‘Hairy Iopas, that exploded volcano, the darling of all countries and the champion of his own’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), News, Volume 12

FIELD, William (1843–1935), nationalist politician and businessman, was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, son of John Field, victualler, and Grace Field (née Byrne). He became politically active in the Amnesty Association that campaigned for the release of Fenian prisoners after the 1867 rising, and he is believed to have maintained contact with the IRB until about 1900. A keen temperance campaigner, he wrote and acted in temperance plays at the Blackrock Temperance Reading Room, and was a lifelong member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. In the 1870s he adopted the style of dress that he maintained for the rest of his life—shoulder-length hair, a black broad-brimmed hat, and a long black coat. This eccentric appearance made him instantly recognisable and led him to be frequently caricatured.

 
He inherited the family’s victualler business and developed it into the largest of its kind in Dublin, with several shops. He helped to found the Dublin Victuallers’ Association and the Irish Stockowners’ and Cattle Traders’ Association, which he chaired from the 1880s, and he also served as a governor of the Royal Veterinary College of Ireland.

 
A leading nationalist activist in south Dublin, he supported Parnell in the Irish parliamentary party split and boasted that he had been the first on Kingstown pier to welcome him after the events of Committee Room 15. After Parnell’s death he chaired the Parnell commemoration committee, and in 1892 became Parnellite MP for the St Patrick’s division of Dublin, defeating William Martin Murphy. Field presented himself as a ‘labour’ candidate, arguing that Irish workers and employers shared a common interest in Irish industrial development. He represented the Knights of the Plough, an agricultural labourers’ union, at the first two Irish Trade Union Congress annual meetings, and campaigned in parliament for the interests of Irish business, especially the meat and cattle trades. This included opposition to inconvenient hygiene regulations, and he was accused of participating in a price-fixing local ‘meat ring’. Joyce’s Ulysses contains several references to a meeting of cattle traders where Field protested against the slaughter of infected cattle; he is described as ‘Hairy Iopas, that exploded volcano, the darling of all countries and the champion of his own’. A lukewarm supporter of land nationalisation, he also campaigned for railway nationalisation, accusing railway companies of strangling Irish trade and industry by exorbitant charges. He published numerous pamphlets on economic topics. He also sat on the board of the Irish Independent in the late 1890s and served as treasurer of the GAA.

 
In 1899 he was elected to the new Dublin County Council and to Dublin Port and Docks Board. He donated a site for a Carnegie library to Blackrock township, and helped to build a local technical school, serving as a governor for thirty years. From 1905 his political base came under threat from Labour and Sinn Féin. He participated in attempts to resolve the 1913–14 lockout, but was seen as too eccentric to carry much weight. In 1918 he lost his parliamentary seat, and two years later his county council seat; he retired from the Port and Docks Board in 1932. He died in 1935 in St Michael’s Hospital, Dún Laoghaire, after an illness lasting three years.

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