1913 Fingal farm labourers’ strike

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Above: Jim Larkin on the 1913 Fingal farm labourers’ strike: ‘. . . the harshness and misery of the agricultural labourer’s lot greatly rivalled in intensity the very worst experiences of [our] inner city colleagues’.

Above: Jim Larkin on the 1913 Fingal farm labourers’ strike: ‘. . . the harshness and misery of the agricultural labourer’s lot greatly rivalled in intensity the very worst experiences of [our] inner city colleagues’.

Sir,—The discussion of the role of James Larkin in the Dublin Lockout (HI 21.4, July/Aug. 2013) was most thorough and stimulating. However, I might mention another strike that occurred at the same time in County Dublin in which Larkin played a pivotal and important part.

In 1913 Fingal, the rural area north of the Liffey, was populated by a large number of independent middle-class (mostly Catholic) farmers owning twenty acres or more. There were also a small number of established large gentry estates—Domville (Santry), Hamilton (Holmpatrick and Abbotstown), Talbot (Malahide) and Cobbe (Donabate)—who between them dominated the production and distribution of food to Dublin City.

During the late spring and early summer of 1913 Larkin toured north County Dublin in an effort to organise labourers and workingmen. He lectured to large meetings of rural workers and their families, despite warnings from their clergy and employers not to attend. Local ITGWU branches were set up throughout Fingal to represent cottager farm tenantry, rural workers, shop workers and domestics. Farm wages were poor and varied considerably, with some workers being paid not in money but by ‘perks’ such as free housing, food and clothing. The concentration of hundreds of dependent small market gardens within the city boundaries produced a higher ratio of labourers to farmers in County Dublin. In May, at a meeting held in the Foresters’ Hall, Balbriggan, Larkin remarked that ‘. . . the harshness and misery of the agricultural labourer’s lot greatly rivalled in intensity the very worst experiences of [our] inner city colleagues’.

The County Dublin Farmers’ and Employers’ Association was formed to represent the farmers, estate-owners and small businesses in response to unionisation. In April 1913, some twenty unionised farm workers walked off a small farm near Drynanstown but returned within a day or two when the farmer threatened to evict their families from the land. In August the Drogheda Independent listed 608 unionised farm labourers who had walked off farms and estates in north County Dublin in sympathy with the Dublin Tramway Workers and in open defiance of the Dublin Farmers’ Association for the sacking and eviction of ‘Larkinites’. The paper commented: ‘. . . great inconvenience was caused to the Rush and Swords market gardeners whose produce was lying on their hands for the want of carters and in Dublin the effects of the strike were felt in increased rates of cabbages and potatoes at the markets’. The association was forced into direct negotiation with James Larkin and agreement was reached with the Farm Labourers Section of the ITGWU on a twelve-hour day and a 20% increase in farm wages to 17 shillings (85p) a week for men and 9 shillings (45p) for women.
By the first week of September, the County Dublin Farmers’ Association, despite their earlier negotiated agreement, had been instructed by William Martin Murphy through the Dublin Trade Council not to employ members of the ITGWU or anyone wearing the union badge. In the rapidly deteriorating situation, a large number of police reinforcements were drafted into the county to protect farmers and their employees and ‘hired men from Ulster’. The large estate landlords sought protection, which was also offered to the mill-owners and their employees throughout the county. The strike spread quickly, particularly in the north and west, to include mill workers, carters, quarry and shop workers. Between September and mid-October over 20–30 serious incidents were reported in the press.

Several factors contributed to the collapse of the farm strike: the creation in Swords of a new ‘Independent Labour Union’ supported by the Association; the imprisonment of Larkin for sedition; the worsening weather; hunger; evictions; and intimidation by the local Catholic clergy, who stopped the distribution of food parcels from England. By early November the strikers, mostly unskilled and lacking the resources for a prolonged campaign, drifted back to work on the employers’ terms. Union organisers were refused employment; many emigrated to Liverpool and many more joined the Army.—Yours etc.,
EUGENE COYLE

Further reading
E. Coyle, ‘Larkinism and the 1913 County Dublin farm labourers’ dispute’, Dublin Historical Record 58 (2) (Autumn 2005),

'


Copyright © 2019 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568