The Cork harbour strike of 1921

Cork Harbour in the 1950s or 60s

News articles about the work stoppage in Cork where dock workers took control and threatened to expropriate money to pay their own wages.

This first article about the dispute, which lasted 2-7 to September, is from the New York Times:

Intervenes and quiets a tense situation when workers seized board offices, had hoisted a red flag.
Men return to jobs after Sinn Fein Labor Ministry has negotiations reopened.

As a result of the refusal of the Cork Harbor Board to increase the wages of its labourers to a minimum of 70s. a week, a tense situation arose today, which was terminated only be the intervention of the Dail Eireann.

The Cork Transport Workers' Union decided yesterday that, failing the granting of their demands, they would take possession of the Harbour Board's offices and assume complete control of the port.

At noon today1 the union men, headed by R. Day, himself a member of the Harbour Board and of the Cork Corporation, entered the offices of the Secretary of the board, Sir James Long. Mr Day informed the Secretary that he had come to take charge, and when Sir James refused to submit to the new regime he was "instantly dismissed." A similar fate was meted out to the other members of the staff.

When the strikers took possession of the Harbour Board offices, they hoisted a red flag as a token of Soviet control and the strikers' leaders announced their intention of collecting dues from shipping agents and using them to pay members of the union.

Cork is a Sinn Fein city, and the strike interested the city not so much from the point of view of the wage war but from the effect it might have on the present national peace negotiations. It was said openly that the act of the strikes amounted to treachery to the nation and it was urged that unless negotiations between the Harbour Board and the strikers were at once resumed, the Irish Republican Army should clear the building of strikers and reinstate the Harbour Board.

However, the intervention of the Labour Ministry of the Dail Eireann altered the situation, and the negotiations between the Harbour Board and the strikers were reopened, as a result of which it is expected that a settlement will be arrived at. The men are to resume work pending a decision.

Shipping in the port has not been seriously affected.

NY Times, 7 September 1921

This is the only photograph which we have been able to locate of the dispute:

This more up-to-date article from the same day is from the Irish Times, a Unionist paper, digitised and annotated by Manus O’Riordan:

The strike of the Cork Harbour Board's workers has ceased for the time being, but its moral remains. The men demanded a minimum wage of £3 10s., which the Board - for reasons that Alderman de Roiste clearly explained at Monday's meeting - was unable to grant. During the strike the shipping trade of Cork was paralysed, but this was not enough for the local organisers of the Irish Transport Workers' Union. They had grander schemes in view. On Monday they rejected with scorn a proposal that the dispute should be referred to a tribunal consisting of a representative of the Commissioners, a representative of the men, and a representative of the Labour Department of Dáil Éireann. They decided to depose the Board, to dismiss some of its officials, to take over its business, and to pay themselves the minimum wage of £3 10s. at the community's expense. They hoisted the flag of their Soviet over the Board's offices. Councillor (Robert) Day, the leader of this enterprise, dictated his terms with more than Cromwellian arrogance at Monday's meeting. He defied the universe to pull down the red flag of Irish a Labour, and declared: 'If the Irish Republican Government put me out of the office to-morrow, they can do it; but they have to count the cost.' Yesterday morning the Transport Workers' Union carried out its threat. It expelled the Board's secretary, installed its own men, and, apparently, took immediate charge of the affairs of the harbour, including the collection of dues. In the afternoon, however, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed. We have not learned the details, but the dispute has been referred to a conference at which a chairman appointed by the Labour Department of Dáil Éireann (whose Minister was Constance Markievicz - MO'R) will preside. The men are expected to return to work to-day.

Short-lived as was this outbreak of Irish Bolshevism, it was highly ominous. To-day Irish Labour is permeated with a spirit of revolt against all the principles and conventions of ordered society. The country's lawless state in recent months is partly responsible for this sinister development, and the wild teachings of the Russian Revolution have fallen on willing ears. It is small consolation for thoughtful Irishmen that the first experiments in practical Communism - like this affair at Cork and like the seizure of Messrs. Cleeve's premises at Bruree - have collapsed in a few days or hours. Their real significance lies in the temper and aspirations which they reveal. If Irish Labour is not educated by example and precept in the immediate future, if popular government does not induct it fairly, but firmly, into its proper place in the national economy, insisting upon its duties as well as upon its privileges, it may become a source of infinite trouble, and even of disaster, to the Commonwealth. In the first stages of Irish self-government the claims and position of Irish Labour will constitute one of the State's gravest problems. Mr. de Valera and his colleagues have, for political purposes, a sort of working relationship with Irish Labour; but they know perfectly well that it will not survive the opening of the first Irish Parliament (by which the 'Irish Times' meant something other than the First and Second Dáils - MO'R). At the outset there will be as sharp a conflict of interests between Capital and Labour - that is to say, between the farmers and the now largely Bolshevised trade unions - as ever existed in any country. The prosperity and peace of self-governing Ireland will depend largely upon the swiftness and skill with which these rival interests are reconciled and adjusted to the nation's common service. Only true statesmanship - wise, practical, tolerant, supple statesmanship - can hope to hieve the task.

Mr. de Valera's latest pronouncement, which we publish today, betrays some irritation at the widespread criticism of his attitude to the (by which the 'Irish Times' meant 'British') Government's proposals. He ought to recognise, however, that most of this criticism is honest. The anxiety and disappointment of Irish Unionists - and, we add confidently, of hundreds of thousands of Irish Nationalists - have a double cause. They are alarmed by Dáil Éireann's apparent failure to appreciate the magnitude of the Government's offer and by its apparent readiness to endanger that offer through a policy of punctilio and delay. They are exasperated by its refusal to deal simply and quickly with a simple and urgent issue. That, however, is not all. These lovers of their country are becoming, as the days pass, more and more doubtful of Sinn Fein's capacity to not merely win settlement, but to administer it when won. The negotiations are a crucial test of statesmanship, and, so far, the leaders of Dáil Éireann have failed to satisfy it. They have shown little or nothing of the clear vision and constructive ability that will be needed when England surrenders to Ireland the full management of her own affairs. There is small promise in Dáil Éireann's confused and dilatory dealings with Mr. Lloyd George that it will be able successfully to handle great national problems - such as the Labour problem - in a self-governing Ireland. Irish Unionists do not question Mr. de Valera's magnanimity, but magnanimity is not the only essential of good government. They are beginning to be afraid that the men who seem to be fumbling a national crisis now will fumble Irish administration if and when they take charge of it. If Dáil Éireann wants to remove that impression, it will change its tactics and will get to the business of settlement without further delay. It is probable that an imperative (the 'Irish Times' euphemism for a Lloyd George diktat - MO'R) - perhaps, a final - summons to business will issue to-day from Inverness.

  • 1. 6 September

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Feb 21 2013 19:44


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Feb 26 2016 00:23

Thanks to whoever bumped this.

Sep 10 2016 12:16

Bump, because I have added additional info and new photos