Poor Law and Tramps

John Mitchel is even today frequently lambasted for claims he made that British policy towards Ireland after the Union was deliberately designed to remove the great mass of poor from their holdings, the land, the country and the face of the earth.  Yet Reports from Commissions of Inquiry set up by successive British governments – and action (and inaction) taken as a result – give strong if circumstantial evidence in support of Mitchel’s words.
The Devon Commission of 1833 estimated that of the country’s population of over 8 million, some 2,385,000 were ‘in great need of food’.  Its strong recommendations for urgent investment in wealth- and  employment-creating schemes went unheeded and the Government went ahead with the Workhouses designed to deter the ‘work-shy’.  The subsequent potato failure and Great Hunger, disease, campaign of farm-amalgamation, dispossession, eviction and enforced emigration saw a massive shift in the population profile by the end of the century.  The Vice-Regal Commission on Poor Law Reform 1906 blamed famine, disease, eviction and emigration which affected the poorer classes more than most.
The latter Commission in 1906 estimated some 30,000 of a population of four and a half million to be dependent upon Poor Relief.  (The numbers again dropped dramatically from 1908 onwards with the introduction of Old Age Pensions).  This was less than one per cent compared with thirty per cent of a population twice the size, some seventy years previously. 
Where had they all gone?  We will soon upload a personal story of an ‘American Wake’.  A sizable fraction of those who had not fled the country had died of disease or hunger.  The suffering of the poor was hugely disproportionate as a  result of deliberate Government policy.
Of the 30,000 mentioned, some 2,000 were classified as vagrant or tramps.  The Commission estimated that eighty per cent of these were male.  They were of two types, one being old and infirm but basically decent and generally well-known and respected within their own locality.  The other type has for centuries been the greatest object of hatred for governments: the ‘young and able, lazy ne’er-do-wells, dishonest and potentially dangerous’.  The Commission recommended the setting up of Labour Houses wherein they might be confined to learn ‘habits of sobriety, regularity and industry’. 
The Newry Reporter and other local papers reported the activities of tramps in this area – ‘infested with a tramp plague’ was a commonly heard expression – and special courts were frequently convened to deal with the problem.  For begging, two months in prison with hard labour was a regular sentence.
Yet then (and before and since!) there was a great deal of local sympathy especially for those tramps who were recognized simply as colourful characters. 
We have featured a number.  Later a few more.

Tom Kelly, Labour Champion

When the Irish Citizens Association won the day at the Council elections of 1949 – and continued to dominate local politics here over the next decade – the sole surviving Labour voice was that of Tom Kelly (pictured here).  Single-handedly he championed at Council level the cause of the poor, deprived and oppressed of the town over that decade, because the populist green Tories led by Max Keogh and Joe Connellan were more interested in flag-flying and coat-trailing and self-advertisement in Keogh’s Frontier Sentinel.
The change began when Irish Labour won a clear-cut victory at the 1958 elections.  Tom Kelly became chairman and enthusiastically led the social and housing reforms that were to quickly transform our town.  The major house-building programme that had begun with The Meadow and Dromalane Estates was accelerated.  Kelly, though a shy and quiet man, was an inspirational character and encouraged other Labour men of conviction and quality to follow his way.  Thus after Tom’s retirement and early death we had leaders such as Tommy McGrath and Hugh Golding.
Tom Kelly was born in Newry in 1903 the only son of Michael and Margaret (Larkin).  As a young man he was inspired by the writings and the life of James Connolly and he was a volunteer in the War of Independence.  He was arrested by the Black and Tans along the railway line in Newry on 23 May 1921 and suffered a severe beating which left him with a lifelong hearing defect.  He was sentenced to 15 years for possession of firearms but later benefited from a general amnesty. 
In jail the contemplative life inspired his faith and on his release he in 1924 joined the Jesuits.  His six years in the order strengthened his faith again and his conviction that peace and justice must be pursued through non-violent means.
Working as a carpenter in Dublin he often returned to Newry and on one such visit he met Sarah O’Gorman of Damolly whom he would later marry.  The new Mrs Kelly wanted to live in Newry and on his return Tom gained occasional employment at the Docks in Newry, Warrenpoint and Belfast.  In Newry they lived first in High Street and then, for the next thirty years at Rooney’s Terrace.
Through all these years Tom worked on behalf of the working class, helping to fill out claimant forms, for example, for the unemployed who needed such help, fighting tribunals for the redundant and championing the cause of the poor.  He became a regional representative of the Woodworkers Union and took an active part in the wider Trades Union movement.  It was not till he heard an address at Newry Town Hall in 1943 by the famous Jack Beattie of Belfast that he joined the Labour movement. 
When the Labour Party split at the end of that decade over the declaration of the Irish Republic, Tom held fast to his convictions and remained with the Irish Labour Party.  Thus it was that he was elected as the only Labour man to the Ballybot ward in that year’s elections.  Among those who canvassed for Tom was Turlough O’Donnell, son of the well-known Labour activist and who himself would rise to become High Court Judge of Northern Ireland.  (When last I heard, Turlough, an interesting and obviously very articulate man, was living in retirement in Blackrock).
For the next ten years, though the ICA blocked his membership of key committees at every turn, Kelly’s reputation as working-class hero only grew and he topped the poll at a number of subsequent elections.  He championed the use of a merit points system for the allocation of houses before any party adopted this as policy.  He opposed the building of further sub-standard ‘orlit’ homes and called for the total removal of slum housing.  The Labour Party, and Kelly in particular suffered from the breaking of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in 1955 that saw the rise and election of Joe Connellan to the South Down parliamentary seat and deprived our people of the voice for social justice we deserved on that wider stage.
The election of 1958 saw Tom Kelly become Chairman of the Urban Council and Newry’s first citizen.  A bitter split in the ranks in 1962 affected Tom’s already poor health.  Despite the onset of Parkinson’s Disease he contested a final election in 1964.  He remained Chairman of the local Irish Labour Branch and saw it successfully reassert itself against Tommy Markey’s dissident Newry Labour.
Despite a stroke he attended the famous first Civil Rights Marches in Newry.  On 12 April 1969 at age 65 Tom Kelly died.  A member of the National Graves Association contributed a tricolour to his widow to adorn the coffin, in tribute to his lifelong patriotism.  Stephen Ruddy, an Irish Labour colleague brought a Starry Plough.  This became the flag of preferment for a man who had dedicated such a large part of his life to the Labour movement.
May this working-class hero long be remembered. 

Labour in Newry: 2

Just as nothing succeeds like success, so the failure of accepted (and sometimes negotiated) deals between workers and employers brought disillusionment in its wake.  All the early victories went to the employers and workers often lost faith in their leaders.  
To confuse matter more for revolutionary socialists such as James Connolly, it was relatively easy to divert workers’ attention and energy away from the class struggle and into the national struggle.  Connolly himself advised his volunteers of the Citizens Army who participated in the Rising to hold on to their guns for the real struggle with the capitalist class that would follow.  Connolly however was executed in the wake of the Rising’s failure.  Larkin was in America.  The titanic struggle consequent on the 1913 employers’ Lockout had brought little gain to the Dublin workers.
One result of the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed was to see Labour eclipsed as a political force in the new Free State.  The main protagonists in the Civil War formed the kernel of the two opposing political parties that have dominated Irish politics ever since.  The political parties that galvanised in the new Northern Ireland split on community and sectarian lines, Protestants supporting the Unionist Party and Catholics the Nationalist Party.  The Northern Ireland Labour Party soon opted to reflect the constitutional position of its sister British Labour Party.  It tried however to be a broad church, encompassing elected Labour leaders in Nationalist areas such as Newry, Derry and Armagh.  Allowed a wide measure of autonomy within this party, these local leaders though often more Nationalist than Labour, acquiesced in the arrangement.
In Newry the constitutional position was further blurred while people awaited the results of the deliberations of the Boundary Commission, widely expected to recommend that the largely nationalist town be subsumed into the Free State.  Its Report of 1926 left the border largely unchanged.  Newry people were incensed but impotent. 
The post-war world economic position was worsening and would soon lead to the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression of the thirties.  Before that the Unionist Government, following the British Government’s lead, introduced the draconian Trades Disputes Act (NI) in 1927.  There were large and vociferous demonstrations against it in Belfast, Derry, Newry and Armagh.  There was still a strong working-class consciousness in Newry. This was reflected in the municipal council results of the previous year.  The results largely mirrored the local situation that was to prevail for the next forty years, with Unionists taking the Protestant vote and the Catholic vote divided almost equally between Labour and Nationalist.  Sinn Fein would have to wait almost half a century before it became a significant electoral force.
Labour parties everywhere had more to concern them in the Depression and the Hungry Thirties than local disputes.  There is little extant documentary evidence of Newry Labour’s participation in the wider activities and issues of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.  Nor indeed of the activities of either the local or parent body.  It is unlikely that Newry saw the need to liaise with the parent body, with an available local forum to express its views, air its grievances and seek solutions, that is, the local Council.  It also had its own members on the Board of guardians and so was able to participate in the relief of the worst poverty.  It also was able to boast a more than usually enlightened and humanitarian public administration.  
The lack of central discipline led inevitably to a failure of local discipline.  Labour representatives often did not support each other in the Council chamber.  At least one Councillor lost his seat from frequent absence.  Policy-making party meetings were infrequently held and poorly attended.  For most of the decade the Newry party reflected the assessment made of them in ‘The Irishman’ in 1930: ..’fairly strong on the local council.  Very lax in uniting their supporters.  A strategic position of Northern Labour being weakened through sheer laziness.  With 2,000 people waiting at any one time for them, they haven’t got the energy to inspire them’.

Labour in Newry: 1: Larkin/Fearon

Newry was still at the height of its commercial and industrial power towards the close of the nineteenth century when workers’ unionisation became an issue.  The concentration of manufacturing in industrial cities had not yet stripped the smaller towns of such enterprises as brewing, distilling and baking.  One of the bakery moguls, Willis of Monaghan Street in 1896 locked out his employees who were agitating for a fair wage and decent working conditions.  There was no shortage of volunteer blackleg workers from out of town willing to fill their shoes.  To the eternal shame of the present writer, it must be acknowledged that by this route did his grandfather first arrive in Newry about that time!  Newry was one of the first Irish towns to have a Trades Council.  In 1890 it had a membership of 280 and seven affiliated unions.  In the same year branches of the National Union of Dock Labourers and the National Amalgamated Union of Labourers were set up here.
Further evidence of the reactionary attitude of employers came in 1904 when Wilson’s Mill Ltd. in Cecil Street locked out some 270 workers rather than negotiate a dispute over wages.  But it was the docks that became the greatest centre for agitation since almost all goods passed through and the owners ruthlessly exploited the plight of dock workers desperate for even casual work to feed their families.  The son of a local exile, James Larkin did most to organize the dock labourers first in his native Glasgow, but in quick succession the other major British ports and then Belfast, Dublin, Newry and the other Irish ports of entry.  Newry Dock Labourers joined their Belfast comrades in the 1907 strike.  John Gray of the Linenhall Library rightly points out that this action called for courage on their part where they were in defiance not of Protestant and British vested interests as in Belfast but Catholic businessmen and indeed Catholic Church representatives.  The local leader was James Fearon, elsewhere extolled on Newry Journal.  Bill McCambley asserts that ‘behind the back of Fearon and the Union, the Catholic Bishop Dr O’Neill and others cobbled together a draft agreement and presented it to the dockers who, because of its origin, signed it, despite the contrary advice of Fearon who indicated that it upheld the absolute right of the employers to hire whomever they wished and obliged men to discharge all boats unconditionally.
(Labour in Newry: 1 of series of 8)

Ballagh Millstone


On the edge of the Calliagh Berra’s lake on the top of Slieve Gullion is a massive millstone, clearly recognizable in the photo from its circular shape and the hole in the middle. I’ll tell you the story and it’s the God’s truth, for indeed any other attempted explanation would be preposterous.

There was a time when the milling of corn was one of the chief, and indeed the most lucrative enterprises in the country. People have to eat, don’t they, whether in war or in peace? And the owner who has the hardest, and most long-lasting and largest millstone, capable of grinding the greatest quantity of wheat in the shortest space of time and over an extended period of many years, clearly would have the advantage over his rivals.

There was a mill in the Ballagh district one time in need of a new millstone and the owner, one Peter O’Mara was determined to outshine his rivals. He knew that the granite stones that made up the stone-age passage grave on top of Slieve Gullion could not be beaten for their hard and long-lasting qualities. He cared nothing for the customs and long-held beliefs that these graves should not, at any cost, be interfered with. In the middle of the night – for despite his callousness, he cared not to let his neighbours know the source of his new millstone – he arranged to have one of the largest and appropriately shaped granite rocks removed and transported to his mill. It took little shaping to turn it to its new purpose and in no time at all, it was grinding out meal by the ton. Peter’s mill thrived for many a day and he became rich.

But like all before him and since, that dared to interfere with things of the ancestors, bad luck plagued him thereafter. Though his mill thrived, his cattle and indeed his family did not. His cows were dropping off with all sorts of disorders and over the space of a few years he lost his wife and three of his children to strange diseases. It was an oul’ neighbour woman that suggested to him that maybe he had done something to bring the curse of the gentle people upon himself. Then he knew.

He arranged, as fast as he could to right this wrong. But it was easier for the oul’ donkey to carry his heavy load down the mountain than it was to carry it back up again. He was but two hundred metres from the passage grave, at the side of the Calliagh Berra’s lake, when he dropped down dead and the millstone landed in its present location.

But no more harm came to Peter for his intention was good.

And if you can think of a better explanation why that stone is there, well, I’d like to hear it!

Kevin McAllister’s Hiring


I lived outside in the barn in the first house I was hired to, said Kevin McAllister.  If you didn’t finish your six months you could be done out of your money.  There was no law to back you up.  It was rough enough.  They took three 2.5d stamps off me, for the letters I wrote home in that time.  And 7d for plasters for the boil on the back of my neck. 

Was there any difference working for Protestant compared to Catholic employers?

You were treated as well, if not better, by the Protestants.  With them there was no work on a Sunday.  With your own the real work only started on a Sunday!  ‘Seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and the rest of the time’s your own!’  What kind of work?

Cleaning drains, carting out muck, harrowing (2-3 horses), you were often in sheughs to the eyebrows [I think that’s what he said!]

My next job I was paid