Squalor, poor pay and bully-boy tac­tics

DAMIAN CORLESS

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA -

Last sum­mer, to cel­e­brate the ESB’s 70th birth­day, the Ard­nacrusha hy­droelec­tric sta­tion in Co Clare opened its doors to the pub­lic for the first time in many decades. Over 10,000 vis­i­tors in hard hats and hivis jack­ets took the free 90-minute guided tour. This sum­mer’s tours run un­til mid-Septem­ber with swelling num­bers ex­pected for The Ard­nacrusha Ex­pe­ri­ence.

In­trigu­ingly, it’s the sec­ond time the power sta­tion has been Ire­land’s new­est ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion, but the mod­ern ver­sion has a lot of catch­ing up to do. Be­tween 1928 and 1932, Ard­nacrusha at­tracted al­most 200,000 sight­seers or, in­cred­i­bly, some 6pc of the pop­u­la­tion.

Those first vis­i­tors would have been keenly aware that for the work­ers who built the scheme, the orig­i­nal Ard­nacrusha ex­pe­ri­ence was no hol­i­day. It was hell, in­flicted by a gov­ern­ment that sanc­tioned dirty tricks and bully-boy tac­tics in a bid to get the daunt­ing scheme com­pleted on sched­ule and, most vi­tally, on bud­get.

The Shan­non Elec­tric­ity Bill passed into law in June 1925. This was to be in­de­pen­dent Ire­land’s big state­ment to the watch­ing world that the new­born Free State could stand up strong and proud. Our­selves alone.

A spot on the Shan­non by the sleepy Clare vil­lage of Ard­nacrusha had been cho­sen as the site for the hy­droelec­tric dam, the big­gest en­gi­neer­ing pro­ject ever un­der­taken on the is­land of Ire­land. In a land where job op­por­tu­ni­ties were scarce, the open­ing of this vast State-spon­sored con­struc­tion pro­ject held out the prospect of steady work and de­cent money. But when the ad­verts ap­peared seek­ing 3,000 labour­ers at a rate of 32 shillings for a 50-hour week ( just over €100 in to­day’s money), there was wide­spread dis­may and de­spair at the low wages on of­fer.

By the time the measly pay rates were pub­lished, a huge throng of would-be work­ers had al­ready de­scended on the banks of the Shan­non.

When the unions called for a fairer deal, the Ger­man con­struc­tion gi­ant Siemens coun­tered that the pay was fair. Al­most be­fore a sod had been turned on the State’s show­case scheme, a strike was called.

‘Big’ Joe McGrath was sum­moned to fill the role of trou­bleshooter. McGrath had fought for union recog­ni­tion as one of Jim Larkin’s mus­cu­lar min­ders, fought in the 1916 Ris­ing, be­came Ire­land’s In­dus­try Min­is­ter, and would fin­ish up Ire­land’s rich­est man as founder and boss of the swin­dling su­per-lot­tery that was the Ir­ish Hos­pi­tals’ Sweep­stakes.

Ac­cord­ing to McGrath’s one-time cabi­net col­league Ernest Blythe: “He brought with him some of the men with whom he had been associated in Army In­tel­li­gence. It was pop­u­larly be­lieved that there­after, a man work­ing on the Shan­non Scheme could not curse the weather with­out his words be­ing re­ported to Joe.”

Within three months of his ar­rival, McGrath had bro­ken the strike. He and his heav­ies stayed on to keep the work­force in line, in con­di­tions never far from top­pling into anar­chy.

Apart from pal­try pay, the liv­ing con­di­tions for many work­ers were atro­cious. A shanty town had sprung up around Ard­nacrusha, its pop­u­la­tion swollen by count­less men just hang­ing around in the hope that a few days work might come up. In June 1926, a meet­ing of the Clare County Board of Health heard that be­tween 12 and 14 work­ers had made their home in a sta­ble at Black­wa­ter, while a fam­ily of four were liv­ing in a pigsty at­tached to a labourer’s cot­tage.

The pigsty, the sta­ble and the shanty town proved shock­ing images, even in an Ire­land where many hadn’t two ha’pen­nies to rub to­gether. This was no one’s vi­sion of a new, proudly self-suf­fi­cient land of free­dom. Within days, the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent had a reporter at the en­trance of the in­fa­mous pigsty.

The In­de­pen­dent re­ported: “The lat­ter ac­com­mo­dates a hus­band, a wife and two chil­dren. Some of the places in which men are sleep­ing are not at all fit for hu­man be­ings. There was one place re­ferred to by the Home As­sis­tance Of­fi­cer.

“It was merely an out-of­fice. It might have housed horses or cat­tle. The beds con­sisted of old hay, thrown on the floor, with no sug­ges­tion of bed cloth­ing. One of the heaps of hay was semi-cov­ered with an old sack. Those men are pay­ing rent for the priv­i­lege of the ac­com­mo­da­tion.”

Fur­ther on, the piece con­tin­ued: “The Camp Com­man­dant at Ard­nacrusha, Mr WJ Sta­ple­ton, stated that it was pos­si­ble there were men liv­ing in out­houses, but they were not em­ployed on the scheme. He pointed out that men were ar­riv­ing at the works daily from all parts of the coun­try, of­times pen­ni­less, seek­ing to find em­ploy­ment and unable to find any. It was quite con­ceiv­able that those men in numer­ous in­stances were obliged to sleep out.”

The me­dia out­cry led to a Dáil de­bate, where McGrath’s suc­ces­sor at In­dus­try & Com­merce, Pa­trick McGil­li­gan, flatly dis­missed re­ports of squalor as fake news, say­ing: “You may take it prima fa­cie that the press is in­ac­cu­rate.” It was McGil­li­gan who had signed the light touch con­tract with Siemens, ty­ing the Ger­mans to the most flimsy health and safety com­mit­ments.

Asked to per­suade the com­pany to take greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for their grow­ing num­bers of sick and in­jured, the min­is­ter said it was out­ra­geous to think of ask­ing such a thing. The storm of pub­lic­ity over the work­ers’ con­di­tions might have been ex­pected to pro­vide the per­fect plat­form for the unions to raise their voices once again. In­stead, their si­lence was deaf­en­ing. McGrath had done his job well.

Ac­cord­ing to historian Michael Mc­Carthy: “McGrath had out­flanked and out­played the unions dur­ing the strike by hir­ing ex-ser­vice­men from the Free State Army, in­clud­ing a cap­tain as camp com­man­dant, while ex­clud­ing would-be trou­ble­mak­ers and union or­gan­is­ers. The con­trac­tors also, re­port­edly, en­cour­aged the for­ma­tion of bo­gus unions in the Ard­nacrusha camp, set up an ef­fec­tive camp-in­former net­work, and em­ployed a ‘heavy gang’ to en­force law and or­der.”

In years to come, McGrath would brush off re­peated charges of run­ning a bo­gus union in the Ir­ish Hos­pi­tals’ Sweep­stakes in or­der to con­found at­tempts to or­gan­ise a real one.

The shock-hor­ror cov­er­age of the sum­mer of 1926 sub­sided, but any im­prove­ments in con­di­tions seemed short-lived. In 1928, a lead story in the Clare Cham­pion blared: “Crowds In Sta­ble — Shock­ing Con­di­tions At Ard­nacrusha”. Sub­se­quent re­search has shown that Siemens had been will­ing to fund bet­ter ac­com­mo­da­tion for their Ir­ish work­ers, but the gov­ern­ment for­bade it. This was the same gov­ern­ment that in­fa­mously shaved a ha’penny off the old age pen­sion.

The Shan­non Scheme was of­fi­cially launched on July 22, 1929 when, fol­low­ing a bless­ing by the Bishop of Kil­laloe, Pres­i­dent WT Cos­grave threw the switch to open the sluice gates that would bring Ire­land into the mod­ern power age.

Ernest Blythe wrote of McGrath: “He en­sured that Ard­nacrusha came in on time to the de­light of the gov­ern­ment.”

The new­born Free State was de­lighted in­deed to have made its big state­ment to a world that was suit­ably im­pressed, but it came at a cost of 53 work­ers’ lives, hun­dreds of crip­pling in­juries, and un­fath­omable depths of cal­lously in­flicted hu­man mis­ery.

This was no one’s vi­sion of a new, proudly self-suf­fi­cient land of free­dom. Within days, the had a reporter at the en­trance of the in­fa­mous pigsty

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF ESB

State­ment: at the time, it was the big­gest en­gi­neer­ing pro­ject ever un­der­taken here

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