restricted access A Labour History of Ireland, 1824–2000 by Emmet O’Connor (review)
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Reviewed by
Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, 1824–2000 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press 2011)

In this extensive, revised second edition of his 1992 survey of the politics of the Irish labour movement, its preeminent historian, Emmet O’Connor, takes particular aim at the “modernization” thesis for blaming the movement’s supposedly arrested development on the troika of the priest, the peasant, and the patriot. He instead elaborates a highly detailed analysis of the key institutions of labour representation, their leaderships, and their strategies. He is forthright in identifying colonialism as a factor crippling institutional development of Irish labour – not only in the form of formal political colonialism, but also a malingering economic variety. Even more debilitating at key moments of potential for the labour movement, colonialism assumed a form through which Irish bodies were subordinated to, and incorporated within, British Labourist ideology and trade unionism, despite the very different contexts within which it operated.

Beginning with a discussion of early labour organization that gives peasants (not just artisans) their due – by regarding rural movements such as the Whiteboys as examples of popular mobilization and collective action – O’Connor charts the uneasy relationship between organized labour (legal since 1824) and Daniel O’Connell in the pre-Famine years, and then underscores the extent to which, in the post-Famine era, as republicanism and trades unions diverged, the unions displayed parallel organizational and strategic sophistication and decline (with some trades entering into a relationship with British Labour characterized by “dependency,” rather than the pre-Famine features of “fraternity”). In the northeast of the country, a very particular form of trade union organization [End Page 291] accompanied what O’Connor characterizes as the region’s “second” industrial revolution, in which (mostly Protestant) shipbuilders and engineers formed the backbone of an exclusivist body institutionally affiliated with Britain. Moreover, the Liberal Party’s Home Rule “appeasers” were viewed warily by conservative elements amongst Belfast workers, who instead found expression through populist Toryism. In the late 19th century, labour expanded its constituencies to incorporate workers in transport, textiles, and other sectors, as sectional and local societies for the unskilled grew, guided by the trade cycle, and underpinned by (waning) British Labourist support. O’Connor argues that the organization of the Irish Trades Union Congress (ituc) in 1894 was a fateful moment, extending the process of anglicization characteristic of late-19th-century Ireland. It replicated the very structures of the British Trades Unions Congress that it aspired to displace, auguring decades of weakness linked to a failure to adopt a model, and a political agenda, reflecting peculiarly Irish conditions of labour, especially the comparative strengths of nationalist politics, from which the ituc stood aloof. James Connolly, in advocating a melding of republicanism and British-inspired socialism, influenced the early development of such a movement, and James Larkin set himself the task of “decolonizing” labour consciousness in Ireland through the establishment of an indigenous syndicalism whose vehicle would be the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (itgwu). O’Connor forswears hagiography to explore with great nuance Larkin’s personality and performance as a labour leader.

From the events of the famous 1913 strike through the rise of the culture of syndicalism and the outbreak of war, which brought about the decline of socialist opposition and radicalized nationalism, O’Connor deftly explores the experiences of the movement in the years before partition. He finds many frustrating remnants of the colonial legacy that militated against its development, not least resistance to the vision of a single, Irish-wide workers’ union from amalgamated, British-oriented bodies representing craft privilege. The Labour Congress’ withdrawal from the 1918 election betokened estrangement from northern Labour (also evident in the establishment of a Belfast Labour Party), and the Labour Party’s reluctance to pronounce on the national question expressed part of a wider set of institutional tensions over Home Rule, partition, and trade unionism. Coupled with a Free State government that acted firmly against labour in its first years, and that inherited an economy hindered by dependency on Great Britain, the labour movement struggled with internecine conflict, a false dawn for its most prominent political vehicle, the...