‘Every Catholic workman in the city…down tools’ – Galway’s wildcat strike, 23 July 1935

Galway docks where the dispute took place.
Galway docks where the dispute took place.

Brian Hanley concludes his trio of articles on disturbances across Ireland in July 1935 with an article on a strike in Galway city. See also, A Limerick Riot and ‘Boycott the Orangemen‘.

Among those who condemned the attacks on Catholics in Belfast during July 1935 were the trade unions. Some workers took industrial action in protest at events in Belfast, with dockers in Limerick, Fenit, Sligo and Waterford blacking shipping from Belfast. In Galway however a similar action developed sectarian features.


On Monday July 22 dock workers in Galway refused to unload a cargo of grain from the S.S. Comber, a ship owned by Sir William Kelly of Belfast. The vessel was boarded and its ensign taken down and burnt, while the crew were informed that it would be safer for them not to leave the ship.The leaders of the action, William Carrick and John Healy, were both officials of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU) and Labour Party members of Galway Urban Council.

In July 1935 ATGWU union members in Galway went on unofficial strike, in protest against rioting in Belfast, ‘until every Orange workman no matter who he is, is cleared out’.

That evening both men addressed a rally in Eyre Square, where they called for a general strike to begin the following morning. The press reported that the central demand of the strike was that ‘Orangemen (be) driven out of Galway.’[1] A Garda report claimed that Healy told the crowd that ‘I am here now to ask you to clear every Orangeman out of Galway within twenty-four hours. I ask every Catholic workmen in the city to down tools tomorrow morning at 9.am, until every Orange workman no matter who he is, is cleared out. I will be at the station tomorrow evening to see them leave, bag and baggage.’[2]

This call for a strike was adopted unanimously by the meeting. After the rally the dockers, led by their fife and drum band, as well as several men on horseback, set off around Galway town centre. They then marched back to the port and assembled at the Comber, stood to attention and sang Amhrán na bhFiann. The ship remained under Garda protection all night.

The strike

On the morning of Tuesday 23 July work was again halted at the docks. The port authorities were informed that the S.S. Dun Aengus, the ferry to Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare,would not be allowed leave, while its chief engineer, a Protestant,was on board. Only when the man eventually agreed to disembark was the ferry allowed progress. Around 1pm the dockers, led again by a band, began visiting various workplaces and demanding that workers join them on strike.

[3]They marched to the Galway Foundry and Engineering Company in Mill Street and called on the workers to come out. Most seem to have done so. At the Connacht Laundry in Henry Street over 50 women also joined the strike. At the Galway Woodworkers Company, Earl’s Island, workers walked out and the business closed for the day. One man refused to join the strike however. Some reports suggested that he was a Protestant and comments aimed at him by Healy seem to confirm this;‘look at the smile of the Orange bastard now, but by God if we don’t get you out now, we’ll come back for you.’

The marchers then returned to Eyre Square, where a conference took place between their leaders, the Gardaí and three local Catholic priests. Healy explained that the marchers were to rally that night but intended to continue visiting other workplaces in the meantime. Shortly afterwards the crowd set off down Eglinton Street and visited several premises calling for support. As the crowd progressed into Shop Street the general noise caused a horse to panic and drag its cart through a store window.

Finally the marchers reached the ESB substation at Newtownsmith.But the ESB workers refused to join the strike and verbal confrontations with the marchers ensued. As the situation escalated, the Gardaí drew batons and charged the crowd, which scattered in several directions. Several people were injured but eventually the marchers rallied again at Eyre Square.


‘The state here in Galway said the Orangemen must remain and now the state says we must go back and work with them…the Guards had no call to do what they did today- to baton us- they’re Catholics too.’ John Healy

‘The state said the Orangemen must remain’

There was further confusion when rumours spread that some kind of explosive device had been left on the steps of a Protestant church. This turned out to be a tin box filled with tar. Meanwhile Garda reinforcements from Dublin and rural districts had arrived.An emotional Healy addressed the crowd, ‘I am sorry to say we have failed, because the state here in Galway said that we can’t go ahead…the state here in Galway said the Orangemen must remain and now the state says we must go back and work with them…the Guards had no call to do what they did today- to baton us- they’re Catholics too.’ Nevertheless the impression given by platform speakers was that the strikes would continue.

However while the dockers continued their action, and the Comber remained unloaded, most of the other workplaces operated normally on Wednesday 24th. Later that week Galway Urban Council unanimously passed a motion calling for a boycott of Northern Ireland goods until ‘our co-religionists in this area (are) given equal rights and status’ but agitation on the issue was effectively over.[4]

The exception was the Connacht Laundry, where only half of the workforce turned up for work on Wednesday. These women left at lunchtime to persuade their striking colleagues to return but instead were convinced to stay out themselves. The Laundry’s owners then announced that they were closing as a result of the strike.[5] This led to an almost complete shutdown on Thursday with the majority of workers striking. A few women did pass the pickets which led to scuffles between Gardaí and strikers. (The small number of men employed in the laundry continued to work as normal throughout.)

The strike was not only unofficial but the women did not in fact belong to a union at all. They had originally come out in support of the dockers but without a clear grievance of their own. Now they demanded the dismissal of one of their managers, a Miss. Hannan, before they would return to work. Hannan was a Protestant, a fact the strikers reportedly objected to. They later claimed that it was not in fact Hannan’s religion, but her calling them names that was their main complaint. The owners of the Laundry, the Quaker Goodbody family, made it clear that Hannan was a loyal employee, against whom there had been no previous complaints and that dismissing her was out of the question.[6]Despite the mediation of clergy, politicians and union officials the laundry remained closed and in early August advertised for new employees.[7]

Many of the women involved were from Galway’s west end and related to dock workers, a fact which may have helped solidify their protest.[8]However unlike the others who struck on July 23, the women of the Connacht Laundry ended up sacrificing several weeks wages, for a cause that was unclear to say the least.

Galway in Context

The Galway strike was perceived as part of the same phenomenon as the riot in Limerick and other incidents. The Republican Congress lamented how ‘two councillors-members of the ATGWU, are inciting against Protestants, attempting to secure their dismissal.’[9]The Communist Party accused the strike leaders of ‘imitating’ the Ulster Unionists and called on workers to resist efforts to ‘foment a counter-pogrom’ against Protestants.[10]

When approached by the Republican Congress, ATGWU officers in Dublin pleaded ignorance of the dispute (which was completely unofficial). But what happened in Galway was also different in several ways from other incidents. Firstly while there was militant industrial action, no violence was directed at Protestants. As the demonstrators marched through Galway they passed several Protestant owned businesses but there was no attempt to attack them.

We do not know why people joined the walkouts; some may have done so in protest at what was happening in Belfast, others out of solidarity with workmates. Nor do we know why the ESB workers refused to support the protest. But the rhetoric of the strike leaders was sectarian, with specific appeals to Catholics and demands that ‘Orange workmen’ be dismissed.[11] There had not been overt sectarian confrontations in Galway since the 19thcentury, but some residual tension remained.[12]

There may also have been other explanations for how the dispute developed. The ATGWU were concerned about the appointment of a non-union engineer on the Dun Aengus. The issue of the man’s religion was not originally a factor but could have been raised opportunistically in order to bring the matter to a head. If that was the case than Healy and Carrick behaved very irresponsibly, given the emotions aroused by events in Belfast and elsewhere.

Both men were well-known in the Galway labour movement. Carrick had become active in trade unionism since 1909 and worked as a checker on the docks. Healy, like a substantial number of working class Galwegians, had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War. He was involved in radical union activity during the early 1920s, reputedly being among a group who forced a leading employer onto the Dublin train telling him was no longer required in Galway.[13]

In 1928 the Galway dockers left the Irish Transport Union and joined the British-based ATGWU (the ATGWU was often targeted by other Irish unions precisely because it was British-based).[14] Healy was elected, along with fellow ATGWU official Carrick, to Galway Urban Council for the Labour Party in 1934. Neither man was popular with the Gardaí who described them privately as being ‘of a poor type.’[15]

In 1936, when the ATGWU donated medical aid to the Spanish republicans, the Galway branch was among several in Ireland that disaffiliated in protest, the dockers rejoining the ITGWU.[16]Carrick joined the breakaway National Labour party in 1944 and was a councilor for the party when he died in 1949.[17]Healy however remained a stalwart of mainstream labour and trade union politics in Galway. When he died in 1982, mayor Michael D. Higgins eulogized ‘Johnno’ as a ‘man with the strength of steel’ and the ‘quality of granite’ with two loves in his life, his family and socialism.[18] Like much of what occurred during July 1935 the men’s role in the strike seems to have been forgotten.


The July 1935 events were certainly the most widespread occurrences of anti-Protestant activity in the Free State’s history but in terms of violence were not comparable in any way with the events taking place at the same time in Belfast


The July 1935 events were certainly the most widespread occurrences of anti-Protestant activity in the Free State’s history.[19]In terms of violence they were not comparable in any way with the events taking place at the same time in Belfast. Nobody was killed or seriously injured in the 26 counties. That does not mean that those the receiving end of broken windows or threatening letters were not entitled to fear for their safety.

For many Protestants the events would have confirmed their vulnerability as a small minority. What was important however was the attitude of the state. Gardaí were given a general order to devote extra resources to protecting Protestant property and institutions. Senior Protestant clergymen acknowledged the importance of the condemnations of the violence by Eamon de Valera and Seán MacEntee among others.[20]

Much was made in the press of the anger of Catholic clergy at attacks on Protestant places of worship.The assertion of the Catholic bishop of Galway Thomas O’Doherty that, ‘wrong done to a minority in Belfast does not justify wrong done to a minority in Galway’ was echoed by several of his peers.[21] Given the influence of the Catholic Church such vocal disapproval probably had some effect, as did other condemnations from across the political spectrum.[22]It was also significant that organizations like the IRA were not involved.[23] What the incidents say about the position of Protestants in the Free State, and their own perceptions of their place in independent Ireland needs further examination, as does the extent of sectarian division.

I am indebted to John Cunningham for much of the information and sources relating to Galway in this article.

Brian Hanley.

Dr. Brian Hanley is the author of; The IRA  A Documentary History, 1919-2005The IRA: 1926-1936, and with Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution, The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. His is currently researching the impact of the Northern Ireland conflict on southern Ireland. He teaches History at University College Dublin. You can read more posts by him here.


[1]Connacht Tribune, 27 July 1935.

[2]Garda report, 23 July 1935 in Department Justice, 2008/117/566 National Archives of Ireland. Many of the Garda reports dealing with the strike are in Irish and an Irish-speaker might glean more information from them.

 [3] Ibid.

[4]Connacht Tribune, 27 July 1935.

[5]Connacht Tribune, 27 July 1935.

[6]Irish Times, 1 August 1935.

[7]Connacht Sentinel, 6 August 1935.

[8] Thanks to John Cunningham for this information. It is unclear whether the strikers regained their jobs or if an entirely new workforce was recruited. We of course again lack the perspective of the strikers themselves.

[9]Republican Congress, 27 July 1935.

[10]Irish Workers Voice, 27 July 1935.

[11] Other resolutions, such as those of the Dublin deep-sea dockers in the Irish Seamen’s and Port Workers Union and the ITGWU’s Tramway branch, condemned sectarian activity in the Free State as well as violence in the North. Irish Times, 23 & 30 July 1935.

[12] These often related to evangelical missionary efforts, particularly in Connemara, many Galway workers having roots there. Thanks to John Cunningham for this information. See also John Cunningham, A Town Tormented by the Sea: Galway 1790-1914 (Dublin, 2004) p. 266-74.

[13] Thanks again to John Cunningham for this information.

[14]Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh (Ed) The Life and Times of Gilbert Lynch (Dublin, 2011) p. 72.

[15]Garda report, 23 July 1935 in D/J 2008/117/567 NAI.

[16]FearghalMcGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Cork, 1999) p. 184.

[17]Connacht Tribune, 8 October 1949.

[18]Connacht Sentinel 6 April 1982.

[19] Though similar incidents occurred during 1969 and 1972, again in response to events in Northern Ireland. (The Fethard-On-Sea boycott of 1957, involving a local community boycott, is arguably a different phenomenon.)

[20]Irish Times, 29 July 1935.

[21]Irish Times, 30 July 1935.

[22]See statement from Dublin Council of Trade Unions for example. Irish Times, 30 July 1935.

[23] The IRA’s newspaper An Phoblacht had been suppressed and I have been unable to find a statement from the organization referring to the attacks. Garda reports suggest that IRA officers expressed disapproval of such activities.

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