Prior to the First World War various attempts had been made to organise the landless farm labourers of Ireland. The Irish Land and Labour Association founded towards the end of the 19th century was perhaps the most successful in that regard. Like most of its predecessors however, it’s aims were too diffuse to guarantee success, seeking as it did houses and land for the farm labourers as well as wage increases.
The Dublin Lockout of 1913 raised the profile of trade unionism at a time when there was an acceptance of the need for legislation to provide for the well being of the farm labourers, in much the same way as the Wyndham Land Act had catered for the tenant farmers. The rush to arms during the 1914-18 war saw upwards of 250,000 Irishmen enlist to fight, creating an inevitable shortage of labour where previously labour scarcities were unknown. The farmers of south Kildare and elsewhere throughout the rich farmlands of the midlands now had to compete on the open market for the available labour. The shortage of farm workers led to the establishment of a Migratory Labour Scheme operated by the Department of Agriculture. Advertised in the local Press, the scheme made available ploughmen at 25 shillings per week including board and lodgings, while farm labourers could be hired for 15 shillings per week.
The start of work on the new Wolfhill railway line in April 1917 was another cause of concern for local farmers who feared that part-time workers already reduced in numbers by the war recruitment effort would be further reduced by the better paid work on the railway. To prevent locals abandoning their traditional working routine, employment on the railway project was confined to men registered for national service. Farm labourers were to be discouraged from applying for such work so as not to aggravate the already worsening labour situation on local farms.
The scarcity of labour witnessed in the early years of the war did not reflect itself in any substantial improvement in wage levels. In February 1917 the Nationalist Newspaper would report that “wages have not kept pace with the abnormal increases that have taken place in the price of provisions.”
This was the background to the emergence of unionised agriculture labour in May 1917 when the public in south Kildare first became aware of Land and Labour Associations in Ballyadams, Monasterevin and Vicarstown. Their stated aim was to protect farm workers and to press for minimum wage legislation. By November 1917 the local farmers had themselves organised and a branch of the Irish Farmers Union was started in Athy with W.J. Fennel as President and Thomas J. Bodley as Secretary. Coincidentally both men occupied the same positions on the Athy Agricultural Show Committee. Within a month a Wages Board was established for south Kildare with four workers representatives, four employers representatives, with two members of Athy Urban District Council, Councillors Michael Malone and P.P. Doyle.
On Sunday 23rd December 1917 a meeting was held at Burtown cross-roads to form a labour union. Reported in the local press as “a great success” a committee was elected, although significantly no membership details were given in the Press Report. By now, as a national newspaper noted, “a sign of the times is the establishment of labour associations or unions throughout the country.” Within a few weeks of its formation the Burtown Labour Union called on the Wages Board to withdraw the middle grades for agricultural workers.
In the same week as the closure of Fontstown Post Office was announced after almost 66 years in existence a Land and Labour Association was formed in the Ballyroe Churchtown area. It’s officers were announced as Thomas Day [President], W. Bambrick [Vice President], M. Dillon [Secretary] and Thomas Byrne [Treasurer]. In early February 1918 a labour meeting was held in Ballitore, again comprised of farm workers. It was soon thereafter to amalgamate with other local associations to form the South Kildare Labour Union. The secretary of the Union was Christopher Supple of Foxhill who a week or two before the amalgamation had announced at a meeting at Penchers Cross, Grangenolvin, “I have met with the farmers and they are willing to meet our demands”. What these demands were is not known but with the formation of the South Kildare Labour Union Supple was now in a strong position to negotiate on behalf of the farm labourers of the area.
The committee of the first Labour Union in this part of County Kildare was comprised of many whose names were not generally known. For the record they were T. Cullen, Ballycullane [President], Michael Fenlon, Millbrook [Vice President], Christopher Supple, Foxhill [Secretary], James Loughman, Castleroe [Assistant Secretary], J. Dalton, Foxhill [Treasurer], William Sherlock, Foxhill [Assistant Treasurer]. The Committee comprised James Doyle of Ballindrum, Christy Wright of Bray, Ed Calahan of Foxhill, John Supple of Ballycullane, Phil Horan of Foxhill, John Buggy of Burtown, P. Conway of Ballyroe, Thomas Supple of Burtown and S. Travers of Kilkea.
On Sunday, 19th March 1918 a public meeting was held in the square in Castledermot to call attention to what the Sinn Fein organisers called a system under which vast tracts of lands were held by landlords. It was addressed by Laurence Ginnell M.P., as well as Kevin Higgins of Stradbally whose brother had been killed fighting in World War I and Peter P. Doyle of Athy. The opposition to the “ranching system” in south Kildare had earlier led to cattle being driven off lands in and around Castledermot but there is no evidence to suggest that the emerging Labour Union was in any way involved.
By now the Dublin based Irish Transport Union was intensifying its efforts to take over the Labour Associations throughout the country and on Sunday 24th March 1918 the South Kildare Labour Union held a public meeting in Emily Square which was to be addressed by William O’Brien who had been secretary of the Lockout Committee in 1913. An organiser for the Transport Union, O’Brien spoke of the need to organise on a national level and with his encouragement the meeting chaired by Michael Mooney of Grangemellon agreed to affiliate to the Transport Union. Reports of the meeting claimed that large numbers of farm labourers paraded prior to the meeting in Emily Square behind the Ballylinan Band.
The stage was now set for the Transport Union to take on the South Kildare Farmers Union and local man Christopher Supple of Foxhill would be to the forefront of any such negotiations. The first dispute arose in May 1918 when a number of local farmers sacked workers who had failed to turn up for work on 23rd April. This had been designated by the Irish Trades Congress as a day of protest against military conscription, an issue which was then causing great concern throughout Ireland. A settlement appears to have been affected as there is no record of the subsequent strike. The relationship between the Farmers Union and the Transport Union appears to have been better than one might expect as the request for farm labourers to be allowed off two hours each Saturday to facilitate shopping was granted after minimum negotiation. In return for this concession the workers agreed during harvesting and haymaking to continue working until the crops were saved. Within a few months the Farmers Union had again agreed to a union demand for an increase in wages, allowing the farm workers an extra 2/6 a week to bring their wages to 27/6 a week for a 60 hour week. Now the Transport Union sought to take on the publicans of Athy whom it claimed were overcharging its members (and presumably everybody else) for drink. Posters printed by the Transport Union were put up about the town calling on members of the Transport Union to boycott local pubs until the price of drink was reduced. Christy Supple wrote to the local Urban District Council advising of the farm labourers resolution to boycott the local public houses prompting local publican and Councillor Michael “Crutch” Malone to declare “higher wages and cheaper porter seems to be this gentleman’s programme”.