Jenny Farrell reviews Mick O’Reilly's From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2019)
At the end of From Lucifer to Lazarus, Mick O’Reilly raises a question many working-class authors ask themselves when writing about their lives: “whether it is worthwhile telling the story of my life and not the story of the thousands of other people I worked with and fought employers for over the years. I am sure many of them have a similar story to mine, but workers like us rarely go to print – our stories are usually told by others.”
Douglas Stuart, Scottish working-class winner of the 2020 Man Booker prize, puts it similarly:
I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.
Although both authors differ in many respects, they put their finger on something that is very relevant. Mick O’Reilly, born in the Liberties in 1946 and reared in Ballyfermot, communist and trade union leader, writes about his experiences as a highly class-conscious person in the Irish trade union struggle. Douglas Stuart on the other hand was born into the Glasgow working class thirty years later, in 1976. Stuart’s book describes growing up in 1980s Glasgow, a city devastated by Thatcherite deindustrialisation. It is a book about his childhood. Communism and trade unionism do not feature in it. And yet the same question, a similar realisation, is common to both books.
Mick O’Reilly’s autobiographical book is a fascinating read for anybody interested in Irish left-wing trade unionism. It is a toolbox for trade unionists, a history book, a political declaration of a worldview by one who dedicated his life to the furtherment of the working-class cause, the liberation of humankind.
The author describes growing up in Dublin, not finishing primary school, and first experiences on the shop floor. He takes the reader on a journey through time, as the young O’Reilly becomes involved with the trade union movement and how he progresses to becoming a trade unionist, indeed a trade union leader over time. It is fascinating the impact the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising had on the young O’Reilly, on a short holiday from England, in shaping his Irish identity and motivating his return to Dublin and precarious employment. A number of other factors contributed, among them a 1966 performance of Seán O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars” in Birmingham, which sealed O’Reilly’s decision: “This isn’t where I belong. If I’m going to make a contribution to this Marxist movement, I’d better do it in my own home place.” After that, his biography is firmly tied to Ireland, in the Republic, as well as the six counties, its political and labour movement.
Factory life in Ireland and Britain was O’Reilly’s university in politics and trade union struggle, kicking off properly with his job in car assembly plants, the training ground for the future trade union leader in the early 1970s. It was here that he joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders. He joined the Communist Party in 1967 and became very active in the Dublin housing action committee. He was centrally involved in setting up he Connolly Youth Movement, took part in the campaigns against the EEC, and negotiated protection for car workers. He writes about fighting for pay rises, supporting victimised colleagues, as well as taking political strike action in response to Bloody Sunday.
O’Reilly speaks openly about the difficulties within the labour movement, the many conflicts and struggles. A major event in his life was his sacking and reinstatement as officer of the ATGWU, now UNITE. O’Reilly had been appointed to the post of regional secretary in Ireland. He was the first official from the Republic. And this happened against the wishes of Bill Morris (now Lord Morris) and Margaret Prosser (now Baroness). Their opposition constituted gross interference in the Irish region, which had been largely independent of the British section of the union. However, as O’Reilly remarks, “I ran the union from a rank-and-file perspective,” and that was clearly unacceptable.
This was not the only serious disappointment. The betrayal of the working class by a treacherous trade union leadership, resulting in the anti-worker legislation of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, is also an important topic in the book.
He writes about various greater and lesser role models along the way, and his life-long involvement with the communist movement. This is the kind of historical insight one will find hard to discover in history books that are written by historians who lack a working-class understanding. As O’Reilly states when he described what eventually encouraged him to write the book:
I was interested in trying to capture people’s memories and the collective consciousness of the time because when I read what was going on in the media and listened to reports on the radio and online, I was, and still am, convinced that it’s the Irish middle class, talking to the Irish middle class about the Irish middle class. I rarely hear working-class voices and the stories of their lives, which are largely ignored.
Working-class lives, be it as factual account, or as faction, need to be published and read. These are the stories that matter, and that give working-class readers a sense of belonging.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.