A guide to labour history on the web

Contributed by Brian Hanley

Most history courses taught in Irish universities tend to confine their studies of labour to the 1913 Lockout or as a way of explaining James Connolly and 1916. Jim Larkin may or not be mentioned again in passing later, but there remains a consensus that labour was marginal to the main story of Ireland in the 20th century. That 1919-22 were far more important years for labour than 1913, and that the labour movement was influential in terms of numbers and activity during the revolutionary era usually passes most people by. Professor Emmet O’Connor offers some thoughts on this here. (An updated edition of O’Connor’s A Labour History of Ireland is being re-published this year.)

Despite at times being seen as having a narrow focus, labour history is about more than trade union records, or strikes and lockouts, or left organisations (though it is of course about all those things). There is a growing appreciation of studies of work, family life, leisure, class (in both town and country) and ethnicity involved in labour history. These sites will give you some idea of this. As with most things on the internet, some have links that will lead you to even more interesting sites, and others have links that will lead you nowhere.

This is a very rough guide – there’s loads more and feel free to point them out! 

Irish Labour
Conor McCabe is involved with this site. Conor’s history of the roots of the economic crisis The Sins of the Father is due out this summer – put it on your reading lists).

Irish Labour History Society
It’s a great pity that Saothar, the Irish Labour History Society journal isn’t accessible online, as a lot of cutting edge research has appeared in it over the years.

Cedar Lounge Revolution
This site will be familiar to some already, but they are doing invaluable work putting this material up.

Some from outside Ireland
Most of these sites are U.S. based-they range from Universities to local history societies and trade unions.

Virtual Library: Labour History

University of Washington Library: Labour History Guide


Youngstown State University: Center for Working-Class Studies

Northern Illinois University: Labour History Links

British Labour History


7 Responses to “A guide to labour history on the web”

  1. Kenneth Desmond Says:

    There’s reason most colleges do not teach this stuff. What’s so special about ‘the workers’? Who wants to be lectured about strikes by academics earning 100,000 grand plus and doing no work. They should teach what will be useful to us, not this nonsense.

  2. dfallon Says:

    “What’s so special about ‘the workers’?”

    The fact they make up the vast majority of society? Socio-economic factors are crucial to understanding any history. By focusing on ‘the workers’ we can move away from historical figureheads to broader histories. The men and women of the Irish Citizen Army for example did not fall from the sky.

    Brian’s point on the 1919-22 period here is an excellent one that passes so many young history students by, I remember being amazed by the extent of labour activity and unrest in the War of Independence period when I first developed an interest in history. Of course this aspect of the period is written out of the popular narrative. Works like Desmond Greave’s history of the ITGWU were mind-blowing because they took the focus from leading republican figureheads of the period to the mass of the people.

  3. Adrian Grant Says:

    “Who wants to be lectured about strikes by academics earning 100,000 grand plus and doing no work. They should teach what will be useful to us, not this nonsense?”

    This is the misconception of labour history that frustrates those of us engaged in this area of research. As Brian points out labour history is about so much more than strikes. Irish labour history is underdeveloped but you can still have your views of major historical events altered by looking at them from the perspective of “the workers”. dfallon’s mention of Greaves’ history of the ITGWU is just one example of how labour history can change our perceptions of major events.

    I look forward to more cutting edge research in Irish labour history and Saothar is a brilliant outlet for historians in this field. However, it seems that funding for major projects is hard to come by. Perhaps moves towards the study of work, leisure, familiy life and class and ethnicity (as outlined above) will give Irish labour history slightly more popularity and go some way towards combatting the misconceptions that seem to hold it back.

  4. Brian J Goggin Says:

    I’m interested in what Adrian says about labour history and its relationship to “major events” history. My own interest is in waterways (transport, not construction) history, as an aspect of industrial history: to me, it’s essentially about how people put bread on the table. But perhaps to an even greater extent than labour history, it’s outside the mainstream. I have recently been looking at what the National Museum has in stock: practically nothing about industry.


  5. Adrian Grant Says:

    The history of industry, waterways (transport and construction) and how people put bread on the table all fall under the remit of labour history in some way. This is why I think it is such an important area that should be developed in Ireland. We can gain a fresh outlook on almost any area of Irish history by looking at the “labour” aspect of it.

    The lack of resources for industrial history impacts on us labour historians too. Its not something I’ve looked into in any detail but there are bound to be resources out there that can widen the perspective of industrial and labour studies. Is it a matter of encouraging industry to deposit records etc in archives and museums? More oral history from ordinary workers and their employers?

  6. Brian J Goggin Says:

    [rant]Funny you should mention archives: I’m intending to compose an argument to the effect that records should be kept out of archives and museums. Once they get in to the hands of the professionals, they’ll be in a queue, awaiting funding, for fifty years, and even then you’ll have to truck off to some basement to look at them. What I want is to encourage folk to scan or otherwise digitise stuff and shove it up on tinterweb; only after they’ve done that should folk worry about archives and museums. I’ve got a lot more useful material from Google’s (and others’, notably the University of Southampton’s EPPI project) digitising than from any paper store. Same with artefacts: the National Museum shouldn’t be let anywhere near them until it has sold or dumped or given away about 2.75 million of the items it holds (C&AG report 2007). And its first purchase after the clear-out should be a steam engine.[/rant]

    It seems to me that there is a case for a project — a sort of Modern Folklore Commission — that would bring together academic historians, local history societies and anoraks (like me) who like old boats and railways and steam engines and so on. A focus might be provided by the creation of local (however defined) economic histories, encompassing industries, labour, technology, economics and politics.

    My principal current interest is the inland activities of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company on the Shannon in the 1830s. Its history could be written purely as a matter of steamships and so on, but it intersects with Irish life in so many ways: when the company needed Westminster to allow it to raise more capital, motions of support were put forward by Danial O’Connell and his sons and supporters. Yet when I’ve asked people what prominent Irish politician of the 1830s might have supported the company, they don’t think of O’Connell: the transport history lives in one box, the parliamentary in another.


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