Emmet O'Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-2000

By Cunningham, John | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Emmet O'Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-2000


Cunningham, John, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


Emmet O'Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-2000, University College Dublin Press, Dublin, 2011. pp. 329. 28.00 [euro] paper.

In January 1944, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) disaffiliated from the Irish Labour Party, citing the growing influence of communism within the party in Dublin. The immediate cause was the acceptance as a parliamentary candidate of James Larkin, who had indeed identified as a communist until the late 1920s, but behind the rupture lay two decades of bitter recrimination, personal, territorial and political, between Larkin, the iconic ITGWU founder, and William O'Brien, his successor as that union's general secretary. Four months after the split, two Labour Parties faced each other in a general election, and if the O'Brienite splinter, National Labour, received encouragement from the influential Catholic Standard, there was little in the results to encourage either faction, for their combined vote fell well short of Labour's previous tally.

If the episode had Australian parallels, in reality there were few similarities in the ways that labour politics developed in the two places. Labor was already in office at the Federal level in Australia by 1912, the year the ITUC adopted a resolution establishing a Labour Party. Within four years, the resolution's proposer, James Connolly, had been executed for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916, and Labour would play a subsidiary role to the emerging Sinn Fein in the revolutionary years that followed, before contesting its first general election in 1922. Despite a generally high level of unionisation, Labour has never led a government in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, so a principal task of Irish labour historians has been to account for this historical political weakness. It is a task that has been performed in a very comprehensive, if conventional, fashion by Emmet O'Connor.

This is a handsome and illustrated new edition of O'Connor's authoritative but long out-of-print A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-1960 (1992) and it has been enhanced in key respects: three substantial new chapters covering the period 1960-2000 cover industrial relations and political issues of contemporary relevance; concise pen portraits are provided of the more significant figures; earlier chapters take account of recent Irish labour history research (much of it published in Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, of which O'Connor was a long-serving editor).

The starting date for the study, 1824, was the year the repeal of the Combination Acts enabled trade unions to operate legally.

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