The history of Irish trade unions stretches back into the eighteenth century, when local societies were established in the cities to represent craftsman such as bricklayers butchers and printers. In the mid nineteenth century new unions covering Britain and Ireland were established and rapidly put down roots.


From about 1889 a new type of union began to emerge in Ireland. These unions aimed to organise the mass of skilled workers, and separate unions covering dockers railwaymen and general workers were established in these years, with branches springing up in Ireland.

The Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) was founded in 1894, three years after the death of Parnell. Its stated aim was to act as the collective voice of organised Irish labour.

New unions began to establish themselves from 1907, with the arrival in Ireland of James Larkin as an organiser for the British dockers' union. Two years later he was dismissed by that union, following a disagreement on policy and established the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. This union expanded rapidly and in doing so incurred the hostility of the employer class, which culminated in the Dublin Lock Out of 1913.


In 1912, partly under the influence of James Connolly, the ITUC established a political arm and became known as the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC). At its 1916 congress a motion was passed expressing sympathy with all those who had died for their beliefs.


During the 1918 election, the Labour Party famously stood aside to give the national independence movement a clear run and turn the election into a virtual referendum on independence. For the majority of working people this was their first time voting.

During the War of Independence, Congress coordinated one day strikes in favour of the release of political prisoners and sympathetic action by railwaymen, who refused to assist in the transport of British troops.

In the run up to civil war, ILPTUC officers attempted to broker a deal, urging anti-treatyites to accept the will of the people as demonstrated in the June 1922 election, while voicing sustained opposition to the inflexibility of the government and the ill treatment of prisoners.


The Government of Ireland Act 1920 established Northern Ireland, thus giving organised Irish labour the unique distinction of organising in two political jurisdictions. This was made even more complex by the fact that many of the affiliated unions had their head offices in the UK.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the country mired in economic depression and falling living standards. In 1930 the Labour Party and the Congress separated amicably.


Marcella Dunne
Marcella Dunne who took part in the 1945 laundry workers strike in 1945, she joined the cast of “These Obstreperous Lassies” , a play about the struggle as part of Congress Centenary Celebrations | Source Tommy Clancy
Aer Rianta carpenters shop
Joiners at work in the Aer Rianta carpenters shop , a converted Nissen hut in 1949 | Source unknown
Firemen on an early tender at Dublin Airport in the 1940
Firemen on an early tender at Dublin Airport in the 1940’s. Their equipment was basic, without fire-retardant uniforms or foam to fight an airline fire | Source unknown

During the 1940s tensions developed around the role of the charismatic but mercurial Jim Larkin and in relation to Irish and British-based unions. This culminated in a 1945 split, with the Irish-based unions forming the Congress of Irish Unions. One small bright spot on the horizon was the formation of the Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) of the ITUC, in the same year.


Dublin unemployed protest at O’Connell Bridge 1950’s
Dublin unemployed protest at O’Connell Bridge 1950’s with a young Garda on his bike monitoring proceedings | Credit G.A.Duncan
1958 Many workers emigrated
1958 Many workers emigrated after the  closure of the Great Northern Railway Engineering Works in Dundalk. | Credit: Paul Kavanagh archive
1958 Workers leaving the GNR in Dundalk
1958 Workers leaving the GNR in Dundalk on the day it closed. | Credit: Paul Kavanagh archive
1958 Engineering workers leaving the GNR in Dundalk on the day the closure in 1958
1958 Engineering workers leaving the GNR in Dundalk on the day the closure in 1958. | Credit: Paul Kavanagh archive
Heinkel cars, designed in Germany, were built in the GNR Works in Dundalk between 1956 and 1958
Heinkel cars, designed in Germany, were built in the GNR Works in Dundalk between 1956 and 1958. | Credit: Paul Kavanagh archive

The 1950s were a truly dreadful decade in Ireland, with emigration and poverty at record levels. The opening up of the economy with the First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958 and the retirement of de Valera in the same year, quickened the pace of change.

In 1959 following years of behind the scenes discussions the two union federations formally reunited, becoming the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). An early win for the new body was in the 1959 referendum on the retention of proportional representation in voting, where the narrow vote for retention was attributed to an effective trade union campaign.


1966 Delivery of food supplies to men on strike at Dundalk Engineering Works
1966 Delivery of food supplies to men on strike at Dundalk Engineering Works. | Credit: Paul Kavanagh archive

The newly-united union movement coincided with in the expansion of the economy in the 1960s and the Northern Ireland Committee was formally recognised by the Northern Ireland government in 1964.

When conflict erupted in 1969, the Northern Ireland Committee took a resolute anti-sectarian stand and is credited with preventing the conflict from spilling over into workplaces.


The high rates of inflation that followed on the oil price shocks of the 1970s meant that wage increases were eroded not only by inflation but by an increasing tax take.

A series of protests initiated by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions brought crowds onto Dublin streets of a size unseen in Europe, until the fall of the Berlin wall later in the decade. However, the 1980s threatened to be a full scale repeat of the 1950s, in terms of emigration and job losses.


Picket at Pizzaland Dublin in 1983
Picket at Pizzaland Dublin in 1983 | Credit Derek Spiers
Dublin Labour Exchange Office 1980s
Dublin Labour Exchange Office 1980’s when employment was scare and emigration was a high | Credit Tony Gavin
Matt Merrigan and Jack Jones
Matt Merrigan former national industrial secretary SIPTU and Jack Jones former general secretary of the British Transport and General Workers’ Union | Source unknown
Tallaght factory in 1983
Workers protest in Dublin at job losses at a Tallaght factory in 1983 | Credit Derek Spiers
Teachers pay campaign protest 1980s
Teachers pay campaign protest  in the 1980’s | Source unknown

In 1987, an initiative from the ICTU led to the negotiation of the first of the current social partnership agreements, the Programme for National Recovery. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1994, as the Celtic Tiger began to take shape Congress celebrated its centenary and in recognition of this fact the Monday closest to May 1 (May Day) was made a public holiday in southern Ireland.


Eurovision singer Linda Martin and then General Secretary Peter Cassels
Poster marking the Centenary of Congress with Eurovision singer Linda Martin and then General Secretary Peter Cassels | Credit Tommy Clancy
John Freeman ATGWU
Dedicated union man, Belfast born John Freeman ATGWU and President of Congress chairing the Special Delegate Conference on Partnership 2000 in Liberty Hall in January 1997 | Credit Tommy Clancy
Construction workers on a building
Construction workers on a building site enter a mobile construction safety training unit in the 1990s, a Congress led safety initiative to reduce deaths on building sites | Source unknown
ICTU Youth Summer School 1990s
ICTU Youth Summer School 1990’s with singer Paul Brady among the guest speakers discussing low pay, illegal practices,  part-time employment, the right to work. | Source : Lensmen
May Day parade in Dublin
Workers on a float at a May Day parade in Dublin in the 1990’s, before mobile phones became commonplace | Source unknown
a joint declaration by Congress and the FAI on a code of labour practice for producing sports goods
Meath Man Peter Cassells heads the ball to Kerry man Dick Spring with Bernard O’Byrne from the FAI and Justin Kilcullen from Trochaire at the launch of a joint declaration by Congress and the FAI on a code of labour practice for producing sports goods | Source Tommy Clancy

The era of centralised wage agreements which began in 1987 continued throughout the nineties and into the first decade of the twenty first century.  It was characterised as the era of partnership.

This period witnessed a consolidation of unions through a process of amalgamation, a process which continues today.

A key issue for trade unions had been the struggle to secure union recognition as a legal right. This journey began with the industrial ,relations (amendment)  act 2001,but this effort was negated by the supreme court in 2007 in  a case taken by Ryanair.


Phone-in at Parnell Square
Phone-in at Parnell Square with Congress staff taking questions from the public on the national minimum wage agreement in 2000 | 
Credit Tommy Clancy
Voting on Partnership 2000
Voting on Partnership 2000 at Liberty Hall | Credit Tommy Clancy

The bursting of the property bubble in 2008 and the subsequent downward economic spiral placed the trade union movement in severe difficulty. In seeking to ascribe blame for reckless lending by financial institution and an over reliance of the construction sector, the commentariat decided that centralised wage bargaining was a key factor in causing the crash.

The partnership process collapsed in November 2009 when the government resiled from the national agreement.  Since then Ireland has operated a mixture of local level and sectoral wage bargaining.

The sectoral bargaining process has been hindered by a succession of court challenges to the process where sectoral agreements can be given legal effect.  This has meant a lost decade in the pursuit of workers rights.  More recent judgements give hope that this era is coming to an end.

Note: A number of photographs have not been credited because the photographer cannot be identified at this time, despite efforts to do so. If you can identify any of the photographs , not credited, this will rectified.