Working on the Railway in Dublin, 1900-1925 - Transcript

Printer-friendly version

The following is the transcript of a talk given by Mary Muldowney in Cabra Library on 25 August 2016.

Audio

Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, Mary Muldowney looks at the lives of Dubliners who worked for the Great Southern and Western Railway in the early years of the 21st century. At the time the Great Southern and Western Railway was the largest railway system in Ireland and it was a significant employer in Dublin.  Mary looks at working conditions, pay, pension and industrial action, focusing especially on the lives of those who were engaged at the lower levels of the pay scales, men and women who were completely dependent on the railways.

Recorded in front of a live audience at Cabra Library on the 25 August 2016 as part of the Libraries' Heritage Week Programme.

In 1990 John O’Mahony and R. Lloyd Praeger wrote a guide book and it was entitled ‘The Sunny side of Ireland:  How to see it by the Great Southern and Western Railway’.  It was published by Thom’s Directories but it is likely that the Great Southern Railway – and I’m going to call them just the Great Southern for convenience – had had a hand in the commission.  The style reads almost like an advertisement brochure as you can see from the extract.

The carriages which the company provide are of the very latest design – vestibule corridor, trains with dining and breakfast cars, run daily and the speed of the trains will bear comparison with any.  The journey Dublin to Cork 165 miles is performed in 4 hours which is not all that much slower than sometimes it takes now.  (laughs)  To Killarney 189 miles and about 15 minutes more and all the important tourist centres can be reached within a very short time.  Comfort of passages is well arranged for.  Refreshment rooms are provided at the principle stations and breakfast, luncheon and tea baskets can always be had as well as pillows, rugs and all the modern conveniences of travel.  Besides all this the enterprise of the company have provided at Killarney, Parknasilla, Kenmare, Carragh Lake and Waterville hotels which for appearance and luxury, tempered by economy, are the equals of any in Europe.

Now the book follows various routes covered by the Great Southern and it outlines many of the sights that can be seen if you take the railway excursions and the brief forays into local history and there are lots of really attractive illustrations.

But as is the case for such guide books it makes absolutely no reference at all to the people who worked on the railways to provide the excellent service.  The smooth travelling and the wide range of amenities are also outlined in great detail, again with no reference to those who deliver it.  So in this talk I’m going to focus on some aspects of the lives of those people who were engaged at the lowest levels of the pay scales, who were completely dependent on the railways for their livelihood at a time of significant economic, political and social upheaval.

Now the Great Southern had the largest railway network in Ireland.  It began in 1844 as a railway that would connect Dublin with Cashel and it was incorporated the following year.  The lines afterwards extended to the city of Cork and various other amalgamations took place in the second half of the 19th century so that by the end of the century the company’s rail network covered a significant area of what is now the Republic and they were a pretty powerful organisation.  They were typical of other companies in the railway industry in employing a predominantly male workforce.  Women’s employment was confined to catering and cleaning for the most part and that would have been cleaning carriages and the dormitories of drivers.  Locomotive cleaning was confined to young boys who would be apprentice locomotive drivers eventually.

So women were starting to be hired for clerical work at this time and we’ll say a bit more about this later.  But as technology advanced in the early decades of the 20th century typewriters and telephone exchange started to become an integral part of systems like railway networks and it was mainly women who were employed to operate them.  Now, according to the 1901 Census the number of women working in the Irish railway industry and related commercial operations was very low indeed.  You can see you have a total of more than 11,500 workers only 96 were women and it hadn’t changed all that much by 1911.  But although there were now 143 females, some of those would have been working in the hotels that were mentioned in the guide book and the number of men had increased but as a proportion of the total workforce the male workers had decreased every so slightly if not really significantly.

Jobs on the railways were very much prized at the time.  Even in the lower paid grades such as permanent weigh men and crossing gate keepers and they were generally secure and quite often they came with accommodation provided.  Railway houses were of mixed quality and they usually had to be surrendered when the worker retired.  The rationale for this was that wages were considered by the railway companies to be high enough for employees to save for their old age.  This policy, however, often resulted in workers – particularly in rural areas – holding on to their jobs until they were very old or even dying in service in order not to lose their homes. The Census returns in both 1901 and 1911 show that the accommodation was frequently of a very poor standard, particularly the cottages associated with crossing gates.  This was not necessarily because they had been built to a poor standard but simply that many of the buildings were getting on in age at this stage – they were 40-50 years old – and while they had been built to a good standard maintenance wasn’t very high.  So the houses built around the Great Southern Railway networks, particularly the works in Inchicore, are a good example of the kinds of accommodation provided for workers.  The houses there were of a very good basic standard.  They weren’t luxurious but the tendency to large families could be problematic.  Now I was looking at the square which was built for a lot of the fitters and others who were sort of the skilled workers in the railway works in Inchicore at the time and the Sadlier family were fairly typical in that you can see that there were several members of the family at adult level still living in a house that had 5 rooms.  It was classified as a second class house by the Census but this simply meant that it had a roof and windows and a front door and it was fairly solid in that it was brick built.  It wasn’t likely to blow down.  But it didn’t necessarily mean that there was anything wonderful about it.  There were seven members of the family present on Census night in both 1901 and 1911.  As I said, they are nearly all adults as you can see in the third column there and their ages.  So there wouldn’t have been a lot of space available.  And the one thing that was innovative still at that point of building around the houses was that green spaces tended to be included in the planning so the square and other similar developments, like the Great Western houses in Phibsborough, they would have all had a green space or park built in as an integral part of the development.  The residents of this house, 16 Great Western Square, were also ... that was for the Midland in general, the Midland and Great Western Railway (laughs), and they operated out of Broadstone where the Great Southern operated mainly out of King’s Bridge, what’s now Heuston.  But again the houses were of a good standard but the problem was that the families tended to be fairly large.  Now, if you’re looking at this one which is from 1911 the Brown family, several of the adult children are described as working as ‘clerks’ and because it was very common for railway companies to employ family members, they were particularly keen to have people who could be vouched for by existing workers, it’s quite likely that they were railway clerks but I can’t swear to it.  But certainly the father was a railway guard and he had originally in the 1901 Census the family had been living in Clifden where he was also a railway guard and at that time for the Midland and Great Western too.  He may simply have transferred to Dublin because he had been born there and there would have been more opportunity for the children as they grew older.

Now despite the company’s claim that workers were well paid enough to allow them to save for their old age, in 1900 the Great Southern implemented a non contributory pension scheme, following the example of the industry in Britain, and it was aimed for people who were very much on the lowest pay grades because I imagine you know underneath all of the claims about adequate preparation for old age was an awareness that the wages were pretty low.  So the introduction of the free pension in 1900, as it was called because it was non contributory, was welcomed and there was quite a number of pensions immediately qualified.  But in 1908 the state pension, old age pension, was announced and the Great Southern immediately decided that they would cut the occupational pension.  They were just going to take it away.

So they issued in October 1908 as the Old Age Pension Act had been made law they issued this notice, it was signed by Francis Ormsby who was the Company Secretary at the time.  So the heading was ‘Free pensions to servants on the wages staff of the company’.  As I say when free pensions to the wage earning staff of the company were sanctioned in the circular 17th of February 1900 the directors reserved to themselves the right to alter or terminate the arrangements then made as per following paragraph.  And he quoted:

As the allowances to be granted by the company will be provided out of their own funds without contributions from the men, the directors reserved to themselves the right of declining, withdrawing or reducing an allowance in any case as also the power of altering or terminating the arrangement at any time and as they may deem necessary.  The recent provision of old Age pensions by the Government charged in the general taxes to which the company and their shareholders both as a corporation and its individuals or large contributors has materially modified the position of men in advanced years and the directors give notice that they hereby terminate the free pension scheme hitherto enforce from 1st of January 1919.  This notice does not affect those to whom pensions are at present being paid.

But actually of course it did because if you’re getting the occupational pension and you get this thing out of the blue saying that if you qualify for a state old age pension we’re taking away your occupational pensions it would have come as quite a shock to a lot of the older people.

Now, William Partridge was the representative for the ITGWU, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in the Inchicore works and he wrote to the Irish Independent and it was really drawing attention to the fact that existing pension holders, that claim that they wouldn’t be affected was actually just exactly what (laughs) you know ... to put mildly it couldn’t stand up.  So he clarified the position from the men’s point of view and just there’s a quote and extract from his rather long letter, that:

Upon the publication of the recent order of the Board relative to the stoppage of old age pensions after January next a petition was drafted seeking a modification of that order in so far as not to apply to men having 30 years and upwards.  The object of this petition was to safeguard the interest of old and faithful servants who had devoted the best years of their lives to the service of the company and who, for the past 8 years, had been schooled to regard the reception of the free pension as a certainty in the future.  To such men the recent order of the board was cruel in the extreme and the petition presented upon their behalf was signed by 860 adult employees engaged at the Inchicore works.  Of that number no less than 700 possessed only 29 years service and under and therefore would not be eligible to gain anything by the granting of the rest.  In other words it was entirely altruistic on their part to be getting involved in this.  The remaining 160 had a service of 30 years and upwards and if they lived and were fortunate in their services to qualify for the pension provided the directors were so kind as to favour the considered petition presented upon their behalf.

Now, given that Partridge was a very active trade union official and in them days you got involved in other Republican activity I suspect the tone was rather tongue in cheek.  But a lot of letters at that point were written in these very humble terms.

Now, he said that the very day we were officially informed that the order of the board relative to the stoppage of the payment of free pensions must stand but that the directors would be prepared to consider individual applications upon their merits.  This promise carries no guarantees that a pension will be granted.  Thus the door is not slammed it is shut gently but nevertheless closed tightly leaving not one ray of hope for those whose lives were given in the service of the company and now in their old age are disappointed.  The board just ignored the petition essentially and department heads were told to compile lists of the pensions who had previously worked in their areas and to give details of their dates of birth.  This was to ensure that the company would be aware of every worker who was over 70 years of age and thus entitled to the state old age pension.

Now, in December 1908 Ormsby wrote again to all the pensions who had been identified by the department heads and he sent them this circular letter.

Sir,
Under the Old Age Pension Act which comes into operation on the 1st of January 1909 every person aged 70 and upwards whose yearly income does not exceed 31 pound 10 shillings per annum is entitled to an Old Age Pension from the Government at the rate mentioned in the schedule of the Act.  As the company will have to contribute to these Government pensions as rate payers they cannot continue to pay the company’s existing pensions in full and I am directed to say that you should immediately make application for an Old Age Pension from the Government and as soon as you report to me that you have obtained such the board will then consider the question of supplementing the weekly payment which you may receive from the Government.  The company will only continue the present pension to you up to the 1st of March 1909 but not after that date and you should therefore take steps at once to secure whatever weekly sum you are entitled to from the Government.  Forms of application for Government pensions can be obtained at your local post office.

Now, the state Old Age Pension at this point was a maximum of 5 shillings a week so we’re not talking huge amounts of money, even for the time and although the cost of living would have been rather less than it is now it was still a pretty paltry amount and a lot of pensioners had clearly thought when the Old Age Pension came out it would be in addition to their occupational pension so that maybe for once in their lives they might even start to approach a reasonable standard of living.  However, what followed Ormsby’s letter was copious correspondence between him and other senior personnel in the Great Southern around the country and various elderly men who were in receipt of the pension from the company who wrote of their distress and concern at the proposal to cut their pensions.  By the way, women weren’t getting any pensions, the 143 don’t arise in this case.

So not only did the letters from the pensioners illustrate the poverty in which many of the former wage staff of the company were living, but they also shed light on the sense of vulnerability which the company’s decision inflicted on many of them.

In February 1909, for example, a gate man, William Byrne, who lived at 50 Arbour Hill, was granted an Old Age Pension of 5 shillings.  He wrote to Francis Ormsby because the company was going to withdraw his occupational pension of 6 shillings.  He wrote that he was 76 years of age and had no other means of support.  The withdrawal of the pension would mean he would be thrown on the mercy of the union or the workhouse for survival as he couldn’t live on 5 shillings a week.  There were many other letters in a similar vein and eventually the board decided to cut the free pensions only by the amount of the Old Age Pension granted by the Government so at least the pensioners were no worse off, not any better but it could have been worse.

Well, one aspect of the introduction of the Old Age Pension in Ireland was how it revealed the extent of very irregular recording of births.

Now this unfortunately is a typically racist cartoon from Punch but it does ... if you can see it’s you know ...

Officer investigating Old Age Pension Claims “Well. Mrs Brady, and how old might you be?” Mrs Brady “Sorra wan of me knows, indeed, Sor.”.


I’m no good at this kind of thing and it really is awful.  But the officer says to think, don’t you know the date of your birth and she says

“The date of my birth, is it?  Sure there was no such things as dates when I was born!” (laughter)

Which is okay for us to laugh at but not the English audience it was aimed at.  But, as I said, it does show that people had to prove that they were over 70 in order to get the state pension and they didn’t have birth certs so there lots of mentions in the correspondence from the pensioners of the sorts of documents and other kinds of evidence that they’d have to produce to try and prove to the pensions officer, the local pensions board, that they actually were entitled at 70 years of age.

So there were multiple cases of people who weren’t able to prove that so they basically were left to swing unless you could come up with somebody like a local authority figure like a priest or a local policeman who would be prepared to swear for it if you had no other form of documentary evidence.

The Act also excluded the dissolute and the occupants of workhouses, presumably on the basis that they were not deserving of the pension because they had not contributed their labour during their lifetimes.  Several of the letters from Great Southern pensioners responding to the initial notification of the pension cuts from the company had given their local union or workhouse as their address, proving that their occupational pension was already insufficient to keep them in their old age.

Then in the 19th century during the early decades of the company’s existence the employees had remained fairly contented or at least they hadn’t been obviously revolting, although there had been some occasions when men had sought better conditions and wages.  The boards policy was to be ruthlessly opposed to any appearance of combination or organisation of unions among the men to rewards those who remained loyal in any conflict and to grant small increases in pay from time to time.

During the decade which ended with the outbreak of the First World War the number of passengers carried by the Great Southern increased to over 6 million annually and the yearly freight (21.54 inaudible) to 2 million.  In 1913 the company’s income reached 1 million 600 thousand which was significant even for the time.  This gave shareholders a fairly healthy dividend but it wasn’t reflected in any increase of wages at the lower levels.

So industrial unrest which was widespread in the early days of the 20th century started to have some effect on the Great Southern.  In late August 1911The Irish Worker, the newspaper of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, defiantly claimed on behalf of railway workers:

In the future we’re not going to have the men crawling into the office of anybody of railway directors.  In future, workers would stand up for themselves and take things like union recognition, higher pay and shorter hours as rights.

There were two railway strikes as a result in 1911.  One was brief and successful and the other longer and ended unfortunately in complete defeat for the strikers.  The first was really part of a British strike and it was Irish workers of the North Wall joining a strike by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants which was an English union.  They were joined by the ITGWU but following negotiations in London the strike was settled within 24 hours.  The second strike began in September 1911 and railway workers refused to handle goods from a timber yard that had sacked workers for union membership.  They were in turn sacked by the Great Southern and this led to an all-out strike along the lines to Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Tuam.

Now, economic historian Conor McKay has made quite a study of the 1911 strike and he notes that William Goulding, who was the owner of the Great Southern and the Chairman of the board at the time, had a number of powerful weapons at his disposal.  The first was money obviously.  Those worked who ‘scabbed’ the strike were paid a £10 bonus which was quite significant.  Station masters were given clocks in gratitude for their service throughout the strike.  I’m not sure if they would have preferred the £10 but the clock was a prestige thing.  Another advantage held by Goulding was his ability to exploit sectarian animosities.  Northern Protestant workers were brought south to take the places of the striking workers for the duration of the strike.  In the final resort Goulding had the force of the British state to back him up. Thousands of British soldiers – and we can see some of them here – were drafted in to man the lines and stations and to make sure they were not blocked by pickets.  One observer thought it looked as if all Ireland was turned into a military camp and actually the picture on the right there was from a German journal because this drew quite a lot of attention in recognition that the workers were being treated very badly and the state forces being used against them.  But Goulding just rejected all attempts at arbitration, even those people like the Catholic Archbishop Louis Walsh and the nationalist leader Michael Davitt had come forward and offered to intervene and by late September the workers’ representatives were indeed, contrary to the Irish Workers confident prediction earlier, were crawling to Goulding to beg for reinstatement.  The company did take back some workers – those who were identified as quiet and inoffensive and they sacked those identified as militant.  The workers in the railway were still recovering from the impact of the 1911 strike when the First World War began in 1914.

Now, when the war started in 1914 the Great Southern employed over 9,000 staff or one third of Ireland’s railway workers in total.  It was one of Ireland’s largest employers outside just even the railway networks.  But unlike the other European powers with mass armies based on compulsory military service the UK which we were part of at the time depending on the small professional army and this was really depleted by the end of 1914 so huge efforts were starting to be made to recruit voluntarily and although it had been asserted at the beginning of the war it would be over by Christmas 1914 it was beginning to be obvious by 1915 that wasn’t the case.  And a lot of the efforts weren’t just aimed at persuading workers to enlist but were focused on employers to persuade them to release workers and to make do with less labour.  So William Goulding asked for an assurance that the Government would not call upon any railway man who had returned himself as willing to enlist if the company employing him was unable to dispense with his services.  An undertaking in this regard has been given to English railway companies in September 1914 and a similar arrangement was made for the Irish railways giving the companies a veto on the enlistment of staff members.  At the outbreak of the First World War the railways in Britain were immediately placed under government control but the Irish companies were left free to run their lines until late in 1916 when the Irish Railway Executive Committee was set up and the Great Southern’s General Manager, E. A. Neale was the Chairman but it wasn’t a government body, it was still an independent industry body just reporting back to the government rather than their own shareholders.  They were responsible for controlling all the activities of the Irish railway companies and the railways didn’t actually return to the management of the individual owners until August 1921.  Now, in Britain as we said the British railways had been negotiating with Lord Kitchener who was the Minister, Home Secretary, for the war and because they were so intent on getting workers out of employment and into the army there was a big focus on recruiting women.  Now, that didn’t happen here because we never had conscription but at the same time it opened up a lot of opportunities in railway employment as men were released and particularly the numbers of female clerks who were employed enormously grew in the period of the First World War and many of them didn’t leave afterwards.  So it changed the nature of the workforce at least as far as the white collar work was concerned.

But the women were really only supposed to be employed for the duration of the war in order to protect the jobs of the men who had enlisted and although women came forward in huge numbers and did anything that was asked of them and showed that there was no need for it to be an all-male industry, it was really made very clear indeed that it was for the duration of the war.  In Ireland the only significant change in the nature of employment was the hiring of ticket collectors by the Cork Blackrock and Passage railway and this might not seem terribly significant now but in 1915 it was quite a scandal.  In a write up in the National Union of Rail Women’s Journal Railway Review remarked that:

The ticket collector is often exposed to the economies of a rough element which passes through the ticket gates and this is the objectionable part of the position unsuitable to the fair sex.  In addition to consideration of working hours and the expense involved in providing extra toilet facilities for them the author suggested that attention would also have to be given to the conditions under which the women would have to work and still be properly supervised and safeguarded to make sure that the sexes would not be brought into undesirable association.

Now the poor dear. (laughter)  And this is written by a union man, anyway.  In the Irish railway companies women were employed as caretakers in premises that were used as dormitories for drivers and maintenance staff who needed overnight accommodation away from their homes.  I couldn’t find any evidence in the files that anyone was concerned that they might be undesirable associations in their work but you never know.  Certainly women upholsterers who were employed in production and repair of the carriage furnishings were released from their training in what was called the sewing class 5 minutes earlier than their male colleagues in order to keep them separate socially.  Another group of women worked as crossing gate keepers and their conditions were pretty dreadful and the pay low but they were generally given use of the gatekeeper’s house and this group of women seems to be the only one that actually combined both single and married women and widows where the clerical work was for single women and the cleaning work was for widows, often to provide them with an income if their husbands had died.

One exception to containment of women in clerical and so-called traditional women’s work in catering, cleaning and sewing was Mrs Margaret McKenna who was the Great Southern Station Mistress in Kilfenora County Kerry, although she doesn’t really seem to have benefitted significantly from her post of responsibility.  In 1915 her salary was £45 per year which was roughly similar to the earnings of a lady clerk with several years experience.  Margaret had been appointed in 1904 when she was 41 years of age but her terms and conditions would have included the free occupancy of the station house and I imagine that was intended to balance the relatively low pay.  She was a Catholic widow living with her three sons but the family members were all from Dublin so when I looked in the 1901 Census I found that her husband was still alive at this stage and he was the Station Master in Lucan which would have been a reasonably prestigious station.  So it’s likely that because he had died between the two censuses that this is where she needed to be given a job but the files unfortunately didn’t say why they felt they had to move her from Kerry and why she couldn’t have just taken over the job in Lucan.  I can guess but I’m not supposed to speculate as a historian (laughs).

But the houses, again in Kilfenora the house is described as a second class building and there were only two rooms for the family to live in whereas the Lucan one had been bigger, there were five rooms, so that may have had something to do with it, that it was a better house.  But another significant thing is that by the 1911 Census Margaret is living with her sons and her two daughters are in-mates of the Presentation Convent Orphanage in Dundrum and Tipperary, presumably because she simply couldn’t afford to keep all of them on her meagre pay.  Others, Kate and Jane I think, no, the young Margaret, don’t appear in the 1911 Census and I couldn’t find them anywhere at all suggests that they may have gotten married in the meantime or maybe they emigrated but they don’t turn up in the British records either.  However, Margaret records show that she left the company in January 1922 when she would have been just short of her 60th birthday but there is nothing at all about her circumstances and she wouldn’t have been entitled to a pension because it hadn’t been sorted at that point and she wouldn’t have been entitled to the Old Age Pension either so presumably she found more lucrative employment.  Anyway, unfortunately I don’t know where the story went.

But there were no national pay scales applicable to the industry at that time and each grade within each railway company had its own rates of pay.  So if you were engaged at a minimum rate men were commonly awarded an annual increment, although the scale was usually reached within 5 years.  Temporary staff would only receive a minimum wage with no increments and of course because of the deal done between the British Government and by consequence the Irish railway companies with the National Union of Railway men women were hired as temporary workers so they weren’t getting any increments or anything else.

Peter Rigney has shown how the records of the Great Southern helped throw some light on the movement of troops into Dublin in Easter week in 1916 and also the British Army’s response to events in the provinces.  The general manager at the Great Southern at the time made a report to the board on the 5th of May.  It is headed:

The Sinn Fein Insurrection

He said:

I beg to report for the information of the directors that on 12.25 on Easter Monday 24th of April the military authorities telephoned the superintendent of the line to stop all traffic and to prepare military specials for The Curragh immediately.  Empty specials left King’s Bridge at 1.17pm, 1.45pm, 2.06pm and 2.26pm returning at once with troops, the last arriving at 5.30pm.  3,000 men were thus conveyed to the city.

So obviously the railway was playing a crucial part in the almost immediate reaction to what was going on in Dublin on Easter Monday.  He went on to say that:

The military on arriving took possession of the station (this was King’s Bridge) and arranged for its defence.  Some of the window screens etc., were broken to enable the troops to fire from them.  We were next ordered to stop all trains then proceeding to Dublin, the last conveying passengers being the 9.45am from Cork.

Rigby points out that the 1916 Rising was envisaged by the Volunteers originally as conventional military engagement and this meant that large bodies of troops would be confronting each other and in this scenario the railway network would play a central role, they’d have to you know in helping to mass troops to set piece battles.  And in April a crucial tactic in the anti conscription campaign – 1918 sorry – was a general strike, including the stoppage of all work on the railway network.  So it was still recognised that as the form of transport that was keeping the country either moving or not it would allow you to control it, the railway network was absolutely crucial.

Now the slides here, you can’t see them very well, but they are just really to show the impact of some of the workers.  The letter, the typed one here, is in relation to a group of men who had been sacked for not turning up for work during Easter week and some of them had pleaded that it wasn’t their fault, they couldn’t travel, they couldn’t get passed the soldiers but it was quite clear that others had been busy doing other things themselves and had been involved in the fighting and certainly there were several Irish Citizen Army men working on the railways, they were not getting their jobs back.  The Secretary at the time, Crawford, said that yes they would give jobs back to some of the men and he names them specifically but there would have been demotions for them and they had to apply for them and everybody else was basically being told we don’t want to know you anymore. 
The other letter is interesting because it’s written by one of the women on behalf of the women who clean the stations and saying because they couldn’t get to work during Easter week 1916 they’d lost a week’s wages which would have been pretty drastic for them and pleading extreme hardship and the company did agree to pay them the week back because it wasn’t a political dimension obviously from that point of view.

But in the 1921 War of Independence it was mainly a gorilla war so the railways weren’t as important.  The struggle didn’t have all that much material effect on the Great Southern but though there were lots of temporary interruptions to traffic, mainly because of military orders or by refusals of employees to work trains carrying troops or armaments and that lacking of military equipment was an extremely important weapon on the side of the Irish independence fighters, so large sections of the railway were shut for long and short periods.  There were hundreds of incidents of damage to company property during the civil war which followed the War of Independence.  So by about November 1922 about a third of the system had ceased to operate and there were multiplications of malicious damage to the track, stations and the trains themselves.  But following the ending of the civil war the new Irish Government gave priority to maintaining the railways as transport hub and they set up a Railway Defence and Maintenance Corp which was engaged in patrolling the lines and repairing damage.  So throughout the conflict the company’s employees had kept some sort of service operating although sometimes in conditions of danger to themselves and their families but then you know everybody was in conditions of danger to themselves and their families at the time.

So eventually the tax payer paid for restoring material underlay to the railways but no compensation was ever received for the loss of travel although they did try to claim for it.  By this stage the situation of the Great Southern was so serious financially with expenses up and receipts down that the company notified the Government of its intention to suspend all operation of the railway network.  But the Government took the view that railways were essential for the life of the country and they wouldn’t permit the proposed closure so the directors decided to maintain the services as best they could until the fighting should cease and the long task of restoration could be undertaken.

The Government also made it a policy to bring about the fusion of all the railways in the Free State into one company.  They threatened legislation to enforce a merger if it wasn’t brought about voluntarily.  Consultations failed and in April 1924 a Bill was introduced and became an Act with very little delay.  Under its terms the larger companies were to amalgamate first and then absorb the smaller railways.  Most of debate in the Dáil actually, as it went through the various stages, concerned who would be shareholders in the company.  There was very little about the terms and conditions of those whose livelihoods were going to be in play.  At the second reading of the Bill, however, Tom Johnson, the Labour deputy, expressed his anger at what he believed was the wrong focus of these negotiations.  He said:

The railways in Ireland should be directed towards furthering the development of Ireland, rather than that Ireland should be an instrument for furthering development of railways and that railway policy should be subordinated to national policy and development.  It has been pointed out in the past many times that railway policy has been directed to convey commodities and passengers for as long distance as possible to England and conveying commodities from England for as long distance as possible to increase the revenue of the railways and the effect of this policy has been to develop this importation and exportation not because of its advantage to Ireland because it would be of advantage to the railway companies, both in Ireland and England.

And as I said (laughs) there was really no reference to the people who would be delivering all of this service one way or the other, regardless of the management.

But in the Spring of 1925 the mergers had gone through.  We now had the Great Southern Railways and a number of parliamentary questions were asked of the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan – who was overseeing the change, and they indicate that the merger of the railway companies into the Great Southern Railway was causing hardship for employees of the Great Southern and other companies.  John Lyons T.D. claimed that 217 men from the Midland and Great Western Railway had already been dismissed at this point and a further 32 were under notice of dismissal on the 4th of April 1925.  The Minister replied that all those who had qualified would receive the compensation provided for in the Railways Act.  If they registered at an employment exchange their names would be submitted for any suitable employment.  He stressed that the efficient running of the railway company was a matter for the company and he would not interfere.  I’ll refrain from commenting on similarities to similar ministers 100 years later.  Anyway (laughs), Liam Davin who actually was a Station Master by profession before he was elected before the Dáil  wondered how many railway employees had already been made redundant and if the minister was aware that the GSR was adopting the practice of calling upon the men to retire without, in many cases, mentioning compensation at all and in others merely asking the employee the amount of compensatory claims and generally replacing the onus of claiming calculation of compensation on the employees and whether he was aware that the railway company is bound to advise each redundant employee of the compensation to which he is entitled.  Now the Act had a third schedule that set out the rates of compensation which were not generous but were fixed and should at least have provided a minimum payment.  The minister not surprisingly responded that the procedures were laid out in the Act and he was sure the company was following them and of course it wasn’t his place to interfere.  So the question of intimidation by the company was raised again over subsequent months suggesting that concerns were being raised nationally as the TDs asking the questions were coming from all over the country and it wasn’t because the Great Southern Railway was now the one body it was all about them.  Further questions related to the adequacy of the compensation payments and of course a few months later it was beginning to seem that they weren’t adequate and again the minister stated he had no control over anything to do with the Great South Railway, even though in the Act it said that he did.

The issue of a new pension scheme for employees of the GSR, the Great Southern Railway, was raised but it actually wasn’t until 1934 that this was finally resolved and this was only after lengthy hearings of the railway tribunal.  It took 2 years of hearings before it was finally settled and they followed the pattern of British railway industry.

So the first 25 years of the 20th century were turbulent ones for the people of Dublin and the rest of Ireland.  Despite the glowing portrait of elegant and leisurely travel evoked by the guide book that I quoted at the beginning of this talk the reality for most of the people delivering the service was low pay, long hours and consciousness that their work was not particularly valued by their employers.  There is an extract here from the rules and regulations for the guidance of the officers and men in the service of the Great Southern and Western Railway Company published in 1915.  It’s indicative of the attitude of the senior management to the position of the ordinary workers at the time and basically it is saying:

No servant when on duty or in uniform is allowed to enter a station refreshment room or any other refreshment room under the control of the company, except by permission of the Station Master or person in charge of the station.

I was getting very wound up about this in discussing it with somebody who said “Well, sure you know they wouldn’t have been let go in and be drinking during the day” but it is only what was considered the servants, in other words the lower grades that were being excluded because of course you could trust officers (laughs), you know the white collar workers.

So the Great Southern and Western Railway was by no means a bad employer really by the standards of early 20th century Ireland.  However, the workplace apartheid that categorised white collar employees and skilled workers, such as locomotive drivers as officers while all the others were mere servants, did create a mindset that facilitated the poor treatment of already vulnerable people and that was still evident very much in 1925 when a new era was supposedly dawning.

Thank you.  (Applause)

Thank-you for listening to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. To hear more, please subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can also visit our website - dublincitypubliclibraries.ie and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Add new comment

Feedback