Analysis: national school teachers staged a pitch invasion on Croke Park's biggest day of the year to send a message to the Government over their salaries

It's 1946. Christmas movie It's a Wonderful Life has just premiered, Frank Sinatra is top of the charts, the UN has assembled for the first time and the ESB is embarking on an ambitious plan to extend power to all parts of Ireland. Meanwhile, national school teachers in Dublin were on strike. For more than seven months, school children had no education as teachers sustained a dispute over pay demands. It was the first outright use of strike as a weapon by a professional group in Ireland.

Irish society was facing many challenges at the time. Still in recovery from the effects of the Second World War (or the Emergency), bread rationing was an everyday reality and emigration was the only option for many of the younger population. The summer of 1946 was one of the wettest on record and severe flooding meant that the harvest was threatened. This was of national concern and thousands of volunteers joined farmers in a common effort to help salvage the crops.

A well stocked sweet shop in Dublin in March 1946. Photo: J. Merriman/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Even the 1946 All-Ireland football final between Roscommon and Kerry was postponed due to the 'Harvest Emergency’. The Irish Times reported that "all important GAA games have been abandoned for the weekend and players have been urged to volunteer for harvest work in all four provinces. Tournaments are likely to be postponed until the harvest is secure".

Cork had won the hurling title on September 1st 1946 with Christy Ring as captain, but it would be October 6th before the football final would be played. Roscommon were vying for a third All-Ireland title in four years, while Kerry were chasing their first title since 1941.

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Roscommon led at half-time, but action would continue on the field after the players retreated to the dressing rooms to regroup for the second half. Some 70 teachers dressed in black coats made their way onto the field protesting against the Government's two substantial pay cuts to their salaries in a decade - a plight further intensified by pay increases for Gardaí and senior civil servants in 1945. Carrying banners and placards with messages such as 'Teachers Demand Fair Pay’, the protest was aimed at Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, who was in the capacity crowd with many of his cabinet colleagues.

Poster for teachers' demonstration in Dublin in September 1946. Image: Labour Court

The pitch invasion was part of a build-up of activity by the Irish National Teachers Association and parent groups that week. Mass demonstrations in Dublin city and pickets at the Fianna Fáil ard fheis meant that protesters showed a keen sense for publicity and brought their grievances to the government’s attention at every opportunity.

Croke Park stewards assisted gardaí in escorting the protesters off the field. Allegations of members of the Garda throwing demonstrators to the ground were discussed in the Dáil some weeks later.

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From RTÉ Archives, Pat Sweeney reports for RTÉ News on a 1985 rally by 20,000 striking teachers at Croke Park in 1985 (contains footage of 1946 teacher protest at All Ireland final)

After 30 weeks of strike action and with 40,000 children directly affected by the impasse during which teachers were paid at 90% of their salary, the strikers returned to work empty-handed. The teachers did so at the request of their powerful ally, Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, who was sympathetic with their case and was very active on their behalf throughout the dispute.

The protest on All-Ireland final day was an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate their plight to a capacity crowd and crucially, in front of those in power. While the teachers failed in getting the government to meet their demands, history has looked kindly on the strike of 1946. It is believed that the strike helped significantly to defeat the Fianna Fáil government of the day, usher in the first coalition two years later and paved the way for a better life for teachers.

And the match? It was a draw and Kerry won the replay.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ