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Book Review: A Revolutionary Worker ‘Born out of the Struggle’:  James Fearon and the Newry Dock Strike. By Chris Patton (2023)

Dave Jackson

25 June 2023

A contribution to Irish working-class history this impressively researched and written account of the militant life of Newry dock worker and trade union organizer James Fearon is centered around the events of the strike that occurred at the Newry docks in the last couple of months of 1907.

Author Chris Patton goes into admirably researched detail in an almost blow by blow account of the course of the strike. The reader will learn a great deal about an important moment of working-class history in Ireland. The author brings a sense of life to the political and social currents that were at play at this time of working-class life in the port town of Newry, County Down in 1907.

In January 1907 James Larkin had arrived in Belfast from Scotland to organize the workers in the Belfast Docks. In June 1907 the Belfast dock workers went on strike. Strikes at this time in a place like Belfast were explosive and even though it went down to defeat the strikes such as this and subsequent struggles such as the Dublin Lockout were historically formative in the fight for Irish workers’ rights to organize. Fearon and Larkin knew each other well from the National Union of Dock Labourers’ activities in Glasgow. A meeting was held with Larkin and Fearon present to start a branch of the NUDL in Newry in September whilst the strike in Belfast was still going on. The Newry strike was set off from, ‘attempts by, “all the reactionary elements in Belfast,” to divide the Belfast workers along sectarian lines and to, “smash”, the NUDL.’ The Belfast coal workers strike and the Newry one overlapped by just ten days, the Belfast dispute ending in defeat on November 29th.

Patton’s book made me think about the terrible hardships (poverty, health risks etc) workers at this time had to put up with and the gap between what the working-class experiences now 116 years later. What these different times in history have in common however is that of a similar dissatisfaction with our lot and a desire for change for the better.

I think most people today let alone left leaning people or trade unionists given the facts would have no doubt that what was seen as dangerously militant and profit threatening by the wealthy industries of the time was right and that is of course because these are the sort of militant struggles that modern workers’ rights and expectations are formed out of.

The events of the strike have to be unearthed somewhat from obscurity and Larkin got the most publicity in the news reports of the time although  it was Fearon who was the main union actor in the Newry strike which led to parallel actions in the ports of Dundalk and Warrenpoint and although his papers relating to the strike were unfortunately burned, author Patton does an important job of research of what remains to give this account of an intense struggle between the bosses and the Newry (Dundalk, Warrenpoint) workers in 1907.

The book also does an excellent job at creating a picture of the course of Fearon’s life from what evidence there is, examining his links to the Communist Party of Ireland, his membership of the IRA in Glasgow and his work organizing action groups of tenants and the unemployed.

It was interesting to learn how after the Newry strike’s defeat, it ended around the new year of 1908, Fearon went on to help organize further strikes at the Cork docks, setting up a workers defence force which was to be the inspiration for the Irish Citizen’s Army. On that occasion the employers gave in to the worker’s demands. Fearon was harried by the police as a, “communist agitator” until his death.

The book gives an excellent picture of the stresses and strains of Irish Society on a politicised worker who one is left in no doubt believed in the fight for socialism.

Its available on Barnes and Noble and also Amazon.

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