Bowling on the Byways: the Irish Times on Long Bullets (2005)

A friend recently sent me a link to an Irish Times article from April 2006 on my book Long Bullets (Cork, 2005), which is a social history of the rare and unusual sport of Irish road bowling. I remember the Irish Times piece from the time (I mean, I do now), but wasn’t aware that it was online.

Anyway, here it is:

Also, and more importantly, the book itself is now free-to-download here: Long_Bullets


Prison labour still slave labour in Ireland and the US

Prisoners across the United States began a coordinated campaign on Tuesday against exploitative labour conditions within the North American penal system. They haven’t received much attention in Ireland, so here’s a Pacific Standard report with some backstory:

It’s an issue that divides people, obviously, but my own position is clear. After a sojourn in Limerick prison back in late 2003 and early 2004 for anti-war activism, I spent some time highlighting that jail’s exploitative labour practices in media articles and radio interviews and brought a case through the state’s Employment Appeals Tribunal. My basic point was that it is simply wrong in principle to exploit anybody’s labour, but, in addition, it discourages prisoners from viewing paid employment as a sensible option when they exit the prison system. The concept of rehabilitation is undermined.

The state sent a squad of lawyers to the tribunal to ensure I lost the case – which I did – and media interest evaporated within a few months of that. Nonetheless, I was glad that I raised my voice. Aside from the labour issue, conditions in Limerick prison were inhumane at the time. Toilet facilities, for example, were Dickensian on most wings – we each had a pot in the corner and slopped out every morning – and the nineteenth-century cell I shared for a time in D-Wing was missing the glass in its windows, smashed by previous occupants to allow air to circulate, but not much fun as the weather turned bitterly cold over Christmas and New Year. In the latter case, it didn’t help that my large, somewhat demented cellmate – on remand for a brutal murder – was eating Es like they were Smarties.

There are those who think convicted prisoners should suffer every inconvenience and indignity. I’m not one of them. If you want people to behave decently, it helps if you treat them decently. Those sent to prison are denied freedom of movement, a deeply unpleasant experience. Imprisonment is the sentence. Maltreatment and exploitation are not.

– Fintan Lane

More info: My brief campaign was reported in the following article by Harry Browne ( which was published in Magill magazine in 2005.


  • 12 October 2005
  • By Harry Browne

After the European court ruling that prisoners are entitled to vote, Harry Browne
looks at the next frontier in the fight for prisoners’ democratic rights: the fact that they
do productive work in jail for little or no money

If there is such a thing as an ordinary prisoner, Fintan Lane wasn’t it. A respected historian and quiet-spoken anti-war activist, he spent 45 days in Limerick jail, including Christmas 2003, after he refused to pay a fine for his role in a peaceful mass trespass at Shannon Airport.

He did his time and doesn’t like any fuss made about how hard it was, or the differences between him and his cellmates. After he was released in early 2004, he launched a legal case that, if successful, would have profound implications for those left inside and thousands of others who have served sentences in this State.

His own sentence started like anyone else’s. Soon after he went in, Lane was invited to work. He reckoned being in the prison kitchen would help pass the time. He discovered that, with a wage of about 5c per hour, passing the time was about all it was worth.

“As a student, I had worked in the US as a dishwasher and the arrangements and work regime were much the same as then,” he says. “I reported for work at 9 am and worked till 4 pm, and we had structured breaks – it was the same as any other workplace, aside from the fact that it was in a prison. The work was seven days a week, making a total of 49 hours a week, and the weekly payment consisted of a voucher worth €2.54, which could only be spent in the prison shop.”

Lane says he had reckoned slave labour was a thing of the past, but adds wryly that “the prison environment was hardly conducive to a labour dispute”. When he got out, he approached the Cork-based Independent Workers Union (IWU), of which he was already a member. Its general secretary, Noel Murphy, was happy to take the case, and soon the IWU wrote to the governor of Limerick prison requesting a cheque for €1,978.58 – for Lane’s labour at minimum wage, minus what he’d already got in vouchers.

When the union’s Connaught regional secretary, Gerry Corbett, began researching the case, taking a barrister’s advice, he found Lane’s claim looked very strong. The National Minimum Wage Act 2000 makes specific exemptions for apprentices, gardaí and members of the Defence Forces, but not for prisoners. And while there’s not much relevant Irish case-law, the precedent and the labour statutes seemed to suggest that Lane, like other prison-workers, met the legal definition of “employee”.

The prison governor, of course, didn’t agree. The first legal port of call for the case, a Labour Rights Commissioner in Limerick, backed the governor. Lane and the IWU appealed the case to the next stage, the Employment Appeals Tribunal, which heard it last month and is expected to rule in the next few weeks. However it decides, the dispute is likely to continue in the courts.

The IWU’s Corbett is optimistic. “As far as we’re concerned, we can’t lose on this,” he says. Although it is complex, the case ironically turns, Corbett says, on the fact that Lane was not required to work in jail. Unlike in England, sub-minimum-wage work is not “part and parcel of being a prisoner” in Ireland.

“When Fintan went into jail, he had options,” Corbett says. “He could sit there and scratch his arse or he could take up work, for which he was told there was remuneration (though not how small it was). When asked if he wanted to work, he agreed. If he chose not to work, nothing would be done to him. In choosing to take up the option, he entered a verbal contract of employment.” And that, the IWU submits, makes Lane and the prison subject to all the relevant labour laws, including minimum wage.

There appears to be no international standard practice or European law on this matter. While English prisoners must work for very low pay, those in Sweden, for example, get minimum wage, Corbett says.

With plans and measures in place globally for the part-privatisation of prisons, the situation in the United States points to the dangers of such exploitation of prison labour. Texas-born Ashley Lucas, an actress who was in Dublin recently to present her one-woman show about prisoners’ families, says she discovered a disturbing truth soon after her father went to jail: “I found out that the prison system had very, very little to do with crime.”

The US, she says, “has a higher proportion of its population in prison than any society in the history of the world” – and part of the reason is what she and other activists call “the prison-industrial complex”. Prisoners work for anything from nothing to just over a dollar an hour, “and it’s not just making licence plates like you see in the movies”, Lucas says. “They’re operating call centres, or they’re making paper cups for McDonald’s and Starbucks.

“Companies can get cheaper labour in prisons than they do by outsourcing to the developing world,” she says. What’s more, prison-made products can be labelled “Made in the USA.” Prison work has little or no regulation, but has apparent constitutional protection: the amendment that “banned slavery” in 1865 explicitly states it is permissible “as a punishment for crime”.

While the situation here is neither as brutal nor as legally invulnerable as in the US, Fintan Lane says it should still be of concern both to workers and the wider society. “The truth is that if prisoners didn’t do the work in the kitchens, for instance, outside caterers would have to be brought in and paid the proper rates. The argument put forward by the State, of course, is that it assists in the rehabilitation of offenders, but how can the exploitation of their labour possibly help?

“If prisoners received a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, it might encourage them to see paid employment, if they could get it, as an alternative to crime when they’re eventually released. A blatantly exploitative workplace won’t do that.”


Support Gaza Kids to Ireland – coming again this August!

[Okay, a policy change at Chez Lane. Up to now, this website was for history posts only, meaning that in reality it became tumbleweed territory as I was posting very little. From now on, it is for whatever I want to post. This is my first non-history post. – Fintan Lane ]

During the past two summers, Gaza Kids to Ireland – a project initiated by Gaza Action Ireland – has brought a team of young kids from the besieged, war-torn Palestinian enclave of Gaza to visit Ireland for a couple of weeks to travel around, enjoying the fresh air and playing an informal soccer tournament against local teen teams.

These visits have been a tremendous success and the kids have loved (almost) every minute of their time here!

They’re coming again in 2018. Due to delays, it will now be mid to late August when they arrive, but they are coming. However, some funds are still required, so please consider making a donation, no matter how small (or large), to help with costs.

You can find more information on the Gaza Action Ireland facebook page:

And donations can be made online here (go to ‘Donate’ at top of page):

Every euro counts, so – pleeease – do click that button :)



Studies in Irish Radical Leadership – Just published

Manchester University Press has just published a collection of biographical essays on Irish radicals - Studies in Irish Radical Leadership: Lives on the Left - edited by John Cunningham and Emmet O’Connor. Reminiscent of John W. Boyle’s Leaders and Workers, which appeared in the 1960s, this volume covers a cross-section of radical political and labour leaders, some almost entirely forgotten, from the early nineteenth century to the 1990s.

The hardback is a bit on the expensive side, but you could perhaps ask your local library to stock a copy.


Primitive rebels
1. Captain Rock, by Terry Dunne
2. The mayor/admiral of Claddagh, by John Cunningham
Early labour radicals
3. Patrick O’Higgins, by Christine Kinealy
4. William Upton, by Fintan Lane
Pioneering trade unionists
5. Michael McKeown, by Laurence Marley
6. Mary Galway, by Theresa Moriarty
7. Catherine Mahon, by Síle Chuinneagán
8. Seán Murray, by Emmet O’Connor
9. Betty Sinclair, by Patrick Smylie
Children of the revolution
10. Nóra Connolly, by Máirtín Ó Catháin
11. Seán Dowling, by Dominic Haugh
12. Bobby Burke, by Tony Varley
13. Paddy Devlin, by Connal Parr
Artists as socialists
14. Pádraig Ó Conaire, by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh
15. Harry Kernoff and Leslie Daiken, by Katrina Goldstone
Socialists in parliament
16. Tomás MacGiolla, by Brian Hanley
17. Justin Keating, by Lorna Siggins
Party leaders
18. William Norton, by Niamh Puirséil
19. Brendan Corish, by Barry Desmond

History Ireland on the Interweb…

The magazine History Ireland ( under the stewardship of the indefatigable Tommy Graham has made a tremendous contribution to Irish history studies since it was first published in 1993. Apart from bringing good history-writing to a popular audience, it has provided useful information and leads for many researchers,  especially students and general enthusiasts, as they began exploring aspects of Irish history.

Being irredeemably and somewhat regretfully habituated to paper myself, I’ve a very large black canvas bag under the stairs loaded down with hardcopies of pretty much every back issue of the magazine (for reference purposes, you understand), so I don’t use the History Ireland internet resource very often, but I should. The website is fully searchable and allows free access to almost all of the articles and reviews published over the years, with the exception of material from the most recent issues. It’s a fantastic resource and well worth a browse.

Here are some of my own pieces published in the magazine at various times:

  • A lengthy review of Emmet O’Connor’s new edition of his classic A Labour History of Ireland. From the July/August 2013 issue.

  • An article on the handful of anarchists and social revolutionaries active in Dublin in the late 1880s. From the March/April 2008 issue.

  • A review of David Lynch’s book on the Irish Socialist Republican Party of the 1890s. From the May/June 2005 issue.

  • An article on the English artist and poet William Morris and his political connections to Ireland in the 1880s. From the spring 2000 issue.

  • A related letter on Morris and Ireland. From the autumn 2000 issue.

 Fintan Lane


Free-to-download PDF book: Long Bullets – A History of Road Bowling in Ireland

While attending a seminar on e-books at the 2015 London Book Fair, I was reminded of something said to me over a pint the previous night: we live in an age when out-of-print should no longer mean out-of-circulation. The point was made in relation to one of my books.

Long Bullets: A History of Road Bowling in Ireland sold out completely within a year of its publication in late 2005 and it became ridiculously difficult for those interested in the topic to find a copy of the book, mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland as the go-to history of the sport. I’ve noticed that second-hand copies occasionally pop up on eBay or Amazon, often with a price tag of more than €100, which is far too much for a book that originally retailed at €19.99.

Sooo, to save people a few quid and to increase its circulation, I’ve decided to make it available, warts and all, as a free-to-download PDF. Better read than dead.

You can download the PDF of the book by clicking this link: Long_Bullets

Fintan Lane

Road bowlers in Ireland, c.1800

William Thompson, bankruptcy and the west Cork estate, 1808–34 – new article in I.H.S.

An article by Fintan Lane on the Irish social radical and political philosopher William Thompson (c.1775–1833) has been published recently in the May volume of the journal Irish Historical Studies.

Using a wide range of sources, the article traces Thompson’s business career, his falling out with his family and his increasing financial reliance on his small estate in west Cork. It is argued that this financial dependence greatly constrained his practical involvement with the Owenite movement and ruled out the establishment of a cooperative community on his land during his lifetime. Thompson was considerably less wealthy than has often been suggested.

The volume also contains an analysis by Michael Turner of the prominent Irish-born Chartist Bronterre O’Brien.

Vol. XXXIX, no. 153 (May 2014)
Timothy D. Watt – ‘The corruption of the law and popular violence: the crisis of order in Dublin, 1729′
Fintan Lane – ‘William Thompson, bankruptcy and the west Cork estate, 1808-34′
Michael J. Turner – ‘Ireland and Irishness in the political thought of Bronterre O’Brien’
Caoimhin De Barra – ‘A gallant little “tirin”: the Welsh influence on Irish cultural nationalism’
Peter Smyth – ‘”The right flower to stick to”: the Unionist Party’s questionable choice in 1959′
Stuart C. Aveyard – ‘”We couldn’t do a Prague”: British government responses to loyalist strikes in Northern Ireland 1974-77′
Mark Empey – ‘Select documents: Sir James Ware’s bibliographic lists’
Joost Augusteijn – ‘Review article: New work on the Irish Revolution’


Lonely Planet endorses Long Bullets: A History of Road Bowling in Ireland

The current edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland has retained a very decent blurb on the Irish sport of road bowling and highlights Fintan Lane’s book Long Bullets (2005) for those who want to read some more about the history of this unusual pastime.

It appears that the past few editions of Lonely Planet have done likewise…mmh, too bad the book is currently out-of-print. Still. Time for a reprint, perhaps!



Parnellism and James Joyce

This short article by Fintan Lane – free to download – was published in the James Joyce Quarterly in 1999. It traces the friendship between James Joyce’s father and the Parnellite and agrarian radical Daniel Hishon (1851-1919), who was born in County Limerick but lived out his final years in Portobello, Dublin. Hishon died at his home at 4 Kingsland Parade on 25 June 1919.

Click here for the article: hishon

Some information on James Joyce’s father:


Foundation Errors: A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-2000 reviewed

By Fintan Lane

The following review of Emmet O’Connor’s A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-2000 (Dublin: UCD Press, 2011) appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of History Ireland magazine.

When I saw that UCD Press had brought out a refreshed and updated version of this book – so long out of print – I must admit that I felt something akin to relief. With the study of working-class history in Ireland enjoying a significant resurgence in recent years, it is crucial that there are long-run surveys such as this available and, remarkably, Emmet O’Connor’s fact-packed book still has the field to itself.

It seems an age since the debut of the original edition of this study. I was in the early stages of my PhD research at UCC in 1992 when A Labour History of Ireland was first published; my own work – on socialists, land nationalisers and social radicals in late nineteenth-century Ireland – had been prompted by John W. Boyle’s episodic but very useful book The Irish Labor Movement in the Nineteenth Century (1988) and the appearance of O’Connor’s erudite survey was an encouraging development. Both Boyle and O’Connor were university lecturers – the former in Canada, the latter in the University of Ulster – and, to my mind, their books seemed to signal that ‘labour history’ was about to make a breakthrough in Irish academia, which had previously shown limited interest in the working class as a topic for scholarly research. Importantly, O’Connor’s book meant that for the first time there was a textbook available for university courses on Irish labour history.

The optimism was misplaced and labour history continued to bump along, making progress in academia at the pace of a hobbled tortoise, with even O’Connor’s survey going out of print. In truth, despite a rise in the rate of production, the history of the working class remained an undervalued and neglected specialism within our universities in the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century. Courses dedicated to the area were few and far between. In the past few years, however, there has been a shift and a noticeable spike in interest; certainly, postgraduate students appear to be increasingly choosing aspects of class history as their topics for thesis research and we have seen a substantial output of monographs and biographies that fit within the genre. Moreover, the recent emergence of the Irish Centre for Histories of Labour and Class (ICHLC) from within NUI Galway could be an important development, perhaps even a game-changer, within academia; this initiative, which identifies itself as an interdisciplinary conclave of lecturers, postgraduates and students from NUI Galway and other universities, aims ‘to promote scholarship in, and public engagement with, the histories of labour and class…with a special emphasis on Ireland and the Irish abroad.’ The implicit intention to situate ‘labour history’ within the wider ‘histories of class’ is particularly welcome. It could be that the tortoise is arriving.

For this reason, the publication of a new edition of O’Connor’s book is especially apposite, though its conceptual scope will pose some difficulties for those interested in moving beyond an understanding of organised labour to a wider exploration of working-class life. On the other hand, no student of working-class life can fully comprehend their subject without an appreciation of the profound impact and critical importance of organised labour and, in that regard, this survey will be essential reading.

This is a tightly focused history of labour organisations – predominantly trade unions and political parties – rather than a study of the Irish working class; it is more political history than social history and the examination of broader class tensions and social conflict is often constrained. Almost no attention is paid to working-class culture as a lived experience. However, the economic context is consistently presented and, within the narrow parameters he has set himself, O’Connor succeeds admirably in constructing an insightful, closely argued and engaging institutional history of the Irish labour movement. The core text is largely that of the first edition, but the author has included some fresh material in places, updated references to reflect the expanded scholarly literature and inserted dozens of valuable biographical footnotes. The most important revision is the extension of the end date from 1960 to 2000 and the consequent addition of three entirely new chapters.

It is disappointing that the author did not similarly stretch his timeframe backwards to deal with the combative trade unionism of the previous decades. O’Connor is quite right, of course, when he remarks that ‘eighteenth-century labour is still in the realm of proto-history’ (p. 2), but sufficient material is available for a longer treatment than the five-page ‘Prologue’ republished here. The book deals well with the outbreaks of labour violence that occurred even after the decriminalisation of trade unions in 1824 and the author highlights the continued deployment of physical force by both sides, pointing out that one convict ship, the Essex, ‘transported seven men for combination offences between 1825 and 1834’ (p. 17). Nonetheless, an extended consideration of the earlier period would help readers to make more sense of this recurrent feature in labour/employer and labour/state relations. The eighteenth century was an extremely difficult time for trade unionists, who were forced to live an underground and often violent existence.

In Cork, for instance, workers – generally journeymen tradesmen – identified as active members of ‘combinations’ (trade unions) were routinely punished with brutal whippings; an anti-combination Act that came into force in 1764, for example, empowered a Chief Magistrate or Justice of the Peace to imprison those found guilty of trade-union membership and other labour activity:

‘There to be kept without bail or mainprize for a space of six months; and also to order the person or persons convicted, to be three times publickly whipped at some public place within the jurisdiction…’

The whippings in Cork took place between the North and South Gate bridges with the victims flagellated up and down the long main street. Among those publicly whipped were two journeymen coopers in June 1772, having been convicted of ‘refusing to work’, and John Dinane, a union member and linen weaver, who was whipped along the street on three consecutive occasions in August 1764. Such experiences were not unique and made trade unionists deeply suspicious of open organisation; indeed, localised clandestine unions continued to thrive – and engage in Whiteboy-style violence – until at least the late 1830s. The legal ambiguities regarding the functions of trade unions further complicated matters.

Nevertheless, with regard to the period covered in this book, O’Connor provides a tremendous survey of the labour movement and its various associated political parties. Moreover, this is no mere delineation of events – it is a thoughtful, lively and, at times, provocative consideration that challenges the idea that the ‘priest, the peasant and the patriot’ (p. 289) can be held largely responsible for the historical weakness of political labour in Ireland. In fact, it is the third of these putative ‘demons’ that most concerns O’Connor and a key argument is that Irish labour would have benefitted greatly from an explicit and closer alliance with the nationalist movement. He blames ‘anglicisation’ and, more specifically, the penetration of British trade-union concepts for the failure to engage more productively with nationalism in the late nineteenth century. There are more counterfactual digressions than are usually found in academic history books as the author speculates on how political labour could have avoided its relative marginalisation in twentieth-century Ireland.

These are summed up in his conclusion, where O’Connor identifies ‘four big blunders’ made in modern political life by the Irish labour movement (treated as a unitary whole) and it is worth noting that all relate to its interaction with the national question; they are (1) ‘the foundation error to spurn Davitt’s advice – John Redmond’s too – to build a labour-nationalist alliance with the IPP [Irish Parliamentary Party] in the 1890s’; (2) ‘the decision to withdraw from the 1918 general election rather than do a deal with Sinn Fein’; (3) deciding ‘to offer uncritical support to the 1921 settlement’; and (4) not ‘stealing a march on Fianna Fail…[but] instead helping its rivals into Leinster House’ (pp 291–2).

Unfortunately, the ‘foundation error’ to which O’Connor points is not one that can be sustained by the evidence. In practice, such an alliance actually existed in the 1880s and 1890s – between the rural labour movement and the home rule party – and labour issues always took a poor second place to nationalist concerns. Indeed, there were occasions when home rulers deliberately undermined the rural labour movement, a prime example being the dissolution of the Irish Labour and Industrial Union (ILIU) into the newly founded National League in December 1882. The ILIU, which had over 120 branches, was formed to centralise the rural labourers’ groups that mobilised spontaneously during the course of the ‘land war’ of 1879–82; significantly, the motion to dissolve the organisation, an important initiative for labourers, was proposed by Michael Davitt.

Likewise, in the 1890s the Irish Democratic Labour Federation was destroyed and the Irish Land and Labour Association considerably weakened by the internecine fighting in the home rule movement. Of course, it could be argued that the rural labourers’ connection to the IPP brought benefits in terms of social housing, but this much trumpeted achievement was slow in accruing and was often pointed to as a way of avoiding the trickier issues of wages and conditions. The home rule movement was never inclined to assist rural labourers in a class conflict with tenant farmers; on the contrary, it acted consciously to dampen such tensions.

To disagree with O’Connor’s diagnosis of the ‘foundation error’ of political labour is not the same as suggesting that the urban labour movement in the 1890s took a sensible position on the national question. The lack of engagement proved debilitating. However – to indulge briefly in some counterfactual history of my own – it is arguable that, rather than building an alliance with the IPP, the labour movement would have benefitted had it engaged politically on the basis of a strong but independent national policy. James Connolly suggested as much but was a marginal voice in the 1890s: he also, incidentally, damned Davitt and Redmond as no friends of the Irish working class.

This is a superb book that will continue to provoke debate and discussion, and remains essential reading for those interested in the history of the Irish labour movement.


Fintan Lane is  co-editor of Politics and the Irish Working Class, 1830–1945 (London, 2005) and Essays in Irish Labour History (Dublin, 2008).