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When the Dunnes Stores workers stood up to racism

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

There’s nothing quite like a good podcast to make you feel like you’re doing something productive while clocking up the miles or putting away the laundry. While obviously my first port of podcast call is always The Mayo News Sports podcast (ahem), of late I’ve been drawn to the Echo Chamber podcast.
Billed as ‘an Irish, independent podcast that doesn’t take itself too seriously’, the show has two hosts, Tony and Martin, who take on a diverse range of topics. They interview interesting, accomplished and well-informed people that may not get the airtime they deserve, but generally have valuable things to say. It’s a bit anti-establishment and left leaning too, which suits my apparent tendency towards bleeding-heart liberalism.
This is not actually an advertisement, rather a means of introducing my topic for this particular column. But before I do so, it’s worth making the point that occasionally switching off your radio and listening to some truly independent, non-commercial broadcasting is a very healthy thing to do.
Recently the Echo Chamber broadcast a live panel discussion with a group of five women who, back in 1984, while working in Dunnes Stores, refused to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa.
On July 19, 1984, 21-year-old Mary Manning, under instruction from her union, refused to sell two grapefruits of South African origin to a customer in protest at the apartheid regime.
Immediately, she was suspended, and nine of her colleagues walked out the door with her and started a strike that would, incredibly, last for over two years.
Despite their admission that they knew very little at the time about apartheid, or indeed other world affairs, the strikers stuck to their guns as the protest turned into something bigger than they could ever have imagined. The strike action was endorsed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, and would later be cited by Nelson Mandela as something that kept him going during his imprisonment.
As you would expect, the striking workers met with massive opposition. In Ireland of the ’80s, they were accused of race betrayal, and they were ridiculed – often by public figures – and threatened by paramilitaries. One of the strikers lost her home. Others, blacklisted, had to leave Ireland after the strike to find employment.
And yet, they persisted. Eventually, the Irish government passed laws banning the importation and sale of South African goods. A victory in theory, but at massive cost. Yet, what a story of bravery and resolve, and of determination to do the right thing on behalf of people thousands of miles away, in a time when many Irish people might never have laid eyes on a black person.
When asked on the podcast whether they would do it over again, the answer from the five women was an unequivocal ‘Yes’.
With what feels like a sickly wave of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment slowly starting to seep through the floor in Ireland, it was a timely reminder of a remarkable incident in the social history of Ireland, and of a spirit of solidarity and integrity that we could badly do with more of today.
During their interview, some points struck me as still ringing true today. The establishment, ruled by men in suits, was all-powerful then, and is all-powerful now. Until someone stands up to it, it persists. But still, it is usually the minority who fights for what is right, the David against the Goliath. The finger in the dam. The rest of us; apathetic.
The strikers were not taken seriously, they felt, because they were working class, and predominantly women. Plus ça change! Racism was rife. Are we better today? That depends, doesn’t it?
Today, as our newspapers run stories about Direct Provision, and our social media feeds are full of vitriol towards immigrants and asylum seekers, and bleating, ill-informed armchair commenters preach ‘looking after our own first’ (as if it’s not possible to do both), we could very badly do with more of the spirit of 1984 today in Ireland, and the kindness, compassion and bravery of these remarkable women (and man) who went out on a limb for repressed and persecuted people they had never met.
Let us never forget their integrity. And maybe we can learn from it.