Dublin’s concrete ghosts..

It is my great fortune that I am able to speak regularly to some eminent historians who, to their eternal credit are very generous with their time.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say I abuse this privilege, but I do probably avail of their wisdom more than a lot of people in the hope that some of their knowledge rubs off so I can leave my current career of bluffing it behind. It is thankfully extremely rare that one would hear clichés bandied about in these conversations (well in the direction to me anyway).  Nevertheless, there are two somewhat contradictory gems of historical clichés one has the pleasure of hearing from time to time relating to the past and present.  When explaining the differences between past and present some will tell us that ‘the past is a different country, while the second is a reminder that ‘the past is always present’, mostly in relation to the historically minded Ireland.

A place where it seems that the past is always present is the fair city of Dublin.  My approach to the city on this dreary September morning is suddenly illuminated by the reflecting autumn sun on the windows of the city’s taller buildings, monuments to the now slain Celtic Tiger of Irelands recent past. The head of which is now securely mounted on the wall of the trophy room in the Parlement Bruxellois’ Merkel Suite.

However, my journey to Ireland’s capital today is less concerned with that recent era which still haunts countless men and women who never benefited from it or its vulgar entrapments.  My journey is to a more distant past.  I’m in town specifically on a quest for knowledge, and perhaps entertainment.  Is it too much to ask for both?  I’m in town to hear the celebrated historian Simon Schama speak in the lavish surroundings of Dublin Castle, which was for years the hub of the British establishment in Ireland.  This is preceded by a talk on some lawyer named O’Connell that they named a street after.

Strolling through O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare there are constant reminders in the form of statues and memorials to the city’s rich and turbulent past (one in particular, the Cú Chulainn statue in the General Post Office was commissioned by the Irish Free State Government to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, and if family lore is to be believed was sculpted by a distant relative, Oliver Sheppard.  Although in the absence of the hard facts which are crucial to the profession I’m attempting to worm my way into I’m prepared to treat this as wishful thinking).  Fanciful notions of family artistic grandeur aside, in the coming few years there will be much focus upon many of these monuments and the sometimes inspiring people behind them, for we are now in what Irish historians have termed ‘The Decade of Centenaries’.

The ten years from 2012-2022 contain some of the most important anniversaries in modern Irish history.  The Home Rule Crisis, The 1913 Dublin Lockout, The 1916 Easter Rising, The War of Independence and the Irish Civil War will turn the attention of modern Irish historians towards Dublin.  One highly important event in this period seems to take a back seat when this decade is being discussed, the campaign for and granting of female suffrage. This lack of spotlight on such an important issue is reflected in the pantheon of statues around the city, only a couple of these sometimes grandiose ornaments are dedicated to women (does the recent naming of a bridge after Dublin Lockout heroine Rosie Hackett count?)

Connolly, Larkin, O’Connell, Parnell et al all look down from their perches on the throngs of people in multi-cultural Dublin. Surely they could not have envisaged this Dublin.  It is fair to say they would hardly recognise it as the same capital of country they tried to shape. Would they approve? I doubt the vast majority of those walking by really care.  Politicians though, we all know they are a different kind of animal.

These commemorations will hold their focus intermittently over the next number of years and will have some of them head-scratching as to how they will publicly remember these events without offending someone or another.  It has been well documented that that certain Irish people will go out of their way to be offended and indeed tend to become offended when they find out there is no offence to be had.  So, for once politicians have my temporary sympathy as they try to navigate that oncoming ideological minefield.

No doubt in certain circles it will be a tense enough affair as the various shades of political patriotism try to lay claim to ownership of the past.  Each trying to ‘out-green’ (or out-orange as the case may be) the other as they justify their present position by pointing to the past.  During this period, the past will most certainly not be another country.

Leaving that past behind for the moment at least, I’m off to ruin my health with another coffee I don’t need.


Not Another Irish Emigration Piece…

During my day job I have the luxury of listening to my radio station of choosing.  This in itself might not sound like a big deal, but in past lives I’ve found myself stuck in jobs where the radio dial seems not to move from Crap FM, despite dedicating many hours to trying to use ‘the force’ to shift it.  Those who have had as many clerical temping jobs as I have in the past will know it is impossible to physically move the radio dial for fear of upsetting the office hierarchy, not to mention that special ambiance.  Office politics!

These days I have the luxury of being the master of the dial and train my ears on the excellent Dublin station Newstalk.  Peppering the great daily debates on news and current affairs (this past few days I’ve been listening intently to the goings on at the National Ploughing Championships in Co Laois) are the obligatory adverts. One very noticeable advert crops up with alarming regularity for a series of legal information days relating to that cyclical Irish problem/solution (depending on your standpoint), emigration.  As emigration has been somewhat of a growth industry over the past several years since the death of the Tiger,[1](See UCC report http://www.ucc.ie/en/news/fullstory-371828-en.html) it seems only natural that those of a legal bent will want to offer their exclusive services to those seeking a decent wage elsewhere.

I need to stress here that I am not casting aspersions on today’s firms offering their services to people leaving one home to seek another, I’m more casting aspersions on the profession itself; The profession of capitalising on another’s desperation. As we shall see the history of migration agents offering their services to people leaving these shores is as long as emigration itself.

The following advert comes from the Nation newspaper, March 1845 and offers quite suitable accommodation for families who were prepared to spend that extra pound for the comfort of their own room, ample food and water.

Rippard and Son

Of course this kind of passage was only open to a select few, and was just on the cusp of the Great Famine of the 1840s.  During that period the need for a speedy exit was a lot more urgent, leading to unscrupulous agents to take advantage.  The following article appeared in the Freeman’s Journal in 1839, and sounded a note of warning to Irish emigrants of the dangers of fraudulent agents plying their trade. Although this was pre-famine, it shows the practice was already well established.

Fraudulent Agents

A ‘shameful’ tale of mass fraud was reported by The Freeman’s Journal, when twenty natives of Galway were defrauded by a supposed emigration agent on a journey from Galway to New South Wales.  Due to meet with the ‘master agent’ in Dublin a few days after paying their board in Galway, they discovered that no such agent existed leading the group to be stranded in Dublin.  I suppose they can be classed as some of the lucky ones.

Another case (again reported by the Freeman’s Journal) which came before the Recorder’s Court in Dublin in 1839 in which a Mr Henry Abrahams (helpfully labelled ‘a Jew’ in the proceedings, perhaps in the interests of clarity for the paper’s anti-Semitic readership), was indicted for defrauding a Meath man William Reilly and his family of money with a promised passage to America via Liverpool. Several other witnesses came forward also accusing Mr Abrahams of similar underhanded acts of an ‘aggravated and cruel’ nature, for which he was sentenced to twelve months hard labour.

The practice seemed fairly widespread, with many reported incidents highlighted the targeting of the vulnerable and gullible.  There were sad reports in various outlets of the Irish press of one young lady following her friends out to a new life being pointed in the direction of New Orleans by an unscrupulous agent, reportedly being told that it was just down the road from the promised land of New York.  Obviously not knowing the geography the young woman found herself alone, over a thousand miles away from her original destination.

It is of course, much more fun emigrating today as I’m sure any one of the thousands of young people will tell you!

[1] Celtic Tiger RIP, roaaaar.

‘It was not the El Dorado that they thought it would be’: Opposition to the Meath Gaeltacht Colonies in the 1930s.

This article first appeared in Scoláire Staire Volume 2, Issue 3. July 2012. I subsequently redrafted it and presented it at the IHSA Conference 2013. 

Land redivision was one of the most emotive political topics
during the early years of the Free State. This article shows
how the establishment of a Gaeltacht colony in Meath caused
tensions between locals and migrants from the west, and how
as always, politics had its part to play.

Land reform had been on the Irish agenda since the latter part of the nineteenth century. The British government enacted several Irish land acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to deal with the question of peasant proprietorship of land in Ireland. Land Acts in 1870, 1881, 1885 and 1887 and the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 tried to address these issues. Bodies such as the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who conducted the disposal of Church lands after disestablishment under the 1869 Church Act, and the Congested Districts Board which had been instituted, under the 1891 Land Act, were established to address the problem.

The Congested Districts Board remained active until 1923 when it was replaced by the Land Commission under the Land Act of that year. Legislation passed in the Land Act of 1923 and the Land Act of 1933 gave the Land Commission the power to purchase large estates for division and redistribution to the landless. In keeping with issues regarding land in Ireland, the two Land Acts proved controversial. Terence Dooley described the issue of land division and its consequences in this period as ‘the lost politics of independent Ireland’.[1]

Another large and not entirely separate problem facing the new government was the revival of the native language in the face of large scale decline. The Government recognised that this issue was of high importance, especially in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas. To tackle the on-going problem of linguistic and social decline of these areas the government set up the Gaeltacht Commission, headed by a men with a lifelong commitments to the revival of the Irish language, most notably, General Richard Mulcahy.  The commission conducted investigations in Irish speaking areas between August 7 and October 10, 1925 with the findings being published on August 23, 1926. Among the recommendations contained within the report it was strongly urged that the expenditure on works of improvement which were previously undertaken by the Congested Districts Board now be increased urgently for almost the whole Irish-speaking and partly Irish-speaking districts from both the point of view of language and social improvement. It stated that it was vitally important for the preservation and development of the Irish language that the geographical area over which traditionally Irish Speaking families were prevalent should be extended as far as possible, and at the earliest possible moment.[2]

While the majority of the Commission’s recommendations were not implemented, the urgent need for land reform in this part of the country could not be ignored. At this time areas of land all over the Free State were being purchased and divided up for landless people. In Meath, the resettling of families from congested districts in the west was relatively small scale. By 1930 seventeen farms ranging between 100 acres and 200 acres were established and allotted to western migrant families.[3] However, this small number was still met with resentment, perhaps due to the size of the plots and the fact that landless local Meath families appear to have been overlooked. During this phase of migration, April 1927, Meath Labour Party TD David Hall told the Dáil he had no problem with migrants but did have a problem with them coming in such numbers to ‘scrooge’ on the people of Meath. He said it was unfair that migrants were coming in ‘every day of the week’ and being ‘hawked in and thrown in on the people of Meath’.[4]

It was the policy of the Land Commission was to give first preference to local congests and according to The Meath Chronicle there were many congested areas within that county which needed attention. [5] Fianna Fail, in opposition at this stage had publicly agreed with the position of the Land Commission in their Ard Fheis of 1927. However, and perhaps not surprising, this position soon changed. De Valera had long been making noises about the division of land.  Back in February 1918 at a political rally in Elphin Co Roscommon he called for the formation of volunteer groups to resist conscription and also ‘to help divide the land evenly’(6). The issue of land came up later in Fianna Fáil’s first manifesto which sought to ‘establish as many families as practicable on the land’.  On the campaign trail in 1932 at a political rally in Mayo, De Valera complained to the gathered crowd that in Meath, 5 per cent of the farmers owned 41 per cent of the best farming land in Ireland.  It was clear that he was making a strong stand on the land issue in the place were the Land War began in earnest.

The depression of the 1930s had led to a fall in Irish emigration and pushed the need for living space and workable land to the fore.  Seizing upon this problem several Gaeltacht pressure groups came to prominence to demand government action to save the Gaeltacht from decline after what was viewed as the failure of the previous administration to implement the majority of the Gaeltacht Commission’s recommendations. Organisations were formed under the names of the Gaeltacht Defence League, Cumann na Gaeltachta and a group named Gaedheal’, which according to the Irish Press (Nov 1933) numbered over ‘one thousand eager Gaels’, all were dedicated to achieving a better homeland for the Gael.  However, it is argued that it was the radical left wing group Muintir na Gaeltachta, led by Máirtin O Cadhain, which made the most significant impact.

In a headline grabber a convoy of bicycles set out from Connemara to Dublin on March 29, 1934 with the intention of confronting the Ministers for Land and Agriculture and ultimately de Valera himself on the issues facing the Gaeltacht regions. Presenting a petition to government ministers they highlighted several issues, chief among them was supporting land acquisition outside of the recognised Gaeltacht areas for inhabitants affected by the regions worsening conditions. It was reported that the delegation received a typically non-committal response from de Valera, [10] however this event, known as the journey east was seen by many as the catalyst for the formation of the first ‘Gaeltacht Colony’.[11]

The first real sign of movement on this issue came from Land Commission officer Michael Deegan on June 15, 1934. An area of suitable size near Athboy, County Meath had been earmarked for the purposes of resettling a colony of migrants from the Gaeltacht, the townland of Rathcarron (now known as Ráthcairn) was chosen with further colonies to be established in the nearby townlands of Gibbstown and Kilbride.[12]


New holdings were to be established which were to be on average 22 acres, in keeping with Fianna Fail’s vision ‘to establish as many families as practicable on the land’ as well as being significantly smaller than the plots Cumann na nGaedheal had set aside. A meeting of Fianna Fáil Cumann in Athboy in April 1935 was called and the incoming migrants were wished every success and happiness. It was stated they were quite sure there was nobody in Athboy or the surrounding district that would not make every endeavour to make their lives happy and prosperous. [13]


Before the successful migrants, all from Connemara, were due to take ownership of their new land, representatives of Muintir na Gaeltachta arrived to inspect the new sites. During this visit they were welcomed by a deputation from the Old IRA who were assured that only migrants ‘with sound Republican views and outlook’ be accommodated. [14] While this meeting was an extremely cordial, not everyone was enamoured with the project.

In the early years of the Fianna Fáil migrations opposition came from many TDs within Fine Gael. It was described by Martin Roddy as ‘a mad policy’; [15] however, this language was quite tempered compared to other members of his party. Capt. Patrick Giles TD was vociferous in his condemnation of the scheme. Among his various outbursts he stated that disgraceful things had been happening since the establishment of the Gaeltacht with members of the colony acting as tinkers and tramps.[16] He called for more Guard patrols in the vicinity to protect the lives of local residents. [17]


On November 2, 1936 The Irish Press reported that Giles had accused the migrants of being ‘fish out of water’, he stated that they had the best land in Meath yet they were to be found at the labour exchange every day[18] He further accused the scheme of being little to do with the spread of the Irish language and more to do with ensuring an increase in the Fianna Fáil vote in the area[19] He was not alone in this appraisal. Patrick Hogan TD for Galway had accused Fianna Fáil of ‘pandering to the small-farmer and labouring classes in an attempt to secure votes’[20] Furthermore, accusations of favouritism towards members of Fianna Fáil in relation to acquisition of land were banded about. However, accusations such as these were nothing new, Cumann na nGaedheal had been levelled with a similar charge from opposition members after the 1923 Land Act[21]

Another vocal opponent of the project who caused much controversy among migrants was Patrick Belton TD, a man described by the broadcaster and founder member of Cumann na nGaedheal, Séamus Hughes, as an able but erratic individual with no use for discretion. [22] Belton himself had many property interests; in the 1920s he built many houses in Drumcondra, Donnycarney and Santry areas, including the modestly named Belton Park. On one occasion he accused the Minister for Land of presiding over a ‘shocking waste of public money’ and that he ‘was simply trying to find homes for imbeciles on the land’[23] Perhaps his most slanderous outburst occurred when he accused the migrant population of being adverse to honest work, sleeping in until one in the afternoon and making poteen the rest of their time[24]

No more migrants

Vocal opposition to the colony project from some politicians was reflected on the ground by a small but noticeable section of the local Meath community, which on several occasions resulted in acts of intimidation towards the migrant community. Soon after the initial influx of migrants had arrived some of the houses which were due shortly to be occupied were attacked. Shots were fired into several houses while one was broken into and items stolen. Among the items stolen were paint and brushes which were used to paint inscriptions on the doors of the houses. The inscriptions read: “No more migrants wanted here”, and “This land is not for Connemara people – it is for Meath men”[25] A number of men were arrested over the incident but were released without charge[26] Another incident saw an attempt to burn down a house built for migrants in the Gibbstown colony[27]


Problems related to the influx of Gaeltacht migrants also spread beyond the immediate Athboy area. In Killeaney near the Kildare border, 36 kilometres away from Ráthcairn, six men were arrested for unlawful assembly on April 23, 1938 at the Braine estate which had recently been acquired by the Land Commission. The Irish Press reported that there had been some local agitation over the supposed intention of introducing Gaeltacht migrants to the estate, resulting in a large number of Gárdai being assigned to guard the property. The paper also reported that local Land Commission employees were jeered and booed by a crowd of local people as they tried to carry out their work, it was clear that feelings ran high among local people over this issue[28]

A more sinister incident was reported by The Meath Chronicle on April 27, 1935 when a local Meath resident was arrested for threatening the life of Land Commission employee Mr. Michael Lynam after he was overlooked for a plot of land by the Commission in favour of a migrant[29] There were also reports of migrant women being hassled by ‘gangs’ and told ‘to quit talking that gibberish here’[30]

Locals who were involved in the intimidation of migrants and Land Commission officials felt justified because many of them had found themselves unemployed since the Land Commission had taken over the running of their employer’s lands. After the Land Commission allocated migrant families their new land local landless men were taken care of. Locals who obtained these plots felt, with some justification, that they were given less favourable treatment by the Land Commission than their neighbouring migrants. The sizes of the plots were the same size, however, local ‘allottees’ were not entitled to the same add-ons as migrants had been entitled to, such as equipment, stock and additional payments. According to a Dáil debate on April 27, 1937 almost £300 more was spent on each migrant holding than on holdings allotted to local families[31]

In July 1938 a large event aimed at breaking down the barriers between the communities was organised in Gibbstown and was attended by Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, Minister for Education Thomas Derrig and Senator Peadar O’Maille among others. According to The Meath Chronicle:

Through the medium of that which both loved, the Irish language, the migrant found that the Meath man was not out for his blood and the native discovered that the colonist was a human being like himself, not a humourless, suspicious individual, but a cheerful, friendly fellow anxious to live amicably with his neighbours’.

Addressing the crowd Sen. O’Maille recognised there was some hostility towards the migrants but he was confident that the time would come when they would appreciate the fact that they had at their own doors an opportunity of learning the Irish language, and of helping on the great work of making Ireland Irish. The Chronicle reported that the day was a success in which ‘barriers were broken down and a new spirit pervaded’[32]

Despite the apparent success of this event tensions between the communities continued, although incidents of intimidation directed at migrants were rare. What is perhaps more surprising is the notion of local hostilities being carried outside the confines of Ireland. In his exiles diary, An Irish Navvy, Donail MacAmhlaigh describes an incident outside an English dancehall where a Meath Gaeltacht exile is goaded into a fight with another Irish exile over where he was from. MacAmhlaigh states: ‘There is enmity between those who were given new holdings in County Meath and those who had been there a long time – even in this country!’[33]

Press coverage of the project, on the whole, was fairly balanced and besides a few articles in which drunken disturbances involving young migrant men were reported, The Meath Chronicle, was generally supportive of the migrants. On occasions the paper reminded its readership of the benefits the migrants would bring to the area, particularly in reviving the native tongue.[34]

While it may be wrong to suggest that the tone of reporting from the Chronicle contributed to a decline in friction between the communities, the mainly level headed reporting would certainly not have inflamed tensions. However, similar commendations cannot be given to The Drogheda Independent, who took a wholly different stance. Under the sensationalist headline ‘Reign of terror in part of Meath’ on Aug 31, 1946 it produced a report which compared the migrants to Corsican bandits and red Indians descending on peaceful people and disrupting their idyllic village life. It further denigrated the migrants as ‘poor advertisements’ for Gaelic culture and called upon whoever inflicted these colonists upon the law-abiding people of Meath to deal decisively with the situation[35]

compared the migrants to Corsican bandits and red Indians descending on peaceful people and disrupting their idyllic village life. It further denigrated the migrants as ‘poor advertisements’ for Gaelic culture and called upon whoever inflicted these colonists upon the law-abiding people of Meath to deal decisively with the situation.

Friction with locals was not the only negative experience migrant families were faced with in these early years. Some felt that despite their resettlement to better land they had in some ways been let down by the Land Commission. Part of their resettlement package entitled them to the communal use of equipment and livestock, however, there were complaints that the equipment needed to work the land arrived too late. Some complained that a horse and plough had only arrived six months after them, leaving it too late to successfully farm the land that season.

It was also reported that a donkey and cart which had been promised by the Land Commission had failed to arrive although the harness had! Some soon found themselves in financial difficulty and in some cases ended up appearing in court over rates arrears. One case which came before Meath District Court in 1936 heard that the defendants had been waiting for fourteen months on some vital farming equipment. They also claimed they had been promised that the rates in Meath would be much lower than were now being asked, leaving it difficult to make ends meet. A defence lawyer for fifteen migrants who were prosecuted by the County Council for rates arrears told the court that is clients had found out that Co. Meath ‘was not the El Dorado that they thought it would be’[36]


This phase of colony migration only lasted for a short period with the government calling for a rethink in strategy in 1939, citing the problem of spiralling costs. Under Fianna Fáil from 1935 to 1939 it was estimated that 660 people had been resettled to the Ráthcairn and Gibbstown areas from western Gaeltacht regions[37] The Land Commission report for the period April 1, 1938 to March 31, 1939 stated that this covered 99 holdings and cost £38,288 with additional costs for infrastructure bringing the total to £54,616.

Nevertheless, the land commission stated ‘we are satisfied that the experiment, though somewhat costly, has been justified by the results obtained. The migrants generally have now definitely made good in their new holdings and are able to maintain themselves and their families at a higher standard of living than heretofore’[38] The Commission also suggested that one to four uneconomic holdings in the west were improved for every family that moved east under the scheme. Therefore it may be argued from the point of view of regeneration within western Gaeltacht areas that the ‘experiment’ was a success. Moreover, the fact that there is still a Gaeltacht region in the Meath area with an estimated population of 1,591 over seventy years after the first Fianna Fáil sponsored migrations may also be seen as vindication for the Land Commission’s statement, although the decline in Irish speakers is similar to other Gaeltacht areas.

Regarding the cost of the project, if one looks at the average weekly agricultural wage of the time (1935) it is clear just how much public finances were given to the project:

13.2 per cent. of agricultural labourers were paid less than 17/-; 15.9 per cent. were paid 17/- and under 20/-; 46.4 per cent. were paid 20/- and under 25/-; 15 per cent. were paid 25/- and under 30/-; 7 per cent. were paid 30/- and under 35/-; and 2.5 per cent. were paid 35/- and over.

Agricultural Wages Bill, 1936-Second Stage.  Wed, 11 November 1936, Dáil Eireann Debate Vol. 64, No. 2

It is clear that there were problems with the colony project, not least of which was the effect on relations between the local population and the migrant community. Speaking in 2010, on the 75th anniversary of the first migrant arrivals, one member of the Ráthcairn Gaeltacht said that tensions between the communities were noticeable up until the 1970s[39]

The fact that Irish speaking migrant applicants were given preferential treatment over local applicants with a lesser knowledge of the language suggests that there was a hierarchy of Irishman in the de Valera vision of ‘Irish Ireland’. However, as we have seen, this has also been explained as a vote securing strategy. And indeed the accusation of Fianna Fáil voters being given preferential treatment in the allocation of land through the scheme was something which was never far away from the surface. While it is unclear if this was a widespread practice it was suggested that it had happened on occasion. The president of Fianna Fáil cumann in Dunboyne Co. Meath admitted in 1937 that while all allocations were submitted to the Land Commission in the proper manner some Fianna Fáil members may have gotten preferential treatment ‘because the local Cumann looked after the interests of its members’[40]

[1] Terence Dooley, ‘Land and Politics in Ireland, 1923-48: The Case for Reappraisal’ in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 34, No. 134 (Nov., 2004), pp. 175-197

[2] Coimisiun na Gaeltachta Report, Dublin 1926, p. 42

[3] Suzanne M. Pegley, The Land Commission and the making of Ráth Cairn (Dublin, 2011), p. 12

[4] Dáil Eireann deb. 7 Apr, 1927

[5] Meath Chronicle, 15 June, 1935

[6] Meath Chronicle, 21 Sept, 1935

[7] Irish Press, 12 May, 1937

[8] Irish Independent, 2 Dec. 1929

[9] Irish Press, 13 Nov. 1933. p. 2

[10] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 26

[11] Irish Independent, 25 May, 2010

[12] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 27

[13] Irish Independent, 16 April, 1935

[14] Kildare Observer 26 Jan, 1935

[15] Meath Chronicle, 25 July, 1936

[16] Westmeath Examiner, 8 Jan, 1938

[17] Dáil Eireann deb. 8 Nov, 1939

[18] Irish Press, 2 Nov, 1936

[19] Anglo-Celt, 8 May, 1937

[20] Dáil Eireann deb. (13 July, 1933)

[21] Dooley, Land and Politics in Independent Ireland, p. 185

[22] Dictionary of Irish Biography


[23] Meath Chronicle, 25 July, 1936

[24] Irish Press, 7 May, 1936

[25] Irish Press, 25 October, 1935

[26] Irish Press, 29 October, 1935

[27] Meath Chronicle, 20 June, 1936

[28] Irish Press, 25 April, 1938

[29] Meath Chronicle, 27 April, 1935

[30] Irish Press, 17 Jan, 1938

[31] Dáil Eireann deb. (27 April, 1937)

[32] Meath Chronicle, 16 July, 1938

[33] Donail MacAmhlaigh, An Irish Navvy: Diary of an Exile (London, 1964), p. 26

[34] Meath Chronicle, 19 Jan. 1935

[35] Pegley, The Land Commission, p. 51

[36] Irish Independent, 19 June, 1936

[37] Meath Chronicle, 5 June, 1971

[38] Coimisun Talmhan na hEireann Report, 1 April, 1938 to 31 March, 1939, p. 6

[39] Irish Independent, 25 May, 2010

[40] Meath Chronicle, 16 Oct, 1937

Behind the Emerald Curtain: Repression, Censorship and Church Privilege in Ireland

The following entry is from a speech I prepared on a historical debate on censorship in Ireland about a year ago.  


      The notion of censorship, has and will always polarise opinion among those who it affects the most, the public. We all like to think of ourselves as free.  Do we ever question just how free is free? And how much freedom can governments afford to provide? In the case of the Irish Free State, much has been made of the repressive censorship measures enforced upon a people who, to varying degrees, had viewed their position as emerging from seven centuries of repression and tyranny.  To understand why a newly formed nation would choose such repressive measures to deny its citizens complete freedom the decades preceding the establishment of the state need to be examined. 

    The latter years of the nineteenth century leading to early years of the twentieth witnessed Irish cultural nationalism basking in a glow of a newly found self-respect as they fully embraced traditional Irish customs, arts, sports and language.  This seemingly unstoppable upwelling of national self-confidence was viewed as an effective counter to the English music hall caricature of the slow-witted Irishman of easy sentiment.  With this self-respect followed an intoxicating sense of moral superiority which was legitimised in the various organs of the cultural awakening and reinforced the increasingly fashionable image of the former colonial master as being of questionable moral fibre in comparison with the incorruptible Irishman.  Separatist propaganda thrived on the contrasting morals of Britain and Ireland. Smutty papers…the dirty song, the suggestive film, the indecent revue were all English products exported to the land of Saints and Scholars.[1]  If the moral guardians of the Cultural Revolution were to be believed, not only were the British media barons who peddled their depraved wares corrupting young readers, they were also intent on promoting a ‘healthy Imperial outlook’.[2]  The battle was therefore, two-fold, for the soil and the soul.

     It should have come as no surprise that once the ancient enemy was dispelled from their midst, those who played their part in fighting the good fight would be permitted to continue with their charge in protecting the ‘haven of virtue surrounded by a sea of vice’.[3] This was as pressing as ever as Britain’s fetid shadow was still looming ever large.  As early as February 1922, with the ink not yet dry on the treaty, interested parties from the Irish Vigilance Association were showing their intensions by pressing for the establishment of a Government department to control the censorship of films in Ireland. [4] They evidently believed the new state should begin with a clean moral slate! 

     In a few years time, with the political tide seeming to be turning in a state that was not yet a decade old, W.T. Cosgrave, as the leader of the party of law and order, perhaps fearful of the uncertainty which political upheaval would bring attempted to solidify Irish moral supremacy and reinforce the bonds with the Catholic Church by enacting the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929.  The act was enforced on three grounds: if they were in a ‘general tendency indecent or obscene‘; if they devoted ‘an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime’, and if they advocated ‘the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage’.[5]  Designed to protect the public from immoral literature and effectively control the distribution of British newspapers and periodicals was met with an unsurprisingly fervent response from the Irish literati.  George Russell (AE) bewailed the tyranny of the majority, condemning ‘the shallow moralists’ who were trying to ‘defeat divine wisdom’, yet he conceded that those who enacted the Bill no doubt meant well.[6]

      Whether or not they meant well, the enactment of the Bill was well received by the majority, perhaps in keeping with the innate conservatism of the majority of the states inhabitants. Nevertheless, the act was to have a stifling effect on potential voices of dissent at a time when the state was gazing into the doorway of the unknown.  With the establishment of Fianna Fáil and the re-emergence of de Valera to the political scene there was a quite tangible feeling of apprehension over the direction the state was taking. Questions were raised as to where this new party would lead a state which was still raw from the wounds of the civil war.  With the probable threat of renewed hostilities and the potential for slipping back towards the anarchy of the previous decade could the Taoiseach afford to have literature of either an overtly political bent or that of subversion placed within reach of politicised men, providing them with an outlet for their dissent?  There was no way it could have been allowed. In this, perhaps the most fragile period in the life of the young state the preservation of the status quo was imperative beneath the shadow of the gunman.

     Once the switch had been made and de Valera was safely ensconced in came the fanfare of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress which for all intents and purposes was the public coronation of the new moral constabulary of Ireland.  Repression would have a powerful new agent. Gone were the glorious days of self-expression which identified Gaelic revival, to be replaced with a mantra of ‘thou shalt not’.  It was all part of a general process of a repressive programme of ‘Catholicization’ that became the primary element in the forging of an Irish identity, separate from the ever-present neighbour.  The existence of the twenty six counties suited conservative elements of the Catholic Church, as it facilitated the passing of clerical legislation far easier than if a thirty two county pluralist public had ever existed.[7] Zealous clerics and clerks who would seek to police the conscience of the nation were invited to bless libraries,[8] while justifying repressive censorship as being based on both natural and divine law![9] Conversely this strict ecclesiastical conservatism led to the banning of some Catholic periodicals across the border, by a Stormont government who lived with the fear of this very modern crusade permeating the Northern state.[10] 
     Many of the leading writers of the day were hit by sanctions almost unheard of previously on the island.  Leading lights such as Seán O’Faoláin (Bird Alone), Kate O’Brien (The Land of Spices)[11]and Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy), to name only a few, were censored for their art.  Perhaps more sinisterly, the Irish police in a manoeuvres more suited  to agents of the Gestapo paid a personal visit to Patrick Kavanagh over the content of his work The Great Hunger.[12]

      It was in the face of this unrestrained zeal that Yeats, once of facile nationalism,[13] lamented the now unwelcome bedfellows of the revolution:

“For the past hundred years Irish nationalism has had to fight against England, and that fight has helped fanaticism, for we had to welcome everything that gave Ireland emotional energy, and had little use for intelligence so far as the mass of people were concerned, for we had to hurl them against an alien power.  The basis of Irish nationalism has now shifted, and much that once helped is now injurious”.[14]

      Ireland’s governments continued to permit the spiritual authorities to persist uninhibited with their hunt for depraved literature. However, the intensity of the hunt would depend on the piousness of individual clerics.  Their unchecked crusade facilitated fanaticism which stifled creativity and contributed to a backward looking nation.  


     A very real evil for de Valera’s government was how to navigate the choppy waters of the first real test of the state’s neutrality during what was quaintly termed ‘the Emergency’.  It was not only the seditious materials contained within books and traditional theatre productions which posed a threat to the test of Ireland’s neutrality.  Now the growing popularity of cinema would need to be regulated. Certain sections of films and certainly current affairs issues came for close scrutiny by the censors under the Emergency Powers Act.  Censors were in no doubt that a ‘full ninety percent’ of films from England and America contained unwelcome war propaganda.[15] The material contained within these couldn’t be risked in theatres with ‘mixed audiences’ because of the Irishman’s ‘propensity for…shall we say…argument?[16]  And of course, there were historical precedents for such caution.  In the years before independence the revivalist publication the Gael recalled the impact of the Playboy of the Western World riots at the Abbey Theatre and urged its readers to inaugurate a campaign of ‘fierce, organised rioting against vile productions’ to clear the house and usher in an ‘era of decency’ in theatres and cinemas.[17] Obviously the authorities could not afford to take such a chance again.  As tensions were heightened around Europe, and especially along Anglo-Irish channels it was imperative that Ireland was seen as keeping her house and her neutrality in order, despite the neighbour’s objections.  This too had the unwelcome effect of cutting the Irish intelligentsia off from the wider world at a time when information was vital.


     One has a certain amount of internal conflict when it comes to weighing up the pros and cons relating to censorship and it would be harsh to issue a blanket condemnation, particularly when it was designed to steer the state safely through tremendously difficult periods when it was still in its infancy.  Yet, clerical led censorship which continued for decades is altogether harder to condone.  In many cases they church was given a free hand to ban what didn’t fit in with its narrow pious views.  The special position the Catholic Church was given in de Valera’s constitution virtually guaranteed that no questions would be asked.   From this position the agents of the church exerted tremendously poor judgement in that no attempt was made to discriminate between literature and pornography, a fact which was admitted to by a member of the church’s ranks![18] It is my view that such vigorous opposition to supposedly immoral literature did not save souls, rather it left a once thriving art on the life-support table.    

[1] B. Novic, Advanced Nationalist Propaganda and Moralistic Revolution, 1914-1918, in J. Augusteijn et al, The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (New York, 2002), p. 45.

[2] Ibid, p. 45.

[3] J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1989),p. 158.

[4] Freemans Journal, 6 February, 1922.

[5] Censorship of Publications Act, 1929/Achtum Scrúdóireacht Fhoillseachán, 1929, ‟ Public Statutes of the Oireachtas/ Reachtanna Puiblí an Oireachtas (Dublin/ Baile Atha Cliath: Stationary Office/Oifig an tSoláThair D‟ Fhoillsigh, 1930) p. 123.

[6] J. Carlson, Banned In Ireland (London, 1990), p. 125.

[7] D. Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London, 1996), p. 404.

[8] Irish Press, 14 March, 1938.

[9] Irish Independent, 25 February, 1956.

[10] Capuchin Annuals from the Holy Capuchin Orders were banned by the Stormont Government, with particular reference to the 1943 Annual which contained the report on ‘Orange Terror’.

[11] J. Ryan, Remembering How We Stood (Dublin, 1987), p.18.

[12] Ibid, p. 19.

[13] Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, p. 297.

[14] Ibid, p.297.

[15] The Bell, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 108.

[16] Ibid, p.109.

[17] Gael, 12 February, 1916.

[18] Irish Independent, 25 October, 1967

The Kirkintilloch Bothy Fire (previously written by me for The Irish Story)

Seventy-six years ago this month ten young migrant workers from Achill Island who were working on the potato harvest in Scotland died in a fire in their accommodation in the town of Kirkintilloch just outside of Glasgow

This is an article I wrote for The Irish Story one year ago on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy.

The Kirkintilloch Bothy Fire 1937 

On Wednesday 15 September 1937, at the height of the harvest season, a party of 26 Irish migrant workers – twelve males and fourteen females, many of whom were brothers and sisters – arrived in the town of Kirkintilloch from a farm in Edinburgh where they had been working over the previous three months.  They were taken to town in two vehicles owned by the potato merchants they were about to begin work for.  This was their last port of call before the journey back to Achill Island with the reward of their previous months toil.  By the time they arrived in Kirkintilloch there was precious little time to rest, as work would begin early the next day on the land owned by their employers; potato merchants Messrs W & A Graham of Hunter Street, Glasgow.

In the 1930s the town of Kirkintilloch was a popular location for seasonal workers, and particularly those from the Achill area.  It had been the destination of many of the Achill workers for a number of years, although its connection with Ireland was a longer one.   TheIrish Press noted in 1937 that of the 15,000 people who lived in the town in the late 1930s one fourth were of Irish descent.[1]  Although the town was surrounded by farmland, its history was closely linked to the linen industry and shipbuilding.  Irish workers had also found employment in the construction of the local railway system and in the surrounding coal mines.[2]


Situated in East High Street on the outskirts of the town, the accommodation offered to the workers was basic to say the least and consisted of a shed, (or bothy as it was known among those engaged in this type of work) and an old four-roomed cottage adjoining the shed.  The young men of the group were assigned to the bothy while the young females who made up the rest of the group were provided with the slightly more comfortable cottage.

The last room in the cottage was reserved for the foreman of the party, Mr. Patrick Duggan, and his young twelve-year-old son.  Luxuries were rarely part of the deal for migrant farm workers. The bothy’s entrance was a sliding door fastened by a basic slip-bolt, indicating that what was inside was of limited value.  The windows were covered on the outside with wire netting and opened inwards. Inverted potato boxes covered with straw and old blankets served for beds. The accommodation provided for Irish potato workers showed how little thought for those who came to work on the harvest was given.[3]

In the early hours of September 16, 1937, only a matter of hours after the party had arrived, tragedy struck.  The son of the foreman, Tom Duggan, had trouble sleeping and discovered a blaze in the bothy around 1 o’clock.  Tom raised the alarm and in the ensuing panic other members of the group attempted in vain to breach the entrance.  It wasn’t until one of the potato merchants who had been working on the harvest, John Mackay and others arrived at the scene that the door to the bothy could be opened.

By this time however, the building was engulfed in smoke and flames and no sound besides the crackling of flames could be heard from within.[4]  It was evident that a serious incident had occurred. The fire had claimed the lives of the ten young men and boys between the ages of 13 and 23 who had been asleep in the building, their bodies were found huddling together beside a wall opposite the door.  It was reported that the local fire brigade had been hampered in their efforts to identify who had been in the building because their companions, in their distress only spoke in Irish.[5]

As news of the previous night’s events unfolded locals in the immediate area were shocked that such a tragedy had occurred in their midst.  However, the shock which had engulfed the village was little compared with the news when it reached the village of Achill Sound.  Large crowds gathered around the Garda station and the local post office anxiously awaiting any news which was making its way from Scotland.  The Connaught Telegraph reported the, ‘weeping of mothers torn with grief as the dreadful tidings passed quickly from lip to lip’.[6]  Although this event shocked many, both in Scotland and Ireland it may not have been completely unexpected.

Context – Irish migration to Scotland


Emigration has been one of the constants in modern Irish history and migration between the neighbouring islands of Ireland and Britain has been of long duration and at times contentious.  Numerous economic crises throughout the centuries have resulted in a flow of Irishmen and Irish women around the world. But despite bouts of political strife between the two countries, Britain has been the destination for many Irish people.

In the early years of the nineteenth century the passage between the two islands was made more accessible to many with the establishment of the first regular passenger steamships between Ireland and Britain in 1815.  The steady flow of Irish emigrants to Britain and particularly Scotland, became a flood as a result of the Famine of the 1840s.  Many of the poorer Irish who could not afford the transatlantic passage to America went instead to the west of Scotland and the industrial towns and cities there to forge some sort of livelihood, which was almost impossible to do at home.


Over 4,000 migrants left Mayo annually for seasonal work in Scotland


It was also at the beginning of the 1840s that the numbers of migratory workers were first collected in the census.  In the year 1841, 57,651 migrant workers were counted at Ireland’s three main ports of departure, Dublin, Drogheda and Derry(49,911 male and 7,740 female).[7]

Migration between Ireland and Britain continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.  An Irish Department of Foreign Affairs report shows the bleak existence of those people who were forced to migrate to seek employment.  Migrant workers who travelled to parts of northern England and Scotland usually tended to find work with Scottish potato merchants during the harvest months from June until late October or November.

In 1915 the county of Mayo alone accounted for 4,274 migrant workers out of the 5,258 total for the Connacht region – indicating just how badly people of that county were affected by continued unemployment.  The seasonal workers who toiled in the potato fields of Britain would live a near-nomadic existence, travelling throughout Scotland through Ayrshire, Wigtownshire, Fife, Perthshire, Angus and the Lothians, wherever there was work to be had.

Irish migrants to Scotland have been described as the ‘Cinderellas’ of the Irish diaspora, occupying the bottom of the league in terms of how far or how much impact they have had on public life.  And so it was in Scottish society, Irish workers, especially temporary workers were the bottom of the league.  They had even less rights than the Scottish workers who occupied the bottom rungs of the workforce.  The reasons have been described as a combination of many things, clash of cultures, language,religious bigotry and Vatican geo-politics.  As we have seen, so great was the need for employment that there were more than enough desperate workers willing to step in and accept such poor conditions.


The granting of independence to the twenty-six counties which made up the Irish Free State made little difference to the flow of people leaving the country to find meaningful employment.  The depression, not to mention the effects of the Anglo-Irish Economic War in the 1930s, had devastating consequences for a country which was heavily reliant on agriculture.  Many were leaving the new state behind for good while many others would travel back and forth to various locations in Britain where seasonal, cheap employment was offered.

The life of a migrant potato worker had many drawbacks.  They had few rights and were in many cases the victims of prejudice on economic and religious grounds resulting in a degree of isolation from the local population.  The sense of isolation the Achill workers at Kirkintilloch must have felt was captured by a reporter from the Irish Independent who discovered that while everyone was most sympathetic, the majority were ‘rather startled at the discovery that such conditions existed right in their midst’.[8] Nevertheless, the greatest danger posed to the safety of workers was the unsafe living conditions in the accommodation provided by many employers.

On a number of occasions tragedy had befallen those who worked on Scotland’s potato harvests.  On July 8, 1887 three Irish women and four Irishmen lost their lives in a fire in a bothy at Ardnahoe Farm in Bute County.   Some years later another tragedy occurred at a farm near Dundonald in Ayrshire in September 1924 when nine potato workers lost their lives.[9]

Although living conditions were in a lot of cases hazardous the journey to and from Britain had also proved to be highly dangerous.  In 1894 a ship carrying 36 people bound for the potato fields of Britain sank in Clew Bay and only two years prior to the Kirkintilloch disaster nineteen people lost their lives when the boat on which they were travelling sank on the way home to Arranmore from Britain.  The nineteen workers who lost their lives in that tragic accident had also stayed in the same bothy in Kirkintilloch on their last working trip to Scotland.[10]

Burying the dead

The bodies of the ten young workers were brought on five hearses to St. Ninian’s Church from the local police station.  The Irish Press reported ‘painful scenes’ as Kirkintilloch’s 3,000 strong Catholic population were joined by ten priests of Irish and Scots-Irish descent as well as other relatives and Gaeltacht inhabitants who had travelled north from England to accompany the funeral procession.  Dignitaries from both the British and Irish Free State Governments were present in paying their respects.  Mr. P.J. Rutledge, the British Minister for Justice, Mr. J.W. Dulanty, the Irish Free State High Commissioner in London and Mr. Sean Keavy, the Irish Free State representative in Glasgow.


Mr. Keavy and his wife would later be singled out for special praise in a letter from the Irish High Commissioner to the Department of External Affairs in Dublin.  It was stated that Mr. Keavy ‘distinguished himself throughout’, from the time of the earliest report of the fire until the remains were brought to Dublin.  While Mrs. Keavy looked after and clothed three of the girls until they were fit to return to Ireland.[11]

It was reported that among scenes of extreme distress local men from the Kirkintilloch area shouldered the ten coffins into the church.  None of the coffins, besides that of John McLoughlin, had names on them as the rest of the bodies could not be recognised.[12]  The names of the dead were: Thomas Cattigan, Patrick Kilbane, Thomas Kilbane, John McLoughlin, Michael McLoughlin, John Mangan, Thomas Mangan, Michael Mangan, Owen Kilbane and Patrick McNeela.  A short ceremony for the deceased and the relatives was conducted by the clergy as the bodies were to lie in the church before beginning the long journey back to the west of Ireland.


A number of the survivors were reluctant to accompany the cortege back to Achill.  The High Commissioner reported ‘they were very reluctant to return to Ireland for reasons partly of the burden of their sorrow and partly because of money shortage’.[13]  Their reasons for wanting to remain in the country while the bodies of their kin were brought back home highlights the dire financial situation the migrant workers were in.  One of the victims, Thomas Cattigan, aged just 19 years of age had not been back at Achill for almost two years as he had been on the road constantly earning money for his family back home.[14]

Back on Achill Island, the local community were in preparation for receiving their dead.  Arrangements had been made for the conveyance of the bodies from Dublin where they would be arriving from Glasgow.   Due to intensive coverage of the disaster in the Irish press a large crowd gathered in Dublin to see the arrival of the deceased and their relatives.  The Irish Independent reported on ‘heart rendering scenes’[15] as the SS Lairdsburn made its way up the Liffey with its flags at half-mast watched intently by crowds of people which lined the quays, among them Vice-President of the Executive Council Mr. S.T. O’Kelly, Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin P. S. Doyle and other members of the cabinet.

The large funeral procession made its way to the railway station where a special train was waiting to take the bodies on the final stretch of the journey.  It was noted that the country had been moved to its ‘innermost heart by the horror of the disaster’ and this was evident by the scenes that marked the passage of the train throughout its journey.

At bridges, level-crossings and stations people had gathered to express their sorrow and sympathy.  The expressions of sympathy seemed to be even more heart-felt by the time the train reached Mayo, with crowds in Castlebar and Westport train stations kneeling en mass on the platforms.[16] By the time it reached its final destination it was met by ‘3,000 rained-soaked Gaels’, approximately half the island’s population.

So strong was the public feeling of sympathy around the events at Kirkintilloch that a number of funds were set up for the victims and their relatives.  The evening after the fire on Thursday September 16 a meeting of the Kirkintilloch Burgh Housing Committee agreed to open a public subscription fund for the survivors.   Several other funds were opened by the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, the Irish Press and the Mayo News.[17] The Gaelic League in London also raised funds among the Irish community in England’s capital.[18]

In Scotland the Directors of Celtic Football Club contributed to a fund and in a separate initiative a large sum of money was raised at a collection at Celtic Park by the members of the Irish diaspora who made up a large number of the club supporters.[19] The Scottish newspaper theDaily Record also contributed some funds and by September 24, 1937 almost £664 had been collected, this number was to rise substantially over the weeks and months which followed. Contributions came from people of all ages, it was reported that an elderly lady called at the Town Clerk’s office in Kirkintilloch and left an envelope with four £5 notes.[20] In another incident of generosity children in Ardagh National School, Ballina Co. Mayo collected £1 2s 6d for the fund.[21]

Press reaction: ‘insult to every person of Irish blood’

While the response from Irish newspapers and some in Britain had been wholly sympathetic to the lives which had been lost, some reporting in the British press on the burial caused some consternation.  The Irish Press claimed that its attention had been drawn by several sources to reports in the British Press regarding the funeral and the state of the homes on Achill which were ‘so false and misleading’ that they gave the deepest offence.  It went on to state that what purported to be a description of funerals in Achill was ‘not merely false and wounding, but was an actual insult to every person of Irish blood’.

Some British papers had painted the picture of a backward society where people lived in such deprivation that the ten dead were transported on horse-drawn carts and where the parents and near relatives of the deceased would sit on top of the coffins until the, ‘hastily dug’, graves were ready and that, ‘absurd pagan customs’, survived among the people of Achill.[22]  It was argued that this kind of baseless sensationalist reporting would compound the already palpable grief which the relatives and friends of the deceased were feeling.

Inquest and government reaction

Once the morose task of burying the ten young people had taken place, attention turned to the inquest as to how such a catastrophe could have unfolded.  The High Commissioner Mr. J.W. Dulanty conducted his own report into the tragedy and commented:

“When I was in Glasgow immediately after the deaths of the ten young men the general impression was that the employers W&A Graham would come in for serious censure for the lack of proper accommodation for the Achill harvesters”.[23]

The view that the dire standard of accommodation was a major factor in the tragedy was one shared by members of the Irish community in Scotland.  One second-generation Irishman said that conditions which Irish people were supposed to live and work in had not improved since his father came to the country years earlier.  He said that his father and his companions were housed ‘under conditions comparable only with those enjoyed by the other beasts of burden on the farms’.  While another stated that ‘these conditions are simply deplorable.  (Workers) are housed in any old building or bothy, where the Scottish farmer would not put his cattle’.[24]

It was felt that the employer, Mr. Graham would attempt to deflect away from his own responsibilities by suggesting that the young men had been drunk at the time of the fire.[25]  As Kirkintilloch was a ‘dry’ town since 1920 when the people under the local ‘Veto Act’, voted that drink should not be sold anywhere in town,[26] this would have painted the victims in an unfavourable light in the eyes of the jury.  It was stressed that, ‘it was naturally very important to rebut this suggestion, which from all accounts could not be supported by even the most slender proof.[27]


The inquest took place on October 18, 1937 under the Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act.  The proceedings began at 10 O’clock in the morning and continued until after 7 that evening when a jury of five men and two women retired to consider their verdict.  Approximately two hours later a verdict was reached that the men died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by overloading with coal of the stove or hot plate in the bothy where the men slept.  It also recommended that all accommodation for seasonal workers should be inspected and passed as safe and proper by the appropriate local authorities.[28]

While this verdict was cold comfort the relatives of the deceased, it did highlight the need for further reform in the laws protecting seasonal migrants in Scotland.  In the British Houses of Commons on November 3, 1937 the Secretary for State for Scotland reiterated the Inquiry’s recommendations and stated that in the wake of the disaster he was immediately issuing a circular to all local authorities through the department of health pressing them to review their health and safety procedures by making new byelaws or revising existing byelaws in their areas.[29]

This became known as the 1937 Housing (Agricultural Population) Scotland Act. It built upon previous legislation such as Section 45 of the Housing, Town Planning (Scotland) Act 1919, where local authorities were given power to make and adopt byelaws which regulated all aspects of the accommodation given to seasonal workers, including the migratory potato workers.  Other provisions contained within the 1937 act were the requirement for separate entrances for sleeping accommodation and living areas, separate bed and bedding for each worker, adequate heating and the premises to be painted and cleansed at regular intervals.  However, it is unlikely that this made a big difference to the lot of seasonal workers as the new laws were enforced to various degrees depending on the local authority.[30]

Fianna Fáil, the Irish governing party of the day, also sought a solution to the ongoing problem of seasonal migration and the dangers faced by migratory workers.  Sean Lemass was chosen to head an Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain.  This was not the first time that a group from Ireland had attempted to address the dire conditions which Irish workers were exposed to in Britain.  In 1920 The Gresham Committee, composed of several Bishops and a parish priest from Achill, was set up to address these issues.  They had two main aims, to ‘bring about by every legitimate means the immediate, the complete, and the final destruction of the insanitary, unspeakable bothy’, and, ‘to secure for the workers such housing accommodation as the law of the land and the dignity and efficiency of human labour demand’.[31]

However well-meaning this committee may have been, its powers as a church-led group were limited and higher hopes were placed on a committee of government officials.  The Lemass-led committee met on seventeen separate occasions producing a report, which appeared around a year after the tragedy.  Part one of the report highlighted the plight facing people on the Western seaboard and the conditions they survived in at home.  It then attempted to deal with what the Irish authorities could or couldn’t do in the areas where Irish people were flocking to work.  The first two conclusions would have made for depressing reading for anyone hoping that their government could act swiftly and decisively:

  1. Short of imposing restrictions on the liberty of migrants of so serious a character that, in the opinion of the Committee, they should not be attempted, the Committee are unable to suggest any effective means by which the Government of this country could bring about any improvement in the conditions under which migrants are recruited.
  2. The improvement of the conditions under which migratory workers are employed lies….entirely in the hands of the workers themselves.  It is not a matter in connection with which any department of the Irish Government could appropriately or effectively take action.

A memo in the from J.P. Walshe in the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce, R.C. Ferguson, revealed serious misgivings on the production of the report, in particular part one:

“my first reaction on glancing through it is that part one should not be published….those who wish to throw stones at us on the other side are already amply provided with ammunition…you know what nasty things have been said by the British press from time to time about these poor people, and I am very much afraid that the publication of part one of the report would provoke new outbursts.  The quieter we keep about this unfortunate aspect of our relations with the neighbouring island the better”. [32]

It would appear that far from wanting to protect individual workers from verbal attack in Scotland, any reservations about the publication of the report may have been about saving the Government public embarrassment in British eyes over the economic state of parts of independent Ireland.

Part two of the report suggested a few incentives to keep the people of the west working at home.  Among the proposals put forth in the conclusion of this part of the report was regeneration of the congested districts of the west wherever possible, the establishment of a power generating station reliant on peat and a host of ‘minor employment schemes’.  Several conclusions were dedicated to the division of untenanted land in large blocks (such as those which had taken place in the areas around Athboy Co. Meath over the previous number of years).  However, the committee was strongly insistent that in, ‘any reorganisation that takes place the position of the Irish language should be safeguarded’.[33]

In truth the report was without teeth and some have questioned why it was commissioned at all.  Whatever recommendations were made for industrial development of the Achill area in particular were surely killed off before the report even began.  On September 30, a mere two weeks after the disaster the Government, in an obscenely short-sighted move, closed the Achill rail line for both goods and passengers and shortly afterwards removed the tracks.  No industry could flourish without an effective means to connect it to the country at large.

These were the same tracks which had only a short time before shouldered the burden of the ten dead sons of the island on the final part of the journey home.  The rail line had also, somewhat ironically, carried as part of its first cargo the victims of the drowning in Clew Bay in 1894.

Reactions in Ireland: ‘Our much-vaunted freedom’.

Professor J.B. Whelehan criticised the government in their ‘half-hearted’ measures in finding a meaningful solution to the problem migrant workers faced.

“Now that we are masters of our own land, are spectacles like those of Arranmore and Achill to be symptomatic of the use of our much-vaunted freedom?  What matters political freedom to people who know not whence the next meal will come?  What matters political freedom if our finest lads must still slave for the foreigner, and return, caskets of ashes”?[34]


The sadness members of the Achill community felt soon made way for frustration directed at an Irish government which seemed powerless to prevent tragedy befalling its people in neighbouring countries.  The League for Social Justice released a pamphlet on October 6, 1937 calling for land and labour reform and the end to emigration. In the pamphlet they made a direct appeal to the Irish people ‘not to allow the conditions which produced these recurring tragedies to be forgotten again until some new horror occurs to shock the public mind’.[35]

This echoed the feeling of the people of Achillwho in the weeks after the tragedy formed an Anti-Emigration and Industrial Development Committee, presided over by a local clergyman, Rev. T McEllin, C.C. and attended by some from the local business community.   Suggestions were made for the establishment of many local enterprises such as a shirt factory and other cottage industries, the extension of the woollen industry, the provision of fishing vessels, the establishment of industrial alcohol factories and for the development of land reclamation and forestry. The two hundred people who gathered for this landmark meeting were a lot more realistic than their elected representatives in that they recognised that the successful regeneration of Achill depended on the now closed rail-line.[36]

Migration to Britain continued nevertheless after the disaster which shook many in both nations. Some things did change, many Achill workers decided that steps had to be taken to improve their lot.  Some of the potato workers organised themselves into a union, the Achill Migratory Workers Union, on January 2, 1938.  While the organisation of migratory workers was mooted in the Irish Inter-Departmental Committee report, it may be wrong to suggest that this influenced the workers.

A mere ten days after the Kirkintilloch fire the general secretary of the Scottish Farm Servants Association, Joseph Duncan, stated the necessity for Irish workers to organise themselves.  In an agreement of sorts the Scottish Farm Servants Association assumed a number of functions in helping to organise the Achill workers, they helped collect and utilise union contributions and bargained on behalf of the Achill workers with the potato merchants for better pay and conditions.[37] The Union had various small victories but overall were ineffective.

There were several reasons why the events of September 16, 1937 in Kirkintilloch made such an impression on the public at large, both in Ireland and Britain.  The youthfulness of the victims, the number of them who were siblings and that a number of the young female survivors were also related shocked the public at large.  And the fact that it came so close after the Arranmore disaster made a significant impact on the public psyche.  It shone a spotlight onto an area which many would prefer to have remained hidden.  Young people, forced to move to another country in order to provide for their elders at home.

This was not the preferred image of a free and independent state.  The report which followed was didn’t address the issues satisfactorily.  Legislation which was brought into law in Britain after the tragedy was hard to enforce, some progress was made in the accommodation of migrant workers but this varied from place to place.  However, with the onset of World War II in 1939 domestic matters such as these became less important and took a backseat for a considerable time to come.



[1] The Irish Press, Sept 23, 1937

[2] Tubaiste Kirkintilloch, Conradh na Gaelige Glaschu

[3] Leitrim Observer, October 23, 1937

[4] Ibid

[5] Connaught Telegraph, September 25, 1937

[6] Ibid

[7] DFA/202/49

[8] Irish Independent, September 23, 1937

[9] O’Dowd. A, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers (Dublin, 1991), p. 198

[10] Irish Press, September 17, 1937

[11] Letter from Irish High Commissioner to Dept of Foreign Affairs, October 8, 1937, DFA/202/49

[12] Irish Press, September 18, 1937

[13] Letter from Irish High Commissioner to Dept of Foreign Affairs, October 8, 1937, DFA/202/49

[14] Connaught Telegraph, September 25, 1937

[15] Irish Independent, September 20, 1937

[16] Connaught Telegraph, September 25, 1937

[17] Irish Independent, February 3, 1940

[18] Irish Press, October 12, 1937

[19] Connaught Telegraph, October 8, 1997

[20] Irish Press, September 24, 1937

[21] Irish Press, October 7, 1937

[22] Irish Press, October 6, 1937

[23] High Commissioner Report, October 7, 1937 DFA/202/49

[24] Irish Press, September 21, 1937

[25] Memo from J.P. Walsh on Kirkintilloch Inquiry, October 11, 1937 DFA/202/49

[26] Irish Press, September 23, 1937

[27] Memo from J.P. Walsh on Kirkintilloch Inquiry, October 11, 1937 DFA/202/49

[28] Letter from Irish High Commissioner to Dept of Foreign Affairs, November 1, 1937, DFA/202/49

[29] House of Commons Written Answers November 3, 1937 pp. 926-927

[30] O’Dowd. A, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers (Dublin, 1991), p. 198

[31] H. Holmes, Improving the Housing Conditions for the Irish Migratory Potato Workers in Scotland: The Work of the Bishop’ (Gresham) Committee, 1920-1923, Rural History / Volume 9 / Issue 01 / April 1998, pp. 57-74.

[32] Department of Industry and Commerce Memo, August 22, 1938 JPW/EBS 139/55

[33] Inter-Departmental Committee Report on Season Migration 1937-1938: DFA/202/49

[34] J.P. Whelehan, Ten Coffins:  The Capuchin Annual, 9 (1938), pp.201-203.

[35] TAOIS/5 10186

[36] Connaught Telegraph, October 2, 1937

[37] H. Holmes, Organising the Irish Migratory Potato Workers: The Efforts in the Early Twentieth Century, Rural History / Volume 11 / Issue 02 / October 2000, pp. 207-229.

Blooming History: Is Godfrey’s Bongo-Bongo land beyond the pale?

Summer has gone, and will soon be nothing but a distant memory.  With the passing of summer, the festivities and festivals which inhabit this all but too brief season disappear with it.  Great musical gatherings like Glastonbury, Electric Picnic and the Reading festivals, as well as those other gatherings such as the ever popular Edinburgh Fringe.  Now fully entering autumn we are confronted with an altogether different series of gatherings, party political conferences.

This past weekend a gathering has taken place of a group of politicians that some have labelled ‘the Lunatic Fringe’ for the first major conference of the UKIP political party.  Judging by my twitter feed many watched with great interest as senior party member and MEP Godfrey Bloom went on the attack, not with an armful of policies on how to take down the European Parliament, but with a conference programme to the crown of Channel 4 News journalist Michael Crick for reasons which still remain unclear, something to do with racism, pot and kettles.

It was not Bloom’s first public gaffe of the conference (the other has been well documented).  Indeed it was the latest in a series of public announcements which have added credence to the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ tag.  However, the last two came in quick succession and can be seen as proof that Mr Bloom has yet to hear the wise phrase that a closed mouth gathers no foot.  This led to party leader Nigel Farage, a man who is not unknown to suffer from the same foot and mouth issues as Mr Bloom, to withdraw the party whip from his colleague and to deem his behaviour at the conference as “beyond the pale”.

Here is where I come in.  Farage’s condemnation of Bloom in such terms made me wonder how many people actually stop to question how turns of phrase actually come about.  If one looks at the meaning of “beyond the pale” in today’s terms, it is given as ‘unacceptable: outside the agreed standards of decency.’ Fair enough, we should all strive towards decency, not many would argue against that.  The aspect of Farage’s statement that has not been called into question pertains to the original standards of decency that the pale was deemed to uphold, where was the pale, and what indecent, unacceptable wretches operated beyond it?

The noun ‘pale’ in this instance means a stake or pointed piece of wood, and relates to the paling fence which marked the separation boundary of a settlement from the outside world.  Throughout history there have been a number of notable ‘Pales’, Catherine the Great’s Settlement Pale restricted trade between Jews and native Russians, with Jews living ‘beyond the pale’.  Several centuries before this the English Pale in Ireland was established, and is the genesis for the phrase in question. A section of Ireland which was under direct control of the English government in the late Middle Ages, and which separated the civilised English from the barbaric Gael.

Given that one of Godfrey Bloom’s more recent much-criticised outbursts was the now infamous ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’ speech in relation to British Government aid to Third World African countries, one can draw a comparison to this and the origins of the phrase “beyond the pale”.  In essence they are both a disparagement of a community or race deemed to be of an inferior standing than those making the statement.  The only thing separating them are the centuries of use which has seen one slip now seamlessly into the common discourse of much of the English speaking world.  In fact as I began writing this it cropped up in a conversation between host Andrew Marr and the leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Milliband on the former’s Sunday morning politics programme.

As a person who was always interested in history and particularly the history of the island I have inhabited for most of my life, this phrase irked me ever-so-slightly as a young man.  How a phrase of such inequality and xenophobic origins could be used in such a blasé fashion in everyday life preyed on my mind, and made me wonder why no one was as irked as I was?  Even though, as my surname may suggest that my history is of planter stock to Ireland I continued to be faintly offended when I heard it to illustrate reprehensible behaviour in various circles.  Could all of these people be discounting or dismissing the centuries of native Gaelic poetry and monastic scholarship on a whim? Of course not, it is used in such a flippant manner that the vast majority of those using it have never thought twice about the story behind the phrase. Nevertheless, there is an old adage in Ireland that ‘phrases make history here’, well according to the British Ambassador in Dublin during the Second World War Sir John Maffey anyway. It is safe to say that on this history-obsessed island it is likely someone will mentally bookmark a seemingly innocent phrase such as this for future reference.

My ersatz anger had a short shelf life when I decided that judging by the people who tended to use the phrase that I would probably be better off separated from them by a large fence in any case.  My ‘beyond the pale’ experience has periodically led me to query what other tasteless phrases have wormed their way into the public discourse over the ages.  Only this week there has been a debate which has reached the doors of the UK Parliament regarding the derogatory term of ‘Yid’ being used as a chant during Tottenham Hotspur football games.  This debate is quite impassioned and ongoing.  The phrase ‘Hip-hip hooray’ seems an innocuous word which one wouldn’t think twice about using with ones children. Yet the first part of this phrase was once an anti-Semitic chant used in central Europe in the early part of the 19th century when gangs roamed Jewish ghettos targeting their inhabitants.

There are countless other examples throughout history which we use daily without a second thought, which leads one to question which expressions will form part our discourse in future generations? In the future will it ever be acceptable to slip in ‘Bongo-Bongo’ into a casual exchange between friends, or when interviewing a current or future Prime Minister?  If so, will it be accredited to the correct person, or will its origins be completely forgotten? Will Godfrey Bloom’s legacy be that he will be solely remembered for introducing a questionable phrase into the language which will be used by generations to come? If so, hopefully there will be no hardy hip-hip hooray for him.