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.

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