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The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73


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Table of Contents

Introduction; A Very Constitutional Party; Could Labour Become Socialist? Labour in the Hungry Thirties; Labour's Rise and Fall, 1938-44; Picking up the Pieces, 1944-8; In Office or Power? Labour and the First Inter-Party Government; Return to the Sidelines, 1951-4; Never Had it so Bad! The Second Inter-Party Government, 1954-7; Labour's Way; The Seventies will be Socialist?; Smoky Misdirection, 1969-73; Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography; Index.

About the Author

NIAMH PUIRSEIL is joint editor of Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society and a former Research Fellow in the Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Trinity College Dublin.


"Niamh Puirseil has produced an invaluable reference work for anyone interested in her subject. It brims with facts presented in an easy style spiced with a pleasant ironic humour." History Ireland, Sept Oct 2007 "It is dense and extremely detailed. The author is unafraid to make assessments or draw conclusions and there is a fine degree of intelligent analysis on display." Books Ireland Oct 2007 "a seriously researched study which is not afraid to debunk the myths of previous historians, and is written with a sense of humour which is still too rare in labour history." Red Banner 70 2007 "a most important book which contributes to a greater understanding of the history of modern Ireland and the contribution made by Labour to it. As such it embraces what traditional historians have long ignored. To a certain extent Labour has been written out of Irish history and this book goes some way towards redressing this." Irish Studies Review Winter 2007/8 "This is a thought-provoking study peppered with many original observations. A high quality of research is maintained throughout the book, with Puirseil's wide archival and newspaper trawl and an excellent employment of the (still underused) Dail debates reaping dividends in the production of this lively account of the Labour Party's history ... has now raised the bar for such future works..." Irish Political Studies Jan 2008 "an enthralling read that deserves much academic and literary credit ... belongs in every history classroom in this state." The Left Tribune Vol 3 Issue 2 2008 "if Puirseil's intention was to eschew crude paradigms, where evidence is marshalled to 'prove' pre-determined conclusions, then she succeeds admirably in that regard. This is a balanced and fascinating appraisal of the Labour Party, written with wry humour and an eye for the telling detail - The book is particularly strong on Labour's time in government and, as one would expect, the party is treated primarily as an electoral organisation rather than a social movement - Puirseil has engaged with the secondary sources, scoured the archives and conducted interviews with several leading figures, and the depth of research is apparent throughout. It is a confident, authoritative and measured study that will be the starting point for all future research on the Irish Labour Party." Fintan Lane Irish Historical Studies vol. XXXVI No. 141 May 2008 "Niamh Puirseil's study of the Labour Party fills an important gap in both the history of political parties and labour history. - [her] study is based on a wide range of new sources and intelligent use of existing archives. She is to be commended for her mature judgement on many of the key issues that faced the Labour Party and Irish party system during this time. She demonstrates that there was a considerable problem of Communist infiltration of the party in the 1940s - [and] provides a careful and reasonably sympathetic assessment of William Norton, the long-standing leader of the party. But perhaps the most important re-evaluation here is that of Brendan Corish - Purseil highlights Corish's decisive influence when the party moved to the left during the late 1960s [providing] a more nuanced and carefully documented appreciation of this labour politician." English Historical Review CXXIV 506 February 2009 "this book represents an invaluable account of 50 years of largely forgotten Party history, and it's for this reason that the book is so valuable. The author gives detailed accounts of events such as the disaffiliation of the ITGWU from the party, and it's subsequent reaffiliation 20 years later, to the events around the 28-year leadership of the party by William Norton. With the level of detail provided on these events, Puirseil's work represents one of the most significant additions to the public history of our Party. The author may not be overly fond of her subject, but in constructing such a detailed account of this 50 year period, she has done us an enormous service." Neil Ward - Labour News UK March 2009 "Puirseil's book is the first comprehensive history of the party since its formation. It concludes that while the party did not make the most of the opportunities Irish politics presented it with, these opportunities were still limited, and that the conservatism of Irish society fundamentally inhibited the development of a strong Labour presence. Certain themes which recur - the existence of a permanent urban-rural split within the party, the dominance of essentially pragmatic and conservative leaders and the inability of Labour to benefit from the influences of other left wing groups, republican, communist or otherwise - all suggest that the party could not transform itself into a genuine radical alternative, even if at times, the electorate needed one. We are left with the picture of a party that seems to have gone through no major electoral, ideological or organisational renaissance over a fifty-year period, and Puirseil concludes that Labour does not deserve our sympathy for this." Bill Kissane Saothar October 2009 'The striking photograph on the cover of this absorbing and iconoclastic history shows the platform during the 1972 Labour Party annual conference. Addressing delegates is the somewhat disheveled septuagenarian chairman, Roddy Connolly, son of revered party founder, James Connolly. Of the thirteen men on the platform with him, however, only the general secretary, looking quizzically upward, is paying attention. Two of the others appear to be sleeping, while the remainder are either chatting or reading. Behind them all is a backdrop comprising an inexpertly stenciled message -'Let's build The Socialist RepublicA" -and the visage of party leader, Brendan Corish, gazing in the direction of the slogan with eyebrows arched, apparently incredulous. If readers have doubts about the fairness of so prominently featuring such an unflattering portrait of the subject organization, Niamh Puirseil's book will assuage them. This was a party of individualists and drunken feckersA" (222), in the words of one of its own parliamentarians, whose public representatives, trade unionists by and large, regarded with disdain the ideological debates that engrossed its expanding membership during the 1960s. It was a party whose longest-serving leader (Bill Norton, 1932-60) was rarely seen outside his own constituency during election campaigns. For these, and for other reasons discussed by the author, it was relatively insignificant, and almost uniquely in western Europe, independent Ireland did not produce a major labor or social democratic party. There were occasional achievements, undoubtedly, but these were overshadowed by blinkered opportunism, by quarrelsomeness, and by sheer spinelessness. This is the first full length academic studyA" (3) of the Irish Labour Party, but its affairs have received considerable scholarly attention elsewhere, not least in Saothar: Journal of the Irish Labour History Society, published annually since 1975, of which Puirseil is currently a coeditor. She draws confidently on the secondary literature and makes effective use of primary sources - trade union records, periodicals and newspapers, memoirs and interviews - but was unable to refer to any great extent to party records because most of them were destroyed in the course of a minor cultural revolution at the head office in the late 1960s. In a well-organized and engagingly written study, in which colorful quotes and revealing anecdotes are deployed to good effect, the cast of characters includes Billy the QuidA" (140), as party leader, Norton, was caricatured when he won GBP1 in damages in a 1949 libel case, and tin whistle players in the Fianna Fail bandA" (40), as Labour members were teased when they gave parliamentary support to the larger party after 1932. Some will quibble that the study takes 1922 as its starting point rather than 1912, the founding date recognized by the party itself, but Puirseil makes a good case for beginning her history in the year that Irish Labour fought its first general election (also the year that Saorstat Eireann, the Irish Free State, came into existence). Arguably, however, rather more than the four pages of background provided here are required if the reader is to fully understand the developments of the 1920s. - In a work that so forensically and so damningly chronicles a party's failings, it comes as a surprise when the conclusion largely absolves those responsible. Given the social structure of independent Ireland up until the 1970s and the unavoidably sectional nature of the party's appeal, Puirseil contends, Labour was fated to be a minority party. For much the same reason, its election campaigns were underresourced by comparison with others. Any effort to broaden the party's appeal by offering radical or socialist alternatives was doomed to failure, she concludes, both because this would have galvanized powerful religious opposition and because the overwhelmingly conservative electorate was not interested in such alternatives. The prescriptions of internal critics of the leadership, it follows, would have made things worse rather than better. By this very deterministic line of argument, the internal squabbling, the strategic incompetence, the inhospitable attitude toward new members, and the venality were consequences rather than causes of Labour's marginal status. While I may disagree with a portion of the analysis, the work may be recommended without reservation. Puirseil's is a well-researched and well-written study that adds substantially to an understanding of the Irish Labour Party. Read the full review here: Journal of British Studies vol 49, no 1 Mar 2010 review John Cunningham, NUI Galway Journal of British Studies Vol 49, No 1 Mar 2010

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