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Across boundaries and oceans

Unite remembers Ireland’s WW1 working class
Hajera Blagg, Thursday, April 28th, 2016

In 1916 two seminal events that would shape the future of both Northern Ireland and the Republic took place. It was the year not only of the Easter Rising but also of the Battle of the Somme – one of the bloodiest fights in the history of modern warfare.


Of the nearly half a million British soldiers who died in the Battle, thousands upon thousands were Irish, both Catholic and Protestant and hailing from all parts of the island. Records indicate roughly 35,000 people from across Ireland would be slaughtered over the course of the world’s first industrialised war.


While it’s well known that the people of Ireland joined the war effort for various reasons – many of them political and sectarian – what’s less acknowledged is that, like all wars, it would be the working classes who, guided by economic necessity, would pay the greatest price.


That’s why Unite has chosen to remember 1916 as the ‘Worker’s Year’. On Monday (April 25), Unite hosted an event in Belfast commemorating the sacrifices of working people of both traditions in Northern Ireland and the Republic.


Unite general secretary Len McCluskey outlined the union’s perspective on that year.


“Both the Battle of the Somme and the Rising helped underpin the domination of national traditions for nearly a century afterwards,” he said.


“These two traditions viewed each other with suspicion and defined themselves with Britain rather than with their relationship with each other. But during those difficult years there was often one identity that transcended all others – the identity of the worker.


‘Non-sectarian glue’

“The trade union movement had acted as a non-sectarian glue in communities throughout this island, and it continues to do so today,” he added. “I’ve always believed that when working people join hands across boundaries and oceans, and refuse to be divided by those who benefit most from such division, anything is possible.


Speakers at the Worker’s Year event included Peter Connell, a geographer and historian who revealed another death toll not often discussed during the years of the Great War and beyond – the shocking infant mortality rate among working class Irish children.


The disparity, Connell explained, was gaping – one in five children in families of unskilled workers would not grow into adulthood, while this figure stood at one in 10 for families of professional classes.


During the course of WW1, some 35,000 Irishmen would lose their lives, but a figure almost as stark would haunt those of working-class parents during those years – nearly 20,000 children living in Belfast or Dublin would not live to see their 15th birthday.


“An infant born in a working-class family in Belfast or Dublin in January of 1915 had roughly the same chance of seeing out the war as their father or their uncle on the front,” Connell explained.


So why did so many young Irish men willingly sacrifice their lives? Many, of course, were motivated by politicians such as Edward Carson and John Redmond, who believed that the British government would reward them at a later stage for their assistance.


But historian and author Phillip Orr explained at Monday’s event that the simple fact of survival – of feeding themselves and their families – was what propelled many young, mainly impoverished men to war.


By joining the armed forces, Orr noted, young men were fed three meals a day – they often came home to their families after training looking visibly healthier than when they left. A perhaps naïve sense of adventure for these young men, many of whom knew only the streets of their local area, also motivated them, as did carefully targeted recruitment practices.


Coercion on the part of employers, especially among unskilled general workers, played a major role as well. Although conscription was not in place in Ireland as it was in England, Wales and Scotland, many workers complained to trade unions that bosses would purposely sack labourers, leaving them with no other option but to enlist.


Skilled tradesmen, on the other hand, were often granted exempt status and so did not have to worry about being called up for military service.


Long-time Unite member Jimmy Nixon, who took part in a recent Unite project about workers’ memories of the war, distilled in a story what Orr’s research has found – that young working-class men were motivated by many things to enlist, but perhaps most importantly by the dignity that comes with securing a basic livelihood amidst devastating poverty.


He told the story of young John Condon, an Irish boy long thought to be the youngest person to die in the War at the age of 14.



“He walked all the way from Waterford to Dublin – he walked in his bare feet – to join the Royal Irish Rifles,” Nixon recounted. “When one of his family asked, ‘John, why are you joining the army? What are you doing that for?’ And he said ‘When I come home, at least I’ll have a pair of boots.’ And he never came home.”


Other speakers at Unite’s event included labour historian Theresa Moriarty, who told of growing trade union activity in Ireland during the war, as well as community activist Patricia McCarthy and historian Fergus O’Farrell, whose moderated discussion on contested memories brought in audience input.


McCarthy and O’Farrell examined how the Rising and the Somme are remembered to this day within different traditions.


The evening ended with a short play paying tribute to the legacy of Winifred Carney, an Irish trade unionist, activist and feminist, in imagined conversation with Royal Irish Constable William Barrett, who famously refused to escort a driver sent to break the Belfast Dock Strike in 1907.



Unite general secretary Len McCluskey hailed the event as a platform for solidarity in a still divided society.


“I offer huge congratulations to the region for the manner in which they’ve dealt with this centenary given the sensitivities within the community in Northern Ireland,” he said.


“It was always going to be a difficult thing to bring about – a celebration in memory of 1916. And the way they’ve done it is as a ‘Worker’s Year’, linking together the communities and linking together the enormous common ground that exists between Catholic and Protestant workers, both north and south.


“It’s been fantastic and I’m very proud of [Unite Ireland secretary] Jimmy Kelly and his regional team and proud of Unite,” McCluskey added. “We look forward to making certain that that purpose of solidarity and unity is preserved and carries us on to building a better Ireland, a better Britain and a better world.


McCluskey invited the audience to reconsider their shared histories to imagine “a new workers’ future.”


“In the next 100 years, both national traditions have an opportunity to start defining themselves in relation to each other rather than in relation to Britain,” he said.


“Unite and the trade union movement which represents workers of both traditions – as well as workers of different, new communities, who’ve come to this island bringing their own traditions – is well placed to facilitate that process of definition and redefinition.


“Let us imagine a future where war will never again be tolerated and where discrimination on the basis of culture or faith or race will never again rear its ugly head,” McCluskey added.


“Let us imagine a future where the women and men of this Island who create the wealth are entitled to dictate how that wealth will be shared.


“In imagining this future, let us not forget that the history of working people on this island is a history of solidarity.”


Pic of Royal Irish Constable William Barrett, played by Gerard Jordan. Pic by PressEye


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