Irish Ships and Shipping

  Irish Seafarers & Trade Union Organisation
And The Struggle
To Defend An Irish Merchant Fleet
by Francis Devine 2002



Little has been written about the organisation of Irish seafarers. What follows is a tentative sketch. It suggests a vibrant history of  international solidarity, constant battles against employer scandal and Government indifference, and a deep commitment, beyond self-interest, to the development of an Irish merchant marine.
In memory of the late Bernard Malone (stoker on Irish Shipping) — Barney to his Irish Shipping comrades and Benny in his native Howth, where he was much-loved.

Early Attempts At Organising Seamen
Organisation among seamen existed from the 1840s from Deny to Cork, Belfast to Wexford. The 'friendly society' aspect dominated and mariners and masters often combined in the same organisation for sick, burial and benevolent purposes.
Fishermen were organised in Ringsend and Cork Harbour, the Fishermen's Society Of Saint Patrick banner being among those that paraded in the 1875 O'Connell Centenary. The 1873 banner of the Boyne Fishermen, which hangs in Drogheda's Millmount Museum, is a 'masterpiece, painted in oils on canvas and worthy of exhibition in any gallery in the world'. As with Shannon eel fishers today, concerns were for licences, access and quotas rather than wages and conditions. Fishermen have sporadically organised since. The Irish Transport & General Workers' Union recruited large numbers in the mid 1970s resulting in fishermen, uniquely, being covered within the terms of the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977-2001, a rare extension of protective employment law to the seafarers.
The Merchant Shipping Acts reinforced command structures and what might be an industrial dispute ashore could be mutiny at sea. In addition, Irish mariners tended to ship out of their home ports where relationships with owners and masters were close and the cost of failed trade union activity could be ostracism and/or emigration.

Many, of course, always sought work on British ports and it was here, in 1887, that Joseph Havelock Wilson established the National Amalgamated Sailors' & Firemen's Union Of Great Britain. Branches were opened in  Arklow, Cork, Wexford and Youghal. In 1890, a three month long Dockers strike in support of sacked Cork seamen spread to Waterford and Limerick as employers attacked the infant union.
Ship-owners resented the ' tyrannical attempts of a dictatorial body of unionists to impose demands on the industry' and in September, 1890, the Shipping Federation emerged as a powerful employer body, supplying strike breakers and influencing mercantile law.
Until the 1890s, trade unionism had been confined to the traditional skilled trades and was conservative politically and industrially. The so-called 'New Unionism' that now exploded onto the waterfront extended organisation down to the unskilled masses, involved sympathetic and general strikes, and carried a distinctly socialist perspective.
Often seen as originating among dock labourers, 'New Unionism' can more correctly be attributed to seamen. In 1894, Wilson revived his union as the National Sailors & Firemen's Union Of Great Britain & Ireland. By 1896 branches existed in Belfast, Cork and Dublin. They were difficult to maintain, however, and in 1898 Irish offices were closed with staff owed monies.
At this point Wilson was still 'militant, a rabble-rouser, a fearless advocate of the seafarer, stumping the country agitating, organising and inciting'. He was the Jim Larkin of seamen and in 1911 came his finest hour.

1911 - Wilson 's Finest Hour, 1913 - Wilson 's Disgrace
By April, over 150,000 seamen had voted for international action 'on the same day and at the same hour, until their unions receive proper recognition, establish the right of collective bargaining and uniform rates of wages and conditions of labour on all ships'. Similar international strike action would be relevant today in the struggle against Flags Of Convenience and the slave wages paid to seamen across the globe.
In 1911 what followed broke the Shipping Federation's power and won a general increase in wages. Wilson's triumph contained the seeds of his rapid shift to the right as he sought strategies that would preserve his gains, keep control of the 'ticket' from the Shipping Federation and maintain the advantage of newly-acquired respectability.

Irish seamen fought hard in 1911. Dublin flags proclaimed - 'War Is Now Declared: Seamen Strike Hard & Strike For Liberty'. It was, however. Big Jim Larkin's Transport Union - appointed as agents by the Sailors & Firemen - that represented the 400 Dublin members and paid them strike pay from Transport Union funds. The desire to assist seamen in Belfast led to James Connolly's appointment as Northern Organiser on 13 July, 1911, his first full-time union position.

Irish employers, led by Samuel McCormick, refused to concede and 800 men were locked out until Larkin and the celebrated British labour veteran, Tom Mann, met with the Under Secretary For Ireland, and persuaded the employers to accept the union's terms. Early in 1913, there were strikes on the City Of Dublin Steam Packet Company and in Sligo, the Transport Union again representing seamen. As the 1913 Lock Out reached stalemate, Havelock Wilson - as a member of the Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee - appeared as 'reason personified' in appreciating the employer's perspective and suggesting conciliation. Wilson despised Larkin, to whom Dublin seamen were more loyal. Wilson suggested Larkin 'had a splendid case but made such a sorry mess of it, doing everything he ought not to have done and nothing he ought'. Larkin responded with vituperation and Wilson's decision to settle with the employers caused outrage.
Dublin sailors refused to go back and were quickly replaced by scab Sailors' & Firemen's Union members from Liverpool. Even the steamship Hare that had nobly brought in the first food shipment for the lock out victims was declared a 'black-leg boat'.
Connolly later witheringly suggested that 'the scab who carries a union card is the scabbiest of all scabs'. Dublin seamen would be slow to forgive the Sailors' Union.
It is seldom considered that 1913 was essentially a maritime dispute. As now, the economy depended on trade through Dublin. Connolly tried to close the port 'as tight as a drum' in a desperate effort to break the deadlock and as indication of his appreciation of the strategic significance of the sea. The food ships, attempts to ship out the starving children, the dependence of so many workers and their families on the maritime economy, all underline the neglected fact that the sea was central in 1913.
That this is never acknowledged is part of the mental block that denies the country's maritime dependence.

The Birth Of Irish Seamen's Unions
After 1913, the Transport Union represented seamen and fought a wage reduction of six shillings and sixpence imposed by the British Maritime Board in 1923 in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Limerick, Newry and Waterford. The compliance of the Sailors' & Firemen's Union made the Transport Union task very difficult and they failed to break the Maritime Board's control of Irish seamen's wages. Seamen on the B+I struck unofficially the same year to protest over discrimination in crew selection and to demand the reinstatement of the wage cut. It began a rift between seamen and the Transport Union, whose dock members always bore the brunt of seamen's struggles.
In 1926, the Sailors' & Firemen's Union changed its name to the National Union Of Seamen. In Dublin in 1933 the Irish Seamen & Port Workers' Union was founded, followed by the Irish Free State Pilots' Association in 1935. Boosted by membership in Irish Shipping, the Irish Seamen & Port Workers campaigned for the establishment of an Irish Maritime Board. They had won an 'out-of-convoy' bonus during the War to demonstrate the value of being able to negotiate directly with employers. An Irish Maritime Board was set up on 15 October, 1948. The British Maritime Board's objectives were to secure 'closer co-operation between the employers and employed of the British Mercantile Marine in the maintenance of the supremacy of the British Empire', objectives surely at odds with the strategic needs of the Irish nation and its seafarers? Opposition to the NUS was not merely a nationalistic expression but reflected tensions over crewing methods.

In 1951, the Irish Seamen & Port Workers had a signal victory in a wage claim, having rejected an initial Labour Court Recommendation.
The principle involved in this dispute was that an Irish union successfully negotiated wages and conditions for Irish seamen, separate and distinct from British seamen. Seamen were becoming a force in the Irish Seamen & Port Workers and in 1954, Des Branigan emerged as a new, intelligently focused and charismatic advocate. The union changed its name in 1955 to the Marine, Port & General Workers' Union. Branigan's legacy includes the wonderful badge that bears the silver starry plough and triple knot of Saint Brendan The Navigator against a midnight blue background. The starry ensign represents Irish socialism and the navigational safety of members at sea and the knot's Celtic interweave exemplifies the interdependence and solidarity essential to trade union members.
At Congress Of Irish Union gatherings, Branigan led demands for the proper development of Irish Shipping. The country possessed less than half the minimum recommended tonnage of 250,000 tons and no tanker fleet. Norway was cited as example of a successful maritime policy that not alone underpinned the country's neutrality and independence but contributed significantly to its balance of payments.
Branigan's radical militancy offended powerful clerical figures and moves were made to oust him from the Marine Port, the chosen vehicle being the jettisoning of the union's seamen's section.
In 1957, a closed shop agreement - always denied to Branigan - was offered to a new body, the Irish Seamen's Union. This new union was seen by many as a company union and was opposed in a rancorous and unseemly dispute. Ship-owners in Limerick and Wexford threatened to sail under the British Flag in order to deal with the NUS and employers generally openly stated their desire to stamp out what they called an undesirable element controlling Dublin port. After a fourteen week strike, matters were resolved by the Labour Court and in 1959 the Seamen's Union Of Ireland emerged as an independent union acceptable to the men.
Des Branigan was now General Secretary of the Irish Pilots' & Marine Officers' Association and he set about seeking reform of the Pilotage Act, 1913 that condemned pilots to meagre earnings from casual work.
Less than a hundred in number, Branigan pointed out that it was 'through the hands and skill of the marine pilots that the country's imports and exports arrive and depart safely'. A bitter dispute was defeated and the broken union merged with the Workers' Union Of Ireland in 1962.
Branigan still pushed for maritime policy, telling the Irish Trade Union Congress that 'we have the geographical advantage, we have the trained personnel, we have every advantage if we want to exploit them'. He concluded that 'it lies with the Government if this desirable advance is to take place'. And it still does.

The Battle To Win The NUS For Seamen
The NUS were a silent delegation to Irish TUCs. They were still recovering from their ostracism after the 1926 General Strike and Wilson's pursuit of 'non-political trade unionism'. Wilson died at his desk on 16 April, 1929. King George V and Queen Mary sent a letter of sympathy to Mrs Wilson. Lord Sanderson, Shipping Federation, observed that he was a 'dictator in the affairs of the seamen' and 'one of the few really constructive thinkers in the trade union movement'. The Miner spoke for the majority and reflected the attitude to Wilson within the British labour movement even to this day.

'We do not propose to overstep the bounds of good taste in our comments on Havelock Wilson ... The War had a most disturbing effect upon his outlook and in post war years he has been, in plain language, a faithful ally of the employing class. His union ... has been a faithful servant of the ship-owners and he himself used the whole of his own and his union's influence to disrupt and  demoralise other sections .. .He will go down in history as one of the tragedies of the twentieth century working class movement.'

Wilson's legacy, compounded by the economic collapse of the 1930s, was a highly centralised and rigid union structure. Seamen had no trade union presence while at sea. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, made no provision for shipboard representation and enshrined absolute authority in the lawful command of the master.
This command culture permeated the NUS where the General Secretary was the all powerful captain of a trade union ironclad.
Mutiny slowly boiled and in 1960 the National Seamen's Reform Movement set about the task of winning the union back for ordinary seamen. Waterford born Paddy Neary was a leading figure and Dungarvan's  Sean Cullinane typical of many rank-and-file Irish seamen who joined the reformers. General Secretary Tom Yates branded them as 'communists dedicated to disruption' and 'self-styled militants whose minds are so closed that the whole development of collective bargaining has passed them by'. A strike in 1960 advanced wages and conditions and shipboard representation was finally agreed in 1965.
In 1966 a strike on the principle of the forty-hour week comparable to shore workers lasted seven weeks and by 1 July saw 891 ships immobilised. Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared a State Of Emergency and talked of a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men'.
The NUS was isolated nationally and internationally.
Some saw the strike as disaster, others saw it as the union 'coming of age'. Above all, it at last cast aside the image of an Uncle Tom organisation dominated and manipulated by the ship-owners.
The ghost of the collaborationist Havelock Wilson was lain.
2,000 people — 500 of them seamen - marched in Belfast on 21 May 1st.1966 and Irish solidarity generally was impressive.
Gerry Doyle reflected on the strike in a letter attacking Harold Wilson and George Brown, suggesting that 'the cost to the country compared to the cost of meeting the seamen's claim is proof that this Government is quite willing to cut its throat to cure laryngitis'.
Irish support saw the NUS affiliate to the Irish Congress Of Trade Unions and Belfast Trades Council.
The 1967 NUS AGM was held in Liberty Hall as a gesture of gratitude to the Irish labour movement and Irish people for their support in adversity.

Terry Clare, steward on the Rosslare-Fishguard route, was elected to the NUS Executive Committee in 1955 and held that position until retirement in 1991. He took his Executive duties very seriously but worked hard 'to get this union to swing a little more to the left'. When Sir Thomas Yates retired as General Secretary, he singled out Clare as 'someone who never agreed with me', a compliment indeed!.  Clare was a founder of the Merchant Navy Ratings Pension Fund. Leftist activists dismissed an interest in pensions as indicating a middle class orientation. This was a myopic view.
The collapse of the fund was a bitter blow to Clare, now active in the Pensioner's Parliament and a vigorous campaigner for the aged at national and local level. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1982 in recognition of his pensions activity. He never missed an Executive meeting.
Bamey Crossan, a Glen Swilly man, had many years deep-water experience before gaining a reputation as a NUS Official in the Thames Basin. He became Dublin Branch Secretary in 1963 and, when he retired in 1991, not one of his members was out of work. A quietly effective figure, Crossan's social conscience endeared him to all seamen and generated commitment from shore-based trade union colleagues when a ship needed to be listed or a cargo blacked. Nothing was either too much trouble or too late at a night, whether the seaman was a NUS member or not. Dublin Branch regularly contributed to national union affairs, tending to concentrate on bread-and butter issues of annual leave, pay and conditions.
After the fruitless dispute with P&O in Dover in 1988, the NUS's fate as an independent union with a declining membership and perilous finances was sealed. They merged with the National Union Of Railwaymen in 1990 to form the National Union Of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers. Seamen were swamped by rail sections and rule changes quickly obliterated most traces of a once proud union.

The Scandal Of Irish Shipping And Sales Of The Century
Seamen on the Irish Sea negotiated various Container and General Purpose Agreements in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Seamen's Union Of Ireland once picketed RTE in defence of their members employed by the national broadcaster as riggers! In 1984 the Government liquidated Irish Shipping. There were fears for Irish Continental Line, Belfast Car Ferries and the B&I. Speaking against the closure of Irish Shipping, Terry Clare said that the 'Dail and the nation were held in contempt'.
Justice Murphy had found that there was no fraud involved but Clare said, 'What rubbish. Fraud was perpetrated on the people of Ireland and the seafarers of Ireland'.
Anger was unbounded. The Federated Workers' Union Of Ireland mounted a ceaseless campaign, picketing the Dail, Ministers' homes and anywhere that the 'Save Our Ships' campaign could attract support, as well as making endless appearances before the Labour Court and Employment Appeals tribunal in pursuit of the sacked members' interests.
Taosieach Garret FitzGerald's memory of the affair shows some unease as it was 'one of the most painful decisions we had to take while in Government'. Ordinary Irish Shipping staff were the only sacrificed state sector employees in this period of severe retrenchment to be confined to statutory redundancy payments.
The Government's subsequent response to the Insurance Corporation Of Ireland-Allied Irish Banks scandal makes for an interesting, if not surprising, contrast.
The B&I saw the workforce halved and wages cut by twenty per cent and talk was of 'survival plans' in an atmosphere hostile to public enterprise and where the future of the national economy, never mind a shipping company, seemed at stake. The 1984 give-away of Sealink - described by the NUS as the 'Sale of the Century' - created all sorts of precedents and pressures. Privatisation brought crew reductions, worsened conditions and the continuous threat of cheaper, foreign crews. Irish seamen on the Irish sea were becoming an endangered species.

Not A Minister For Fish And Chips But A Minister For Shipping
Led by Barney Crossan, Terry Clare and Sean McCourt, the Irish Congress Of Trade Unions adopted a raft of motions in the 1990s outlining the crucial elements for an Irish maritime policy. Congress demanded the establishment of a deep-sea and tanker fleet under an Irish or Euro flag. They want worker participation within any emerging company and improved worker representation on ferry safety committees. Flags Of Convenience needed to be tightly controlled and a permit system to discriminate in favour of Irish and EU nationals in home waters introduced, together with the extension to seamen of the EU Directives on the Organisation Of Working Time and Posting Of Workers.

The Irish maritime industry is in danger of total disappearance.
What other domestic industry with such actual and employment potential would be disregarded in this manner?
Terry Clare offered derision to the politician who, when given a marine portfolio, said he was to be 'Minister for Fish & Chips'. 'We don't want a Minister for Fish & Chips', said Clare, 'we want a Minister For Shipping'. Sean McCourt stated that marine transport 'accounts for 99% of all Ireland's imports and exports' but with so few merchant ships 'it becomes abundantly clear that Ireland is largely reliant upon foreign flag vessels'. The current debate on Irish neutrality is incomplete without a proper discussion of such dependence. Whatever about entering or not entering military alliances, when is the island nation going to enter an alliance with the sea that surrounds it? Government commitments have been given about a minimum Irish merchant fleet but they have been ignored. Congress adopted all marine motions with acclaim but whether anyone has been listening is debatable.

The Coming Of The ITF And A Warning To All Shipping
The increasing incidence of unpaid Third World crews appearing in vessels of dubious seaworthiness in Irish ports is an obvious effect of Flags Of Convenience and the virtual slave conditions of many east European, Asian and African seafarers.
Support was always given by Irish trade unions but in a piecemeal and uncoordinated manner. In 2001 a meeting of all marine unions in SIPTU College led to the appointment of Tony Ayton as International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) Inspector for Ireland.
 It was reported recently that Ireland was second bottom of the European league table for inspections under Port-State Control regulations, so the new ITF Office in Waterford is not short of work in trying to implement the 'Uniform TCC Collective Agreement For Crews On Flags Of Convenience Ships'.
The underlying problem is the absence of an effective European Union maritime policy that will defend traditional European seafaring jobs at decent wages and conditions, respect our collective maritime cultures and recognise the significant contribution to the continent's trade and coastal environment that well-trained, highly motivated and properly rewarded crews could make. Michael Hayes of SIPTU is working closely with sister maritime unions to extend United Kingdom legislation concerning work permits for seafarers to Irish ports. This will give priority to EU nationals. SIPTU continues to campaign for the restoration of an Irish merchant fleet and is appalled by the lack of training and investment in what should be a dynamic industry. Everyone hails the Celtic Tiger but few recognise that is, ultimately, a sea-borne phenomenon.
John De Courcy Ireland asks, how much is being spent on foreign shipping and agents and can this cash not be directed to create and sustain a viable Irish merchant fleet?
So, Irish seafarers have a long history of organisation and struggle. They were central to the emergence of a 'New Unionism' with a socialist perspective. They were at the heart of the 1913 Lock Out, an episode that should be re-assessed for its maritime significance. The internationalism of seamen's trade unionism was seen in the heroic food ships and the fluttering emblem of the National Transport Workers' Federation on the steamship Hare. The defence of Irish Shipping and cross channel ferry routes passenger and freight - was central to trade union demands. Seafarers went beyond selfish concerns for wages and conditions to express concern for the nation's strategic interests, its economic wellbeing, genuine neutrality and independence, and the safety, health and welfare of passengers and our coastal environment. Today, seafarers' unions seek to defend all mariners through ITF agreements. It has been and remains - a constant battle against a never slacking tide of public and political indifference.

In thinking again of faithful and courageous ordinary seamen like Benny Malone -stoker on Irish Shipping  is to consider thousands of similar tales of quiet dedication for little reward and less respect. Seamen's trade unions have never been numerically strong. They have been charged with corruption and internal mismanagement and they have been riven by dissent. But they have survived tremendous odds. Then opponents have been powerful, international shipping interests, national and European Government. They have developed a unique solidarity nonetheless, served their members interests well and presented to the broad labour movement and the political parties a maritime policy that requires action - and requires action now.

"A warning to all Irish shipping is, that unless these trade union policies are adopted, there will very shortly be no Irish shipping. And no one will be better off for that sad eventuality."

Francis Devine 2002 


Irish Trades Union Congress & The Titanic

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In compiling this article I am grateful for the assistance of

Tony Ayton (International Transport Workers' Federation, Waterford),

Des Branigan (Maritime Institute, Dublin),

Denis Gardner (Seamen's Union Of Ireland, Dublin),

Deirdre Burrell (Howth),

Terry Clare (National Union Of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers, Wexford),
Barney Crossan (National Union Of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers, Dublin),
Sedn Culinane (National Union Of Rail Maritime & Transport Workers, Tramore),

Paddy Daly (Howth),

John Finnic (Services Industrial professional & Technical Union, Dublin),

Michael Hayes (Services, Industrial Professional & Technical Union, Dublin),

Carol Murphy (Librarian, SIPTU College, Dublin),

Jim Quinn (Services Industrial Professional & Technical Union, Dublin)

Ann Riordan (Howth)

and John B. Smethurst (Working Class Movement Library, Manchester)





















Irish Trades Union Congress & The Titanic

At the 1912 meeting of the Irish Trade Union Congress in Clonmel - most famous as the Congress that, in effect, created the Labour Party - G.W. Hayes of Waterford, one of four delegates from the National Sailors' & Foremen's Union, moved the following resolution -

'That we, the representatives of the organised workers of Ireland, are of the opinion that the time has arrived - and it has been duly demonstrated by the Titanic disaster, whereby there was a great loss of life - when pressure should be brought not  only by trade unionists but also by the general public, upon the Government to take immediate steps to bring about an efficient manning scale both for the deck and the stoke-hold.

That this Congress considers that as the Titanic disaster, and the terrible loss of life occasioned thereby has clearly demonstrated to the whole world the insufficiency of boat accommodation in case of accident, and that want of a sufficient number of skilled seamen, we call upon the Government to take immediate action to see that a sufficient number of efficient seamen are engaged for the proper manning of all British ships to ensure the safety of every passenger and every member of the crew.'

Hayes said that in 'an accident like ... the Titanic, the millionaires and the goldbugs got the fighting chance for their lives but the passengers in the steerage were locked up and allowed to go down with the ship.'
Emotions at Congress were high and Hayes' remarks were greeted with 'loud applause' as they shared his anger at the treatment of the crew and steerage passengers. J. White, Sailors' & Foremen's delegate from Newry, in seconding the motion, complained of inadequately trained crews. He claimed that 'he saw but three weeks before a man taken straight from the plough and placed on board ship as an A.B.'
Cries of 'shame' greeted this remark. James H. Bennett, long a Sailors' & Firemen and later National Union Of Seamen (NUS) Official in Belfast, Dublin and Waterford, added farther detail about working conditions on board ship, suggesting that there 'there were cases of men committing suicide in the stoke-hod on account of the ship being under-manned ... on a Cross Channel steamer on which he had crossed on the preceding Friday, there were only six boats for 1,000 passengers and crew. The lives of the men who manned and the passengers who sailed on their ship were evidently not much thought of by some of the ship-owners.'

Delegates shouted 'hear, hear' and some thought that the motion did 'not go far enough' but it was adopted unanimously.
The Irish Trade Union Congress Annual Report 1913 stated that the matter of the 'Manning Of Ships & Life-Saving At Sea' had been drawn to the attention of the 'responsible Ministers of the Crown and to the Board Of Trade'.
They had also lobbied the Labour Party and Irish political parties. John Redmond, Irish Party, had promised support and Labour would back a 'well-considered scheme' that would 'alleviate the disastrous loss of life and privations to mariners'. 

James Bennett, speaking to the report, noted that the;

'Irish Party were deserving [of our] condemnation in reference to their inactivity on the question of life-saving at sea. They did nothing in the matter.'
That was the last the Irish Trade Union Congress heard of the Titanic or indeed Maritime safety for some time. 

Parallels with today's Flags Of Convenience vessels, inadequately trained crews working in virtually slave conditions and the threat to the future of Irish and European Union seamen on the Irish Sea would indicate that few lessons were ultimately learned from the Titanic. Profit and free enterprise would still come ahead of genuine concern for passenger, crew and environmental safety.

©Francis Devine 2002

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