey Street, which in English-rule days was “Church Street”; the abbey was taken from the Franciscans and served as a Protestant church for a long time, and as a courthouse.
In the 1930s, the town has around five thousand people in it, and maybe twice that many in its rural periphery. In the 1840s, before the catastrophe of the 1845-8 Famine, the urban area had eight to nine thousand residents.
The town has long exported people. The world slump in the 1930s puts a stop to much of that: emigration falls to very little. It will resume helter-skelter when the World War creates jobs and the need for soldiers in Britain.
There is a college a mile or so from the town where, among other things, priests are ordained: a nun-run residential college for girls. The Bishop, Dr Fogarty, lives in a small palace (as palaces go) on the northern edge of the town, with lawns on which peacocks strut symbolically.
It had been the residence of a rich merchant, a miller, but now the great flour mills of the town are gone. The quays, where boats loaded up or discharged cargos to or from the two miles or so to the Shannon, are idle.
The working class — which, much of the time, means the unemployed class — lives in tiny houses in narrow lanes off the central streets (where the shopkeepers mainly live, above their shops), and in three or four long, narrow streets of small one-storey houses radiating out of the town. On most of those houses, sedge thatch has by the 1930s been replaced by galvanised iron roofs.
Those radiating streets are Old Mill Street and its extension, Cloughleigh; The Turnpike; Drumbiggle (from which the great grandfather of Mohammed Ali migrated in the 1860s), to the west of the town; and Boreheen to the north. People also live in two old military barracks.
The tiny working-class houses have one “big” living-room/ kitchen, and two very small bedrooms. They have no running water or flush lavatories. Cooking is on open turf fires.
The working-class people pay rent for these houses. The people of Cloughleigh, where there is almost annual flooding, pay rent, collected by a local agent, to Mrs Linden, a woman living in genteel Hampstead, London.
The houses in the warren of small streets branching off the main streets are like those of the long proletarian streets — small, and, for those adjoining the quays and in Market Street, subject to flooding.
Every so often, in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, conscientious Town Medical Officers report to the council — and their reports appear in the Clare Champion newspaper — that the houses of the Ennis working class are not fit for human beings. They are “hovels” (their word), not houses. They should be pulled down and replaced.
The last of those hovels, on The Turnpike, will not go until the mid 1970s.
A tiny number of new houses are being built. The story that this pamphlet tells centres on the conflict between workers and employers and County Council at the start of one small block of new houses, Ard na Griena.
Class structuring and finely-calibrated class distinctions stratify the population of Ennis. “Above” the workers who live in the lanes and long streets is a stratum of skilled workers (tailors, artisans); above them, the small and medium shopkeepers; and above them, the bigger shopkeepers and owners of big stories which deal in bulk goods with the country people when they come into town for supplies. One of those merchants, Dan McInerney, has his own small “palace”, surrounded by its grounds and high walls, not too far from Bishop Fogarty’s palace. There are school and college teachers and higher-up “professional men”. In this story, they need not concern us much: enough to note that they are there.
“Below” everyone else, including the lowest proletariat with some sort of fixed abode, are the travellers (as they call themselves), or “the tinkers” (as everyone else calls them). These are Ireland’s “gypsies” (except that they are not Roma), who bear old Irish names such as Carthy, Ward, etc. They hawk things, do repairs, sing in the streets, beg, get drunk and fight each other.
They are harassed by the gardai, and regular spells in jail of two weeks or a month at hard labour, for women and men alike, for drinking or begging or fighting, are a routine feature of their lives.
American anthropologists work in Clare, surveying the people, their occupations, their families, their lives. A famous study by two of them, Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, finds that of the town population, the proletarians are the most stable part, people of the same name going back centuries in the town. By contrast, there is a frequent turnover, within two generations, of the shopkeepers. Their children will be schooled to go into the “professions” or into the church as priest or nun. (They need “money behind them” even there. Nuns, for instance, have to bring a “dowry” to their notional marriage with Christ. Nuns who can’t do that become “lay sisters”, a class of menials and servants for the other nuns).
In two generations shopkeeping families move on. The proletarian families remain, unless the whole family emigrates.
The town, which its range of functions is a small city, is heavily dependent on the countryside — on its goods to market; on its purchasing power; on its flow of people, such as women who, dowried, marry shopkeepers, or young men who become apprenticed to learn the trade with shopkeepers.
The revolution on the land
Clare, like the rest of Ireland, had experienced two revolutions in the two generations between the 1880s and the 1930s. For what concerns us here, so had the Ennis proletariat: things fixed for centuries began to dissolve and change. Anything was possible.
Millenarianism — the belief that there could be a great and complete transformation of life — was a substratum to Irish revolutionary political movements that, on the face of it, were very limited in their effects and what they achieved. So it was with Republicans after the split in Sinn Fein in 1921-2. So, I think, it was with some of the things that we will see at work in the minds of the Ennis proletarians.
The two revolutions were interconnected, of course, but distinct and divided in time. The first was a profound social revolution in land ownership. The second was the political revolution that followed after it.
The social revolution consisted in the transfer of landownership from big landlords whose ancestors had gained control of the land as part of English conquest. Their relationship with their tenants never lost the marks of that conquest.
In England, from the 14th and 15th centuries, a class of capitalist farmers had emerged, men who had rights in the work and capital they invested in what they rented from their landlord, who could sell on what they had contributed to the development of their farms, and who thus over generations accumulated wealth and capital.
In Catholic Ireland it was different. Farmers in the North, who had come as colonists and had a common interest with the landlords against the “natives” who had been displaced or pushed onto marginal land, had property rights similar to English farmers’. A tenant or sub-tenant in the rest of Ireland had no such rights. He could be evicted at will and have his improvements and “accumulations” confiscated by the landlord or by the landlord’s principal tenant.
Critics of that system, such as the English bourgeois radicals Richard Cobden and John Bright, referred to the land system in Ireland as a form of feudalism.
Michael Davitt, too, who led the tenants’ revolt and set up the Land League in 1879, called the system feudalism. It was true. In the old system, political power and force overrode what were normal capitalist relations in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The system was eventually dismantled “from above” by English governments, and most importantly by Tory governments.
The tenants had rebelled. They organised their own militant peasant union, the Land League, and, using the weapon of solidarity against the landlords and the government and against Irish farmers who “broke ranks” with their fellows, forced tremendous concessions.
In 1881 the Gladstone Liberal government brought in legislation for the so-called Three Fs — fair rents, freedom of sale, and fixity of tenure — for tenants who paid their rent. It was an attempt by legislation to reshape Irish relations on the land into something resembling landlord-tenant relations as they had been for centuries in England.
How was “fair rent” to be determined and imposed? By way of tribunals. They could insist on a cut in the rent the landlords charged, and would do so when tenants were mobilised and refusing to pay what they saw as exorbitant rents.
This created, so landlords and their supporters said, and with some truth, a system in practice not far from “dual ownership”. The land was no longer the landlord’s to do as he liked with. The development of bulk grain transport from the USA and other countries, and then of frozen meat transport, to compete with Irish produce on the British market, made the landlords willing to divest themselves of the land, if they could get an acceptable price.
The Liberal legislation in 1870 made buying their land a possibility only for the better-off Irish farmers. They had to already have one-third of the total price before the government would advance on loan the rest of it. In practice it affected very few farmers.
The Liberals’ commitment on principle to “cheap government” limited what the British state felt it could and should do. The Tories were bolder. In a series of Acts of Parliament, beginning in 1885, they created a growing movement for the transfer of Irish land to the farmers. It was massively expedited by the 1903 Act.
Farmers were given the land by the government providing a full mortgage, to be paid back in instalments over decades ahead. Normally the mortgage payment was less than the rent had been.
The financing of this immense transfer of ownership hit a number of financial crises when government money dried up. There was a big one in 1909, under a Liberal government. The independent Irish state had work to do to complete this revolution, through its 1923 Land Act and others. But by 1914, when the World War changed everything, the land revolution had largely been carried out. Farmers were government mortgage-payers, not renting tenants.
Protestant tenants in Ulster gained tremendously from this too. Britain created a class of peasant owners. The Tories called this “killing Home Rule with kindness”. In well-known exchanges between Lenin and others during World War 1, some Marxists, Karl Radek for instance, believed that the Tories had indeed killed Home Rule and Irish nationalism. Some nationalist parliamentary leaders, like John Dillon and John Redmond, feared that they might have done too. On that they would be shown to be wrong, but it was not an unreasonable expectation.
What the Irish workers of places like Ennis — even not enlightened workers — learned from the land revolution was the importance and the possibility of solidarity as both an ideal and a weapon in the class war.
Michael Davitt, the leader of the Land League, a child of Irish migrants born in Lancashire who lost an arm as a child working in a cotton mill at the age of 11, was a socialist. Akin perhaps to the populist socialists of Russia, he did not always distinguish between, on one side, small farmers, and would-be small farmers intent on claiming a share of the land, and, on the other, proletarians such as those of Ennis (and of the port of Kilrush, the second town in the county, where the workers were organised and militant).
Davitt wanted not peasant ownership but the nationalisation of the land. So did James Connolly’s Irish Republican Socialist Party. Parnell, the political leader of parliamentary nationalism, who backed the tenants with disruption of parliamentary business (filibustering, etc.), favoured peasant ownership. So did the new and putative peasant proprietors.
Parnell once made a speech in which he urged the farmers to be kind to their labourers, but that was King Canute trying to command the sea of peasant avarice and “primary accumulation” of wealth.
However politically “inevitable” it was, the breaking-up of the old large estates into peasant ownerships was regressive and even in many ways reactionary. In some areas, in west Clare for instance, it meant a return to subsistence-level farming. It led to a fall in the number of wage-workers.
By the 1920s in Clare, the big bulk of the people owned their farms or shops and had relatives working for them. A large number of their relatives, the single sons and daughters, had to emigrate, to America until the early 1920s, when free immigration was heavily curtailed and subject to annual quotas, and then mainly to England, Scotland, and Wales.
What the Tory-shaped land revolution meant for the Ennis proletarians and others like them was that they were trapped “aliens” in a petty-bourgeois world. By cutting off the “big battalions” of the Irish industrial working class in the North, Partition, or rather the deep divisions which underlay partition, further isolated and disempowered them.
The political revolution
The second revolution was of course the “political revolution” between 1912, when the Third Irish Home Rule Bill was proposed to the London parliament, and 1922, when Britain vacated the 26 Counties, which then gained the status within the British Empire of the “White Dominions” like Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
The 26 Counties substantively had independence. Some unpleasant details. such as the forced oath of allegiance to the English monarch, remained to be torn up, as they were by De Valera in the 1930s.
In that political revolution, the Irish proletariat was politically two-headed: in the Protestant North, Unionist; and in the Catholic 26 Counties, nationalist.
The working class played an important part in the political revolution as fighters and as militants, but not as an independent political force. The bulk of the insurgents in Dublin in Easter Week 1916 were of course workers. One contingent of insurgents, the Irish Citizen Army, originated as a trade union defence force during the 1913-14 strike, and though fused into the nationalist army marched under its own banner, the Plough and the Stars.
The labour movement organised a general strike against conscription in 1918, and another general strike in April 1922 against “militarism” and the drift towards civil war between the two sides, Republican and “Free State”, of the sundered Sinn Fein. The “Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party” was organised as a single movement, formally committed to realising the “workers’ republic”.
James Connolly’s part in the 1916 Rising gave the labour movement a major claim to part of the political iconography of the Irish national revolution, and bestowed respectability on socialism, while leaving the decisive questions open to many conflicting answers: what is socialism? What sort of socialism?
The Labour Party stood no candidates in the December 1918 general election, in which Sinn Fein won 73 out of Ireland’s 105 seats for 47% of the votes cast (in 25 of its seats there was no contest). The Labour Party decided that immediately for practical reasons and out of concern about the political division of the members of the trade unions, North and South. But there was in it also a degree of Labour being overawed by Sinn Fein.
The Irish TUC and Labour Party retained a loud commitment to “Connolly’s workers’ republic”, but Connolly’s attempt to popularise working-class socialism in Ireland by grounding it in a supposed (essentially mythical) ancient Irish clan communism was a two-edged weapon. All sorts of regressive and even reactionary projects and ideals, among them clerical-utopian ideas, could be presented in terms of the “workers’ republic”. The British revolutionary socialist press, during the Irish war of independence (1919-21) and after, advertised, as an exposition of the workers’ republic, a thoroughly muddled and reactionary book by a Catholic writer, Aodh de Blacam.
But the fundamental weakness of the labour movement was the weakness of the Irish working class in the 26 Counties.
In 1922-27, while De Valera’s Republicans abstained from entering the Dail and swearing the compulsory oath to the British King (though many of them had won elections), the Labour Party was the second party in the Dail. Again, it held the balance of power in the Dail (backing De Valera), between the general election early in 1932 and the one a year l