A man who had a very prominent part in the development of Roscrea in the first half of the 20th century was Martin Cunningham . Martin was one of the best known figures in Roscrea and district for over 60 years from the time he first contested the local elections in 1905, during this time he was prominent in the Labour movement, a member of North Tipp County Council and was a founder of the I.T.G.W.U in North Tipperary. He took a keen interest in anything that would promote the welfare of the people of the town and its workers. He fought hard to keep the market house and fountain in Main St and when the council decided to give it to Borrisokane he fought for the fountain to be relocated in Rosemary Square. Among his friends in the Labour movement were James Connolly and Jim Larkin .
A very charismatic figure Martin was a recognised leader among the people of Roscrea and when the Meat Factory was in negotiations to come to town he organised the people of the town and they volunteered and built the road into the site of the new factory. He was also a keen GAA supporter and was one of the founders of the local minor team in 1925. Martin gave several terms as councillor for Roscrea .
In November 1927 a delegation of Irish trade unionists went to Russia to observe how socialism was working. Martin Cunningham was among them and on his return he called a meeting in the new Abbey Hall to tell the people of Roscrea of his journey , he started by placing a statue of Lenin on a table beside him which caused uproar particularly among the clergy. On November 10th 1923 North Tipp Co Council decided to change some of its road sweeper’s positions from permanent to temporary and to cut their wages from 39 shillings to 29 shillings per week. When they decided to bring in Lorries to remove the mud from the streets and dismissed the men with horse and carts it lead to the workers refusing to load them and to a strike by council workers which went on for 3 months.
Martin Cunningham contacted Jim Larkin who agreed to come to Roscrea to talk to the workers on Sunday 18th April 1924.
A large contingent travelled with Larkin when he came down from Dublin by train. The Fintan Lalor pipe band and the Transport Union pipe band accompanied them along with union officials from Dublin and England. When they arrived at the station they were met by a very large crowd of local workers who were joined by the Roscrea Fife and Drum band. They formed a large procession and marched through the town to the hurling field where a hurling match between Laois and Offaly was organised. The Banners and streamers adorned the streets bidding welcome to Larkin. The ball was thrown in by Larkin and the match was refereed by the famous Tipperary hurler Widger Maher who was secretary of the Tipperary County Board at that time. The match was won by Offaly while the bands entertained the crowd at half time. After the game the crowd adjourned to Rosemary Square for to hear Mr Larkin Speak.
Martin Cunningham presided over the meeting and also on the platform with Mr Larkin were Mr Dermot Steward Secretary of the Tailors Union, Mr Ed Turke president of the Dublin trades council and Mr H Pollett from the Southampton Shipyard workers. Mr Cunningham started by apologising to the delegates for the filthy state of the streets but the streets would stay dirty even though our stomachs are empty we will not accept 29 shillings per week.
Mr Steward then got up and told the people that he had just gotten word that the Council had passed a resolution consenting to the payment of 39 shillings this was greeted with a rousing cheer. He praised the strikers and said that they had shown what the men of Tipperary can do. He could return to Dublin to tell the people that the cry of “up Tipp” still rings through the county.
Mr Pollett then took the stand to say that the unions of England and Ireland were united and should support one another. He would be glad to bring back the greetings of the Roscrea people to the Southampton workers.
Mr Larkin then got up to loud cheers and applause. He started off by saying that “The government that you and I exist under lives under the bayonet of England backed up and financed by the British Empire. When we started out to form the union it was not just to fight for better wages but to win the nation for the nations people. From the centre to the sea Ireland and them alone. If the men of Tipperary are prepared to work with us we are prepared to stand with them to the end of their journey."
“I know that the men of Roscrea and Nenagh are worthy of the best traditions in the country. When we heard they had been on strike for 12 weeks I knew that it was the same determination that the same men showed in fighting for their country in the past few years.” He went on to talk about how “John Redmond tried to sell this country with its traditions and its glory for a price. He made an unholy bargain with Asquith in the Mansion house but who stopped him, the men who are fighting today.
To these remarks there was a lot of interruption and heckling to which Larkin replied:” Larkin’s platform is no coward’s castle, I will answer any man’s question but if it is an impertinent question I will answer it in another way.” After more heckling from the crowd and shouts like where were you in 16 Larkin seemed to lose control and told the hecklers; I don’t give a tinkers trance for any man in the crowd.” He said that the difficulty with his class was that they lost self-
Referring to the local strike again he said that the workers were a great bunch of boys and that one of them William Gleeson was locked up for two months because he carried out the mandate of his comrades. He was being released that week and the hills of Tipperary should be alight to welcome him home. The 30 road workers who went on strike should be supported and in the good days to come they would have the honour of saying we bore the heat of the day. The people who held the power by injunction would be driven out and when that day came he would depend on the people of Tipperary to give them a hand. At this point he asked for questions and some of the crowd started shouting at Larkin and Martin Cunningham brought the meeting to a close.
Afterwards the bands and the crowds lead the procession through the town and back to the train.
This is only an excerpt of the newspaper articles of the day.