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Home arrow Memories arrow Labour history on Irish waterways - snippets 4 - 1922 Commission
Labour history on Irish waterways - snippets 4 - 1922 Commission PDF Print E-mail
08 September 2011


In the 1920’s boatmen and canal workers were the lifeline of Ireland’s supply chain, moving all kinds of goods from our ports and cities along the canals, rivers and lakes to inland communities, and in turn taking raw materials to our cities and ports.

My interest in the waterways and the history of the boatmen and canal workers comes from several angles, initially as a member of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Royal Canal Amenity Group, who both champion the preservation of the navigation system. Then as the owner of an ex-workboat and my involvement with the Heritage Boat Association, my interest headed in another direction. Plus, for the last couple of years, through my involvement with the Irish Labour History Museum and Archive, I have by reading union records from the first half of the 1900s, learned of the men who staffed the system.

Their story is a rather mixed bag of a time of extreme hardship in their conditions of employment. The early years are full of stories of union organisation and unrest, a company under constant pressure from more economical means of transport, and a time of huge political change in Ireland.

1922 Commission

On Tuesday April 11th 1922 at 12 Molesworth Street, Dublin, a commission to enquire into the working of the Grand Canal, set up by Dail Eireann was opened. The five members represented were the government, private boat owners, general traders, the Transport union and the Grand Canal Company.

The commission was to make recommendations which might (a) allow the canal to provide a better service to traders, (b) enable the company operate on a sound economic basis and (c) give the workers a higher standard of living.

The report was expected no later than May 15th!!! Five weeks!

The first witness examined was Mr. H Phillips, general manager of the Canal Company, which was incorporated in 1772, who outlined the extent of the navigation and the company details. He stated that trading covered sixteen counties using the company’s Grand Canal system, the Barrow from Athy to St. Mullins, and the Shannon Navigation, a total of 352 miles.

At that time there were approximately 900 shareholders who were suffering falling dividends; the total staff numbers were roughly 500, who were losing income due to the removal of war bonuses. [These war bonuses were state guaranteed sums, which made up, at times, around half of the total pay. They were introduced to encourage staff to stay in vital industries and not to join the armed services].

Compare these staff numbers to Cork City at the time, with roughly 350 workers in its Corporation, 330 in bacon factories, 350 in breweries and 300 in printing. The Grand Canal Company was a sizeable enterprise.

Labour Snippets - 4

Perhaps these labour history snippets of the time, will give you a flavour of the conditions and the attitudes prevailing.

1. In a letter from Tom Bolger, Graigue representative ITGWU to his Dublin superiors he outlines the rates recently agreed between boatmen in Carrick-on-Suir and their employers. They agreed an average wage of £3 8s per week for a 12 hour day with a bonus for Sunday, if worked.

Tom states that “Canal men work night and day and only receive £2 10s a week and very seldom they are home on a Sunday and never receive anything when away keeping two houses all the time. The Carrick companies are E. Dowley & Son and Walshes with about 30 men between them, hoping you can see something in this to give Phillips Canal Company, a lecture on.”!

2. In reply to a question from Tralee Canal employees, Liberty Hall wrote :-

“A Chara: Re yours of 21st inst, the Grand Canal Co. men, at any rate, are not allowed any holidays. They have to work every day the year round, as the water has to be racked off at set periods every day. Even on the day of the General stoppage, this work had to be done, as otherwise the canal would probably overflow its banks. They are not paid anything extra for holidays, as the fact that they have to work every day of the year is supposed to be taken into consideration when their wages are being fixed. Fraternally yours…”

3. An example of the problems facing the union in organising the boatmen is a note from a country branch secretary which starts:-

“A Canal boatman blew in here yesterday, saying he had trouble with his employer and had parted company with him. His employer owned a canal boat and chartered another one and we should watch out for them coming to Dublin once a fortnight, as his crews were non-union. If you have any means of attacking these men for cards, it might be worth while looking them up.”

4. From another branch secretary –

“I was speaking to one of the lock-keepers on the Grand Canal today and he desired me to inform you that in any settlement that may be arrived at, that a fixed working day of 10 or 12 hours should be made so that they could enjoy their nights rest in comfort. At present he says he does not take off his clothes sometimes for a whole fortnight between floods of water and the number of boats plying through the locks. He wants you to use all your ability to remedy this grievance although you may have to give way on the wages question”.

5. On the subject of lack of work and demarcation:-

“A Chara, I had a meeting of a number of unemployed canal workers this morning and a grievance in connection with steering boats from Athy to Carlow was the topic for discussion. When a boat manned by a strange crew arrives in Athy, a pilot has to be requisitioned to steer her to Carlow. The practice has been to give this job to a lock-keeper who is in receipt of 37/6 a week plus his hire for a horse drawing goods from the canal stores to merchants in the town. At present there are a large number of men idle and four or five of them are capable of undertaking this job. It is the desire of these men to have representations made to the manager of Grand Canal Company pointing out to him that one job at a decent rate of pay is enough for one man and asking him to have instructions issued to the agent in Athy to give this work to the canal men who are idle in the town”.

6. On the subject of lock-keepers and land adjoining the lock-house, the following from a group of unhappy workers:-

“Your letter of 2nd January 1920, states that the men have free houses and adjoining land at a very cheap rate. We wish to state the adjoining land referred to is commonly known as the CANAL BANK! The amount of arable land attached to each dwelling averages roughly one rood. The remainder consists of the track and invariably a steep declivity with a flash or bottom attached, which is wholly unfit for tillage of any kind and can lawfully be set down as waste land.
The average rent of the arable land mentioned above amounts to £2-13-7 or £10-14-4 per acre. This does not compare favourably with the adjoining land in the district which has been purchased by the tenants, the annuity paid to the Irish Land Commissioners averaging three shillings per acre. Each lock-keeper has to pay in addition a sum averaging £1-9-0 in poor rates. The figures herein quoted are genuine and surely do not represent free houses and cheap land.”

Transport Union’s Submission

The Transport Union’s submission to the 1922 commission included the following –

“The workers in the employment of the Grand Canal Company have many grievances but, as the nature of their work keeps them scattered throughout the country it is difficult for them to crystallise their opinions into a definite and coherent formula.

Lock keepers are on duty twenty four hours each day and seven days each week. As well as tending to boats day and night they must regulate the flow of water and range the banks for a distance of three miles on each side.

It is obviously impossible for one man to carry out all these duties, and the Canal Company have the benefit of an extra staff of unpaid workers in the families of the lock-keepers. The work frequently falls on women, who must operate the sluices and swing the lock-gates when the man responsible cannot be there.

Conditions on the River Barrow appear to differ slightly from those of the Canal proper, as the Barrow drivers complain of a grievance regarding overtime. Their weekly wage, less insurance is 38/11, and they consider this amount far too low in view of the different navigation of the Barrow. They receive an overtime rate of 2/6 for a night from 6pm to 6am and 1/3 for half a night.

Store keepers throughout the system were often horse keepers as well, but receive only one rate of pay. All the employees of the Grand Canal Company look forward with confidence, to greatly increased wages and better conditions, as a result of this commission”.


The commission was suspended for periods of sporadic unrest and it was a further couple of years before an agreement was reached and some peace was enjoyed. The men in fact suffered a decrease in rates of pay, so life got tougher.

Thirty years after these events saw the Grand Canal Company nationalised, and another ten years marked the end of commercial transport in this country. It had been a slow and painful decline.

Joe Treacy 2011

Last Updated ( 09 September 2011 )
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