The IRA in a West of Ireland Town in the 1930s

Submitted by dalcassian on 24 August, 2014 - 3:14 Author: Sean Matgamna

Below the great political generalities - opposition to British Imperialism, Partition, the "sell-out of Republican principles" by De Valera's constitutionalRepublican party, Fianna Fail - what was the IRA? Let us look at what it was in the 1930s in one area, Clare, and particularly in one town, Ennis, part of Eamonn De Valera's constituency.

We are not, in this excursion, in which we will look at the labour movement in that town, wandering off the subject: we are trying to bring the IRA of that time and of such places, and the sort of people who joined it, into clearer focus.

Republicanism is strong in Ennis, but Republicanism has become De Valerism. Alongside De Valera's Fianna Fail there is a "die-hard" IRA in the town. The last three of the 77 prisoners of war shot during the 1922-23 civil war after a pseudo-trial (others were killed without "trial"), Mahoney, Quinn, and Shaughnessy, had died in Ennis. There is a "Republican plot" in the cemetery at Drumcliffe. In the 1930s, thousands march annually to do homage at the graves of the three martyrs.

Clare is a county of owner-occupier farms and shops in which most of the population is either self-employed or works for relatives in a family enterprise, shop or farm. The proletariat, people with nothing but their labour power to sell, is a small part of the population, largely confined to towns such as Ennis and the small port of Kilrush to the south. The class structure in these towns is caste-rigid.

A useful sociological study of Clare and of Ennis exists, made by two US social anthropologists, Solon Kimball and Conrad Arensberg in the 1930s. At the bottom in the town is a class of labourers, dependent for the most part on irregular work - building work, cattle drovering, all sorts of odd jobs. The "labour aristocracy" is made up of people with steady jobs and regular incomes - labourers in the bigger stores, railway workers...

A lot of them are pre-literate (the 26 Counties did not get an effective compulsory Education Act until 1926). They live in one-storey houses along the no-longer-used quays on the River Fergus - leading to the broad Shannon two miles away which leads to the sea - and in roads starting at the edge of the town - Drumbiggle, Turnpike, Old Mill Street, Boreen. These houses are officially described again and again in annual reports by the County Medical Officer, by the council as "hovels", without water or sanitation, without lighting other than paraffin lamps or cooking facilities other than the open fire; some are subject to annual flooding. They will be described as hovels again and again for decades, and nothing done about it. Some of them will be cleared away only in the '70s.

These are proud people, condemned to endless humiliation, quick to take offense and willing where they can to avenge themselves. They care how they appear in each others' eyes and in their own. The poverty of this proletarian underclass is dire and permanent. There are big families and bigger clans of extended families in the streets of "hovels", much sporting competition - hurling teams from the different streets and districts - and some feuding. Somehow out of this bonding together in families, hurling teams, named local clubs that hunt on foot with local packs of beagles, card schools and street patriotism, a magnificent culture of labour solidarity has developed.

They have their own one-town trade union, the Ennis United Labourers' Union, with about 500 members (the population of the town is 5-6,000). Where you might expect savage competition for the little work there is, there has grown up the opposite - a culture of working class solidarity. In the period 1932-34, in the euphoria around the change of government, this takes the form of labour demonstrations that will lead to a mass trial of 24 pickets and a three-day General Strike in the town.

Much of the work the labourers get is from the council, repairing roads, or breaking stones (by hand at the side of the road) for road-making. Every December in the '20s and '30s there is a labourers' march and demonstration to the council to petition for two weeks' Christmas relief work so that they "can have a Christmas dinner". Labour disputes are often about the demand for the employment of union-only labour on such jobs.

When a job starts at a quarry in Fountain, a couple of miles outside the town, half or more of the union's members form up behind their fife and drum band at nine o'clock in the morning and march the hilly roads up to the quarry, to recruit those employed there into the union. Representatives of the union go into the quarry, the rest stay in the road. When some of the quarry workers refuse to join the union, others come in from the road and fighting starts. Out of this incident will come the trial of the 24.

A small housing estate is due to be built at Ard na Greine and a small group of men are sent from the - newly opened - Labour Exchange to start digging foundations. Some workers there are not EULU members. The union members refuse to work with them. The job is closed down.

Not long after, the job starts again with new men sent from the Labour Exchange. The union insists that this work belongs by right to the first group of workers, who had effectively been sacked. This is now a dispute about whether the union or the Labour Exchange and the employer will control the supply of labour. The union tells the new men sent by the Labour Exchange not to take the jobs. The workers accept the union's judgement. Another group is sent from the Labour Exchange to take their place. They too stand by the rights of the first group to the jobs - and for the right of the union to control these matters.

A big effort of imagination is necessary for even badly-off people of today if they are to put themselves in the place of these men and understand the tremendous guts and commitment to labour solidarity which they showed. They had nothing to fall back on, families to care for; there was not more than the beginnings of a welfare state - everything that might go to creating in them a "F. you Jack" self-centredness; the sort of situation that led dockers in Britain and Ireland, before they organised themselves in a union, to fight each other with fists, clubs and boots every morning for the chance of half a day's work. Yet they stuck to the union.

The upshot is a three-day General Strike involving about a thousand workers backed by labourers from the surrounding towns - and victory! A false victory. The County Council agrees to the union demand that work should go only to union members. A few months later the Dublin Government ministry will "overrule" the council...

Two months before the General Strike, on Christmas Eve 1933, 26 members of the EULU are arrested. Twenty-four are sent for trial on charges of conspiracy and assault in connection with the mass picket at the Fountain quarry. About half of those charged are from one of the roads of "hovels" - Old Mill Street. It is an attempt to put an end to the eruption of "Larkinism" in the town by state coercion and intimidation. In April 1934 the jury acquits the 24 men, despite the efforts of the judge, who had come close to an instruction to convict.

And where is the IRA? Right in the heart of it. It was from such people that the IRA mainly recruited. The EULU secretary, Michael Glynn, has two sons, Patrick and James, in the IRA. In 1934, James is shot dead in O'Connell Street, coming out of a meeting of the IRA club, by a blueshirt fascist, McNamara. A memorial meeting will be held by the union for its member, James Glynn.

About the same time, James' brother, Paddy, is brought to court after some conflict with a policeman. The IRA does not recognise the "Free State courts." Paddy Glenn - who held the rank of captain in the local IRA - stands by his principles, refuses to recognise the court and is automatically jailed. He will spend almost as long in jail as will the blueshirt, McNamara, (who got 18 months) for killing his brother, James Glen.

Such people are serious about their rejection of the state and the establishment, even with De Valera in power. The clericalFascist blueshirts too are strong in the area. The Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Fogarty, sits on blueshirt platforms; the clergy recruit for them. The union, like the IRA, is active in the fight against the blueshirts. That too involves sacrifices. For example, men who work regularly, cattle drovering from fairs for a "big farmer" who is blueshirt - as most of them are - will either "put on a blue shirt" or not be employed again.

The labourers vote Labour Party - there is a Labour TD for the area, Paddy Hogan, who had contributed a couple of pieces to James Connolly's Workers' Republic before 1916 and in the '30s is on the left side of the LP - and Fianna Fail. But what can they hope to do politically? In almost all of the 26 Counties, Labour is in a not too different situation from Labour in Ennis - a minority in a bourgeois and petty-bourgeois world. The precious seeds of a better world, labour solidarity, can grow abundantly as it does, but its possibilities are limited by the objective conditions of the working class. The struggle to make all council jobs union jobs is in its way an epic struggle, but for a small objective - not "some Hampden in his little fields", but Larkins in their little towns and little one-town unions.

Socialism is subjected to a permanent barrage of outright condemnation from the church. Nationalism and Catholicism lock them into a world outlook held in common with priests, small bourgeois, big farmers and enjoins them to accept their place. There is much working class anger and resentment. But such anger has nowhere to go politically in an Irish state from which the big battalions of the working class on the island have been severed by politics, religion and the partition border.

The IRA in the south is, at this stage, the lower orders revolutionary movement that corresponds to this unripe social condition.

There is a bitter negativism towards the existing state; there is a condition of war or great tension with the Church even though the IRA member would almost always at this period be devoutly Catholic - their own understanding of Catholicism no matter what the bishops and priests say: which is a protestantising contradiction in terms; there is dissatisfaction with the condition of society and with their place in it, but no coherent acceptable alternative, no goals but small ones that can be plausibly formulated within their situation; there is no revolutionary working class movement, and the fraudulent substitute there is, the Stalinist organisations, are stigmatised with the mark of Satan, and can only get a hearing disguised as Irish nationalists; there is the mystique of violence and of the gun - which in such a context ceases to be a means to an end, a mere tool, and becomes a fetish, something in itself possessing magical power, and looked to as a substitute for clear social and class goals.

That is what Republicanism is in the small towns and villages of the south. "The Republic" is an absolute, something beyond their own world, something immaculate: no wonder De Valera's practical steps taken towards realising the mundane real constituents of a real, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois republic, does not impinge - or not immediately - too much on the attitudes of many "die-hard" Republicans.

On the ground, amongst the town and country labourers in the '30s, who made up the rank and file of the IRA in the south, are social revolutionaries - without the prospect of making a revolution. Take a particular case, Michael Scanlon. Scanlon will be a life-long Republican in this town. (He died a few years ago, a supporter, I understand, of the Provisional IRA.) If the Irish are the black people of Europe, the tinkers (travellers is their preferred term) are the black people of Ireland, lower by far than even the labourers of such a caste-ridden small town as this.

"Tinkers" are persecuted, driven from pillar to post, harried and routinely batoned and beaten by the police, and by vigilantes. They are jailed for begging, for trespassing, for fighting, for being drunk - for being.

A couple of baton-swinging Guards have arrested an elderly drunk tinker, Martin Faulkner. A 19 year old youth steps out from the watching, amused crowd and harangues them: "Come on, let's save the tinker!" Michael Scanlon. He tries to do it himself, and winds up in court, which is how we have an account of it.

Scanlon will spend the years of World War Two in an internment camp in Kildare, taken out of the town under armed guard on an open fenced-in lorry full of people like himself. He returned and helped rebuild the movement in the '50s.

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