It is not often that a man shakes up society as much as the powerful of the day unite to destroy him, his ideas and his supporters. It happened with Nixie Boran. Born in 1904, he has experienced tremendous upheaval in Irish history and working relations. His actions shook the political, religious and industrial powers of the time because he dared to create a communist union in rural Catholic Ireland.
Each era presents its own challenges; Nixie’s was about the reality and nature of freedom; today this is called into question as the failures of key political gatekeepers to ensure equality are exposed.
Nixie was born into a farming family on the Castlecomer Estate of Wandesfordes, in northern County Kilkenny, on the Leinster coalfield. Like other small farmers, the Boran depended on additional income from the coal mines, also owned by the Wandesfordes, but conditions and pay for the miners were poor.
In Nixie’s youth there were four pits with 500 miners and 300 carters, but these have all been replaced by the Deerpark pit, opened in 1928, which will continue until it closed in the late 1960s. miners supported the region’s economy, but struggled to improve their wages and conditions despite the efforts of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1918.
Nixie lost her mother at the age of four. At 12, he joined the Brotherhood which offered him future prospects and a good education, but he left it after two years and started mining. By 1922 he had already known the dangers of mining, its average wages and its legacy of premature deaths due to poor security and lung disease. He had witnessed the failure of the strike to put pressure on the mine owner. At the same time, he was young during the upheavals of the War of Independence. In June 1922, Nixie was forced by the turmoil and unemployment in the mines to join the new provisional state army. It was just six days before the outbreak of the Civil War and he was posted to Tipperary.
By November 1922 he was with the Free State forces in Clonmel fighting men such as Dan Breen and Dinny Lacey. But the introduction of the Public Safety Act on September 17 and the ensuing executions of Republicans were too much for Nixie. He deserted from the Republican side and spent the remainder of the war fighting with Breen’s men. He was ambushed and hospitalized in Limerick alongside three Free State soldiers. His blanket was blown and he had to be rescued before returning to battle. Nixie was eventually captured in the Glen of Aherlow on May 8, 1923. He was sentenced to death but made a daring escape on August 2 from Emmet Barracks, Clonmel.
His time on the run exposed Nixie to ideological influences over the nature of freedom and control over state resources. He had already imbibed Connolly’s thought and subsequent contact with the left wing of the IRA inspired him towards a Workers’ Republic of small farmers and workers. The Russian Revolution provided an example of how a different and fairer system was achievable.
Nixie brought these ideas with him when he returned to Castlecomer. Nothing had changed since independence and he began to mobilize. The miners collected money to send it to the Red International of Trade Unions conference in Moscow in August 1930. Refusing a passport, he boarded a boat and crossed Russia to get to the city. ‘event. There he met activists from around the world as well as James Larkin Jr and Sean Murray from Ireland. They returned to organize revolutionary worker groups and ran the Worker’s Voice newspaper to support workers in their struggles.
Authorities arrested Nixie on his return home, but protesting minors forced his release from Garda custody. A period of activism followed with the founding of the Union of Mining and Quarry Workers in January 1931 and also a group of local revolutionary workers.
Opposition came in torrents. The local parish priest denounced the dangers of communism in schools, pulpits and visiting families of minors, accusing them of receiving Russian funds and of being misled by Nixie. The state harassed them and their families, and the mine management refused to take their demands into account. They went on strike in 1932. Although a small concession ended the strike, a new organization sparked intense controversy. Eventually, the bishop, Dr Collier, made it clear that union members could not be both Catholics and Communists and indicated that they were excommunicated. The local community was encouraged to reject everything they stood for and crush the union.
Thus, Nixie Boran had challenged the newly independent Ireland for its failure to treat workers fairly. In the face of the collapse, they changed their tactics and formed a separate branch of IT & GWU. Three strikes followed. In 1940, an 11-week strike resulted in payments for previously unpaid coal products, there was later a successful seven-day suspension against the wartime government wage freeze, and in 1949 an 11-month strike ultimately forced the company to dramatically improve wages and working conditions for all miners.
Nixie was elected to the IT & GWU executive in 1952. This earned him membership in the Irish Trade Union Congress and he used these positions to fight for legislation on juvenile disease, pneumoconiosis and safety. in the mines. He represented Ireland as a delegate to the International Labor Conference in Geneva in 1956. His feet, however, remained firmly rooted in his local community.
The ultimate challenge Nixie faced was ending mining at Castlecomer. He put all his efforts into preventing the shutdown and then, when it seemed inevitable, helped delay the process through investigations and pressure on the union and politicians. He even joined the board of directors of Castlecomer Collieries and helped keep the Deerpark mine in operation for an additional three years until it closed definitively in 1969. By this time, other employment opportunities had been created in the region.
“He was strong” was a term used to describe Nixie by a woman from Castlecomer whose father was killed in the mines. He had qualities of conviction, inspiration and stubbornness in the face of intransigence. He also knew how to compromise. Its value system was based on equality, fairness and the intolerance of oppression. Today’s challenges demand leaders of similar qualities.
Anne Boran is the author of Challenge to Power: Nixie Boran (1904-1971): Freedom and the Castlecomer coal miners (Geography Publications, Dublin)