Tuesday, April 23, 2013

BACK TO THE OLDE SOD: A Tale of May Day in England & Ireland

THE RECOVERY OF MEMORY: “They want to erase our history because to forget history is to negate our claim for justice.” p.177.   “How can you honor the bloody sacrifice of those who were murdered for justice, who gave us our voice and our future. May I speak of these dead in this fiesta? After all they made it possible.  Can we say that we are here because of them?”  p. 221   (LA REVUELTA DE LA MEMORIA, Textos del S.C. Marcos y del EZLN sobre la Historia, Centro de Informacion y Analisis, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, 1999)

   We first visited London to be with our son and daughter-in-law and then went with them to Ireland.  While in England and Ireland, I asked people about labor unions and the first of May as International Labor Day.  Although awareness of May lst as Labor Day has been suppressed in the U.S. by a McCarthyesq mentality, I expected that most in the U.K. and Ireland, especially the working class people, would be aware of May Day as Labor Day.  During the Haymarket trial, George Bernard Shaw spoke at a protest meeting in London, and in the intervening years there have been massive labor inspired May Day demonstrations in London.

   The Roman Catholic Church in 1955 established the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1st as an alternative to International May Day celebrations which the Church considered Communist.  A reading for the mass of the day is from a letter to the Colossians purported to be from St. Paul, but scripture scholars have their doubts.

    Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord
    and not from men, knowing that you will receive
    from the Lord due payment of the inheritance; be
    slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is this the “opiate of the people”? Let us pray that most are free of such a drug. 
   It surprised me that most in the U.K. connected the holiday at the beginning of May as a bank holiday and couldn’t relate it to labor.  The T.U.C. (AFL-CIO equivalent in the U.K.) representative responded by e-mail. 

   l May is indeed our equivalent of Labor Day.  The best short                       
   summary I’ve read is on wikipedia, although I’m sure there   
   are more scholarly texts.  To be honest in most countries in   
   Western Europe, Mayday is celebrated as a generic workers’
   day (and the original pagan roots of the celebrations on that
   day),  rather than a commemoration of the Haymarket Riot –    
   few people I suspect know of that connection, even in   
   organising groups.

   On the cheap Ryan Air flight to Ireland, as a first question, I asked the young stewardess if she was a member of a labor union; she responded, “What’s a labor union?”  She was a recent immigrant from Poland so I tried to relate labor unions to Lech Walesa but without success.  On a boat trip on the Irish fiord of Killary, I asked the Irish sailors about May Day and labor unions.  They had no knowledge of May Day as a labor holiday and said that they were not union members because their company was not big enough.

   On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic we discovered that May 1st is celebrated in the Dominican Republic as a national holiday in honor of workers.  Everyone we questioned was aware that May 1st is a workers’ holiday.


Tales of Wealth & Poverty  
   We returned to London from Ireland and then made plans to visit the small town of Todmorden, the birth place of Haymarket Martyr Sam Fielden.  We were advised to take the bus to Manchester then the train to Todmorden.  Helen Toft, Catherine’s sister who went to the University in Manchester, suggested that we spend some time in the city.  She claimed Manchester was the birth place of the industrial revolution and noted that Marx and Engles had been there. 

   We traveled by bus to Manchester, and at the Manchester bus depot, I asked a security guard about Labor Day and labor unions.  He said he didn’t know about Labor Day and he didn’t like unions.  He immediately went to talk to the man he said was his boss.  They looked over at me and the boss laughed.  I guess the boss didn’t consider me much of a threat.  More conversations led me to believe that Margaret Thatcher did a better job of suppressing labor in the U.K. than Ronald Reagan in the U.S.  Tops, of course is Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

   We didn’t have much time to tour Manchester, but we did visit the Church of England Cathedral and discovered some unexpected treasures.  At the back of the church is a statue of the pioneer Manchester capitalist Humphrey Chetham (Would you buy a used car from someone with such a name?) who in 1653 left money for the purchase of buildings just north of the church for the founding of a school and library.  This library is the oldest free library in the English speaking world.  Chetham’s library is where Marx and Engels met and researched the economics of Capitalism in the 1840’s.  Where else you might ask. While in Manchester Engels worked in the textile firm of Ermen and Engels in which his father was a large shareholder.  Engels described the slum condition of this area in his book, The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844.

   Among the other Cathedral surprises was a statue of Mary, Jesus the carpenter’s mother.  The Cathedral is dedicated to St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George.  Usually statues of the Blessed Virgin show her as a member of the royalty – a queen.  However, outside the Cathedral stands a statue called the Lancashire Madonna wearing the traditional shawl of a local mill worker. Obviously the product of a new theology, the statue was part of the post-war reconstruction of 1958.
  The next stop will be Todmorden, the birth place of Samuel Fielden.


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