Monday, 2 November 2009

Remembering union activists on All Souls’ Day

The Unitarian Church, Dublin, hosted this years remembrance service for deceased members of Siptu, Ireland’s largest trade union

Patrick Comerford

I was at a remembrance service in the Unitarian Church in central Dublin this evening for deceased members of the Dublin region of Ireland’s largest trade union, SIPTU, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union.

The service had special significance as this is All Souls’ Day, and SIPTU is also marking its centenary year. I was representing the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, alongside the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the other participants included Bishop Eamonn Walsh of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, and the Revd Chris Hudson of All Saints’ Church (Non-Subscribing Presbyterian), Belfast.

This is a particular honour, as I have been a lifelong trade union member. I am a member of the Irish Federation of University Teachers and an honorary life member of the Operative Plasters’ and Allied Trade Society of Ireland (Opatsi), the oldest autonomous trade union in Ireland.

When I was elected secretary of the south-east branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the early 1970s, I was in the fourth successive generation in my family to hold union office, following in the footsteps of my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather – my great-grandfather was a founding figure in one of the unions that paved the way for the formation of plasterers’ union in 1893.

SIPTU, which has its headquarters in Liberty Hall, Dublin, has an estimated 200,000 members. The union organises across the public and private sectors and has numbers of members working in construction, health, education, transport and manufacturing.

In addition, SIPTU has taken a lead in recent years in organising migrant workers and in campaigning on the twin issues of the exploitation of migrant workers and the consequent displacement of Irish workers from employment.

The union was formed in 1990 with the merger of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland. But the union is marking its centenary this year because the ITGWU was founded a hundred years ago in 1909 by Jim Larkin.

At first, this was a general union, drawing its membership from branches of the National Union of Dock Labourers, which was based in Liverpool – a union Larkin had been expelled from.

Larkin’s new union grew to include workers in a range of industries, and was at the centre of the Dublin lockout in 1913. The lockout had a formative role in shaping both the ITGWU and the Irish Labour Movement.

After the lockout, Larkin left for the US in 1914, and William O’Brien became the union’s leading figure, serving as general secretary for years. Although Larkin’s brother Peter later formed the Workers’ Union of Ireland, the ITGWU remained the principal force in the trade union movement.

Larkin returned to Ireland in 1923, but he and O’Brien remained bitter enemies. When Larkin and his supporters were allowed back into the Labour Party in the early 1940s, O’Brien engineered a party split, forming the National Labour Party and alleging that the main party had been infiltrated by Communists.

At the time, the Labour Party leader was William Norton, for whom my grandmother, Bridget (Lynders) Comerford, worked.

The split damaged the Labour vote in the 1944 election, and a further split emerged when the Irish Trade Union Congress admitted Larkin’s union to membership in 1945 – the ITGWU left the Congress and established the rival Congress of Irish Unions.

The two Labour parties merged in 1950. Ten years later, William Norton was succeeded as party leader by Brendan Corish. From the early 1950s, there were proposals to merge the two unions. They finally merged in 1990 to form SIPTU.

The People’s College Choir opened and closed the service, singing You are the New Day and Down in the River to Pray.

Padraig Murray remembered Big Jim Larkin this evening, when he read “Big Jim Crosses the River,” by Liam Mac Gabhann, Jimmy Kelly reminded us of James Connolly when he sang his “1913 Ballad,” and Noel Pocock must have brought to mind for many the memories of other union activists when he played a moving lament on his uileann pipes.

Among those present were the President of ICTU and SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn.

And as I listened to that Lament, I remembered some late stalwarts of the ITGWU and the trade union movement, including Des Corish and John Howlin, who was Brendan Corish’s election agent in Wexford and the father of both the Labour TD Brendan Howlin and the Mayor of Wexford Ted Howlin.

The Order of Service included these lines by Ralph Chaplin:

Mourn not the dead that in the cold earth lie –
Dust unto dust –
The calm, sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must …
But rather mourn the apathetic throng –
The cowed and the meek –
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!


As the economic crisis deepens, these are words we may need to be reminded of time and again in the months ahead.