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Unity over seas: Irish trade unionist accidents

This week we continue our exploration of the next update to our project database – around 25,000 records of railway trade union members and their accidents and ill-health, between the 1880s and 1920. Last week we marked International Women’s Day by looking at a few of the ways women appear in the new data. This week we take another day as our prompt: St Patrick’s Day.

For the period covered by our new data release, what is now Ireland was a part of the UK. As a result, when the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) was founded, in 1871, it was natural that with the union covering UK railway workers, branches would also be formed across the island of Ireland. This means that Irish branches and Irish members have left their trace in the various types of data coming into the project database. We have identified over 500 Irish cases in the new data release.

The ASRS, and its successor union, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR; now the RMT), looked after the interests of its members in a number of ways. If they were injured in an accident, or suffered from ill-health, and were disabled – temporarily or permanently, the union would attempt to secure compensation appropriate to the duration of the disability. For example, on 28 April 1908, porter M Coughlan, 56, of the Cork 2 branch on the Great Southern and Western Railway was involved in a shunting accident. His left arm was ‘rendered permanent useless’. He received 7/9 per week until October, at which point he received a lump sum of £125.

Whilst Irish railway companies understandably dominate the data, British railway companies also appear, as they had interests in Ireland. This means we see goods porter M Donhoe of the London and North Western Railway being injured at Dublin North Wall on 29 August 1901. He was helping to load a boat when the hook of a steam crane hit him on the head. He was awarded 13/5 per week in compensation – paid until May 1904, which he was paid a lump sum of £180 in full settlement.

Sadly many staff were killed. In those cases the union would attempt to secure compensation for any dependents. When on 29 February 1908 shunters T Doyle, 33, and W Needham, 23, were hit by a steam engine at Bray, they were killed. Compensation payments for fatal accidents often amounted to between £100-300. However, for both Doyle and Needham’s families, they received only £25 each. Quite why this should be is unknown – though it looks likely that their compensation claim was turned down on some grounds, as the comments on the case succinctly note ‘Grant’. This suggests it was a discretionary payment made by the railway company, the Dublin and South Eastern Railway, beyond their legal duty.

It wasn’t just railway staff found in the union’s records. A number of people had reason to be about the railway, and sadly that means they had accidents. These might include passengers like Mr Conwell, killed whilst crossing the Great Northern Railway of Ireland line in Londonderry on 3 December 1909. Given Conwell wasn’t a railway employee or union member, why does his accident appear? The union represented members’ interests at coroner’s inquests – including where there was any question that they might be held responsible. In this case J Long, the driver of the train that hit Conwell, was represented. The union used a local solicitor to protect Long – and it worked. The jury added a rider that ‘We are of the opinion that there are not sufficient precautions taken to protect the public on this portion of the line. The driver and fireman had done everything possible to obviate the accident and save the life of deceased.’

Found elsewhere in the data are a range of accidents, from a variety of causes whilst doing all sorts of jobs – runaway trains; slips, trips and falls; sepsis; and a lot else besides. They cover locations from Athenry and Dundalk, via Limerick and Newry, to Rosslare and Wexford. Boilermakers, carters, policemen, station masters, shunters, track workers and many more grades all appear. With so many cases, the information on Irish railway worker accidents will provide an excellent resource, telling us plenty about the experiences of railway work in Ireland and about people’s experiences.

We’ll be launching this trade union data on Monday 27 March, to be provided on this page – do be sure to check it, and let us know what you find!

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