Wednesday 16 October 2019

Wexford events of 1911 weren't simple

I SHOULD have realised that I was swimming out of my depth. The recent piece in this column reviewing Kieran Roche's nofrills biography of Richard Corish, pictured below, has prompted a weighty response, critical of your reporter's loose use of the English language in describing the great Wexford lockout.

'Who's loose?' asks the Lion in the Wizard Of Oz. 'Medcalf is loose' is the tone of the response from Ian Hearn, who is doubtful about the very term ' lockout'. It is a matter that still concerns him a century on from the events which pre-occupied Wexford for seven traumatic months from August 1911 until the following February.

Readers will recall that Corish (1886-1945) was returned as mayor of the town for 25 consecutive terms up to the time of his death, as well as occupying a seat for the Labour Party in the Dáil. However, it was the review's treatment of bitter confrontation of 1911 and 1912 which prompted Ian Hearn to spring into action.

He comes to the subject as grandson of one of the lockers-out. Grandfather John S Hearn was the managing director of the Wexford Engineering Company, which ran the Star Iron Works off William Street in Wexford Town. In 1911, just a couple of years after the Bank of Ireland threatened to call in the receivers, the revived firm had more than 130 workers on the payroll.

They produced a range of agricultural hardware from ploughs to scufflers, in direct competition with their bigger neighbours, Pierce's. It was Pierce's who first found themselves facing down the ITGWU in the dispute about union recognition, and the Star became embroiled shortly afterwards. Production came to a prolonged halt.

Three phrases in the original piece in the edition of the last week of March this year stuck in the Hearn throat:

1: 'people being turned away from their place of work simply for being a member of a trade union'. He points out that it was never simple at all in the context where James Connolly had declared that the ultimate objective of the ITGWU the takeover of enterprises such as the Wexford foundries by the workers;

2: reference to the local economy being ' run by men with very stern notions of industrial relations'. My chastiser points out that good industrial relations is a twoway street and that, in the case of the Star iron works, pay and conditions were ahead of average for the time;

3: the phrase ' to the great displeasure of the bosses', used to describe the reaction to Corish's appointment as local union organiser, also draws his ire as unhelpful and less than even-handed in its tone...

Of course, Ireland is a greatly changed place since John S Hearn closed the gates of his factory. The notion that a provincial Irish town could support three substantial manufacturing enterprises – Pierce's, Hearn's and Doyle's – with a combined workforce of around 700 men is inconceivable. These days, we leave that sort of thing to the Chinese.

Back then, the vast Star Iron Works extended to 75,000 square feet of sweat stained industry. Yet it has disappeared practically without trace from the local landscape.

The man who turned the key in 1911 survived only until 1918, when he went down with the 'Leinster', torpedoed by a German submarine during the closing stages of the great war. John S was succeeded in command by his brother William F before Ian M's father Charles D took over the reins in 1942.

It appeared that young Ian was being groomed to continue to the line, as he spent a short while in Canada studying how the farm machinery trade was developing in North America at the giant International Harvester corporation. However, the experience there only served to bring home how small fry the Wexford Engineering Company really was.

When an offer came in 1964 from Renault importer Con Smith, the family sold out rather than face the international competition. The site off William Street later served as headquarters for Wexford Electronics but it now lies dormant, another Celtic Tiger kite that never quite took flight.

Ian Hearn switched from engineering to run a dairy farm at Kitestown. Now into his eighties, he has retired from agriculture but still keeps an eye out for loose language from glib journalists and stands soft spoken guard over the family's reputation.

If blame may still be allocated for the disruptions of a hundred years ago, he feels that much of it could be laid at the door of James Connolly, with his hardline syndicalist vision. The role of ITGWU'S Dublin-based organiser PT Daly, whose arrival in Wexford precipitated the dispute, was also pivotal.

' There seems to be a preoccupation with demonising the employers of the time,' he ruminates as he looks back on the forebear who created hundreds of jobs.'

'You can put whatever spin on it you like but without them, there can be no employment. Entrepreneurs need all the encouragement they can get.'

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