Book Reviews: ‘The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions 1729-1970’ & ‘A History of the Irish Working Class’


A History of the Irish Working Class by P. Berresford Ellis. Gollancz. £3.50.

The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions 1729-1970 by Andrew Boyd. Anvil. 50p.

A history of the working class in Ireland is badly needed but this book by Ellis is no good. It is too hastily written, too full of factual mistakes and too biased in favour of Irish republicanism. Indeed the last part is largely a list of the various republican sects, all of which claim to be “socialist”—which means they stand for an Irish state capitalism of one sort or another. Nor are we told much about the trade union movement.

This omission is corrected in Boyd’s booklet (for it is only about a hundred pages). He describes the laws passed against and the punishments meted out to the local craft unions of Dublin and Belfast in the 18th and early 19th centuries (including, be it noted, those passed between 1782 and 1800 by the Irish Home Rule Parliament). Later these craft unions were to amalgamate into national unions, though generally on an all-Britain rather than an all-Ireland basis, much to the dislike of later Irish Nationalists. Then in the years before the first world war came the organisation of the unskilled (Catholic) workers by men like Jim Larkin and James Connolly.

Irish trade unionism has of course been weakened by the sectarian divisions amongst the workers. Boyd tends to blame the Unionists exclusively for this, and indeed Ulster Unionist employers did use sectarianism in a bid to defeat attempts to organise their workers into unions. But the blame must be shared by union organisers like Connolly who openly proclaimed their own Irish Nationalism and even that the unions in Ireland should support the demand for Irish independence. No wonder the ITGWU in Belfast remained confined to Catholic workers. The Protestant workers, with some justice, suspected that Connolly wanted Protestant / Catholic unity as much for Irish Nationalist political ends as for trade unionism.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that those who argued that the trade unions in Ireland should steer clear of politics, both Nationalist and Unionist, and concentrate on bread-and-butter issues like wages and working conditions were better trade unionists than Connolly even if they weren’t always so militant over wage demands. After all, when it comes to organising workers to defend their interests at work a man’s politics or religion is irrelevant. What is required is unity.

Leave a Reply