Classroom Bolsheviks - Pay, Politics & Ireland’s National Teachers
by Niamh Puirséil
The years leading up to 1918 had seen growing militancy across many sectors of society. Politics had been transformed by militant unionism and separatism, and the years before the outbreak of war had seen the emergence of a more militant labour movement which had led to the counter-attack by the owners of capital, not to mention the emergence of militant feminism. By the end of the war, even a group as apparently respectable as primary teachers had moved away from polite campaigning.
By the spring of 1918, with the Great War well into its fourth year, the national teachers of Ireland were becoming increasingly restless. Low pay was a long-standing grievance among Irish teachers but as the cost of living soared over the course of the war the issue became more pressing. In July 1915, civil servants had been awarded a ‘war bonus’ to help off-set rising prices. Teachers looked for the same but were left empty handed well into 1916. When the government finally made its initial offer to the teachers in October 1916, it was rejected by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) because the women teachers were offered half the bonus being offered to men, and the women members – led by former INTO president Catherine Mahon – made it quite clear that they would not tolerate anything less than the same bonus as the men. Around the same time, in England, women teachers had formed a breakaway union from the NUT, and under the threat of something similar happening in Ireland, which might have resulted in more than half the INTO membership forming its own union, the organisation stood firm. Finally, in December 1916, the teachers secured the war bonus given on an equal basis to men and women teachers, but while it was welcome it was only a drop in the ocean. Not long after, in January 1917, civil servants were awarded another war bonus but while the teachers naturally made a similar claim, by the end of the year, the Government was still refusing to pay on its own terms, while teachers looked for the war bonus without strings.
There were other sources of anger among the members of the INTO. In 1913, its vice president Edmund Mansfield, a principal teacher in Cullen Boys’ school in County Tipperary had been summarily dismissed from his job by the Board of National Education which oversaw primary schools in Ireland after he had criticised local inspectors at a private INTO meeting. It was a mean-spirited, unnecessary act which the board refused to overturn, and it added an extra level of resentment to the national teachers’ sense of injustice. At least one member of the Board of National Education reported that teachers had been active locally in anti-recruitment campaigning, and suspected that their activities had been at least partly influenced by their antipathy towards the British state due to the Board’s treatment of Mansfield.
The INTO had been established some fifty years earlier, in 1868, to improve the pay and conditions of primary school teachers and the standards of education in the country. It began as a professional organisation rather than a trade union, though. For one thing, the Rules for National Schools expressly prohibited teachers from engaging in controversy. Merely to complain publicly about their salaries could leave them open to dismissal. In its early years, the INTO would collect petitions with thousands of signatures seeking pay increases and it also lobbied Dublin Castle and the British government on salaries and other conditions of employment The INTO enjoyed some notable successes over the years, not least in securing a pension scheme and residences for teachers but the pay remained a sore point which grew increasingly acute over the course of the war.
Towards the end of 1917, however, many among the Irish teachers had concluded that their traditional approach of lobbying the British government, either directly or through Irish MPs, was not working and it was time to consider more militant tactics. The idea of teachers striking was scandalous to some and many teachers were themselves reluctant to consider the idea, feeling a duty of care towards the children but also believing that ‘their profession was superior to strikes’, points of view that arise frequently among teachers over the years, no matter where in the world.
As well as indicating a willingness to strike, the members of the INTO voted by a small majority to affiliate to the umbrella organisation for Irish unions. Established in 1894 as the Irish Trade Union Congress, in 1912 – with an eye to the proposed setting up of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin in the near future – it had voted to establish a political wing and in 1914 it changed its name to the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party (ITUC&LP). That meant that when the INTO voted to affiliate to the Trade Union Congress, it was also affiliating to a political party – Labour – which was against the INTO rule to be non-political.
At this point, Labour hadn’t contested any elections and was only a party on paper. The bigger problem posed by affiliation with the ITUC&LP was that it had grown increasingly identified with militant separatism since the 1916 Rising. Not only that, but following the October 1917 revolution in Russia, it had become a vocal supporter of the Bolsheviks. For the primary school teachers of Ireland to align themselves, if only by association, with communists who had violently seized power only weeks earlier was quite a turn up for the books, especially considering almost all of them were employed directly by clergy, whether protestant or catholic. In the end, however, affiliation enjoyed the support of everyone on the INTO executive, except for one man, Isaac McLoughlin, a protestant teacher from Portadown.
In the short term, the mere threat of industrial action proved effective for the INTO. Having indicated their willingness to strike in October 1917, details of a new Duke Salary Grant Scheme were published, and after INTO members deemed this inadequate and voted in December 1917 to strike. The Resident Commissioner for Education, W.J.M. Starkie, whose opinion of the teachers was probably as low as their view of him, thought the INTO was bluffing but the Chief Secretary was not prepared to take a chance and the teachers’ openness to militant action worked. They secured the enquiry into national education in Ireland – including pay and conditions – similar to one which had recently taken place in Scotland and which the INTO had demanded. If the strike on pay was averted, for now, many INTO members would strike for the first time in the spring of 1918 as part of a wider industrial action against conscription.
The INTO and the Conscription Crisis
Any unhappiness about the INTO’s affiliation to the ITUC&LP among unionist teachers who feared its republicanism grew sharper during 1918. On 23 April 1918 a national strike was held across Ireland to protest against attempts to introduce conscription to Ireland. The ITUC&LP was to the fore of organising of the strike against conscription, and while the INTO could not be seen to openly endorse the action, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) encouraged INTO members to put their weight behind the anti-conscription effort in terms which were vague yet unmistakable:
‘that at this critical and momentous period in the history of our country, we advise all the members of the organisation to throw in their lot with their fellow countrymen in their various localities, exercise their civil rights to the fullest extent and refuse further to be silent when such issues are at stake.’
This caused considerable anger among many protestant teachers within the organisation. The Irish Protestant National Teachers Union – a group of protestant INTO members established to deal with schools under protestant management – condemned the CEC for recommending that ‘the young men of Ireland shirk their duty to the empire in its time of danger’ and during the summer it signalled they would secede from the INTO if it did not withdraw its support for the anti-conscription campaign and adhere to the organisation’s rule that it was non-political and non-sectarian. The success of the anti-conscription campaign in making it clear that enlistment in Ireland would have to remain voluntary meant that the campaign wound down so it was not necessary for the INTO to distance itself formally but its affiliation to the ITUC&LP remained controversial.
The threat of a strike in late 1917 may have led the Chief Secretary to set up a commission into Irish education, but the teachers were still waiting on a war bonus. By September 1918, their patience was exhausted and the union’s executive called on members to withdraw from work on Wednesday 2 October 1918. It had the broad support of the trade union movement, politicians, some members of the clergy, including members of the hierarchy, and the popular press. Serving as a sort of pre-strike strike, teachers were expected to attend local branch meetings, where they would sign a pledge to go on general strike from 4 November if the war bonus on civil service terms was not paid before then. Described excitedly in the INTO journal as ‘Independence Day’, it was widely observed and, once again, proved effective. Before it had taken place, the Treasury had already admitted defeat and ultimately the teachers were granted their second war bonus, payable from July that year, in November, and a second award in February.
The embrace of trade unionism and militancy was paying off but the INTO’s association with the trade union movement continued to be controversial among unionists. In November 1918, the ITUC&LP held a special conference to discuss its position on the forthcoming general election at which it decided not to put forward any Labour candidates and leave a clear fight between the separatists of Sinn Féin and the Home Rule candidates in most of the country. During proceedings, there was positive discussion of the anti-conscription campaign, praise of the late James Connolly and his comrades of 1916, and great welcome for the Russian Revolution, with condemnation of foreign (British) tyranny in Ireland.
The conference speeches and the decision by the ITUC&LP to effectively give Sinn Féin a clear run was abhorrent to many of the protestant teachers in the north east in particular, but their complaints fell on deaf ears in the INTO executive. Isaac McLouglin of Portadown, the sole dissenter on the executive against joining the ITUC&LP, resigned from the CEC around this time and a handful of branches – those in Coleraine, Lisburn, Londonderry and Newtownards – severed their connection with the INTO.
By the time the INTO met for its annual conference the following Easter, in April 1919, the War of Independence had entered its fourth month. Some protestant delegates from the north east tried to coax their nationalist brother and sister teachers away from taking political sides but by then, neutrality was becoming increasingly impossible. A serious breach on the question of supporting the Limerick Soviet was eventually averted by avoiding a vote but it was clear that among some members, teacher unity took second place to the national struggle. Warned by one Tyrone teacher that if they forced a vote on the Limerick Soviet, they would lose the protestants of the north as a whole, there were cries of ‘let them go’ and ‘cut them out’.
Some months later, in July 1919, the northern branches which had already left the INTO came together and established the Ulster National Teachers’ Union, soon after the Ulster Teachers Union (UTU). As the historian of the UTU has noted, ‘but for the political backcloth of Ireland at this period, history would suggest that the union would, like its predecessor the Northern Union of Irish National Teachers, eventually reunite with the INTO as its parent body’, and no doubt this was the feeling of the majority of the CEC. In the short term, the INTO’s position remained reasonably secure in the north-east, with the UTU thought to have had a membership of around 500 at the beginning of 1921. The INTO, on the other hand, had more than five times that.
The UTU made a slow start but in the years after partition it gained strength and eventually overtook the INTO in numbers, although the INTO maintained a strong presence in the six counties and for many years continued to have a significant and active protestant membership. By 1922, the ITUC&LP’s ardour for Bolshevism had quite cooled but that did not stop the UTU from accusing the INTO of being affiliated with the Red International and acquainted with the methods of their Russian allies.
Patently ludicrous to anyone in the know, when it was described to southern members, they saw it as a joke and were hugely amused. Their inability to take it seriously was a problem though. INTO members in the north did not find it funny as the union there had started to lose members in droves. Had a similar accusation been made south of the border, there would have been considerably less mirth, but perhaps it is evidence of how in only a few short months, the border had already established itself in the minds of those living in the Free State.