Journeys to a Free State: A new Connolly Hall
On 14 May 1922, the Cork branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union observed the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly, and later that day began a new chapter in their work in their new premises at the former Soldiers’ Home on King’s Terrace, Lower Glanmire Road. This was to become their future headquarters for almost 54 years.
The first Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union cards were issued in Cork in 1909 and indeed the Cork branch of the union was the first established outside of Dublin. It was set up by the dockers from Cork’s port.
Within a matter of months a serious industrial battle ensued, for in June 1909 a strike of over 100 members took place.
Despite the scarcity of industry and of employment in Cork in those years, the union made very definite progress. In particular, the union had its own premises on Oliver Plunkett Street.
In 1920 a more substantial premises was occupied by the union on Camden Quay. In August 1920, Crown troops made an assault while the Irish Trade Union Congress was meeting there.
Four months later during the Burning of Cork on 11/12 December 1920, the Black and Tans targeted the union’s hall raiding it, smashed it up and destroying it by fire. It was then necessary for the union to move back to its old building in Oliver Plunkett Street.
In early 1922 the Cork Soldiers Home on King’s Terrace came on the market and the union secured possession.
Initially the premises for the old Cork Soldier’s Home was donated and was opened as the first soldiers’ home in Ireland on 10 June 1877. The aim was to take young soldiers away from public houses and provide them a different space for entertainment and self-improvement. The concept was initially developed by evangelical Christian and philanthropist Elise Sandes.
Research by historian Bryan MacMahon denotes in his research that by 1913 there were 31 such soldiers’ homes attached to army barracks, 22 in Ireland and the rest in India. With the establishment of the Irish Free State, most of the homes were closed down. Only three remained open in the Irish Free State after 1921.
On 14 May 1922, the Soldier’s Home was formally taken over by the Cork Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The Cork Examiner described that there was a large congregation at the Connolly Memorial Mass, which was celebrated in St Francis Church at 9am. Later in the day, the members assembled at their old headquarters, and headed by their fife and drum band marched in processional order through the streets of the city. A well-ordered body of organised workers, preceded by the band of the union, proceeded through the city and attracted considerable public interest.
The procession went through St Patrick’s Street, Grand Parade, South Mall, and across Brian Boru Bridge to the Soldier’s Home.
At 2pm Alderman William O’Brien, Dublin branch, General Treasurer, opened the door, and declared the new premises opened in the name of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. A short public meeting was held and addressed from the window of the newly occupied premises. William noted that he considered it a great honour to be associated with the ceremony.
“This is a red-letter day in the annals of Cork and the history of the working classes. Two great events have taken place today, the anniversary celebration of the martyrdom of Connolly and the taking over of a hall, which lately was the post of the British garrison.
“My colleagues and I are proud to be there on behalf of the executive of the union to show how we appreciate what has been done by the trades union in Cork, and how they have stood steadfast to the union and to the working class organisation, notwithstanding all the difficulties they were up against.”
William continued to outline that a few short years previously the organisation was down but Phoenix-like, it had risen from its ashes, and the workers were never better organised than today. He noted: “we have built up the organisation, and every employer recognises it as a force that cannot be fought successfully or defeated. I am sure they recognise its great value and refuse to be drawn aside by anything that might occur to weaken it.”
On 18 May 1922, the first meeting held in the new Connolly Hall took place, which was a meeting of the branch committee.
It was presided over by Michael Hill and attended by 38 delegates from the different sections. Michael was an insurance agent, a member of the National Executive Council of the union, and played a vital part in the affairs of the union in Cork in those difficult days. His theme that night, in the first union speech made in Connolly Hall, was the dire need for working class education so that the trade unionists could achieve a rationalised movement as the first essential step towards industrial democracy.
The 1930s were a decade of industrial revival and the Cork branch increased its membership overall by 120 per cent in the first eight years. In Cork, this entailed the introduction of two branches headed respectively by Dominic O'Sullivan and Jim Hickey. The post-war years were also ones of steady expansion, with no less than seven branches servicing Cork city and county being created which catered for a wide variety of occupations and industries.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a decision was taken to construct a new centre for the union in the city. The foundation stone of a more spacious Connolly Hall on Lapp's Quay was laid on 15 June 1974.
Kieran’s May tours:
Saturday 14 May, The Northern Ridge – St Patrick’s Hill to MacCurtain Street. Meet on the green at Audley Place, top of St Patrick’s Hill at 2pm (free, 2 hours, no booking required).
Sunday 22 May, Views from a Park - Tramore Valley Park, in association with the KinShip Project. Meet at Halfmoon Lane gate at 2pm (free, 90 mins, no booking required).
Saturday 28 May, The Friar’s Walk, Discover Red Abbey to the Greenmount area. Meet at Red Abbey tower, off Douglas Street at 2pm (free, 2 hours, no booking required).