The Irish Labour History Society (ILHS) was established in 1973 with the Constitutional obligation to ‘promote the knowledge of Irish labour history and of Irish people in labour history abroad and labour history in general; the appreciation of the importance of labour history in the educational curriculum; and the preservation of all records and reminiscences, oral and written, relating to the current and past experiences of the Irish working class and its organisations’. The Society has since that time diligently striven to fulfil these obligations, despite the handicaps of lack of resources, financial and human, and reliance on the voluntary efforts of its Committee members and activists. These efforts have borne much fruit. The Society’s annual journal, Saothar, now in its twentieth year of publication, has gained an international audience and generated much critical acclaim in historiographical reviews. A second more popular publication, Labour History News, has also received its own favourable press. These published records of the Society’s activities have reflected the range of activities undertaken, including an Annual Conference of high scholarly worth held, variously, in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Derry, and Manchester; numerous occasional lectures and workshops in the Society’s active branches in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, and Galway; international participation in labour history events in Wales, Scotland, England, France, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Portugal, and Mexico; and an annual address by a labour historian of international repute.
Saothar, of course, reflects the steady if uneven development within the subject area. The ‘Sources’ and ‘Bibliography’ sections of the journal indicate the growing awareness of the need to preserve the record of Irish labour’s past, and the value of Cataloguing and broadcasting the availability of that record is indicated by the ever expanding range of articles, publications and research projects. The Society’s Archives Subcommittee has conscientiously attempted to rescue threatened material and raise Irish labour’s archival consciousness, particularly within the trade union movement. Under the guidance of the Society’s founding President, the late John Swift, the records of his own union, the Irish Bakers, Confectioners and Allied Workers Amalgamated Union, formed the first deposit in the ILHS Archive, generously housed at present by the Archives Department of University College Dublin. This archive has greatly expanded to the point of creating questions as to its future location. Notwithstanding the success of the rescue and retrieval operation, however, the ILHS established the Trade Union and Labour Related Records Survey Project. On behalf of the Committee of the ILHS and of the Society’s affiliated membership, especially the trade unions, a sincere ‘vote of thanks’ is due to all those who so successfully saw the project through to conclusion. They have done invaluable service to the Irish labour movement.
The task now confronting the Society, in association with the trade union and labour movement, is to progress to the next stage, which is to ensure the safety of the records listed here. This is imperative because of the condition in which some of these records survive, but additional urgency is occasioned by the current spate of trade union mergers and amalgamations, a trend which labour market conditions suggest will continue. In such situations premises are vacated and structures rationalised. Trade union archives are often the first thing to be ‘rationalised’, usually into the nearest shredder or skip. We would again appeal to all unions on receipt of this valuable catalogue to reflect on the responsibility they bear as custodians of their own past and join with the Society in guaranteeing the safe transfer of their unwanted material to a suitable and accessible archival location. In this Context, the challenge of the Irish Labour History Museum and Archives at Beggar’s Bush offers exciting possibilities for those within our movement with vision. The material catalogued here, in so far as the vast bulk of it is not housed within any archival institution, presents a unique foundation platform for the development of Beggar’s Bush as a resource centre drawing on the well of labour’s past that might nourish the efforts of those charged with the management of labour’s future.
The Society, by its activities and through its journal Saothar has also brought about a much greater degree of awareness among trade unions and other bodies of importance of their records as source material for labour historians. There is increasingly a greater consciousness of the need to preserve all aspects of our past for the benefit of our own and future generations and, in this regard, the work of the society is invaluable and indeed sets a headline.
It is fitting that this Museum should be opened in the year which marks the centenary of the first Mayday march in Dublin. Following a recommendation made the previous year that the first of May be designated International Labour Day, the first demonstration in Dublin took place on 1 May, 1890. It is very much associated with the arrival in the city of what is known as the ‘new unionism’. This was the name given to the organisation of unskilled, semi-skilled and general workers, who unlike craft workers had not been effectively organised. The new unions catering for un-skilled and low paid workers differed in several respects from the established craft unions. In particular they were much more militant and political.
The past century has been one of momentous change and development in virtually all areas of human endeavour. In that period trade unions have made an immeasurable contribution to progress in society. Great credit is due to the movement which played such an influential role in the introduction of so many social reforms and of the rights and privileges that we enjoy today.