O'Brien, William

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O'Brien, William

Trade union leader William O'Brien (1881–1968) was born at Ballygurteen, Clonakilty, Co. Cork, youngest son of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officer. He grew up mainly in Dublin and was apprenticed to the tailoring trade at age fourteen. He developed an early interest in socialism under the influence of his older brothers, and in 1904 became chairman of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and a leading advocate of "new unionism" in Ireland. An ally of James Larkin, he played an important role in the 1913 lockout when he was president of the Irish Trade Union Congress and secretary of the Dublin Trades Council. A clubfoot prevented O'Brien from becoming involved in the Easter Rising, but he was designated by James Connolly to establish a civilian committee to administer Dublin on behalf of the provisional government. On his release from internment after Rising, he threw himself into rebuilding the labor movement. He has been criticized by many historians and leftwing commentators for making trade union reorganization his priority within the movement and relegating political activity to a secondary role. He also supported the decision to give Sinn Féin a clear run against the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1918 election rather than risk splitting the radical nationalist vote by running labor candidates.

O'Brien formally joined the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) in 1917 and became its general treasurer in 1919. Despite his leftist rhetoric, O'Brien's main aim was not to wage revolution, but a strong organization to mediate on behalf of workers. When James Larkin returned from the United States in 1923, O'Brien successfully opposed Larkin's attempt to revive the revolutionary syndicalist policies of 1913. He succeeded Larkin as general secretary of the ITGWU in 1924 and held the post until his retirement in 1946. He served as a Labor TD (Member of Parliament) to the Dail in 1922-3, 1927 and 1937-8, but the ITGWU was his main power base. He used it to create the National Labour Party and the Congress of Irish Unions after Larkin was elected to the Dáil as a Labour deputy in 1943.

The decision to form a new party and trade union congress was not based on ideological disagreements within the labor movement but on fear of the growing influence of Larkin and his son James Larkin Jr., who was also elected to the Dail in 1943. To justify the split in the labor movement and generate support, the new Congress and National Labour Party played on the anticommunist mood of the early cold war period. Both constantly stressed their attachment to the values of the Catholic Church and emphasized their patriotism by attacking left-wing and British-based unions. It was an ironic end to the career of one of the pioneers of the modern Irish labor movement. O'Brien devoted his last years to writing and research. His papers, which were donated to the National Library of Ireland, are a major source of primary material for the history of the labor movement.

SEE ALSO Connolly, James; Labor Movement; Larkin, James; Lockout of 1913; Markievicz, Countess Constance; Murphy, William Martin


O'Brien, William. Forth the Banners Go: Reminiscences of William O'Brien as Told to Edward MacLysaght D. Litt. 1969.

O'Brien, William. Papers. National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

O'Connor Lysaght, D. R. "The Rake's Progress of a Syndicalist: The Political Career of William O'Brien, Irish Labour Leader." Saothar 9 (1983): 48–63.

Padraig Yeates

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