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Left Archive: Fight, Starve or Emigrate, A History of the Irish Unemployed Movements in the 1950s, The Larkin Unemployed Centre, 1989 March 13, 2023

Posted by irishonlineleftarchive in Uncategorized.

To download the above please click on the following link:

Many thanks to Conor McCabe for scanning and forwarding this to the Left Archive.

This very useful document was written by Evanne Kilmurray in conjunction with the Larkin Unemployed Centre. As an overview of the history of Irish Unemployed Movements in the 1950s it offers an insight into a very important period of political activism in the state and a sense of the pressures on the broad working class.

The Larkin Unemployed Centre (later the Larkin Centre for the Unemployed) was established in 1986. A non-profit making organisation, its role has been to provide services in the North East inner city of Dublin working with the unemployed and communities through a range of programmes and initiatives.

Peter Cassells wrote the Introduction which is worth reproducing in full:

The Larkin Unemployed Centre is to be congratulated for their initiative in producing this pamphlet. The staff of the Centre are to be commended for their diligent research.

This brief description of the activities unemployed associations in the 1950’s helps not just us to understand the history of these organisations but to draw parallels with the situation today, it is particularly appropriate that the history of the Dublin unemployed associations should be chronicled by one of the fourteen Unemployed Centres sponsored by local Trades Councils on a countrywide basis.

This is precisely the sort of project which local Trades Councils can, and should initiate in conjunction with Unemployed Centres. Pamphlets such as this help to redress the balance of history as it is written and taught away from the struggles of ordinary people to earn a decent living. It is particularly appropriate that the production of this pamphlet should closely coincide with the announcement of funding for a Labour History Museum, to be developed in Dublin under the auspices of the Irish Labour History Society. Congress supports this initiative, and congratulates the Irish Labour History in its work of promoting the study of labour history.

Had this pamphlet been produced in the seventies the events detailed between these covers might have seemed remote and somewhat strange to the contemporary reader. In the eighties they have taken on a depressing familiarity. It is all the more improtant therefore that pamphlets such as this are written so that in understanding our past we may better analyse our present and chart our future.

Maurice Coakley provides the Preface and Naomi Brennan the Conclusion. 

As the Preface notes:

The 1950s witnessed a striking rise in unemployment in Ireland at a time when most of Western Europe and North America was on the crest of the post-war “long boom”. With hindsight the unemployment figures seem light enough, at worst 100,000 compared to today’s figure of 300,000.

As always in Ireland, the official statistics of unemployment mask the true numbers seeking and not finding work, above all they fail to reveal the constant drain of emigration.

Not all of those out of work took the boat. Some began organising a movement of the unemployed.

The main text offers a comprehensive overview of organisations working in the area to represent the unemployed across the 1950s. These include the Unemployed Association of 1953 and 1957, Dublin Unemployed Association 1953 and The Unemployed Protest Committee 1957. This includes a history of Jack Murphy, the UPC candidate for Dublin South Central who ‘made history as the first unemployed candidate to be elected to the Dáil’ and links to the unions and to political parties, the Communist Party particularly, are delineated.

The document  notes that these weren’t a novel phenomenon. 

Long before the emergence of the unemployed associations of the 1950 s Dublin had already seen a varied history of unemployed agitationary groups which evolved as a constant form of working class struggle.

Photographs in the Evening Telegraph 1923 report the existence of an active unemployed association2. Three years later in 1926 the Irish National Unemployed Movement came into being3. The conditions in the late 20s and early 30s for the 130,0004 unemployed was critical. While the payment for those with stamps was low, for those without stamps the situation was unbearable. There was no Social Welfare legislation entitling people out of work to any rights. They had to rely on a combination of local relief and private charities5.

Similar to the Unemployed Associations in the 50s the N.U.M. was not confined to Dublin. It had branches in Belfast, Coleraine, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Nenagh.

The following gives some sense of the attitude prevailing to organisations representing the unemployed:

In a later editorial entitled “The Wrong Line”, the Dublin Evening Mail took the position that the Goverment had no moral responsibility to make work or create a situation where work was available to all. This editorial was promptly answered in defence of the U.P.C. by John de Courcy Ireland, who assured the Mail that the Government had a very definite moral duty in helping the unemployed.

The Conclusion notes:

For thirty years now unemployed people have been without a voice. For the past 10 years they have been without hope. There are 25 year olds who have never worked and 40 year olds who will never work again. There are families with every member unemployed and third generation unemployment is not unusual. 20% of our people are poor, depressed, isolated and dejected, and what do our leaders do? Like Pontios Pilot they wash their hands. We have been silent too long. Our choice is the same as it was in the fifties “Fight, Starve or Emigrate”. With the support of the Trade Union Movement we will fight and we will win.

Worth noting also the photographs in the document that give a real sense of the struggles that the unemployed and others were engaged in.


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