Originally a Viking trading post in the tenth century, Ireland’s historical south-east coastal town of Wexford lies at the mouth of the River Slaney in Wexford Harbour. The Anglo-Normans arrived in 1169 and the town ultimately passed to Strongbow, or Richard Fitz Gilbert, also known as Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Strigoil. He landed in Waterford in August 1170 and quickly took control of Wexford and much of the south-east. He died from a foot injury in 1176 and is buried in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin.
A new wall with five gates and towers was built in the fourteenth century and much of the medieval street plan is retained in the present day town, though only fragments of the wall remain. In honour of Wexford’s famous son, an impressive statue of John Barry (1745-1803), a seaman who became known as ‘Father of the American Navy’, stands at the town’s Crescent Quay.
The Bullring or market square was the site of bull-baiting, a Norman pastime, and also an historical site of a Cromwellian massacre of Catholics during his ruthless domination of Ireland (1649-53). In commemoration of the violent struggles of old, the square has been redeveloped as a Memorial to the 1798 Rebellion, with a statue holding an Irish pike, a weapon of choice for many of the rebels.
Wexford Iron Foundries’ Labour Dispute
As part of the 2016 Festival Opera programme local walks and visits were arranged by the Wexford Historical Society. It included one about the struggle of the foundry metal workers whose six months’ ‘Lockout’ in 1911-1912 led to extreme personal and family hardship. The tour was led by a guide whose ancestors had been at the heart of the industrial action at the time. The strike came about during the struggle for workers to be allowed to join a trade union. During the harsh and bitter ‘lockout’ families were forced to live on charity. In 2011 the Wexford Historical Society arranged Seminars to revisit this historical event. It preceded the long and bitter labour ‘lockout’ in Dublin during 1913-1914 by thousands of city workers suffering severe poverty, malnutrition and disastrous social conditions who were also claiming social and trade union rights.
On 12 May 2012 President Michael D. Higgins accepted an invitation to unveil a memorial sculpture to mark the centenary of the Wexford Lockout of 1912. He recalled the historic struggle that secured a right of workers to establish a trade union to represent the foundry workers.
President Higgins praised the hard work of the Wexford Borough Council and its Centenary Committee who took their inspiration from a seminal historical account of the Lockout written twenty-five years earlier by the late Michael Enright “Men of Iron: Wexford Foundry Disputes 1890-1911 published by the Wexford Council of Trade Unions and Wexford Historical Seminars. The important archival work carried out by the Irish Labour History Society and other bodies had helped to re-awaken both amateur and professional interests in the subject of labour history …
The selection of Peter Hodnett to undertake the work of creating a memorial was particularly fitting as he had worked for over thirty years in the engineering industry before deciding to follow his passion for art and sculpture. The work reflects his background as a factory worker in steel, as a Wexford man, an artist and trade unionist. He has framed an ornamental locked iron gate that is chain shut at the entrance to a foundry representing the infamous lockout in the town’s three foundries.
The 2011 Commemorative plaque is headed WEXFORD LOCKOUT 1911. In 1911 the Foundry Workers of Wexford were locked out of work because they wanted to join a trade union of their choice. Families lived on charity. Many men were forced to leave their native town to get work, some returned, some never did. The solidarity of the common people saw them through. Town and country united to assist them. Workers from all parts of Ireland gave support, as did those from Great Britain.
This Plaque acknowledges that assistance, and remembers our Wexford families of 1911. N.R. His Worship the Mayor Cllr. David Hynes, and the members of Wexford Borough Council, 12 June 2005.
National and International Context
In the national and international context President Higgins recalled that the achievement of the Wexford foundry workers in securing the right to have their own union anticipated the guarantee later enshrined in the 1937 Constitution for the right of citizens to form associations and unions. Freedom of association is also guaranteed in a number of international instruments which the State has ratified and which it is, therefore, bound to uphold under international law.
The objectives upheld by the Wexford people through a long and bitter struggle in 1911 and 1912 were ultimately to be championed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) founded in 1919. The right of freedom of association and the right to organise were given specific and detailed protection by ILO Conventions No. 87 of 1948 and No. 98 of 1949 both of which have been ratified by Ireland and constitute a corner-stone of the social dimension of the European Union.
Peter Hodnett’s fine memorial attests to the spirit and resolve demonstrated by the people of Wexford in support of the foundry workers a hundred years ago. The Wexford Lockout struggle required great courage, commitment and solidarity from ordinary hard-working people, many working a 70 hour week for as little as 70 pence without safety or hygiene.
The strong engineering tradition created in Wexford by the foundries remains evident. Former foundry workers are now employed in manufacturing and engineering works. These companies manufacture products that keep the tradition and skills of iron and steelworkers alive to this day.
Wexford Festival Opera
In October 2016, the Wexford Festival Opera celebrated its sixty-fifth year. The visionary aim of its founder, Tom Walsh, was to rediscover forgotten operas as well as less familiar works by famous composers. Productions of Maria de Rudenz by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Herculanum by Felicien David (1810-1876), Vanessa by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) continue the tradition with sold out performances offering the depth and range of the artistic form. Solo recitals, short operas and evening pre-opera talks provide a space for artists and public to closely interact. A highlight was the Gala Concert.
The Wexford Fringe Festival also provides a wide range of cultural experiences including Irish and other drama productions, classical recitals, jazz, evening of light opera, antique and second hand book fairs and historical tours. The town’s many pubs and bars provide a space for talented local singers, instrumentalists and comedians. It has become a national and international showcase for Irish arts and culture with locals and Festival visitors mingling in this friendly small town of ‘Old and New’.
Ita Marguet, November 2016
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text that includes extracts from President Higgins’ address. It follows a visit to the Wexford 65th Festival Opera in 2016 and a published text by Ita Marguet on the 60th anniversary Festival Opera held in 2011.