Martin Cunningham Joseph Stalin and the statue of Lenin by Joe Coughlan
In January 1967 Martin Cunningham died at the age of 81 in Roscrea after his life fighting for the downtrodden and poor of Roscrea and North Tipperary. Martin was one of the best known figures in Roscrea and district for over 60 years during which 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. In 1927 he was one of a deputation of 20 men from the labour movement who spent 6 weeks in Russia studying conditions in the Soviet Union. Among his friends in the Labour movement were James Connolly and Jim Larkin who he brought to town in April 1922 (more on this in a future article) when the road workers went on strike after their wages were reduced from 34 shillings to 29 shillings per week.
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 and was a devout catholic who in his latter days went to mass every morning in Mount Saint Josephs. He called everybody“neighbour” and hence was known only as neighbour himself.
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.
Martin opened the meeting by putting a statue of Lenin on a table beside him which caused uproar among the clergy present. He started by telling the people of his trip across Germany where cigarettes were cheaper than in Roscrea. In Kiel they were able to buy 20 Players for 2 ½ pennies while in Roscrea they had to pay 6 pence. They were met in Germany by German workers and given a great reception.
In Leningrad he told of how they were met by a huge reception of the workers delegation. “None of us had frock coats or big shirts with bows like the gentlemen we see in Dublin, the Russian General met us there with the military band standing to attention on the quays. We passed through the Red Army – the people’s army-
Martin went on to tell the crowd that there was more unemployment in Roscrea than in Moscow. When they left Leningrad to go to Moscow they boarded a luxurious train. “You don’t travel third class in Russia “he said “and Martin Cunningham travelled first class for the first time in his life,” to this there was a loud cheer from the crowd.
When the delegation went to meet Stalin he said, “When the president of that great Workers Republic welcomed us from Ireland, what did we find in this great president? Did we find him with kid gloves or with a silk hat and hair brushed back or with a big umbrella dangling on his arm and a pair of rings on his fingers, or with a coat of brass buttons? No we found the president much the same as ourselves. He walked up nicely with a nice whisker and a nice suit of clothes worth about 50 shillings and shakes hands with us. The Russian wants his stomach full and he does not worry what covers it as long as it is full.
Martin went on to speak about the great reception they got in Moscow and to tell how men and women were working on equal terms. There was plenty of work for men and women and if a worker was out of work he was well looked after by the state.
Roscrea Bacon Factory was going through a bad patch in the 20s and he was very critical of it in contrast with one he saw in Russia. “The manager of the Russian factory was a worker for 5 years in the factory before he became manager. He was not like some of the managers they had in Roscrea, if you asked them which end of the pig the tail was on they could not tell you. In Russia the women were prohibited from working in these factories while I often saw the unfortunate women of Burgoo trudging down the street in their clogs and the water oozing out of them, and this is what we call Christian Ireland. The Irish worker was told by some of the highest ecclesiastical authorities in this country that the worker must work for 29 shillings per week because the State was a baby state, while at the same time Willie Cosgrave could get 700 pounds per year for petrol for his car. The wages of the manager in the Moscow bacon factory was 260 pounds per year while the manager in Roscrea got 600 pounds per year for mismanaging it.
Describing a rest home for workers he told of how it had been seized from Count and Countess Cotenoff and used for the workers of Russia. They were invited to dine in this rest home. “We don’t have the suppers in Russia that I had in Ireland for the last 40 years. We were stall fed by the Russians for 6 weeks. “His comment was taken up by the press and the headlines read: Martin Cunningham stall fed in Russia.
After his time there Martin was full of praise for the system and challenged those who said there was no religious freedom there.”Democracy rules in Russia” he said “to rule 140 million people the cost is 27 shillings per head while governing Christian Ireland the cost is 9 pounds per head. The president of Russia did not get as much for ruling 140 million people as President Cosgrave got to buy petrol for his motor car”. When asked did he go to mass there he told the crowd that it was propaganda that Catholics could not practice their faith he said “Christ is alive and well in Russia. When asked by a local priest is Christ not driven out of Russia he said in reply_ “isn’t Christ driven out of the schools in this country” when asked what he meant he replied “well Father there is never a word about Christ until 3 weeks before the bishop comes on his triennial visit. The unfortunate children are then frightened out of their lives to know how they will pass the exam.
He went on to talk about how well fed the Russian people were and said that no man is allowed to go hungry in Russia as the food belongs to the masses.” Dealing with education he went on to say that 90% of the children of Roscrea may as well be at home because their parents could not afford to buy books for them not alone boots or clothes. Referring to the Irish language he told the crowd
That “some of the people who were talking about it did not do so for patriotic reasons but for financial reasons. They tell you that you have to learn compulsory Irish; it doesn’t matter if your belly is empty as long as you can speak Irish. They would not allow foreign games to be played but would go to the dancehalls to dance the latest foxtrot or the half moon. “
Talking about our new government Martin held up a picture and said. “These are the men that you helped to put in to government a few years ago. Then they were no better than you now they have knee britches and cutaway coats while they pay homage to King George.” He went on to speak about the individual ministers and the huge salaries they were getting while the rest of the country starved. He concluded by telling the people that he would give them the facts and figures from his trip at a later date.