The emergence of unionised farm workers in south Kildare followed the holding of an initial meeting of farm labourers of Burtown Cross-roads on Sunday, 23rd December 1917. The I.T.G.W.U. in a determined move to widen its influence and extend its membership throughout the country soon began to absorb the local Labour Unions which were being formed in rural Ireland. The South Kildare Labour Union following a public meeting in Emily Square, Athy in March 1918 agreed to affiliate to the Dublin based union. The expansion of the Transport Union necessitated the employment of union representatives at regional and local levels, and in south Kildare the I.T.G.W.U. representative was Christy Supple of Foxhill who had been largely responsible for organising the local farm workers. It was Christy who represented the Athy branch at the Irish Trade Union Congress A.G.M. in Drogheda on 4th August 1919.
Throughout the summer of 1919 farm disputes were a common feature as the rural workers wage movement gathered momentum. In Kildare the Transport Union asked for a weekly wage of 50 shillings per week and insisted that only union workers be employed on local farms. A farm strike, more sporadic than widespread, was waged in parts of counties Meath and Kildare as a result.
A strike in Celbridge towards the end of June 1919 involving approximately 60 farm workers took a serious turn when the Farmers Union decided to lock-out all Transport Union members. The South Kildare Farmers Union agreed to the lock-out and gave the local workers one weeks notice on 5th July. Two weeks later press reports noted that 445 workers were affected, of which 50 were female. The Nationalist newspaper of 23rd August 1919 announced the end of the strike after agreement had been reached between representatives of the Farmers Union and the Transport Union in a conference held in the Town Hall, Athy on the previous Wednesday. Emily Square was crowded throughout the day as the meeting progressed with farmers, farm labourers and locals awaiting the outcome. When it came, sometime after midnight, the announcement was greeted with loud cheering. The terms agreed were 32/= per week for a 60 hour week, with £3 harvest bonus and 3/= for Sunday work. It was subsequently claimed that the strike ended because some of the more powerful farmers were anxious to get their animals to the Dublin Horse Show.
The next major dispute between local farmers and the farm labourers came in November 1922. In the intervening years many changes had taken place in the political and military life of the country. The workers strikes of 1918 and 1919 had occurred against a background of English rule in Ireland. It was a time marked by tragedy and atrocity in equal measure and not one conducive to Union lead strikes for wage increases or improvements in working conditions. As the War of Independence continued, Athy and district witnessed the killing of James Lacy and William Connor during an ambush on the R.I.C. at Barrowhouse on 16th May, 1921, the burning down of the local Courthouse in Emily Square the previous July, and an armed attack on the local R.I.C. Barracks just six days after the Barrowhouse ambush. It surely was not a time for organising industrial unrest.
On 11th July 1921 a truce was agreed but within nine months the Four Courts in Dublin was seized by the Irregulars, plunging the country into a civil war which would continue until May 1923. Despite the difficulties posed by the Civil War, farm labourers who claimed their hard won wage increases were being eroded, felt compelled to launch what would turn out to be the most prolonged and bitter farm strike ever to be witnessed in this country. The strike started in the Athy area towards the end of 1922 and was extended in January 1923 to County Waterford and to Ballingarry. In January the former R.I.C. Barracks in Athy which had been taken over by the Free State troops was attacked and destroyed. James Lillis, a member of the Carlow Kildare Brigade during the War of Independence, was executed in Carlow Military Barracks that same month. It was against this backdrop that the South Kildare Farm Workers Strike continued.
Christy Supple of Foxhill as secretary of the Athy branch of the Transport Union was as ever to the forefront of the dispute. Not content with unionising the farm workers, he sought to extend union control into all aspects of employment in the Athy area. In August 1922 he had written a letter to the Urban District Council complaining of the employment of a non union man in the local cemetery. The man in question was Peter Hyland of Leinster Street who had held that position for many years previously. The Council rejected Supple’s complaint, as it did his attempt to have only a union member employed to turn off the water at night-time at Bennettsbridge. On 23rd December 1922 both the Farmers Union and Christy Supple wrote separately to the Council regarding the Council’s attempt to arbitrate between the parties in the ongoing farm dispute. Nothing appears to have come of this and in January 1923 the Ministry of Industry and Commerce were advising the local Urban Council of its own attempts to arrange a conference between the farmers and the striking workers.
Before any such conference could be arranged the military authorities took matters into their own hands and arrested Supple on 29th January 1923. He was brought to Carlow Military Barracks where he was detained. His arrest resulted from a letter he had sent to a worker named Melvill who had continued to work for his employer, Mr. Melrose. In the letter which Supple signed as branch Union secretary the farm worker was told to “strike on Monday next and report to me. Failing to do so we will be compelled to take drastic action against you and your employer.” Melville was subsequently shot at and wounded in the hand.
The farm workers strike was becoming increasingly bitter. A number of haggards in the Athy area were destroyed by fire, the Transport Union claiming it was the work of the so called Farmers Freedom Force to punish farmers who had not locked out their workers. The Farmers Union on the other hand claimed the damage was caused by militant farm workers. Claim and counterclaim followed each new act of vandalism with farmers haggards going up in flames, while labourers cottages were attacked and windows broken. On 28th February a threshing engine owner was assaulted and his threshing machine and straw elevator damaged at Bennettsbridge. Eight striking farm labourers who were picketing nearby were arrested and held in military custody for three months.
The military authorities concerned at the worsening situation in the locality took over the Town Hall on 9th March 1923. The Town Clerk was forced to abandon his offices and work out of the Technical School in Stanhope Place. The army remained in occupation of the Town Hall until 24th November and left the town only on the conclusion of the farm workers dispute.
Soon after Supple’s arrest attempts were made by Mr. Timmons, secretary of the Farmers Union, to negotiate a settlement of the dispute directly with Supple while he was still detained in Carlow Military Barracks. Frequent visits were made to the prisoner which were facilitated by the officer in charge who subsequently found himself in trouble for permitting what were deemed irregular visits by the Minister for Defence, General Mulcahy. Supple’s arrest and detention was raised in the Dail by William O’Brien, the man who had addressed the meeting in Emily Square in March 1918 which lead to the unionisation of the south Kildare farm workers. O’Brien described the Athy Union Secretary as “a rather delicate youth who was under medical care.” During the subsequent Dail debate it was disclosed that Supple’s mother, believing he was to be released, travelled to Carlow where she took suddenly ill and died. Her son was not released and in fact would remain in prison for some months.
In June 1923 the Urban District Council received letters of complaint from the Athy Farmers Union and the Ministry of Local Government concerning the refusal of the local weighmaster P.J. Timmons and his assistant John Farrell to weigh wool on the public scales in the Market Square for some members of the Farmers Union. Farrell who was a member of the Transport Union and his superior, the weighmaster, obviously felt moved to support the striking workers. The Council took no action on foot of the complaints, accepting the explanations offered by its employees. It might indicate a measure of support for the striking workers amongst the elected members of the local Urban District Council.
The Farm Workers Strike continued on until November 1923, becoming in its time one of the most violent and bitter industrial disputes in the history of Irish agriculture. The I.T.G.W.U. spent in excess of £128,000 on strike pay for those involved in the 1923 farm strikes and financial pressure eventually led to the strikes in Athy and elsewhere being called off. The collapse of the 1922/23 agricultural workers strike resulted in a decline in Union membership over the following years and a consequent weakening of the bargaining powers of the local farm workers.
As for Christy Supple, his story is for another day.