The South Kildare lock-out
The very air around Kilkea Castle, near Castledermot, County Kildare, is redolent of Irish history. I’m sure then, that when the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party met there recently they felt the ‘vibes’ from the long line of the Fitzgerald clan that lived there over the centuries. I am less sure that they had any knowledge of the workers who battled in the fields around the castle in the 1950’s.
The Fitzgerald’s power lay in the vast estates they had acquired in Leinster, fighting brave and bitter battles to retain them. The 1950’s heroes were landless men – farm labourers – who fought to have themselves recognized as human beings, with rights equal to all other men. For many long weeks they battled for the privilege of a half-day off every Saturday. The farmers refused to grant this, and when the workers took matters into their own hands and withdrew from the farms on Saturday afternoon’s at their own expense, they were sacked. The South Kildare strike and lock-out had begun.
The men were all members of the Federation of Rural Workers’ Union, and the secretary of the South Kildare branch was Joe Greene of Castledermot.
The parallels are there between the great struggle in Dublin in 1913 and the Kildare worker’s strike. The farmers combined to defeat their employee’s and, like the Dublin bosses they had full bellies while the workers went hungry. There was substantial financial support from workers in the bordering counties but especially from the miners in Castlecomer, and the sugar factory workers in Carlow. Despite this, the funds of the South Kildare branch became exhaustive and the strike petered out. The farmers however, hadn’t been strong enough to kill off the union. The money wasn’t there to keep Joe Greene employed and he lost his job with the union. In the long term the Kildare struggle was successful for not long afterwards a law was passed granting a half-day each week to all agricultural labourers.
Joe Greene was a Labour Party member of Kildare County Council for many years and was secretary of the Castledermot branch of that party. He died on 10 March 1970.
I find it impossible to write about the South Kildare struggle without remembering another Labour stalwart from Kilkea, a man by the name of Jim Loughman. Jim will be best remembered as a traditional fiddler, who kept many of the old tunes alive and popularized them through his many performances on Radio Eireann. To his neighbours and many friends around Kilkea, he was “The Labour Man”. He was already a member of the party when Hugh Colohan was elected TD for Kildare. He was there to welcome William Norton when he fought his first election in that county. He helped in the election of Norton’s son Paddy, and sorrowed with the rest of us when he reneged on the party. When the Federation of Rural Workers’ was formed, Jim was one of it’s first members. Although a road worker employed by Kildare County Council, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the men on strike and a great friend of Joe Greene.
I remember meeting him at a big worker’s demonstration in Athy and when he asked me how the strike was going, I told him that our funds were almost gone. He made an appointment to meet me a few hours later and when he came back he handed me £15. That was a lot of mon in those days and I asked him where he got it. He explained that he had sold the hay which he had saved to feed his pony during the winter. He insisted that I take the money for the strike fund, and solemnly bound me not to tell Joe Greene.
Both of them are dead now so I feel free to tell the story.
Paddy Bergin, President, Irish Labour History Society. Obair. Number 2, January 1985.