Harry F. Guest, December 1919 passport photo.
American journalist Harry F. Guest of the New York Globe spent January and February 1920 reporting from revolutionary Ireland. Upon his return to America, he wrote two dozen stories based on his interviews and observations, which were syndicated to U.S. and Canadian newspapers through May 1920. See earlier posts in this series and other stories about American reporting of Irish independence at the linked project landing page. Reader input is welcomed, including photos or links to relevant source material. MH
Organized Labor Playing Big Part in Ireland’s Life
Guest wrote “the so-called labor movement … is more than a mere development of the industrial workers, it is really a people’s movement.” He reported Ireland had 18 trade councils with approximately 200,000 members, including the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, National Union of Railway Men, and Amalgamated Society of Engineers. People in the building trades and clerical workers also had begun to organize. He provided these unsourced average weekly wages in Ireland, but noted the gains were not as strong as in England:
- 1914: skilled workers, $9.70; unskilled, $5.50
- 1920: skilled workers, $15.50; unskilled, $8.75
- 1913: farmers, $5
- 1920: farmers, $9.50
Of interest to his American readers, Guest reported on the Henry Ford tractor plant near Cork city. Chicago Daily News correspondent Ruth Russell had visited the plant just before it opened in July 1919. Guest acknowledged the plant’s location near the birthplace of Ford’s father, William, at Ballinascarthy, in County Cork. Guest reported:
The equipment is American and the plant is operated much like Ford plants in America. The minimum wage, however, is not $8 a day or even $5 a day. Such wages, to use an expression of the manager of the plant, “would have caused a revolution among Irish laborers.” The minimum wage is about $2.75 a day.
Farm laborers were antagonistic when the plant first opened. They saw American tractors driving them out of their occupations. It took considerable propaganda to make it clear that while the tractor is a labor-saving device, it saves animal power rather than man power.
It took some time for the Irish laborers who sought employment at the factory to understand that they were paid only for the time they worked. When, due to lateness or absence, they found their pay envelope short, they were indignant; their indignation vanished, however, when they found they were paid for overtime.
Just two months earlier Henry Ford had expressed his pride in the Cork factory during a steel-ordering stop in Pittsburgh. “I want to help add to the smokestacks in Ireland,” he said. “Ireland is among the foremost industrial countries, and will get her much deserved freedom and home rule.”
Ford, or one of his business associates, took note of Guest’s story. The reporter’s “articles on Ireland” are included in the Dearborn, Michigan, archives of the legendary industrialist.
The Ford tractor plant in Cork, 1919.
Ireland Enjoys Greatest Prosperity In Its History With Big Trade Expansion
Guest devoted most of this story to an analysis of Irish bank deposits. His approach recalled the reporting of American journalist William Henry Hurlbert in his 1888 book, Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Hurlbert cited increased Post Office Savings Banks deposits from 1880 to 1887 as evidence that rural Ireland was not suffering from crushing poverty caused by the Iandlord system, as alleged by agrarian activists.
Guest “marveled” at why Sinn Féin found it necessary “to borrow ten million dollars from American citizens [the then two-month old bond campaign] to develop Irish resources when the people of Ireland have more than one billion dollars in bank deposits and government securities?”
He cited bank reports other public records to illustrate that major Irish commercial banks enjoyed “record-breaking business” in 1918, and large increases from the period ending June 30, 1919, and Dec. 31, 1919. He included figures from the Bank of Ireland, Hibernian Bank, Provincial Bank, and Munster & Leinster Bank. Deposits in trustee savings banks and postoffice banks also increased during the same period, Guest reported. He continued:
In consider the financial condition of the Irish people, one should not lose site of the fact that depositors in these three classes of banks, taken as a whole, were able to increase their accounts in the banks by more than 95 percent, in the face of a 140 percent increase in the cost of living over the same period. … That a considerable part of the Irish public-at-large evidently has more confidence in the stability of the present government than the Sinn Féin propagandists would have them believe, and is not adverse to loaning its money, is attested by the fact that the government stock on which dividends were payable through the Bank of Ireland on June 30, 1919, amounted to $451,465,000, an average of more than $100 for every man, woman, and child in Ireland, including Sinn Féinners. This represented an increase of more than 114 percent over similar holdings in 1914.
Guest also detailed what he described as “a remarkable expansion in Irish trade” during the first two decades of the 20th century. He cited favorable excesses in both volume and cost of exports over imports. He concluded:
Farmers who were never out of debt before now have comfortable bank accounts. In addition, they have spent money in improving their homes and outbuilding and in contracting for the purchase of modern farm machinery. The farmers are ‘the backbone of the country’ in the fullest meaning of the term. Aside from political conditions and military oppression, they are more satisfied with their lot today than ever before. The majority of them I believe would ask nothing better than to be left alone by both the politicians and the military.
NEXT: Night With Irish Mummer Who Gives Performances In House Or Barn In Secret