By Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian
Ever wondered what it was like to work as an Irish agricultural labourer in 1918? Well, look no further than the archives of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. The minutes of the finance council (B3/11/3) provide an insight into working conditions at this time, which typically consisted of nine or ten-hour days for an average wage of thirty shillings per week. This work was certainly not for the fainthearted! In August 1918 representatives from the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union met with members of the College to agree better working conditions for agricultural labourers.
The wider Irish labour movement made significant strides during the year 1918, including the successful coordination of a one-day general strike on the 23rd April in support of the anti-conscription campaign. The authorities at Maynooth College were increasingly aware of the threat of industrial action and in May 1918 they discussed the establishment of a college bakery ‘particularly in view of the dangers to the College from Strikes in the Dublin Bakeries’. Just three months later, in August 1918, strike action at Maynooth College was a very real possibility.
On the 16th August the council met to deliberate on a request by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union for an improvement in working conditions, outlined as follows:
- The granting of a ‘half holiday’ on Saturdays.
- An agreed work pattern in line with guidelines from the Agricultural Labour Board which recommended ten hours of work during the summer and nine hours during the winter.
- An additional three shillings for Sunday work.
- A bonus of four pounds during the harvest season.
- The payment of wages totalling thirty-five shillings each week.
Faced with the prospect of strike action the College prepared to make some concessions. It was agreed that the request for additional holiday leave on Saturday could not be sanctioned by the College; that it would aim for agreed working hours (where possible); that an increase from two shillings sixpence to three shillings would be given for Sundays; and that wages of thirty-five shillings was too high. When it came to the harvest bonus the council noted that:
‘There was no difficulty in accepting the principle of a harvest bonus, but there was a difficulty about how to deal with the Bonus in case a workman was careless in coming punctually to work or in absenting himself for some days during the busy harvest season.’
The following day (17th August) the vice-president and bursar met with representatives of the Irish Transport Union, including future Irish Labour Party member, Thomas Farren, to agree a settlement. The terms were agreed as follows:
- No half-holiday was to be granted on Saturdays.
- Hours were fixed at ten hours during the summer and nine in the winter.
- An additional three shillings were to be awarded for Sunday work.
- Wages were fixed at thirty shillings per week for summer and winter.
- A three-pound bonus was to be paid at harvest-time. The finance council noted, however, that ‘[i]f any of these labourers deliberately remains out during a substantial portion of the harvest work he is not be to entitled to any harvest money; and a pro rata deduction is to be made in case of those who deliberately fail to keep time.’
- It was up to casual workers to agree their wages with the College.
In 1918 the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union successfully argued for better working conditions on behalf of agricultural labourers at Maynooth College. Although these changes may appear modest by today’s standards, they constituted a significant achievement for workers at the time.
Minutes of the Finance Council, Archives of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth B/3/11/3