There are times when, as a labour historian, it can seem as if you have come late to the party. After all, the big books that sit on our shelves or in libraries, the Thompsons, Hobsbawms, Williams, and the like, often got published in the 1960s or 1970s and read as though our times are lacking that fervour. The appearance of David Convery’s edited collection, Locked Out, just a few days ago is therefore an occasion to celebrate, the first of those big books for our own times, by my own generation of scholars.
The essence of Locked Out is a distinctly Irish one – that working class voices have been muted, oft deliberately, in the push for nationalist narratives in public discourse and thought. That oft-quoted maxim “labour must wait” gets short shrift here, and rightly so. Irish discourse frequently denies the existence of an Irish working class, prefering instead to point to Ireland’s classlessness contra that of Great Britain (and Northern Ireland too). Britons, for whom class is so central, can often be unaware of this debate and conception of nationhood and the apparent difference it gave rise to. There were those, such as the early Welsh nationalists, who saw in Ireland a model of classlessness too, of course; thus the Welsh notion of gwerin or “folk”, for instance, displays a similar belief in the rural classlessness that the Irish nation builders of the 1920s held. And the Scots had similar ideas too. But that is not a discussion that Locked Out much deals with, even where nationalism (and anti-British asides especially) arises in the text, a quibble I’ll come back to. For contributors, editor, publisher, and audience alike, the simpler statement that “class … [is] alien … to mainstream Irish historical debate” stands as a powerful critique of Ireland’s sense of itself.
And what a myopia. Over twelve chapters, featuring as many contributors, the book discusses war, sport, abuse of children, emigration, work, memory, street gangs, , labour organisation, and censorship. Such a range emphasises the necessity of a collection such as this, the vitality of Ireland’s young research community, and the care of the editor in selecting his workers. In keeping with the sophisticated methodology of contemporary social and cultural history, the authors employ a wide range of sources from the typical newspapers and archival holdings, to songs, literature, oral testimony, and the private files of bodies such as the NSPCC. Together these sources allow working class people to speak for themselves, free of the condescending control of the historian.
It would, perhaps, be remiss to enter into any form of ranking, even the weakest of the chapters admirably fulfills the demands of the book, so my discussion here is limited to those that struck a chord with me as I read them. Liam Cullinane’s chapter takes as its theme the nature of class expression amongst Cork factory workers, most of them women. With oral history providing the empirical foundations, Cullinane illustrates vividly how class is frequently expressed in Ireland but in a manner not necessarily in keeping with Marxian (nay British) dichotomies. “Terms like working class and middle class”, he writes, “are, to some extent, British importations and may not necessarily be part of the Irish lexicon” (p. 188). This makes for a stimulating discussion of the pervasiveness of class and the need to treat working class self-awareness on its own terms. Any of us who have grown up in a working-class environment will nod along to Cullinane’s conclusions. Sara Goek’s chapter stands in similar vein, and extends the analysis to emigrant workers to Britain after the war. Again, class is expressed through a lexicon not expected when proceeding from academic theories of class and class-based behaviour. In both chapters we are drawn in to a working-class world of work, the pub, and the challenges that present themselves to people whose way in the world is defined by the constant struggle for survival and against prejudice.
Sarah-Anne Buckley has quickly emerged as one of Ireland’s most exciting historians with a field of research that is both contemporaneous and historically vital. Peeling back the layers of abuse and cover ups in the industrial school system, Buckley shows just how far those involved were willing to travel in their defence of a system that had been found lacking as early as the 1920s. Invented in Britain, the schools lost favour there after the Great War and were replaced with more humane alternatives. In Ireland however, they persisted until very recently with the Irish government forced into a public apology in 1999 for abuses committed in the schools. What is revealed by Buckley is the compromises made by the NSPCC in their dealings with the schools, their administrators, and the state. “The NSPCC”, Buckley tellingly concludes, “was central” (p. 123). Social control, so central to the involvement of the Catholic Church in the running and structuring of Ireland, ultimately compromised both the state and the third sector. It is from such a situation that the working class has begun tho slowly emerge.
Another of those bodies that has managed to force it as way into an all or nothing position in Ireland is the Gaelic Athletic Association or GAA. Over the last ten years of so Irish sports history has been undergoing something of a critical renaissance with the GAA and other sports gaining historical attention in a significant way. Among that generation of young scholars to open a window on a world of Irish sport beyond the hurley and the GAA is David Toms. His chapter wonderfully charts a much forgotten form of working-class association, that of the factory league. Soccer, as Toms’ opening quote illustrates, was the sport for Ireland’s urban poor, a fact much overlooked by historians and commentators alike. Writes Toms, “people [blurred] the boundaries of work and life” when they pulled on the Jersey of their works team. His emphasis is firmly on what used to be called working-class agency and the involvement of workers in running their own affairs. Sport provided that outlet where Irish politics and labour organisation often could not, as a comparison between Toms’ and Buckley’s chapters readily demonstrates.
My own involvement in Irish history has much in common with Alan Noonan’s work, particularly the focus on the diaspora. “Irish history”, Noonan writes, “should not be an island until itself” (p. 72). Noonan takes us on a journey that follows Jim Larkin’s time in the United States after the Dublin lockout. It is a period of Larkin’s life about which less is known and the chapter will satisfy Larkin enthusiasts admirably. But to leave it there would be to do Noonan a major disservice, for his work illustrates must how difficult was the task of Irish labour in reaching out to its comrades overseas. Irish-America deserves to be better known in its relationship with the Irish at home and Noonan points a clear direction for much further, and fruitful, study. We may ask his questions of Montreal, of Cardiff, of Sydney, and beyond.
Perhaps ironically, it is dealing with overseas, particularly Britain, where this collection errs. On conscription, for example, Fiona McAuliffe points out that strikes were banned in Britain in 1915 making much of their continuation in Ireland without nuancing her point by reference to the major strikes that erupted in Britain throughout the war. Scholarship in Britain has long related the furtherance of labour unrest across the islands and it is unfortunate to see that ignored here. The last group of workers to be conscripted in Britain were Welsh miners because their militancy was such that they had already fought and won on pitched battles with the government. Ireland were not themselves alone. The crude repetition of anti-British narratives by Conor McCabe is also detrimental in the opening chapter of the book and may partly rest on that chapter’s over-reliance on secondary literature. British involvement in 1913 was far more nuanced, as Convery helpfully points out in his contribution. And there is a degree to which sympathetic work is left out, though I hesitate to say ignored. Michael Pierse’s chapter, admirable and stimulating though it definitely is, would have benefitted from at least some mention of Owen Jones’s Chavs, which tackles the common theme of censorship and ridicule. Space in a work such as this is at a premium, of course, but it is a strange omission.
In his introduction, editor David Convery relates that “we offer a different perspective … highlight[ing] the neglected history and culture of the Irish working class” (p. 7). It is an aim more than admirably fulfilled. Indeed, I may end by saying simply that this is one of the most important Irish books in years. Its publication heralds the coming of age of a new generation of Irish historians who refuse to wait. Whatever the future holds for Ireland and its people, we may look forward to the opening of many more doors. May the workers of Ireland be locked out of their own history no longer.