Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Carlow Branch
Irish Transport & General Workers' Union

Source: Carlow Past & Present. Vol. 1. No. 3. 1990 pages 65 – 72.

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Labour Organising in a County Town

By Paddy Bergin

Part 1

 THE TOWN about which I am about to write is Carlow and such a title would infuriate all true Carlovians. If there is one thing about which all Carlow Townsmen would be agreed, it would be that they are in no way "Country". Indeed the animosity between town and country has been a feature of Carlow life until very recently. Although the Urban area of Carlow now includes a part on the west side of the river, in my own time senseless fights between the true Carlow men and their Graiguecullen neighbours were common, and right up to today, footballers of the G.A.A. code who, though living in the Urban area of Carlow, dwell west of the Barrow, do not play with Carlow county but with the county of Leix.

There is an historic reason for this of course. Carlow has been from the time of the Norman invasion a garrison town, garrisoned to protect the Pale and to keep open for the invaders the roads and passes of the Barrow valley, leading to the south eastern ports. Those who came across the river were the enemies of Carlow, bringing death and destruction. This was the situation for centuries and I suppose old memories linger on.

The first castle was built in Carlow right on the Barrow's banks in 1180 by Hugh De Lacy. In the fourteenth century it was strengthened, as were the general defences of the town, against the attacks of the Mac Murraghs of Borris, the O'Moores of Leix and the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles of Wicklow. In 1361 the main organs of Government were moved from Dublin to Carlow. The idea was to strengthen this vital strategic position. The departments moved included, the King's Bench and the Courts of Chancery. Surely the first example of Government decentralization in this country. The experiment was not a success however. The raids continued and intensified and Carlow became quite a dangerous place in which to live. So bad did things become that the officials and their civil servants and soldiers demanded excessive pay to stay in the place, and were soon removed back to Dublin. Is this the first case of a demand for danger money in Ireland?

During this period Carlow is mentioned as a place where guns were fabricated, a tradition which was carried on right up to the last European war. Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien in his book "To Katanga and Back" describes Carlow as the Ruhr of Ireland. In 1668 an English school teacher Thomas Dinley found Carlow to be a fair thriving and flourishing town, having an air of neatness and respectability and comfort, famous for the manufacture of sheeps grey frieze. About a century later another tourist named Dowden described Carlow as a "Considerable manufacturing centre noted for the most famous spurs in Europe". Carlow continued to be a turbulent place for most of its history. Cromwell eventually destroyed the castle, attacking in the traditional way from across the river. The actual site of his guns is still known as Cromwell's field. The most recent battle of any significance was of course in 1798, when six hundred Croppies were killed by Yeomen in the streets of Carlow. Their bodies lie buried in a common grave, in Ninety Eight Street in Graiguecullen. Even the dead Rebels, though Carlow men, were carried across the river.

Padraig Mac GamhnaI suppose it is not surprising that, in the next period of national insurgency, the most prominent man in Carlow came, not from the town but again from across the river, from the site of one of the earliest Christian settlements, Killeshin. His name was Mac Gamhna; Padraig MacGamhna. He was serving his apprenticeship as a miller. He was sacked from his job because of his activities in 1916. During the Black and Tan war he was the leading man in Carlow and the surrounding counties. He was captured at the Ballymurphy ambush and condemned to death. This sentence was commuted to Penal Servitude for life, but he was released at the General Amnesty. He stood as a Labour candidate in the General Election of 1922, for the Constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. He was elected at the head of the poll, beating Willie Cosgrave by thousands of votes. Indeed the vote collected by Mac Gamhna in that election has never since been equalled. He took his seat as a Labour Deputy but refused to take the oath of allegiance and left the Dail. He went on the run during the Civil War and again took a leading part in all operations.

He remained an I.R.A. man until his death but because of his stature and his record, he was permitted to take part in Local Government politics and to sit on County and Urban Councils. Extraordinary as it may seem, he was also a life long member of the Labour Party. He was a founder member of the Carlow branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and was chairman of that branch for most of his life. There was no trade union or Labour organisation in which Mac Gamhna did not play a leading part. He was the inspiration, the guide, philosopher and friend of all us younger people who came along later. He died in jail, because of his part in the Land Agitation in July 1943.

Paddy BerginPaddy Bergin, born 1913 Staplestown Road, Carlow, later lived in Bluebell Cottage, Dublin Road. Early education in St. Joseph's and C.B.S. Attended Blackrock College 1926-1931. Following his first employment for local money maker Frank Slater, he was an apprentice for 5 years as Sugar Cook and fitter in Carlow Sugar Factory. He was a member of the I.R.A. in the 30's. Following the 1949 strike Paddy lost his job. From 1951 to 1957 Paddy was national organiser of the Labour Party. In 1956 he was elected to the Senate and became the first Carlow townsman to be elected to either house of the Oireachtas. He was a member of the Carlow County Council for 14 years and Carlow Urban for 10 years. He was the Administrator and Staff Officer of the District Medical Office of the L.D.F. Chairman of the local branch Irish Engineering Industrial and Electrical Trade Union. Helped to revive the Carlow Trades Council. Was involved in the formation of the Federation of Rural Workers.

In later years Paddy worked until his retirement as a maintenance fitter for the Iveagh Trust. He now lives in Drimnagh, Dublin. His son Emmet is well known to television viewers as Dick Moran in Glenroe. At the Biennial Conference of the Federated Workers Union of Ireland Rural Group, in October 1988 Paddy Murphy paid the following tribute to Paddy Bergin.

"A craftsman at the Carlow Sugar Factory, Paddy Bergin helped to establish the Carlow Branch of the Union and was a delegate at the October Conference. He was to be the doyen of the Federations helpers during the third Kildare Farm Strike — the South Kildare dispute — which occurred in the Autumn of 1947. He laid his job on the line, and prospects for work in his trade in this country in peril, because of his efforts to establish and consolidate the membership of the infant Federation in Carlow and South Kildare — where Union members were obliged to hold their meetings in the open air at the "Round Bush" hope that at some future time a full paper on this great, though little known, Labour man may be delivered.

The idea for an Irish Sugar Manufacturing Industry was Mac Gamhna's. He preached its feasibility and desirability for many years. At a later date he pioneered the Irish Tobacco growing industry, which failed because the Irish Government insisted on collecting the same customs revenue from the Irish grown tobacco as from the imported leaf, right from the beginning of the venture. Mac Gamhna also pioneered the bog development scheme, and it was his fertile brain which first foresaw the energy producing potential of Irish turf. At the time of his death he was promoting a "Grow Soya Beans" campaign, and those of you who understand agriculture will realise how important that could have been.

The idea of a Sugar Industry was taken up by the County Council and other bodies and after a great campaign, there was a Government decision to set up such an industry and to site it in Carlow. It is hard to realise how important this decision was for the creation of a real Trade Union and Labour movement in Carlow.

It is almost impossible to realise today what the situation was in this country at the time. The Great War was over as was the Civil War and the demobbed soldiers were swelling the ranks of the unemployed. The first gleam of hope for the country came in the same year of 1925 with the setting up of the Shannon Scheme at Ardnacrusha near Limerick. The contract for the construction of the dam and power houses was given to a German firm named Siemens. They advertised for 3,000 workers, to live in huts on the site and with canteen facilities, at a wage of thirty two shillings per week of fifty four hours. In one week 6,000 workers had applied for the 3,000 jobs. The Irish Transport Union was still recovering from the effects of the Agricultural strike in 1922. Membership was down and organisation, particularly in rural Ireland, was weak. The fight for better wages on the Shannon was carried on in the Dail by the Labour Party under Tom Johnston, the case being made that a Government Contractor should show a good example. The Party claimed that a wage of fifty shillings would be much nearer to justice. On the 20th of November 1925 the Labour Party got a reply to Parliamentary Questions, about the information supplied by the Government to Siemens concerning wages. That answer is illuminating and is as follows.

Wages for Road Workers: Carlow, thirty five shillings (35/-); Galway twenty seven shillings (27/-); Cavan, twenty eight shillings (28/-); Leix, twenty nine shillings (29/-); Kildare, thirty eight shillings (38/-); Meath, forty shillings (40/-); Cork, forty to forty-two shillings (40 to 42/-). In all cases the week was one of fifty hours.

Wages for Farm Workers: Carlow, 23/9 (£1-19) for 53 hours; Dublin, 37/6 (£1-87½) for 53 hours; Cavan 21/9 £1-09) for 54 hours; Galway,25/3 (£1.27) for 52 hours; Leix, 27/- (£1-35) for 52 hours and so on.

To balance the picture we should remember that a Frieze overcoat could be bought for 47/6 (£2-39); a ready made suit for 21/- (£1-05) and one made to measure for 45/- (£2-25). Shirts cost from 2/3 (12p) to 2/6 (12p) and boots or shoes could be bought for 3/11 (20p) for gents and 3/6 (17½p) for ladies. Fowl were from 7/- (35p) to 8/- (40p) per pair; eggs were 2/- (10p) per dozen; turnips 1/- (5p) per cwt, and potatoes I/- per stone. In passing, I suppose it is no harm to mention that the members of Dail Eireann were paid an allowance of just seven pounds per week and there was a ballad called "My Good Old 360 pound A Year Sir".

Jim Larkin

Jim Larkin on 27 May 1911 Jim Larkin, pictured here, first published The Irish Worker, the paper of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (NLI)All of this relates back to my own town of Carlow and its sugar factory, because the Shannon scheme wages controversy had not passed unnoticed there and the Irish Transport Union members there were agitating to have a demand made to Messrs Lippens, the firm setting up the Company, and to Thompsons, the local firm responsible for the actual construction work, for a wage claim for ten pence per hour. Mac Gamhna advised that if such demands were made the factory might be transferred to either Athy or Thurles where workers would be more amenable. He suggested that no action be taken until the building of the factory was well advanced when the workers could be organised in a large group and an effective fight made for an improvement in wages and conditions. His advice was taken and work on the factory got under way.

I think I may have travelled a little too fast towards the building of the Sugar Factory and may have given the impression that Mac Gamhna was the only Labour man. This of course was not the case at all. On the 14th of February 1925, more than half a century ago, a meeting was held to set up a Carlow Workers Council. The meeting was attended by delegates from the National Union of Woodworkers, the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks, the Bakers' Union, the National Union of Railway Men, the Secondary Teachers Organisation, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the Post Office Workers Union, the Carlow Mental Hospital Workers Union and of course the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In the same year Local Government Elections were held on the 23rd of June. The successful candidates were Mac Gamhna, W. Fleming a railway man, Patrick Comerford a carpenter, Patrick Connolly a farm labourer, and Danny Fenlon a school teacher. They were all big men in the Labour movement in Carlow, and some of them have passed into folklore like Danny Fenlon and his Adult Education Classes. The stories about him and his adult students should of course be written down — but perhaps at some future date.

The other incident I would like to relate because it will soon pass away as the older Labour men die. It concerns the public meeting held to launch the Irish Transport Union in the town. It was addressed by Jim Larkin. Jim was thundering forth his message on the need for Unionism when he was interrupted by a well known "character", I will call, "Nixie", who called out "Who are you to come here, to advise decent Carlow men what to do?" Larkin halted his speech for half a second, glared down from his great height on the platform at poor Nixie and roared "My name is Larkin, Jim Larkin. I came here from the city of Dublin; I mined for gold in California; I mined for coal in Colorado; I hoisted a sail in the Pacific, and I fired a boiler on the Atlantic. I unloaded boats at the docks of Liverpool and more recently at the docks of Dublin. I have worked wherever there was work for decent men to do, but what back lane scum are you?" Nixie was just struck dumb by this torrent of words while Larkin waited for his reply for almost a full second. Then breaking the silence Big Jim looked at Nixie and gently said, "I hope I did not insult my friend". "Not at all Mr. Larkin" said Nixie, at which Larkin thundered out "No indeed because your hide is too thick for any insult to penetrate it". He collapsed did poor Nixie and, of course, he never lived it down.

However, to get back to the building of the Sugar Factory and the creation of a new Sugar Industry. As I think I have already mentioned, the contract for the actual erection of the factory was won by the local firm of Thos. Thompson and Son, to the design of the Belgian firm of Lippens. It was first of the now normal type of building in which the main loads are carried, not by walls of bricks or stone or concrete, but by steel girders. The main structure is erected as a giant skeleton of criss-crossed steel beams which are later filled in as floors. By this method, all the heavy plant may be fitted in before the walls are built or the roof fitted, and it makes a very speedy method of construction. Thompson set something of a record in 1925/26 because nine months after the site at Bestfield was cleared, sugar was being manufactured from the first Irish sugar beet ever grown.

It is very difficult to get exact figures for the number of men employed during the construction of the factory, because, apart from all the strangers of every trade who came to Carlow for work, strangers being all those who came from more than three miles distant, there were workers from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany. It was not possible to organise those into a tight Union group and the Company would not negotiate with the Transport Union on behalf of all the men. A system developed where as special skills were learned or acquired wages were increased above the basic. No one really knew what wage any one else earned, and of course the need for overtime working, to have the place ready for the crop already growing on the farms, made a reckoning of real wages difficult. One thing happened however, all the building Craft Unions had an increase in their local branch membership, and a new Union, the Irish Engineering Industrial and Electrical Trade Union, came to Carlow. Strangely, although the town had such a long tradition of metal working and engineering, there had never been an Engineering Union in the town before.

Constance Georgina de MarkieviczThis union was a break away from the A.E.W.U. and was allegedly founded by the Countess Markieviez during her term as Minister for Labour, not because of bad service by the A.E.W.U. to the members, but rather, because of the feeling that Irish workers should govern their own affairs. In most things the union would be right-wing Republican. It certainly never had any regard for the Labour Party after it, the Labour Party, became a separate body from the T.U.C. The Carlow Branch was founded by a Cork man named Henry Mahony, who was more famous for leading an escape of Republican prisoners from Spike Island during the Black and Tan War than for any trade union activity. He was however, a sound trade unionist and a man of sterling character. If the branch he established became by far the most left-wing and radical in the whole union the fault most certainly was not his. This union had a two tier system of organization. In other words there was a No. 1 section which catered for craftsmen, fitters, electricians, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, coppersmiths etc. The No. 2 section catered for what were called semi-skilled workers, such as stationary engine drivers, crane drivers, tradesmen helpers etc. This was vital in later years when the Carlow Branch started to expand, as it enabled that branch to take into membership those workers, who for one reason or another, became dissatisfied with the local branch of the Irish Transport Union.

All of this was in the future and in 1926 the first Irish Sugar was manufactured. During that first "campaign" even semi­skilled jobs were done by Belgians, Czechs etc., as the whole process was new to Irishmen. They learned quickly, however, and the numbers of such people rapidly decreased. The unemployment situation in the country being so bad it was but natural that having learned the necessary skills the Irish workers, both skilled and unskilled, began agitating to have all the Continentals sent home. This fight was carried on jointly by both unions. There was constant agitation also for wage increases, for the listing of a permanent staff, for shift allowances etc. Sometimes the unions worked together and sometimes separately but progress was slow, mainly because of the economic situation in the country.

The sugar factory took on about eight hundred men during the manufacturing season or "campaign" as it was called; something over two hundred men per shift as sugar manufacture needs continuous process shift work. The night shift began at one o'clock in the morning and it was not unusual to have up to fifty men outside the gate at that hour to see if any man might fail to report for duty and so one of them might get his job for the night, at least, and for keeps if the luck held out. It was difficult to talk unionism to men as desperate as that. The position is starkly summed up in the story about the man with more hard neck than good sense, who approached the General Manager of the Company and asked "Any chance of a job, I don't suppose?” To which the manager replied "Oh, certainly, come up in the morning with your tools, I don't think".

A strategy was evolved, whereby union disputes were dragged out until shortly before the beginning of the Campaign; the Company being then most vulnerable, because of the perishable nature of the crop they had contracted to buy from the farmers, who then, as now, carried great political influence. If it seemed that there was a danger their crop would not be harvested they kicked up such a row that something had to be done quickly. For this reason sugar strikes tended to be short and bitter. I well remember my own introduction to sugar strikes. It was at the beginning of the nineteen thirty-four campaign. I had started to serve my time as a sugar cook and fitter in 1933 and had joined the I.E.I.E.U. as an apprentice member. On the night of the strike I was leaving home at midnight and told my mother about the strike, explaining carefully that it was the Irish Transport that was striking and that I would not be involved. She handed me my lunch and said "When you get to the factory gate, if there is trouble Mac Gamhna will be there, ask him what you are to do, and do what he says or don't come home here in the morning". I met Mac Gamhna and he told me not to go to work. I passed this advice on to my fellow apprentices and we all stayed out of work except for one boy and he of course came from across the river. We were all back at work the next day and came out again in the afternoon, having refused to do what we claimed was Transport Union Members work, but we were back again on the following morning. We were being used by the striking union to try to extend the strike to involve the I.E.I.E.U. and the Company was doing all in its power to prevent this. The strike was over a few days later, a compromise settlement giving some concessions to the men. The Transport Union official handling that strike was Paddy Kane, a native of Carlow who later became manager of a shoe factory in Kilkenny.

Some of those strikes were bitterly fought. The available labour pool was so vast; there were 200,000 even in 1932 and the Sugar Company were not above trying their hand at using this situation to break strikes. They used their beet Loading agents in the early days, to recruit men to come to work in spite of the strike. To discourage this, some of the toughest union men were recruited and formed into "Flying Columns" and they intercepted lorry loads of scabs and not so gently dissuaded them.

There is one aspect of this trade union activity I would like to comment upon, to me, the amazing unity of workers who only three or four years earlier had been shooting at each other in the Civil War. Mac Gamhna, the I.R.A. leader, led the workers to the sugar factory gates on the first strike in the industry but the members of his strike committee were largely ex-Free State Army men who had hunted him such a short time before. Breezer Hogan, still alive by the way, was always a Labour man, but he joined the National Army, as he so often told me, so that "the will of the people might prevail". Breezer was a militant Transport Union man, but one of his close colleagues in that union was Jimmy Rice who had been in charge of the Flying Column in Carlow during the Civil War. Captain Matty Nolan (Baghdad) an ex-British Army Sergeant Major, had been promoted to Captain by General Prout for his gallantry in taking the town of Clonmel for the Government forces from the Republican Army, but he would never dream of being disloyal to his comrades on the picket line, be they Free State or Republican.

In my opinion this situation was brought about by the trade unions being strictly non-political. The Unions could take no side in the Civil War without rending themselves assunder and destroying the hard-won solidarity of their members. The Labour Party was of course a political party. It had, in the eyes of the Republicans, betrayed the Republic by taking the Oath in Dail Eireann, while according to the Pro-Treaty side, Labour was but a lukewarm party which opposed the measures they, the Pro-Treatyites, deemed necessary to make the Treaty stick. Consequently, it seems to me, that, if a union branch wanted to keep its members together it had to ban talks in support of Labour as rigorously as that in support of any of the other parties. Perhaps, this is the reason why it has taken so long for the industrial strength of the Unions to be reflected in the political strength of their Party.

While all this trade union activity was going on what was the political situation like for Labour? Following Mac Gamhna's withdrawal from Dail Eireann, a Labour man named Ned Doyle was elected for Carlow-Kilkenny. He was a farm labourer by occupation, though he was nominated by the Irish National Teachers' Organization. He was an excellent public speaker and had many excellent qualities. He had severe domestic difficulties, which affected his parliamentary performance and after two, parliamentary performance and after two terms he failed to get further nomination from the I.N.T.O., or from the Party. James Pattison of Kilkenny, a Transport Union Official, succeeded him, and he in turn was succeeded by his son Seamus Pattison, the present Labour T.D. for Carlow-Kilkenny. Unfortunately for Carlow, it is such a small county that it has never been a constituency on its own but has always been attached to some other County, sometimes to Kilkenny and at other times to Kildare, with a southern part of the County being attached to Wexford. This sort of situation is unsettling for organization, as party loyalties and personal loyalties are connected, and when the personalities change the organization it takes time before it rallies to the new person.

Under the Revision of the Constituencies Act of 1935, Carlow was separated from Kilkenny and attached to Kildare. William Norton then became the Labour T.D. for Carlow. Being anxious to reactivate the Labour branch there, he sent invitations to the various unions, to known Labour Party supporters and to the Carlow Trades Council, to attend a meeting at the Foresters' Hall, Carlow. I was at that time Secretary to the Trades Council so I summoned a meeting of that body to consider the invitation. There was an almost unanimous decision that the Council had no interest in any political party, Labour included, and the Secretary was instructed to attend the meeting and so inform Deputy Norton. This was done and Norton took the whole thing in good part, claiming that he came to Carlow to confer a benefit on the workers there and not seeking anything for himself or his Party. So effectively did he speak on the futility of Trade union activity without Labour Party political activity that I was completely converted and assured Deputy Norton that I would, in my personal capacity, re-form the Labour Branch in the Town. I did this with a great deal of success and thus began an association and a friendship with Billy Norton that lasted until he died.

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