Monday, 5 September 2011

A Place In The Sun

Thank you to Michael Lavin, secretary of the National League of the Blind of Ireland Trust for sending me a copy of A Place In The Sun, a fascinating book about the history of the NLBI written by Pat Lyons.

Whilst the book makes no mention of John McDonnell by name and deals on the whole with material within the living memory of the author's contemporaries, so from about 1942 onwards, there are even so some great insights into how and why the NLB was founded in the 1890s and early 20th century, during which period John McDonnell undoubtedly helped to lay down the foundations which later board members built upon:

"The National League of the Blind was founded in Britain as a trade union for blind workers, most of whom were at the time employed in sheltered workshops. This was in 1899, although branches were established both in Dublin and Liverpool in 1898. It is worth noting that some years earlier, an organisation described as "The Union of Blind Basket-makers" was established in Britain and it too had a branch in Dublin. However, this association merged into the League when the latter was founded. The League, as a trade union, affiliated to the British Trade Union Congress in 1902"

"I think it is reasonable to surmise that the League was founded as a result of the appalling conditions which existed in the workshops and various institutions at the time. In 1886, a Royal Commission was established to examine the finances of the various homes or institutions for the blind then existing and their report revealed that for every pound subscribed towards the charitable objects for which such places were run, eighteen shillings and ten pence halfpenny was spent on administration, the balance going to the blind and visually impaired."

"The structure of the National League of the Blind was that branches were established in most major centres of population, particularly where there were places in which blind or visually impaired persons worked. Such places were generally referred to as asylums or institutions, but in keeping with the times, they were really nothing more than sweat-shops. The branches within defined geographical areas then formed themselves into district councils, and so you had the Irish, Scottish, London or Midland District Council. The Irish District Council comprised three branches - Dublin, Belfast and Cork, but the latter branch became defunct in the early 1920s and was not revived until 1944-45. "

Lyons, Pat / A Place In The Sun / Aquavarra Research Limited 1999

According to Lyons, the League was popular with blind people throughout it's early years and it's meetings were always full to capacity because it was the only organisation catering for the 'industrial blind' and the only organisation in which blind people had a direct say in their own affairs.

Amongst the most prominent institutions for blind people in Dublin were the Richmond Institution and St Joseph's Male Blind Asylum. We have already learnt from Frank Callery that John McDonnell attended St Joseph's, though it seems that both institutions ran workshops where blind people made baskets, mats, brushes and mattresses. Conditions were not good in the workshops and as recently as 1942 League members organised a strike at the Richmond "which got rid of a tyranny there being operated by the management".

St Joseph's today

St Joseph's was divided into three sections - the school, the hostel and the outdoor workers. After leaving school, young blind people graduated into the hostel where they served five years' apprenticeship, after which they were entitled to do outdoor work, called 'journey work'.

On page 11 of the book, Pat Lyons writes of Old Tommy Harte, one of the first two 'journeymen' from St Joseph's:

Basket-Making (at the School for the Indigent Blind)
28 May 1853
Engraving from Illustrated London News
"Old Tommy Harte who originally came with the blind from Glasnevin to St Joseph's Drumcondra was the first "Journneyman". He and another person obtained that status in 1898 or 1899 in order that the Institution could qualify for industrial contracts, because the places had to employ some outdoor workers as Trade Union labour. Tommy was an old man when he died suddenly on November 7th 1941."

Ibid. Lyons, Pat

I wonder if John McDonnell was the other Journeyman to whom Pat Lyons referred?

In a recent email, Frank Callery provides more insights into John McDonnell's north Dublin factory:

"John McDonnell was well located beside the fruit and fish markets off Chancery Street and the butchers market (or Ormond Market) then in Ormond Square, adjacent to Chancery Street (the footballer Johnny Giles’ family came from here) so the types of basket used by this market and the fish and fruit and veg dealers who used three-wheeled woven basket cars — similar to the woven gig which he drove — would have been the type of work undertaken. Much of this work would have been undertaken by outworkers. What is certain is that John McDonnell must have been a special person to rise above the general condition of the blind in this period."

In chapter five of A Place In The Sun, Pat Lyons included an extract from Services for the Blind in Ireland, a research report by Senator Brendan Ryan, December 1977. Ryan describes the politicisation of the blind people who formed the NLB in both Great Britain and Ireland:

"By the late eighteen-hundreds, there was a large network of blind workshops throughout the United Kingdom and questions involving conditions and salaries of blind workers began to arise. The employees of these workshops worked over forty-eight hours a week and spent up to three years acquiring skills to become craft workers, yet since their economic remuneration was so low, they still had to beg on the streets. As a result of these deplorable conditions and salaries, the National League became affiliated to the Trade Union Movement of Britain in 1902".

Ryan suggests that an early success of the League was its lobbying effort to push through parliament the Blind Persons Bill of 1902.

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