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29 April 2010 Edition

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Remembering the Past: May Day - International Workers' Day


THE first day of May is celebrated across the world as International Workers’ Day with public holidays in most countries and demonstrations and celebrations by organised workers and other citizens for progressive social and economic and internationalist demands.
May Day has been marked by trade unionists in Ireland since the 1890s, when this day first began to be celebrated by organised labour. It has its origins in the United States which, in the second half of the 19th century, was going through rapid industrialisation, with masses of workers enduring inhumanly long hours and appalling conditions in factories, mines, mills and railways.
In 1884, the American Federation of Labor declared that from 1 May 1886 workers in the US would be working an eight-hour day and would accept no lesser demand. Chicago was one of the main centres of industrialisation and thousands of workers there downed tools to demand the eight-hour day, a right up to then won only in Australia.
An estimated 50,000 workers took part in the Chicago strike beginning on May Day 1886. At that time and for many years subsequently, employers in the US, backed by the police, used heavily armed strike-breakers to attempt to smash the unions. When strike-breakers and workers clashed in Chicago the police attacked and kill six workers.

In protest at the killing of the six workers, a demonstration was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on 4 May. When the police again attacked, a bomb was thrown by a person who was never identified and seven policemen and four workers were killed. Eight anarchist trade unionists were framed for the bomb incident, even though there was no evidence that any of them was involved. Five were convicted for ‘indirectly’ killing the policemen through their work as agitators. Four were executed and one took his own life.
The five ‘Chicago Martyrs’, as they became known, focused international attention on the struggle of the workers and the demand for an eight-hour day. The American Federation of Labour successfully urged trade unionists and socialists across the world to adopt May Day as International Workers Day.
In Ireland annual May Day demonstrations in the early years of the 20th century marked the growth of the trade union movement. This culminated on May Day 1919 with a General Strike and demonstrations throughout Ireland demanding self-determination for all nations, international peace and the declaration of May Day as a public holiday. Republican tricolours and red flags were flown and the day marked increased militancy among workers in that revolutionary year.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
  • This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
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  • Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.

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