Irish Democratic Labour Federation badge
It is one of the smallest items in our collection, but this tiny badge is a reminder of one of the most important movements in the decades leading up to the Irish revolutionary period.
Anybody who has read any of our local historian Michael Galvin’s many books on life in Kilmurry and mid-Cork from the Famine days onward will be aware of the significant role of the labour movement in political and social developments through to the War of Independence. In fact, many of those who were centrally involved in the labour movement locally were also instrumental in the revolutionary movement.
The rural labourers and small farmers of mid-Cork were most strongly represented from the turn of the century, through to the period of the First World War, by the Irish Land and Labour Association (ILLA). It was closely aligned by the 1911 elections for Macroom Rural District Council with William O’Brien’s All-for-Ireland League. This nationalist party was strongest in Cork city and county, but its conciliatory policy towards Irish unionists made its members electoral arch-enemies of the Irish Parliamentary Party and its grassroots organisation, the United Irish League. Such divisions made AFIL and ILLA activists and their local networks a prime target for organisational support when Terence MacSwiney and fellow officer of Cork’s Irish Volunteers visited Kilmurry and other parts of mid-Cork from autumn 1915, a year after the divisive split in that movement when Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond had encouraged Irish men to join the British Army in the war in Europe.
All that happened, however, a quarter of a century after the formation in Cork of the Irish Democratic Labour Federation. At a meeting in Cork City Hall, Michael Davitt founded the federation in January 1890 “for the defence and advancement of the rights of labour in Ireland.” The little badge is a reminder of that event, with the words carefully embossed around the three leaves of the white-metal shamrock:
“Irish Democratic Labour Federation
Founded by Ml Davitt 1890 “
Weeks later, tradesmen and labourers from Macroom and districts attended the first local meeting under the auspices of the new organisation, chaired by plasterer James Galway. By June, it claimed to have nearly the entire labouring classes of the wider district among its membership, with representatives of Kilmurry including James McCarthy, a farm labourer from Coolnacarriga in Canovee. Contingents were also present at a meeting that month in Macroom’s town square from Kilmichael, Tarelton, Clondrohid, Ballyvourney, Kilnamartyra and Ballinagree.
A photo of a similar gathering in Macroom’s town square drew the attention of the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, when he officially opened Independence Museum Kilmurry in August 2016. As he recognised, this was “a huge meeting in Macroom between land and labour workers, the people who worked the small farms and people who were agricultural labourers.” This photo shows a rally of the ILLA, clearly taken a few years after the aforementioned Irish Democratic Labour Federation event in the town. The ILLA was not formed until 1894, but it was to that organisation that the labouring classes of Kilmurry and Mid-Cork would rally in the years that followed.
In fact, one of the ILLA’s founders D.D. Sheehan was to become MP for Mid-Cork in a 1901 by-election, a position he retained until the election of Terence MacSwiney for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election. Sheehan’s later affiliation with William O’Brien’s AFIL, which took full advantage of labour support to weaken the Irish Parliamentary Party grip on nationalist voters in Cork, helped to create rifts in local politics. The Royal Irish Constabulary was regularly forced to intervene in violent clashes when crowds turned out to hear candidates associated with one party or the other speak from the stages and platforms around election times. Sheehan was repeatedly re-nominated and elected for a reason, however, as he was seen as a champion of the labouring classes. The construction of labourers’ cottages that still dot the rural countryside today are a legacy of his work in Westminster, but ILLA branches began to dwindle from around 1910 onward.
Nonetheless, it was their activism within the ILLA and AFIL as organisers, rural district council candidates and members, which made many men from Kilmurry and elsewhere in mid-Cork the ones who Irish Volunteers organisers turned to in 1915. John T Murphy from Lissarda, who helped Terence MacSwiney to organise the first recruitment meeting for the Irish Volunteers at Béal na Bláth, was a former ILLA county organiser. He would go on to be MacSwiney’s director of elections at the 1918 general election. Others centrally involved in the establishment of the local company of the Irish Volunteers included the Long family of Béal na Bláth, Daniel Murphy and Tom Taylor from nearby Pullerick, and Jeremiah Dunne from Canovee, all of whom had strong ILLA and AFIL connections too. Patrick Long and Dunne, a long-standing Fenian and local Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) leader, both represented O’Brien’s party on Macroom Rural District Council between 1911 and 1914.
But it was the formation of the Irish Democratic Labour Federation in the early 1890s, recalled in this simple little badge, which helped to plant a seed for local labour organisation. And that activism would later lend itself to the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in Kilmurry, and to the parish’s role in the War of Independence.