IWW members in Scotland are excited about the presence of the union in Ireland and want to do our best to support organising there. Irish FW Morgan Brannigan wrote this report at a recent conference conference, Ireland and the Wobbly World – Irish Labour Radicals and the IWW in the early 20th Century, held at NUI Galway 11-12 November. We look forward to finding our more about our shared Wobbly heritage.
The Conference, hosted by the Irish Centre for Histories of Labour and Class, yielded some fascinating material and most /all talks will be uploaded as recordings and might be published as well. I would recommend a listen.
Proceedings opened with Labour Historian Francie Devine singing ‘Joe Hill’, and in the course of his talk he wondered how many Irish Wobs there might still be about – a FW in Liverpool having enquired. It was good to be able to clarify that there was organising going on, and it gave me a chance to plug the meeting and stall.
Overall, what came through strongly in the papers and discussions was the ingenuity and endurance of Wobs in general, with the Irish ones as the focus. I came across many figures I’d never heard of and have much follow up reading to do. It was striking how much people sacrificed in the past and we should gain strength from this: it certainly made me think about what I consider to be ‘risk’, compared with what many endured.
There was discussion about how the IWW influenced Connolly and Larkin’s thinking, and an attempt at unpicking the tides which have flowed back and forth throughout history and across the globe. So while, of necessity, the conference focussed on Irish migrants, the impact of other similarly oppressed groups on the IWW was evident throughout – underscoring the relevance of the world wide aspiration put forward by the union.
I was particularly taken with Kristin Lawlor’s analysis of Gurley Flynn’s formulation of sabotage as “conscious withdrawal of efficiency” and there was a good discussion of the role of mobile phones, internet etc. as a means of oppression today, and as a site of disruption. Interesting stuff too on South Africa. I also learned of Patrick Read who has an astounding history of activism, two points among many on him, he played a major role in the Lincoln Brigade, in the Spanish Civil War – which was written out of history – and he was the first to write a critique of Hill’s music. Which leads me to my next point…
There were papers given at an event in a Galway pub on Friday night and singing afterwards. The music of Joe Hill, songs of the Spanish Civil War, and James Connolly, among others were given an airing. Someone called for a Leonard Cohen song, as his death had been announced that day, and I did the Partisan, not sure what the French at the end was like, but the point was a few people who came over to talk at the stall the next day mentioned the singing, and we got into useful discussion on the back of it. This brought home to me the centrality of music in our union, and the wisdom of the early Wobs in putting it at the heart of our activity.
FW Steve Thornton who runs the Shoeleather History Project is doing a piece on the conference for Industrial Worker and said he will have something on our organising meeting in the article, along with a photo of Alexis Kelly’s banner, which I have to say was a major hit!
The organisers were happy to promote the IWW presence and very welcoming. The stall was visited by probably all conference attendees and a number of students throughout the two days. Leaflets and banner were left up throughout, and I did merchandise in the breaks. I’d have liked to have had a chance to talk to cleaners and other workers in NUI, but I didn’t get round to it, though perhaps they got leaflets.
The public meeting had maybe ten attending, and April Maria Sheehan Corkery came up from Cork to provide moral support which was most appreciated. I spoke about why I joined the IWW at the tender age of 53, traced a disillusionment with business unions, and a history comprising growing up in a community in the North of Ireland, with an antipathy to the state (which I’m convinced was mutual), seeing the subtler oppressions while living in Dublin, and my own developing analysis which convinces me of the bankruptcy of ‘representation’ and the need for an organised working class.
The first line of the preamble is what ‘sold’ the IWW to me, and I explored that as a theme, along with the model of industrial democracy. There were questions on this, and on recent successes like Deliveroo. I’m not sure if we gained any members in Galway but it generated the message that the IWW is organising in Ireland, and some useful contacts were made. Overall, I’m pleased to get my first public meeting over and done with, to have learned more Wobbly history, and to see a bit more clearly how similar is the struggle of 100 years ago to that of today.
For the One Big Union,