Memory, they say, can play tricks on you; but then again so can the lack of it, even more so perhaps. I remember a few decades ago seeing an Abbey production of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Bessie Burgess was played as a Northern unionist with a thick Belfast accent, whereas O’Casey of course wrote the character as a Dub. Apparently the director felt his audience would find it easier to believe in a unionist from high-employment Belfast living in a tenement in depressed Edwardian Dublin than to accept the idea of a native Dublin Protestant working class unionist. By the 1970s, Dublin had quite simply forgotten that it once had a sizeable Protestant working class.
Dubliner Martin Maguire has written extensively on Protestant working class culture and his account of the Dublin Conservative Workingmen’s Club reveals a world quite distant from the stiff propriety of the Victorian middle classes. The club was based in a large Georgian building in York Street, on the site now occupied by the extension to the Royal College of Surgeons. Maguire has examined its accounts and calculates that between nine and eighteen hundred pints of porter were consumed there every week. This, and the associated culture, upset some proper elements of Protestant middle classes, for whom porter was ‑ as one still living clergyman has put it ‑ “the devil’s buttermilk”, and who felt that no day should be Arthur’s day, especially for people who were paid weekly.
In 1888 the Church of Ireland Temperance Society decided that it would extend its campaign for temperance and Sunday closing to the working classes. As part of its new drive against the bottle it passed a resolution criticising the goings on in York Street. Resolutions were also passed by the Dublin, Glendalough and Kildare branches of the society. This campaign of resolutions provoked Paul Askin, a club patron, to complain of “false and malicious charges”. However, the club’s response did not involve in any way curtailing the availability of alcohol, which is perhaps why it was again “attacked by the Rev. Professor Joseph Allen Galbraith in 1889 and later became a particular target of the Rev. Gilbert Mahaffy, a member of the Representative Church Body and the Dublin Diocesan Synod and a strong temperance campaigner”. None of this made a blind bit of difference to the conservative working man, who continued to enjoy his pint of plain. Moreover, the club bar remained open on Good Friday and every Sunday.
The CWC was originally set up by prosperous Dublin Protestants whose hands it may be assumed were entirely free from anything resembling a callus. Many, such as Lord Iveagh (yes, he of James’s Gate, against whom it seems the temperance societies did not pass any resolutions), held honorary positions in the club, whose membership was supposed to be confined to “Protestant men of good character”, which means people who behaved like the middle classes.
It was a big ask. As Martin Maguire comments, “the intentions of the Conservative establishment, the original sponsors of the CWC, to ‘improve’ the working class were subverted by the unapologetic attachment of members to more popular forms of culture. For the majority of members social and recreational activities meant beer and billiards.”
Billiards was highly popular, though the game tended to erode the exclusively Protestant ethos of the club. Competitive games involved contact with other, mainly Catholic, workingmen’s clubs. “Inter-club billiard tournaments between the CWC and the Trade Hall, James Street Work-men’s Club, York Street Workmen’s Club, Wellington Quay Club and Inchicore Workmen’s Club were popular though contentious events.”
Unruly behaviour, frequently associated with alcohol, was a common problem on club premises. More surprisingly – perhaps even movingly ‑ there were numerous financial crises provoked by soft-hearted club officials supplying members with drink on credit. Gambling was also common. Martin Maguire writes that “as well as a weekly lotto, the club regularly ran profitable sweepstakes on horse-races, an illegal practice which brought them under police notice”.
Rowdy behaviour was common and dealing with its consequences took up a great deal of the committee’s time: “the minutes of club meetings are filled with graphic accounts of fights and disagreements”. “In November 1887 six members, including the vice-chairman, Thomas May, were expelled after a riot in the club.” Expulsion was rare and usually only followed particularly serious aggression. “An apology and a gesture of contrition were all that was usually demanded, though if none were forthcoming, a suspension of membership was usual. Following a four-cornered fight in the bar in 1901, three of the belligerents were contrite and no further action was taken, but the fourth, a Mr Martin, said he would do the same again and ‘would drive any man’s head through the window who should interfere with him’.” These strong views brought him a suspension.
The same ‘hard cases’ recur frequently. “William Dobbs, an officer of the club, a political activist and the man who vehemently opposed any contact with Catholic clubs, was a persistent offender, though his aggression was usually verbal. Another was a Mr Purdie, who was reprimanded for attacking the house steward, cheating at cards, bad language, calling an English member ‘a bloody English scut’, molesting the house steward’s wife ‘in the absence of her husband’, and calling the management committee ‘a lot of swindlers’.”
Middle class Dublin Protestants recoiled in horror at these goings on but for a lengthy period were powerless to prevent theme. In the end, however, they won out. De-industrialisation, Maguire tells us, continued to erode the working class Protestant population in late nineteenth century Dublin and over time the club became less working class, dropping the designation from its name altogether in 1927. He does not say if the consumption of porter also declined.
“The Organisation and Activism of Dublin’s Protestant Working Class, 1883-1935”, by Martin Maguire, Irish Historical Studies, Vol 29, No 113 (May 1994), pp 65-87.