From Socialist Voice, May 2011

Pages from history

Trade unionism in Ballinrobe

by John Meehan

To the uninitiated, the development of the trade union movement in the early part of the twentieth century in a small west of Ireland town with a predominantly agrarian economy may seem unusual.
     However, on a deeper study one can see it was a reflection of the evolving understanding of the people of how successful collective action in the pursuit of legitimate goals could ensure the eventual success of their mission.
     Davitt’s Land League, the cultural struggles by the Gaelic League to re-establish our national identity and the massive working-class struggles in the 1913 Lock-Out consolidated their self-belief.
     This revolutionary thought process culminated in the united front of the 1916 Rising. The role played by James Connolly, one of the most advanced working-class intellectuals, gave a massive impetus to the spread of trade union faith, particularly amongst those who were dubbed the lower echelons of society.
     This new leap of faith applied equally to Ballinrobe as to other rural towns, particularly those with railway connections, which facilitated and fostered good communications with the capital.
     The availability of documentary evidence for this period is limited, so these few gems come from those now departed who were part of the scene.
     The first Ballinrobe Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was established after 1916, with the first Secretary a small farmer from Brownstown named A. W. Feerick. His role was short-lived, as economic circumstances forced him to emigrate to the USA.
     He was followed by “Faithful,” employed as a jeweller’s assistant by Pillow Jewellers, then in the Main Street, premises now occupied by Fitzgerald Solicitors. “Faithful,” to his credit and to the credit of his local members, even in those troubled times, did not allow differences of religion to inhibit their united action in striving to advance their just demands.
     The membership would comprise mainly employees of the many thriving business houses which were built up supplying the then existing workhouse, with at times a population of a thousand, the military barracks of the forces of occupation and a wide-ranging rural hinterland, carters collecting and delivering from the railway station and other carters doing the twenty-mile trek to Westport docks, shop assistants, and “yard boys.”
     At that time most business houses had a few acres of land close to the town to maintain milk supply. The animals were housed in the winter in stabling at the rear of their business and dwelling houses, and access and egress was betimes a hazardous process, not totally conducive to modern hygiene regulations.
     Lowry’s Sawmill in Cornmarket is today owned by John O’Hare, who runs a unique tavern that nourishes the body and the spirit, according to your taste. The late James Burke, traditional boat-builder from Burke’s Island and Cloonkeary, secured employment at the then Lowry’s Sawmills, with one of the conditions of employment being membership of the ITGWU.
     On the industrial relations front, mutual respect seemed to have prevailed. One hiccup occurred in 1924 when the carters and yard boys took strike action for improved wages and conditions. This dispute was eventually settled without much residual rancour, except for one incident. A non-union person was enticed to carry out “yard boy” work for the period of the strike, and for the remainder of his life he was always known as “Blackleg”—and rightly so.
     The union also had a social dimension. A pre-fab hall was erected on the old Fair Green at the old Town Hall, now neglected and fully defunct, formerly a British jail to care for the dissident natives.
     Céilithe and other dances were held there on a regular basis, as were other meetings and discussions. Despite all those activities the union was working under extreme duress. A major split took place on the acceptance of the Treaty. Some members broke ranks and joined the ATGWU, based in Galway.
     A house divided can rarely survive—possibly a thought for today in a divided country—so, as the demise of the Ballinrobe Branch of the ITGWU set in, the branch was briefly serviced from Galway, as were the Cong Sawmills.
     The social side too went into decline, as did the social hall. The last verbal record of the branch was limited to social activity in a small house on Creagh Road, serviced by a man named Walsh from New Street, father of the late postman John Walsh.
     Political division, mass emigration and the antipathy of the new power-brokers destroyed the first efforts of a semi-free people to exercise their rights but failed to kill the spirit that drove them. Today the struggle goes on. We all in some format owe much to those pioneers who left us a tradition to be remembered with pride.
     The actions of Davitt and Connolly have left behind a tradition of struggle based on clear analysis of the class and imperialist nature of society under British rule.

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