Michael Quill (1905-1966)
Mike Quill was born in Kilgarvan Co. Kerry on September 18, 1905. He attended primary school in Kilgarvan. School attendance was compulsory at the time for children between the ages of six and fourteen. However, no funding was included for teaching Irish, the national language. Being born in a Gaeltacht area, Quill was a fluent Irish speaker.
Gaeltacht areas in Ireland are located up and down the west coast where the native language survived because these areas were remote, therefore, historically outside the British sphere of influence or interest.
By the time Quill reached age fourteen the Ireland's War of Independence (1919 -1921) was well underway. The Quill family were staunchly Republican and very much engaged in fighting the British army and the 'Black-and-Tans' the criminal elements recruited by the British to terrorize the Irish populace. The teenage Quill was a dispatch rider for the Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. His uncle's house, also in Kilgarvan, was so renowned for its revolutionary sympathies that the British occupying garrison of Black-and-Tans derisively nick-named it "Liberty Hall"!
When the British drafted
Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was signed, without the prior approval of the Dail, by the delegation sent to London by deValera, it
caused a split within the Republican movement that pitted those who accepted the treaty against those who opposed it. Quill fought with the anti-treaty forces who viewed the 'Treaty' as a betrayal of the men and women of 1916 who fought and gave their lives for a free and sovereign 32-county Irish Republic: not a divided nation with dominion status within the British Empire. The infamous treaty that Quill and his comrades so vehemently opposed copper-fastened the partition of Ireland and set the stage for sectarianism, ethnic cleansing and ongoing an conflict that will continue until such time as the British depart Ireland's shores
After the Civil War, or what could more accurately be described as the second phase of the War of Independence, ended in 1923, Quill
worked as a carpenter's apprentice, then a woodcutter
Kenmare saw-mill. As a sign of what Quill was destined to become he and his brother were fired for staging a sit-in against working conditions.
After that incident, coupled with the fact that he was blacklisted for having fought on the side of the Republican anti-treaty forces, emigration was the only viable option available to Quill. He was not the first nor last veteran of the War of Independence who was forced to leave his homeland because he would not accept the humiliating treaty that required Irishmen and women to bear allegiance to the English King. On March 16, 1926, Quill arrived in New York, the city where he made his home for the next 40 years.
Mike first job after arriving in New York was on the construction of the IND (Independent) Subway system. Over the next number of years he held various other jobs including that of a change-maker on the (Interboro Rapid Transit (IRT) system. During these early years times were tough and jobs were scarce as the country was in the grip of the great depression. Those with jobs were the lucky ones, notwithstanding, the fact that they were exploited and required to work 12-hour days seven days a week if they wanted to hold on to their job.
These intolerable working condition, coupled with the brutality of the callous enforcers, otherwise known as beakies, on the payroll of the owners, reminded Mike of the inhuman conditions endured by the earlier 19th century Pennsylvania coal miners including the 'Molly Maquires' . Inspired by a past generation of great Irish labor leaders including Jim Larkin and James Connolly he set about organizing the IRT workforce. The fact that he had worked in most, if not all, of the change booths in the system was an invaluable asset as he got to know many of his fellow workers on a personal level.
Despite the best efforts of the owners and their enforcers, Mike continued to agitate for the right to organize the workforce. Without the help of a tough group of transit workers, many of whom were Irish-born fellow republicans, he would not have succeeded in his quest to set -up what was to become the Transport Workers Union. Two of Mike's staunches allies and fellow organizers during these difficult and dangerous years were Austin Hogan from Cork and Gerald O'Reilly from Meath. They were a more than a match for the beakies.
On April 12, 1934, the Transport Workers Union of America came into existence with just 400 workers. Mike and his band of dedicated union organizers continued the fight to represent all transit workers and were eventually successful in organizing and representing all 14,000 IRT employees. From there the TWU went on to represent the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit workers and by 1937 the union represented, in all, 45,000 transit workers. Towards the end of the 1940's the TWU included utility and airline workers.
Quill was its president from its inception in 1934 until his death in 1966.
Years later in recalling their efforts to organize Quill said:
"we were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers -- we were all poor -- we were all overworked -- we were all victims of the 84 hour week. In fact, we were all so low down on the economic and social ladder that we had nowhere to go but up."
In 1937 he was elected to the New York City Council on behalf of the American Labour Party and on the final occasion on which he stood for the City Council in 1945, he was elected on the first ballot
Amongst his friends were staunch Irish Republicans including Mike Flannery and George Harrison. Quill never forgot his Irish Republican past nor the sad fact that his homeland remained a divided land with the Union Jack flying high over six of its 32 counties. Apart from Flannery and Harrison, Mike had many other friends who were also active in the centuries old quest to rid Ireland of the British scourge that blights its landscape and divides its people. Over the years Mike supported that cause in so many ways. He did not seek recognition or accolades for his contributions or efforts : he was happy to be a silent partner.
Apart from his union comrades and fellow crusaders, Mike had many other friends some of whom, as he himself, were notable for their courage and dedication to improving the human condition. One of those of whom we all know was the Reverend Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader. In response to a protest letter from TWU airline workers in Tennessee protesting against the union’s support for the civil rights desegregation campaign, Mike invited Martin Luther King to address that year’s union convention. Such was his courage and dedication to the rights of his fellow man.
In summing up his philosophy of life, Quill offered the following;
"I believe in the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Ten Commandments, the American Declaration of Independence and James Connolly's outline of a socialist society … Most of my life I've been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother's keeper. I organise poor and exploited workers, I fight for the civil rights of minorities, and I believe in peace. It appears to have become old-fashioned to make social commitments - to want a world free of war, poverty and disease. This is my religion".
In 1966 Quill led the memorable transit workers strike in NYC. When served with an injunction from a judge prohibiting a strike and threatened with jail time he was quoted as saying,
"The judge can drop dead in his black robes. I don't care if I rot in jail. I will not call off the strike."
Quill and seven other leaders of the TWU and the Amalgamated Association, which joined in the stoppage, were imprisoned for contempt of court. The union successfully held out for a sizeable wage increase for its members. Other unions followed suit demanding similar raises.
Michael Quill, died suddenly at age 60 from a heart attack, three days after the union's victory celebration. He had an earlier heart attack while in jail for contempt. After a funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral his casket draped by the Irish tricolor.
He will be long remembered as a decent and courageous man, who stood tall for the working man and woman irrespective of race, origin, religion or any other difference in the human form or condition that others would exploit for benefit or out of ignorance.
On the occasion of his death Reverend Martin Luther King paid Michael Quill the following tribute:
"Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life - Irish Independence, labor organisation and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. This is a man the ages will remember".
Tomás Ó Coısdealha
Back to Biographies