Sex & Docks & Roll & Roll! Paddy Neary and the National Seamen’s Reform Movement

In 2010, a play was performed in Liverpool, written by  former Chumbawamba frontman Allan Whaley, called Sex & Docks & Rock & Roll. The play, a comedy with musical numbers, concerned the activities of the McDermott family in 1960 as they found themselves caught up in the protests to free imprisoned strike-leader Paddy Neary.  A piece that appeared in the Liverpool Echo notes of the play that “Against a backdrop of picketing, marches and jailings one local family, the McDermott’s, fight, laugh, lie and sing their way through these challenging times.” The events that inspired Whaley’s production though were no laughing matter. And, unlike the McDermott’s, the Neary family was very real indeed, as was the jailing of Paddy Neary in Brixton prison for seven weeks in August of 1960.. This was a serious stand-off between workers and their cosy-with-the-bosses union leadership, especially union secretary Sir Thomas Yates. The seamen wanted a guaranteed 44-hour working week and were willing to fight for it.

Generally people are used to hearing the story of famed labour agitators coming from England to radicalise and unionise Irish workers – the stories of James Connolly and ‘Big’ Jim Larkin. But plenty of Irish men had their role to play across the water in union life, big and small, and this is one such story.

I heard the bare bones of this story from my mother last year when on Inis Meain, the middle of the three Aran Islands. The trip was in August of last year, almost exactly 52 years after the fact, I later learned. There we were, on an island, surrounded by sea – a perfect setting for this story. It came during a long night of story-telling and this one captivated me completely. That this was a part of my family’s own story, and that it was more or less, a forgotten episode of history, struck me dumb. On returning home from Inis Meain I began to dig around a little on this episode so here is something of that remarkable story that led to a play being put on in Liverpool in 2010.

Genealogy can sometimes appear a staid cataloguing of the past, with none of the character or context, the fleshing out of normal historical practice; but as Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton note this doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Discussing the results of a large-scale survey of what history meant to Australians they state

Many interviewees, including those with no expressed leisure interest in history, were nevertheless actively involved in constructing an account of the past and present to be preserved within their family and passed on… The past that inspires genealogists, local and community historians and collectors is not random but connected to their personal identity, most often their genetic heritage.[1]

This story, part diaspora, part labour, part family history is an attempt to bring all of those things together – a history that is at once part of a personal identity and also a part of a wider sense of history.

Paddy Neary was a Waterford native. His family included Tommy Neary, a noted handball player in Waterford who was proprietor of the handball alley in Spring Garden Alley behind the Waterford Arms Hotel. Paddy was no slouch in the sporting stakes either – being a champion table tennis player in the city, usually playing his table tennis in De La Salle Hall on Stephen’s Street in the heart of the city. Like many Irish people before and since, Paddy found his work not at home but in England. Paddy’s work as a seaman meant that he lived and worked in Liverpool, where he also kept a shop.    He was also an extremely active union member and when a move to reform the National Union of Seamen (NUS) in favour of the ordinary members of the union was required, Paddy led the charge. Such was his militancy in fact that in British Pathé newsreel coverage of the story the reform movement was described as being communist-led, even though remarkably, the Catholic Herald in its report of the strike was quite certain that he wasn’t. When he died in 2005, Bill Hunter wrote of Paddy that

Patrick Neary
from the Irish Independent

Paddy Neary has an honoured place in the struggle of seafarers to end bad and repressive conditions. He was chairman of the Seamen’s Reform Movement and has also a place in the history of unofficial movements of trade unionists for democratic rights in their unions following the Second World War.[2]

The National Reform Movement that caused the strike in 1960, and that would change the NUS forever, is perhaps less famous today than the strike from the same union in 1966. The jailing of Paddy Neary in the 1960 strike, which caused such a backlash, and is the topic Whaley’s musical play, resulted from a clause in the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act.  A George Foulser pamphlet analysing the more well-known 1966 strike points out that under the 1894 Act

During a seamen’s strike, a seaman speaking at the strike-meeting ashore can be silenced and if necessary jailed under the Act, even when he is not on ship’s articles. On application to the High Courts of Justice by shipowners or their representatives, an injunction informs the seaman in question that he must cease from speaking at strike-meetings and from all other activities designed to further the strike, otherwise he is liable to go to prison for contempt of court. A number of us were unable to address our fellow seamen because of injunctions received during the July strike of 1960. These injunctions were still valid in the second seamen’s strike that year, August-September, 1960.[3]

And as Foulser explains it was this particular clause that saw Paddy Neary jailed

It was a July injunction which sent the strike chairman Paddy Neary to Brixton Jail for contempt of court just after the second strike began. Those of us with injunctions against them all got ready to join Paddy. Fortunately for us the Neary jailing awoke a storm of national protest, and the authorities stopped at jailing Paddy. I should just like to make a point as a gentle reminder, that despite being merchant seamen, we are British after all-or are we? -so why should a seaman who strikes be liable to trial and imprisonment? Striking is legal here. This is a free country -for everyone bar us seamen.[4]

So what had Paddy said? According to the Irish Independent at a meeting in Southampton he is reported to have said

‘We want members of the catering, deck and engine room etc. of the Queen Mary to use their influence to stop that ship from sailing. She is in your hands.’[5]

This was considered a sufficient breach of the injunction to have Paddy jailed. The reaction to Paddy’s jailing was remarkable. There were several different marches in protest at his jailing, with thousands lining the streets of Liverpool in protest, one of the marches ending in the Liverpool Stadium, now most fondly remembered as the site of many a prog-rock concert. Years later, in 1969, during a House of Commons debate on the Merchant Shipping Bill, MP for Bootle, Simon Mahon said of the 1960 strike and Neary’s jailing in particular

I want again to put on record something I touched on earlier. We talk about the contributions which Governments have made and why they did not do what they should have done. I remember that during the 1960 strike I contacted the then Minister of Labour. I believe that he is in another place and is now known as Lord Blakenham. He was then Mr. John Hare—a Minister of Labour in those days. On 23rd August, 1960, I had reason to send him this telegram: I request your urgent intervention on behalf of Mr. Patrick Neary who has now been imprisoned for activities in British ports during the unofficial seamen’s strike. I regard the sentencing of this man as unjust and contrary to the best traditions of British democracy. Further, I claim that the law under which this man has been punished is being wrongly used and apart from this my firm belief is that the 1894 Act should have been amended a long time ago. That was part of the telegram that I sent to the Minister at the time. I received an undertaking that amending legislation would be introduced at the earliest opportunity. It has taken a long time. It is a big job, and I do not want to be churlish about it. But I am only one of a legion of people who have been claiming that this legislation should be amended on behalf of sailors.[6]

The strike itself had caused widespread disruption for its duration, other ships as well as the Queen Mary being affected. A statement from the Cunard Company, quoted in the Irish Indpendent ran

‘The Cunard Company are making every effort to assist  their passengers in the predicament in which  they have been placed by the crew’s completely unjustified disregard of the welfare of the passengers on whom they depend for their livelihood.’[7]

The strike lasted for quite some time and Paddy wasn’t released from jail until the beginning of October 1960 after not just protests in Liverpool, but some 500 who marched to Brixton in September. , Paddy went on hunger strike. At least, of sorts. The story goes that he was in fact getting dillisk sent to him by my grandmother, his sister, wrapped in the local newspaper as a means of keeping him going during the hunger strike. As part of being released,  in an affidavit Paddy is reported to have expressed regret and ‘humbly apologised’ as he now realised he had acted wrongly. Nevertheless, when asked did he think this was the end of the Reform Movement, he defiantly stated ‘it is only starting’.[8] In an interview  with Bill Hunter, he also said:

‘Let us be clear that while the material gains of the strike were only small, we achieved several things. First, we have laid the foundation for the National Reform Movement. Secondly, we forced Yates to negotiate against his wishes with this movement. Only two days after saying he would never have anything to do with unofficial organisations, he was meeting the acting chairman and the secretary of the Reform Movement, and he also had to humiliate himself by meeting Billy Hart who he expelled from the union in 1948. This stands as a warning to all union leaders. The National Union of Seamen will never be the same again. During this strike many young seamen have become politically and trade union conscious and these will be a great strength in our fight.’[9]

There are aspects of this story which belong to our family, to the family’s collective memory and there is also the historical truth to be claimed from the sources – the newspapers, the reminiscences of seamen, the newsreels. It might described as a tension between family memory and history and ‘proper’ history. If history is really about people, then it can even be about people you’re related to. It is a remarkable thing to be able to bridge the distance and join the story my family knows and that which during those heady final months of 1960, the wider Irish and English public came to know: the story about a man who caused so much trouble for the National Union of Seamen’s conservative leadership and inspired such strength of feeling among his fellow workers.

[1] Ashton, Paul and Paula Hamilton, “Connecting with History: Australians and their Pasts”, in Ashton, Paul and Hilda Kean (eds.), Public History and Heritage Today: People and their Pasts (2nd Ed.), London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012,  31

[3] George Fulser, Unholy alliance – The 1966 Seamen’s Strike: An analysis
Direct Action Pamphlets #10 reproduced online:

[4] Ibid.

[5] Irish Independent, August 24 1960

[7] Irish Independent, 13 August 1960

[8] Irish Independent, 5 October 1960


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