New book examines Derry Labour in ‘age of agitation’

Emmet O'Connor book.
Emmet O'Connor book.

A new booklet by a local academic focuses on how Irish Labour was revolutionised through the new unionism of the late 19th century, its impact on Derry and its aftermath.

Emmet O’Connor lectures in history at the University of Ulster and has published widely on labour history.

In his latest publication - ‘Derry Labour in the age of agitation, 1889-1923’ (Four Courts Press) - he refers to a Board of Trade report which describes Derry as ‘a prosperous town’ in 1905.

Since 1851, writes Dr O’Connor, Derry’s population had almost doubled, and it had acquired a university college, an opera house, a new city hall, a fire-brigade, a public park, and a tramway.

The transport infrastructure was good, with four railway systems and regular cross-channel steamships.

Cluttering its streets were grain and flour mills, bacon cellars, distilleries, a shipyard, iron foundries, coach works, and 27 shirt-factories which made Derry the UK’s leading centre of shirt-making.

Dr O’Connor goes on to pose the following questions: Who and what were the people who laboured to produce this image of prosperity? Where did they come from, how did they live, what did they eat, how much did they earn, and how did they try to improve their conditions?

Between 1889 and 1923, Irish Labour was revolutionised by three waves of agitation.

This new booklet looks at the first of these, the new unionism of 1889–91, its impact on Derry, and its aftermath to 1906.

It was a time of trade union organisation, strikes, May Day parades, a procession of visiting socialist orators, and Labour politics.

It was also a time when the usual employers’ response to wage demands was dismissal and strike-breaking.

Derry was, says Emmet O’Connor, an unusual place during these years and presents the historian with “peculiar rewards”.

“Reliance on shirt-making, “he writes, “gave the city a narrow, low-paid economic base, and one that came under increasing pressure when the boom in shirt manufacture ended in the early 1900s.

“Derry is, therefore, an ideal location for a study of women and trade unionism.”

Secondly, he says, Derry offers another perspective on studies of Labour and sectarianism, which have hitherto been confined to Belfast and caused the Belfast experience to inform the “general view of the topic and of Labour and Unionism” for lack of an alternative.

Derry differed from Belfast in being not just a flashpoint of Unionism and nationalism, but a contest entity with a Unionist Corporation and a Catholic majority - and, as a result, it was seen variously as a unionist city or a nationalist city.

‘Derry Labour in the age of agitation, 1889-1923’ is published by Four Courts Press.