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January 1920: Motor Permits Protest in Maryborough

Laois Local Studies > Articles > January 1920: Motor Permits Protest in Maryborough
John & William Higgs c. 1912

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

On the 1st of January 1920, despite it being the fair day, the streets of Maryborough were strangely silent. The silence was not to last. What was missing was motor traffic and not just because there was much less of it then than now. The absence was due to a cessation of all motor driving being ordered by an anonymous notice which threatened “drastic treatment” to all who defied.[1] The motor permits dispute had come to Maryborough.   

The motor permits dispute was a resistance to the imposition of a new layer of regulation for the drivers of motor vehicles.[2] The motor permit was effectively a license with photograph and personal details which had to be appended to the motor vehicle the permit holder was driving. This was in addition to the already existing licenses – without photographs – which were issued by local government bodies. The introduction was in response to the increasing use of motorised transport by the guerrilla fighters of the Irish Republican Army. These permits were compulsory from the 30th of November 1919.

1919 and 1920 were the peak years for industrial action for broad social and political objectives — for goals beyond the immediate concerns of any particular workplace. There was the Limerick Soviet, a city-wide general strike against military passes; the two-day national general strike in support of hunger strikers in Mountjoy; the Butter and Bacon Embargo which kept food costs low by restricting exports; and the Munitions of War dispute whereby transport workers refused to support the logistics of the British Army and the police.[3] The motor permits dispute was part of this pattern, it however was on a much smaller scale and much less successful. From the beginning the two unions involved had different strategies. The Irish Automobile Drivers’ & Automobile Mechanics’ Union (IADAMU) favoured striking and extending the strike, while the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) favoured its members continuing to work while refusing the permit.[4] It seems it was particularly the ITGWU which was involved in events in Maryborough in January 1920.

Fracas on the Streets.

What happened was seven motor drivers, probably ITGWU members, were locked-out – sacked from their jobs – for declining to apply for the permits.[5] Hence the order to stop driving on the 1st of January 1920. Not all obeyed the order though, and on Main Street pickets had to intervene with the engine of a bread van. The bread van belonged to Graham and Co. of Mountmellick. It was put out of action by having its petrol tube severed.

On Saturday the 3rd of January orders came down from union headquarters, Liberty Hall, that members should cease to handle petrol.[6] Consequently the depot of the Shell company was closed down. Later that day two brothers from Ballyclider, John and William Higgs, powered down Main Street in a motor cycle and side car. They met some pickets “within about a hundred yards of the police barrack”.[7] One of the Higgs brothers produced a large wrench, the picketting Transport Workers tussled him for it, and Transport Union branch secretary Michael McEvoy joined the affray. McEvoy was hit from behind by a Royal Irish Constabulary baton, and while “bleeding profously” was taken to the County infirmary.[8] British soldiers were then mobilised onto the streets with rifles, fixed bayonets and helmets. An armored car was also deployed, patrolling the streets of the town and all approach roads. The armored car was at large for some days after this event. Meanwhile a number of local motorists appeared to try it on in the hope of provoking a confrontation. The Transport Union claimed this was an organised effort on the part of a section of the motor car owning public.

Imprisoned and Celebrated.      

Subsequently, seven of the protesters were imprisoned for short-terms under various charges such as illegal assembly, riot and assault.[9] They were released from prison and publicly feted over the next few months. William Dunne, Rollo Atkinson and Patrick Callan got out in February;[10] Basil Mayberry, John Connell and Patrick Mahon in March;[11] and ITGWU Maryborough branch secretary Michael McEvoy was released in April.[12]

The newspaper report of the arrival home of Mayberry, Connell and Mahon gives an apt impression of the tenor of the welcomes for the erstwhile prisoners:[13]

“Detonators were exploded as the train entered the station, and a cheering crowd on the platform gave cead mile failthe to the ex-prisoners, the welcome being repeated by a larger crowd in the public thoroughfare below. As the men emerged from the station, and while they were being taken to a motor car which was in waiting, with a guard of honour of Volunteers. The crowd was quickly marshalled into processional order, and marched away by the Ridge, and thence up through the Main Street, to the Market Square.”   

A rally was held on the Market Square. The assembled people were addressed by George Cripps, chairman of the Maryborough branch of the Transport Union.[14] He said:  

“The fight which those men made was not for the rights of their own particular section of workers, but for the rights of all workers and of the whole Irish people . . .”

Town Commissoner P. J. Ramsbottom also spoke, saying: “that it was men such as those whom they welcomed home that night who were in the first-line trenches, and bearing the brunt of the fight at the present time.”

Despite the very necessary defiance displayed in these rallies the motor permits protest was finished and defeated by this time. It ended in February 1920 in mutual recrimination among the unions involved. 

Violent Intimidation.

While the situation in Maryborough might give the impression that the agression was all on one side, with wrench wielding private motorists venting their ire, this was not the case. The ante upped, there was a riposte in south Kildare. 

On the evening of Saturday January 3rd, W. C. Taylor of Russelstown was motoring with his son into Athy.[15] Described by the Irish Times as “a large farmer”, Taylor was shot at in two separate incidents that evening and night. The first took place near the grimly named Gallowshill on the northern outskirts of the town. According to the paper this was down to him having taken out a permit and it went on to claim that some “motor owners in Athy are in consequence reluctant to use their cars.”  

While by no means a great success, the opposition to the introduction of motor permits was one more blow that helped make Ireland ungovernable.

Image above shows John and William Higgs, sons of James Higgs. Image taken from Glimpses of Portlaoise: a pictorial parade. Part 1 by John O'Brien & Teddy Fennelly

[1] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 10 January 1920.

[2] Padraig Yeates, A City in Turmoil – Dublin 1919–1921: The War of Independence (Dublin, Gill Books, 2012).

[3] Some of these events are covered in: Liam Cahill, Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919 (Cork, Orla Kelly Publishing, 2019); Peter Rigney, The Irish Munitions Embargo of 1920 (Dublin, Umiskin Press, 2020).

[4] I drew here on a draft by Francis Devine: ‘Division, Disillusion & Dissolution: Automobile Drivers & the Motor Permits Strike, 1919-1920’.

[5] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 10 January 1920.

[6] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 10 January 1920.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 24 January 1920.

[10] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 28 February 1920.

[11] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 20 March 1920.

[12] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 10 April 1920.

[13] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 20 March 1920.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Weekly Irish Times, 10 January 1920.