Date Released: 28 November 2013
Oration by the SIPTU General Secretary, Joe O'Flynn, at the funeral of Christy Kirwan on Wednesday, 27th November It is my privilege to reflect on the life of Christy Kirwan, his enormous contribution to the trade union and labour movement and his involvement in so many other interests over his 87 years. Christy was born on 14th September 1926 into a working class family and was born and reared in one room in Meath Street in the Liberties. This was to have a huge influence on Christy’s desire to improve the living conditions of workers and their families through his work with the labour movement.
Following his education, he worked as a ship’s clerk at sea for a short period before returning to Ireland and securing a job in the railway as a shunter with the Great Northern Railway line. Having established himself as a union activist, Christy was soon to secure a full-time position in the then Irish Transport and General Workers Union as a Branch Secretary in 1954.
In 1963, the union restructured its organisation and created six national industrial groups with Christy successfully securing an appointment to head up Group 5 which had responsibility for Transport, Railway, Air, Docks and Communications.
At that early stage, his ability and tough negotiating skills were highly regarded and his appointment was to lead to a successful period of national co-ordination and support to over 30,000 members in that group.
In the transport sector, in particular, his work and commitment improved the lives of thousands of workers who benefitted from his negotiations on improving pay and working conditions, including improvements in the area of Health and Safety.
Christy was elected Vice-President of the Union in March 1982 and, just a year later, was elected General Secretary following the untimely death of Mickey Mullen.
Mickey was a tough act to follow. However, Christy quickly established himself as an able and competent Officer of the union and played his part in the its many campaigns to improve the lives of workers and their families, not just at work, but in the wider society.
As General Secretary, he believed that a charter for social progress was necessary to advance issues such as healthcare, welfare reform, an action programme for workers’ education and training and a fairer taxation system where the wealthy in society paid their fair share.
He was active in the early social partnership deals which were initiated in 1987 with the Programme for National Recovery and was especially associated with the Programme for Economic and Social Progress covering the period 1991 – 1994. These were negotiated at a crucial time in the economic history of our country and proved to be very successful in creating a stable environment for employment security and growth in much needed jobs.
Christy was also involved in the historical merger that saw the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland come together after years of division, helping to form the new union, SIPTU, in 1990.
As a result of the merger, Christy was, as he said himself, the last General Secretary of the Irish Transport of the General Workers’ Union, but became joint general secretary of the new union which had a membership of over 200,000 at that time.
Christy was a very skilled, tenacious and tough negotiator who had a fierce reputation in the Union. He was an enormous ally once he was on your side and was a great support and friend to many activists and officials with whom he dealt over the years.
He was very proud of the union, and even though he was retired for quite a while he still took an active interest in our affairs including attending Conferences and other events. Indeed, he was at our most recent biennial national conference here in Dublin where the centenary of the 1913 Lockout was commemorated. While, talking to him there you knew he was still enormously conscious of the struggle, not just of the 20,000 workers who were involved in the Lockout, but the ongoing struggles of today for workers, the unemployed and the role the union movement has to play in fighting for fairness and dignity.
Christy enjoyed a very full life, and held many powerful and important positions, including as Treasurer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions from 1984 to 1989; Vice-President in 1989 to 1990 and achieving the ultimate position of President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1990.
Christy also served in Seanad Eireann from 1983 to 1987 as a Senator where he vigorously supported issues which were important to him as a Labour Party representative.
Over the years, Christy was also involved in a number of different positions associated with Aer Rianta; FAS; the National College of Industrial Relations; the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the EC Coal and Steel Consultative Committee.
Apart from the union, Christy’s major pastime was his love of boxing and he held the position of Patron of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and also, for many years, the position of Trustee.
I know from Christy’s family that one of his most momentous and enjoyable experiences of late was his attendance at the Olympics last year seeing Katie Taylor take gold for Ireland, an occasion that gave him great joy.
You would think from all of this that Christy was so pre-occupied with work and his pastime that he had little time for anything else. But that would be a mistake. Christy’s first love was his wife Bernadette to whom he was hugely devoted and his children whom he loved so much, Ciarán, Nóirín and Shane.
In the last few years since Bernadette’s passing, life was not the same but Christy’s family were a huge support to him and kept him going, repaying the love and affection he showered on them over their lives.
Today, we reflect on the enormous contribution that Christy made to the Irish trade union and labour movement and wider society and, while we mourn his passing, we know that his family can take enormous pride in his many achievements throughout his long and distinguished contribution to Irish life.
On behalf of my fellow Officers, Jack and Patricia, members of the National Executive Council, staff and union members, and his many, many friends, I would like to express our deepest sympathy to Christy’s children Ciarán, Nóirín and Shane, daughters in law Susan and Susan, son in law Paul, his grandchild Eva, Tara and Conn and to his sister Patricia and his brothers Joe, Tommy and Shay and extended family, on his sad passing.
Ar dhéis de go raibh a anam.