Labour in the West of Ireland: working life and struggle 1890-1914, John Cunningham (Athol Books, £12)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

In the late 1880s trade unionism was an almost unknown phenomenon among unskilled and semi-skilled workers in Connacht. In the agrarian sector it was only the herdsmen who had made efforts to organise in unions, and in the towns it was the artisans and drapers’ assistants who were organised to a certain degree. Twenty-five years later, just before the outbreak of the First World War, there were well-established trades’ councils in Galway as well as in Sligo. These combined labourers and artisans, shopworkers and public servants. Some of the largest trade unions, such as the ITGWU, had the resources to employ full-time officials. How is such progress to be explained? In Labour In the West Of Ireland  John Cunningham describes and analyses this development in Connacht 1890-1914.
Such a local study of labour history is timely. The emergence of trade unionism and the politicisation of the working-class cannot be studied solely on a national level, since their local preconditions must be considered to explain the national picture. Trade unionism and political consciousness must be seen as emerging from below, growing out of the experiences of working-class people. Cunningham does have this local approach, but the emphasis  is more on industrial struggle, political behaviour and the organisations that were created by the workers or their supporters rather than on the workers themselves. He has adopted a thematic rather than a chronological approach, dividing the book into six sections: labourers in Galway and Sligo; workers in the agrarian sector; tradesman; women workers; shop assistants; and labourers in the small towns.
New unionism (involving general workers’ unions as distinct from skilled craft organisations) as it appeared around 1890 had a limited impact in Connacht. It arrived later and departed earlier than elsewhere in the country. This was mainly due to the unlimited supply of blacklegs from the countryside that surrounded Galway and Sligo. Even the position of the rural labourers was troublesome. Many of them had casual employment, and since there was always a large number of unemployed workers it was easy for the employers to replace those who dared to strike or organise themselves. However, the situation for the herdsman was quite different. They were recognised as skilled workers and were hard to replace. Therefore their position  was much stronger, and they were successful in their industrial actions as early as 1882.
Demand for higher wages was the main issue. Another was to secure full-time employment throughout the year. The latter was, presumably, more important for the total earnings than the level of wages. For shop-assistants other issues, such as the hours of work, were vital. The demands often led to disputes including strikes and/or lock-outs. In the political sphere the question of housing was the most important one.
Between the short-lived ascendancy connected with the new unionism and the spread of Larkinism in 1911, trade union activity was low. Nevertheless strikes continued to take place and unions were founded. However, most of them soon faded away. Despite the weakness of the organisations, this period of labour history should not be disregarded. It was a crucial stage in the development of class-consciousness and these local fights, in Connacht as elsewhere, transformed workers’ common experiences to a more modern strategy in the industrial and political struggle.
The treatment of this era is the strong point of the book, together with the local approach. Unfortunately the author fails to extend his work to the sphere of culture, labour process and family life. An important aspect of the living conditions of the working-class is the family or the household, which is not considered here. We cannot, for example, explain the behaviour of a group of, say, casual workers with an irregular income isolated from a discussion of the overall family situation. If there were five other family members with regular incomes it is a totally different story from a family where the casual worker was the sole bread-winner. Also, when Cunningham divides the workers into six different groups, he disregards the fact that one family could consist of members from different groups. How then, could he maintain that the struggles of the different groups were unconnected?
It is only in broadening labour history to other fields that we can understand the emergence of a common class-consciousness among all kind of workers and hence the development of a modern labour movement. Cunningham’s work, with it’s local approach, is an important step in that direction: the next stage is for studies with a broader approach.

Mats Greiff


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