Thursday, June 26, 2003

Farm Workers Lockout 1947

I see from last week’s Castledermot notes that a memorial plaque to the late Joe Greene was unveiled at Kilkea recently.  I never met Joe but his name has come up several times during my research into the history of this part of the short grass county.  Joe Greene was at different times in his working life a farm labourer, a barman and a public representative.  It was his role in the workers strike or if you prefer the workers “lockout” of 1947 which earned him an entry in the local annals of this area.

I first came across a reference to Joe Greene when I was doing some research into the development of trade unionism in South Kildare.  Farm labourers had gone on strike in 1923 during which local man Christy Supple, who was the union organiser for the area, was arrested and imprisoned.  That strike ended in defeat for the workers who also included County Council workmen whom Supple had been trying to organise.  The dispute of 1947 which was centered on the Kilkea area resulted from the refusal of local farmers to allow their workmen to take a half day off every Saturday.  When the initial demand for a half day off with pay was refused, the workers, organised by Willie Reilly, a Galway man who worked in the area and Castledermot born Joe Greene decided to take off a half day without pay.  The resultant clash between workers and farmers led to what the employers always referred to as “the strike” whilst to the workmen involved it was a “lockout”. 

Joe Greene was, according to that great local trade unionist Paddy Bergin “the leading figure in the 1947 lockout”.  Paddy who worked in the Carlow Sugar factory was chairman of the Carlow branch of the newly formed Federated Union of Rural Workers.  He had the responsibility of organising the local farm workers and County Council workmen and relied heavily on Joe Greene of Castledermot to look after the south Kildare area.  In that regard Paddy was not to be disappointed for the new union emerged just as the agitation for a weekly half day holiday gathered momemtum.  After the local farmers refused the workman a paid half day off each week the workers decided to take the half day off in any event, forgoing the wages that they could have earned.  This led to an ultimatum from the farmers that any workmen who did not work on the following Saturday afternoon would be sacked.  The inevitable happened.  Many of the workmen absented themselves on the Saturday afternoon and suffered the fate which had been threatened.  A public meeting was held in Emily Square, Athy that Saturday evening addressed by Paddy Bergin from Carlow and Joe Greene from Castledermot.  A feature of that meeting was the first public airing of a ballad composed by a young man from Grangemellon.  Kevin Fingleton who died in 2001 sang his ballad “The Kilkea Lockout” to the air of “Patsy Fagan” and thereafter it was to be the rallying song of the workers who gathered each day at the Round Bush at Kilkea. 

The dispute dragged on for a number of weeks amidst claim and counterclaim from the opposing parties and tempers did occasionally get out of hand.  Members of the Young Farmers Club founded in Athy by Stephen Cullinane and others in 1944 became involved in the dispute when they volunteered to take the place of striking workmen.  Inevitably this heightened tension in the area and running battles took place between the strikers and those, amongst whom were the Young Farmer Club members, who passed the pickets to work the strike bound farms. 

Joe Greene and Paddy Bergin were summoned following a fracas in Baltinglass and on conviction were each fined £5.00.  Other workers were charged in Athy District Court following disturbances at Levitstown and surrounding areas and they incurred the same financial penalties.

The striking workers met each morning at the Round Bush at Kilkea and it was there that the memorial plaque to Joe Greene was unveiled last week.  Even when they were working and earning a weekly wage local farm workers had a hard time financially but having to rely solely on the financial contributions of fellow trade unionists and local sympathisers meant that their plight was pitiable for the duration of the strike.

Local dignatories including Michael G. Nolan, the Chairman of Athy Urban District Council and a member of Kildare County Council tried to mediate between the parties. A meeting was held in November 1947 at which Nolan presided but unfortunately terms could not be agreed between the parties.  The Strike / Lockout dragged on and was not finally settled until a week before Christmas 1947.  It had lasted nine weeks. 

Joe Greene who had started his working life as a farm labourer was taken on as a full time union official by the Federated Union of Rural Workers.  Paddy Bergin in an article which appeared in the 1990 edition of “Carlow Past and Present” recounted how badly Joe was treated by the Union when they terminated his employment sometime after the Kilkea Strike / Lockout.  Fortunately Joe was offered a job by local publican Mary Ann Doyle and he finished out his working life as a popular barman in Doyle’s of Castledermot.

One other story arising out of the Kilkea Strike / Lockout told by Paddy Bergin which deserves to be retold related to Jim Loughman who was employed by Kildare County Council as a road worker.  Jim lived near Maganey and one day towards the end of the dispute he contacted Paddy Bergin and gave him a donation of £15.00 for the workers.  This was a substantial sum of money at a time when the agricultural workers earned £2.13/6 per week.  Jim who was a noted traditional fiddler had apparently sold his winter supply of turf and hay and passed on the entire proceeds to Paddy Bergin to be shared among the striking workers.  His unstinting generosity was equalled only by the sacrifices made by the striking farm workers who for nine weeks held out for the right to a half day holiday each week.

Some years following the Kilkea farm workers dispute an Act was passed in the Dáil which gave agricultural workers a legal entitlement to a weekly half day holiday.  The memorial recently erected in Joe Greene’s memory was funded by the Rural Workers Section of S.I.P.T.U. with whom the Worker’s Union of Ireland had amalgamated some years ago.  The original Federation of Rural Worker’s Union in which Joe Greene had been a branch secretary had earlier been subsumed into the Worker’s Union.   Given Paddy Bergin’s criticism of the Union’s treatment of Joe in the aftermath of the Kilkea dispute it is perhaps fitting that the largest Union in the country should acknowledge the part played by Joe Greene in furthering the worker’s cause.  Joe Greene and the Kilkea workers deserved to be remembered but so too do Jim Loughman and all those who gave support to the local farm workers during the nine weeks labour dispute of 1947.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Gordon Bennett Race 1903

We will be shortly welcoming to Athy the Chilean team for the Special Olympics. The town will host the team until its departure to the various venues to participate in the competition.  The arrival of the special Olympians in the town and in towns across the country has been eagerly awaited over the last few months.  As the event draws near it occurs to me that there are very few events held or hosted by this country which focus the eyes of the world upon us

One such event held over 100 years ago on the 2nd of July 1903, in the area of South Kildare and Athy, was the Gordon Bennett motor race,. I recently came across a publication entitled “Automobile Fortnight in Ireland”, printed in Dublin at the time of the race which was a guide for all those who wished to attend and watch the race.  The guide detailed the arrangements for the race and faithfully records the meticulous preparations of the races organisers. On the day of the race at 6.00am on Thursday, 2nd of July, the roads over which the race would be run would be closed and every road running into the main road of the course would be blocked at the same hour, with two RIC men placed in charge of each barrier. 

At 6.30am two pilot cars would start to make an entire circuit of the course, one going east and one going west.  The purpose of this was to warn the public that the race was to begin, and that nobody was to be allowed on the course until the race had been completed. 

In the weeks preceeding the race an enormous amount of work was undertaken in the area where the race was to take place. The Automobile Club Journal published on June 11th 1903 reported “that the roads had been thoroughly repaired throughout the circuit, certain bends had been straightened, and right angled turns rounded off, and the hedges had been cut down for two hundred yards on the approach side of each corner.  Caution and warning signs will be fixed if necessary and the roads stewards will be supplied with flags, for the purpose of warning an approaching car in case of obstruction on the road.  All animals are to be put into fields and not allowed to stray, and not a single spectator will be allowed either on the road itself or on the roadside at the hedges.  As a further precaution all the inhabitants on the road and within three hundred yards of each side of it will be personally circularised with warning notices, and in addition, public notices will be posted in every convenient site, setting out in detail the name of the roads closed for the purpose of the race, and also giving a general warning to the public to remain behind the hedges and to obey strictly the police and club officials

It would appear that these warnings were necessary as one of the teams which had practiced on the roads three weeks before the race believed that the roads in Ireland were used more or less as farmyards for the breeding of chickens and other birds and beasts. The drivers found that they had to take the greatest care to prevent accidents occurring between themselves and these animals, although occasionally even their great skill could not prevent the killing of an unfortunate chicken.  On all such occasions compensation was agreed between the driver of the vehicle and the owner, who retained the carcass.  It did occur to some of the more cynical drivers that perhaps the number of chicken increased on the road daily. However this was balanced by the increasing intelligence of the birds, quipped the English driver Jarrott, in that they knew what to do when a car appeared in sight!

A canvas village was erected at Ardscull consisting of approximately one hundred tents which supplied dining and seating accommodation for over five hundred people.  Indeed all the towns in the area surrounding the race rushed to ensure that the adequate facilities were made available to the visitors to the town. It was perhaps inevitable that some people would take advantage of the demand for accommodation and food around race day and there were complaints at the time in the local press that outrageous prices were being charged by hoteliers.  It was alleged that some business people and farmers were charging 6 pence for a glass of water, 1 shilling for a wash-up at a farmyard pump and 6 pounds a night for a room in a cottage near Athy! The Athy Urban District Council was moved to contradict an statement which had been published regarding the nature and expense of hotel accommodation in the area.  The UDC emphasised that the ordinary Summer rate of £4.4s per week would be available at all times during the racing period. 

The elaborate arrangements for the event extended to the provision of viewing facilities for the thousands of people who would come to the race. 
Perhaps the most dramatic and defining image of the race itself was the huge grand stand which held almost a thousand people, which was built straddling the main Dublin to Athy road at Ballyshannon, in such a way as to allow the competitors in their cars to pass safely underneath.

The race is also notable for the first recorded motor accident in Laois.  On the Stradbally side of the Dunamaise hill an English driver Jarrott crashed when something went wrong with his steering gear and he lost control of the machine.  The car careered into a bank on one side of the road rebounding off the bank and throwing both Jarrott and his companion out of the vehicle.  The injured men were attended to by Surgeon Ormsby from Broomfield Cross and both men were then conveyed to Rheban Castle where the English team were staying prior to the race.  The race itself was won by the enigmatic German Camille Jenatzy, in a time of six hours and thirty nine minutes.  Driving a Mercedes, Jenatzy, was a popular winner with the crowd who admired him for his daredevil driving. He would later die tragically in 1913 when he was accidentally shot by some of his friends while hunting for wild  boar. 

In the year that marks the centenary of the race a series of events are planned in and around the town for the June Bank Holiday weekend when the roads will again roar with the sound of these magnifient vintage cars, the pioneers of modern motor racing.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Road to Sweet Athy - The Story of the Ballad

Music punctuates our everyday lives to a degree that we rarely appreciate.  How often do we actually listen to a song and  try and understand the story that it might be telling.  The ballad is a particular type of song which tells the story, be it of love, loss, betrayal, or of a particular moment in time.  There are few songs, which come down through the centuries with their original story and meaning intact.  But their survival means that there is a greater truth which ensures that they endure.  One such song is “Johnny I hardly knew Ye”.

Like many of my generation I can recall the opening lines, “Along the road to sweet Athy Huroo Huroo”, but find myself struggling thereafter.  The song owes its origin to the large numbers of Irish men who served in the armies of Britain through the centuries and the countless numbers who returned to this country damaged in mind and body and the song is a tribute to those men.  It seems to viciously lampoon their suffering and loss but in reality is a dirge mourning their loss and their sacrifice coupled with the determination that no more men will be offered up as victims of war.

The song seems to be composed sometime around the 1800’s and possibly earlier.  The song itself refers to the soldiers service in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka.  And indeed it seems possible to place men from Athy who served in the Army in Ceylon in and around the 1790’s. 

In the early summer of 1796 the troops of the First Madras European Regiment landed on the shores of Ceylon.  This regiment formed part of the east India Companies Private Army.  The company was established in London in the early 1600’s to exploit the commercial opportunities which India appeared to offer to the fledging British empire. 

In advancing its aggressive commercial expansion in India and the Far East the company founded its own private army to protect and advance its interest.  The regiments of this army, particularly the Madras European Regiment had a strong Irish presence in its ranks, particularly in the lowest ranks.  The Public Records Office in London holds thousands of records of the service of many of these young Irishmen.  At the time the regiment was garrisoned in Ceylon we know that at least two Athy men were in the regiment’s ranks, James Byrnes and John Eustace.

We know little about these two men but for the fact that they are both originally from Athy and that they both enjoyed an unusually long Army service.  James Byrnes would serve with various regiments of the East Indian and British Army until he was discharged in 1823 at the age of 56, while John Eustace would leave the Army in 1811 at the age of 53.  They were the exceptions.  The attrition rates amongst troops serving in India and Ceylon to disease and death was appalling and few would have survived the rigours of foreign services as long as Byrnes and Eustace did.

There is little record of the regiment service in Ceylon in 1796 as Europe was occupied at the time by the threat of Napoleon while Britain scrambled nervously to protect and secure its overseas interest.

The song itself marks the return of a soldier to his home town of Athy after the vicissitudes of military service and it is quite visceral in its description of the damage brought by the War on the body of the returning soldier.  “You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg, you’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg, you’ll have to put out a bowl to beg.”
The song’s ultimate origins are obscured by its longevity and popularity through the centuries.  To Americans it is better known as “When Johnny comes Marching Home” or “Johnny Fill up the Bowl”  and during the American Civil War it was one of the most popular songs sung by the Union troops.  Frequently the lyrics were adapted by the troops who added on extra verses or altered those already there for verses of a more ribald nature.

Its popularity during the Civil War owed a lot to its arrangement by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.  Gilmore, writing under the name of Louis Lambert was a native of Dublin who probably heard the song in his youth and employed by the State of Massachusetts in forming up many of its military bands adapted the air and words of the song for the Union Army where it became a popular marching song.  Indeed its popularity will outlive the Civil War itself and has re-surfaced many times in later wars involving the United States. 

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of his acceptance into the pantheon of American martial music was the adaptation of the song’s title for a Hollywood movie directed by the Irish American director John Ford called “When Willie comes Marching Home”, a story about the experiences of a callow American youth.

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Photograph - Building of St. Patrick's Avenue - 1931

The first houses built by or on behalf of Athy Urban District Council were those completed at Meeting Lane, St. Michael’s Terrace and St. Matthew’s Terrace in 1913.  Three different building contractors were involved, with local firm D. & J. Carbery constructing eleven houses at what was then known as Matthew’s Lane.  On completion the scheme was renamed St. Michael’s Terrace.  Michael Sweeney, a building contractor from Portarlington, built six houses at what we now know as St. Martin’s Terrace, with local man D. Twomey of Leinster Street building five houses at Meeting Lane.  The houses were ready for occupation and let for the first time in May 1913. 

It’s strange to relate that soon thereafter the Town Clerk reported to the members of the Council that “none of the tenants of the new houses belong to the labouring classes.” This was surprising given that the impetus for building the houses came from the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr. James Kilbride, who had campaigned for years against the unhealthy conditions which prevailed, and which would continue to prevail, up to the 1930’s, in the houses available for renting in Athy.  Why then, we may ask, did not those most in need of re-housing get the opportunity to take up the tenancies of the new Council houses?  The answer is likely to be found in the amount of the weekly rents which the new tenants were required to pay to the Urban District Council.  These rents ranged from 3/= per week for Meeting Lane to 4/= for St. Martin’s Terrace and 5/= for St. Michael’s Terrace.  Not princely sums by any means but yet apparently too much for a large proportion of the population who were living in unsanitary conditions for which they paid no more than 1/= per week in rent.

The onset of World War II in the following year and the subsequent start of the War of Independence delayed the Urban Council’s ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis in the town.  Another eleven years were to pass before further Counsel houses were built and these were at the Bleach.  D. & J. Carbery of St. John’s, Athy were again the builders and eight houses finished in March 1924 were called “Bleach Cottages”.  The firm of D. & J. Carbery were to be involved in almost every local Council funded housing scheme over the following fifty years or so, as well as many other important building contracts in the South Kildare area.  I have often wondered whether the firm’s records have been retained as they would undoubtedly offer social historians an important insight into the development of Athy during the 20th century.

This week I feature a photograph showing a Council housing scheme nearing completion.  It’s a photograph of what was the Council’s third housing scheme which commenced in 1930 on a site known as “the Gaol Field” on the Carlow Road.  You and I know it as St. Patrick’s Avenue but as the original name indicates the site formed part of the gaol which had been opened on the Carlow Road in 1830.  The housing scheme was started on 30th June 1930 and again D. & J. Carbery of Athy were awarded the contract to build the 36 houses.  The clerk of works on the site who was appointed by the Council at a salary of 5 guineas a week was Captain H.B. Foy from Dublin.  While the houses were under construction the Council amended the building contract to permit the installation of electricity and J. Hutchinson of Leinster Street was employed to do the electrical work.

The final cost of the 36 houses amounted to 11,366.10 and the benefit to the local community of a housing project of this magnitude can be gauged from the Clerk of Works Report that 10 plasterers, 10 carpenters and 16 labourers were employed by the Contractor as at January 1931.  Many of those workers can be seen in the photograph and it is interesting to note that each house was provided with a barrel to catch rain water from the roof.  The houses were completed and let by the Council in March 1931.