Home > Uncategorized > Waterford in Red Flag Times 1917-1923

Waterford in Red Flag Times 1917-1923

by Emmet O’Connor

Waterford labour in ‘the red flag times’, 1917-23
Emmet O’Connor
To understand the labour militancy and radicalism of 1917 to 1923, one has to appreciate that these were extraordinary times in Europe and that Ireland was never as isolated as historians would have you believe. Since the growth of seapower, of empire, and of contact with the Americas in the late 18th century, Ireland was one of the most globalized countries in the world. Every major political movement in Ireland from the Volunteers of 1778 to Black Lives Matter has been a consequence of international factors. This was particularly evident in 1917-21 when Europe was giddy with the idea of a bright new future. And this was to be a radical future. There was a widespread feeling that there could be no going back to governance by the pre-1914 elites who had blundered into a catastrophic war. And there would have to be a pay-back for Labour for its support during the world war. And there was a payback in chapter XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, which set up the International Labour Organization. The job of the ILO was to improve working conditions internationally, and Tramoreman Ned Phelan would play a key role in the ILO in Geneva.[2] In Russia, the Bolsheviks were in power. For Irish republicans, their policies of opposition to the world war and imperialism and support for national self-determination chimed with Sinn Féin. In America, President Wilson had announced his 14-point plan for peace and promised that peace would be based on democracy and self-determination. [3] In many European countries, 1919-20 are known as ‘the two red years’. In Ireland, farmers would remember them as ‘the red flag times’.
The emergence of labour unrest
The rise of the labour movement between 1917 and 1923 was due fundamentally to the world war. The first half of the war brought shortages and inflation, and generated class tensions against the farmers, shopkeepers, and employers who were believed to be profiteering. Until the later war years there was no system of rationing or price control and even then it was patently inadequate. In Britain there were hunger marches in some cities. The threat of a strike by munitions workers in Britain in 1916 led the govt to keep the war effort going by liquidating national assets to release more money into the economy. From 1917, wages rose faster than prices. But the money was there only for those who could get it, and to get it, you
needed to join a union. So the first half of the war stored up grievances, and the second half provided the means of redress. Events were also influenced by revolution at home and abroad. The War of Independence paralyzed the police, and it was impossible to ignore the Europe-wide radicalism of these years.
Industrial conflict took on an exceptionally combative character, partly due to the militancy of the protagonists, the primitive state of conciliation and arbitration machinery (much less advanced in Ireland than in Britain), and the breakdown of law and order. And for tactics Labour chose to revive pre-war Larkinism, which was the form of militancy with which it was most familiar. So strikes involved an emphasis on the sympathetic and generalized action. What was different about post-war Larkinism was that it spread well beyond the main towns. The Irish Trades Union Congress became a nation-wide force for the first time. It also became more politically conscious, and changed its name in 1918 to the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress.
One of the first sectors to be affected by the war was agriculture. Labour’s bargaining position was strengthened by the introduction of compulsory tillage orders to ease the food supply crisis in January 1917. The number of farm labourers was in steady decline, but they still made up almost 200,000 out of 900,000 waged workers in Ireland. Waterford was one of four counties in Ireland which had more than two labourers to each farmer.[4]
The tillage orders in turn created the first labour shortage in agriculture since the Napoleonic wars, compelling the introduction of an AWB in Sept to set minimum rates of pay in order to keep workers on the land. Wage movements on the land began in the spring of 1917. Initially, labourers revitalized various local land and labour associations, and demanded land redistribution and more plots of land. But by 1918, local associations were being absorbed into the ITGWU and focusing on wages. In 1916 the ITGWU had 5,000 members. By 1920 it had 120,000, 60,000 of them in agriculture.
The unionization of urban workers also gathered pace in 1917. The ITGWU’s first branch in County Waterford was opened in Dungarvan in February 1918. A union census in June 1918 showed that it had 582 members: 317 were in food production, 61 were in transport, and 173 were in industry. Jack Butler and Thomas McCarthy were later made full-time officers in Dungarvan. Butler is an example of the way the rise of Labour brought a new wave of leaders to the fore. Butler was born in Ballinamult in 1890 and raised in Dungarvan. He left school at 15 to become a labourer. Joined the ITGWU and was elected to Dungarvan Board of Guardians in 1918 and won election to the County Council in 1920.
By 1920, the ITGWU had 20 branches in the county. Branches were based on parishes, and included all sorts of workers. For example, the Portlaw branch in 1918 included 110 agricultural labourers, 22 general workers, six foresters, eight carters and porters, four tradesmen, a baker, a canalman, and the local postman.
Because profits were booming, it was relatively easy for employers to accommodate wages increases, but there were strikes and new strike tactics, the like local general strike. The first of these took place in Youghal in December 1917. A stoppage by members of the National Union of Dock Labourers for an increased war bonus was met by the local Employers’ Federation with a lockout of all unskilled men in the town’s mills, shops, and factories. After a week, craftsmen came out in sympathy. Mass pickets were formed to prevent the movement of goods. Strikers toured employers’ yards removing horses and drays. Extra RIC and troops were detailed to protest property. After two weeks the dispute was settled to the workers’ satisfaction.
Just over 18 months later, another strike took place in Dungarvan. Over 250 employees in virtually all the town’s larger businesses were involved. Almost immediately, sympathetic action paralyzed local commerce, and trading passed under the control of the union, the ITGWU. Nothing could be bought or sold without a union permit. Nothing could enter the town without union permission. The strike committee set up its own rationing system for food and fuel supplies. This situation obtained for a month until a settlement was reached.[5]
The Dungarvan strike was the eleventh local general strike to have taken place since 1917 and a comparison with Youghal is instructive. In Youghal the initiative lay with the employers. Union tactics evolved reactively, in response to a lockout. By contrast, Dungarvan saw the immediate application of a comprehensive strike strategy.
Altogether, 14 small towns experienced local general strikes during the advance of the wages movement.[6]
In Waterford city the ITGWU’s no.1 branch was restarted in 1917 and had 903 members by June 1918. A second branch was opened for 200 workers in the cartridge factory at Bilberry.
By 1921 the ITGWU had organized about 2,500 farm workers in Waterford, out of about 6,000 full-time farm workers another 2,000 or so who worked occasionally on the land. In Waterford, wages had risen from about14s per week in 1915 to a peak of 35s per week in
May 1920. The AWB had reduced the maximum working week to 60 hours, and then to 54 hours. Farmers too started to organise, and by 1920 the Irish Farmers’ Union had 60,000 members. Waterford avoided major conflict between farmers and labourers up to 1922, but there were a few sectional strikes, and a famous incident called ‘The Fenor Melee’. The dispute was over attempts to enforce a closed shop. According to the Munster Express of 29 November 1919:
Exciting scenes took place in the Fenor district…on Monday last. A pitched battle was fought on the roadside between the police and farm labourers, in which revolver shots, batons, and bayonets, were freely used. Five policemen were injured and here were several casualties among the farm labourers…For some months past there has been considerable friction between the labourers and the farmers in the Fenor district, which culminated on Saturday in a general lockout of the workers. The farmers arranged to thresh their own corn without outside help and this incurred the wrath and resentment of the labourers ending in Monday’s wild scenes.
The Melee was celebrated in an earthy ballad:
The month of November being late in the year
When the labourers of Fenor they did appear
To uphold the Union the best way they should
And to put down the farmers the best way they could.
The ITGWU secretary, Nicholas Phelan, Patrick Dalton, and Patrick Hanley were subsequently arrested and tried by special court in Waterford.
The local section of the IFU was the Waterford Farmers’ Association, which had 31 branches in 1920, and an enterprising and militant leader in its chairman, Sir John Keane, 5th Baronet of Belmont, near Cappoquin. [7] Keane proposed the IFU should deal with labour by refusing negotiate with union officials and creating a strike-breaking force. In May 1920, the IFU took up the idea and suggested a Farmers’ Freedom Force to deal with what they called ‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Russian methods’. In the event, the farmers decided to await the return of ‘strong government’, as they called it, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The ITGWU became by far the biggest and most important union in Ireland at this time. By 1920-1, it represented about half of all trade unionists, who in turn made up about
25% of employees. But all unions experienced growth, and trade unionism, which had been confined largely to craftsmen, extended to the unskilled, to clerical workers, and to women.
Labour politics and the local elections, 1920
Labour, of course, had stood down from the 1918 general election. The critical issue was abstention. It was not a problem during the world war as the Redmondites too decided to abstain as long as Conscription for Ireland was on the statute book. [7] [8]The Irish TUC held its annual conference in the City Hall in Waterford in August 1918, and the congress was notable for the big increase in the number of delegates and for signalling its determination to fight the next elections.[9] [10] But Labour was expecting a wartime election, and the sudden end of the war left it in a quandary. It was closer to Sinn Féin that the Redmondites, and Sinn Féin was offering an electoral pact, but only if Labour MPs would boycott Westminster. Trade unions did not want to be drawn into unconstitutional agitation, so they decided to wait and see. It was a failure of leadership, but in fairness the signals from the base of the movement were not clear. In September, the ITUC executive discussed fielding a candidate in Waterford, and in early October the trades council convened a meeting to select a candidate. But the meeting decided to await instructions from the executive and the executive would not act without pressure from the membership.
The Sinn Féin landslide left Labour feeling it had missed the bus, and it took a more interventionist role in the independence struggle. On May Day 1919, Labour called a general strike for self-determination and international working class solidarity. Waterford trades council organized a big parade with four bands. In Lismore, over 400 marched, led by the local ITGWU president on horseback followed by a banner inscribed ‘Labour triumphant’, with an escort of mounted carters and a fife and drum band. Other parades were held in Kilmacthomas, Cappoquin, and Dungarvan. In October 1919 it convened a national conference of trades councils and decided to contest the next local elections in January 1920. The elections had been postponed since 1917, and the British govt introduced PR in an attempt to prevent more Sinn Féin landslides. There were 6 trades councils in 1914, and 38 by 1919. The conference decided to contest the elections, but left selections and programmes to the local trades council. The results were dramatic. Labour won 18% of the vote and 394 seats to 550 for Sinn Féin, 238 for the Redmondites, and 355 for the Unionist Party.
The results in Waterford were more modest. In the city, Labour took 3 out of 40 seats on the Corporation, and elected Tommy Dunne, Alderman Richard Keane, and Luke Larkin. Dunne was ITGWU secretary in Waterford. Dick Keane was an old railwayman who had
been victimized after the 1911 rail strike and became a coal merchant. He was a member of the ITGWU. Luke Larkin was another railwayman (NUR) and the most enterprising activist on the trades council. The Munster Express thought Dunne closer to the Redmondites, and Larkin and Keane closer to Sinn Féin. It also thought the slump in the Labour vote surprising, and attributed the Sinn Féin success to party cohesion and its ability to work the new PR. On Dungarvan UDC, Labour fielded 9 candidates and won 3 out of 15 seats, electing M. Greaney, Carpenters’ Union, and P. Ducey and P. Moore, both ITGWU. In Lismore, Labour took 2 of the 9 seats. The Labour candidates were Edward O’Shea, president of the local branch of the ITGWU, and Timothy Duggan, another ITGWU man. Labour was seen as the victor in the election. It celebrated with a torchlight parade, followed by ‘an immense crowd’.1 In the city, Sinn Féin won an overall majority and Dr Vincent White was elected Mayor on 23 February. He saw his job as being ‘to tear asunder the old order of things, which had been set up generations before by the English regime of public administration’. Famously he pointed to the mace and told the municipal mace-bearer: ‘remove that bauble’. He also replaced the Mayor’s traditional red cloak with a tricolour robe. [11] Redmondites responded in doggerel: In the town hall there’s a great amadán, Who wants to be known as Vincent Ó Bán. Within weeks of his election White colluded in the Waterford Soviet. The Soviet was another of the many instances of Labour support for the independence struggle, and it also illustrated how the struggle was radicalizing Labour. It emerged from the decision of the Irish TUC to call an immediate general strike on Monday 12 April 1920 for the release of 66 republicans on hunger strike in Mountjoy for political status. Once the strike began, it acquired a class, and even revolutionary character. Throughout nationalist Ireland, it was enforced by workers’ councils, many of which assumed control of their areas in the style of soviets, complete with red guards. White handed over to Luke Larkin and allowed the Waterford strike committee to operate from the City Hall. On Tuesday and Wednesday the committee set about regulating commerce in the city and demonstrating its authority through a permit system, though perhaps they went too far in touring the pubs and evicting ‘found-
1 Munster Express, 24 Jan 1920.
ons’. Shortly after 5.00pm on Wednesday, word came through that Dublin Castle had backed down. Alarmed at the possibility of the national revolution turning ‘Bolshevist’, the British government agreed to release prisoners awaiting trial or deportation and in need of hospital treatment. Labour was jubilant. In Waterford, thousands flocked to the City Hall, where a red flag was “suspended” from the building to loud cheers. The revolutionary theatre made a greater impression in Britain than in Ireland. The Manchester Guardian observed on 20 April:
The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these [workers’] councils, which were formed not on a local but on a class basis…it is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike.
On 27 April, the Guardian featured an article headed “”Soviet” Government in Waterford”, which reported that a deputation of southern loyalists to No.10 Downing St had given Bonar Law a ‘full account’ of events in the city, which had been ‘taken over by a Soviet Commissioner and three associates’. On 24 and 28 April, the British Labour paper, the Daily Herald, carried articles on Waterford’s ‘Red Guards’:
A red flag floated over the Town Hall, and a sort of ‘Red Guard’ was established under three transport leaders. In short, the city was ruled by a Soviet during the time of the strike.
The Irish media played down the red flaggery, partly because it did not wish to assist the efforts of the British to delegitimize the national movement by depicting it as Bolshevist. However, Mayor White said he was not perturbed at some newspaper reports of him coming under ‘soviet government’. On the contrary, he congratulated
the Soviet Government of Waterford on a very effective, masterly, and successful demonstration, and [hoped] the time will not be long in coming when the Soviet Government of Waterford will have an opportunity of again demonstrating the powers which it undoubtedly possesses.
In many ways the Soviet was pure theatre, but it was all the more sophisticated for that, and reflected a spirit that Labour leaders failed to exploit. As yet, there seemed to be no urgency. Labour was getting stronger and stronger and the future was looking bright.
Elections for County Councils and Rural District Councils were held in June. Labour won 8 seats on the County Council, and 12 of the 21 seats on Kilmacthomas RDC.
The slump
So what happened to all this militancy and radicalism? The short answer is the slump. The boom and the massive expansion of the world’s productive capacity created a crisis of overproduction in 1920. Food prices started to fall in August. 1920 was a bit like 2008, the year of the banking crash. Everything was going grand in the spring. The, it started to go pear-shaped in the autumn. Industry was affected in 1921, and by 1922 over 25% of insured workers were unemployed.
Employers demanded a return to pre-war wage levels and in Britain there was a sudden adjustment following Black Friday, 15 April 1921. That was the day the British National Transport Workers’ Federation and the National Union of Railway refused to support the Miners in their opposition to pay cuts. The collapse of the so-called ‘triple alliance’ led to wage cuts all along the line. Employers expected that the same would happen in Ireland with the railwaymen providing the initial sacrificial victims. But the unsettled conditions generated by the Truce, the split in the IRA, and the Civil War delayed employer action.
Labour did well in holding its own up to 1923. Farm labourers defeated a wage cut in May 1922, and in the June general election, the Labour candidates, Jack Butler and Nicholas Phelan, won 31.3% of the vote in Waterford-East Tipperary and both were elected. [12] [13]
Things went wrong in 1923. A strike of 1,500 labourers began in May and turned into a virtual war. The strikers regularly burned farmers’ property. [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] The farmers were protected by 600 men of the Special Infantry Corps, an army unit raised specifically as ‘armed police’ to deal with farm strikes. Union pickets were often referred to as ‘Red guards’, and in October, vigilantes calling themselves White Guards began a campaign of terror against union activists in east Waterford. The WFA also composed a ‘Farmers’ Song’. One verse went:
Come every man join in the van
Let none be slackers base,
For if the Bolshies win this fight
They’ll grind our future race.
What e’er befall let one and all
Be loyal to his band,
The red flag will be trampled on
By true men of our land.
The strike led to a lockout of Transport Union members in Dungarvan and had a severe effect on the town.
In the August 1923 general election the Labour vote fell to 18% of the poll. Nicholas Phelan had been expelled from the Labour Party for failure to attend Dáil sessions, and his place on the ticket was taken by the ITGWU organizer, Jimmy Baird. Baird had been a boilermaker in Harland and Wolff in Belfast until victimized in the 1920 pogroms. Both Baird and Butler focused mainly on the farm strike, on which Baird was known as a firebrand. He polled well, but wasn’t elected. Butler did not poll so well but picked up transfers and held his seat.
In December, William O’Brien, the ITGWU general sec, believed that the farm strike in Waterford was unwinnable, and decided to call it off. As he noted in his memoirs: ‘that ended that and we did not try to organize the agricultural labourers afterwards’. So that ended that. It was just one of many defeats suffered by various unions in 1923, the worst ever year in the history of the Labour movement. By 1924 Labour was battered, divided, and demoralized. Trade unionism collapsed on the land and contracted severely among unskilled urban workers. Jack Butler left the Labour Party and joined Fine Gael. Baird lost his job and emigrated to Australia. He died in Brisbane in 1948. The ITGWU had 120,000 members in 1921 and 15,000 by 1929. Irish TUC membership fell from 200,000 to 90,000.
Many of the chronic problems that beset the labour movement throughout the 20th century can be traced to these years. It would be unfair to accuse the leadership of betraying the rank and file. It was impossible to ‘hold the harvest’ in the context of the slump. Economic reality was against them. It was reckless to have promised so much, but they would have been criticised for compromise too. However, the Labour leadership of the time was inexperienced. It can be faulted for not engaging with the national revolution and seeing it as an opportunity rather than a problem; and for failing to tackle the thorny question of the relationship between the party and the trade unions. The abiding weakness of the working class has been its lack of solidarity at the ballot box. Again and again, workers have refused to take compromise for the Labour Party. But they took it from Fianna Fáil. Labour’s silliest mistake was not to see that the good times would one day come to halt and a boom is always
followed by a slump. How could they have been so stupid? We wouldn’t make that mistake today, would we?
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  1. March 12, 2021 at 7:09 am

    Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    This is a great informative article on revolutionary times in Ireland and globally.

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