McDonald’s are set to move into the Temple Bar area soon, with the premises previously occupied by Frankie’s Steak House serving as the location for their newest Dublin branch. While many would argue the damage was done a long time ago with regards Temple Bar (The Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Fridays, tacky tourist traps), it is still a pretty significant piece of news for what was once referred to in the media as “Dublin’s Left Bank”. Dublin City Council had rejected a planning application from McDonald’s on the grounds that the premises would have a “detrimental impact on the mix of users within the Temple Bar area, which already has an ample supply of restaurants”, but the green light of An Bord Pleanála last year brought the proposal to a reality.
McDonald’s is a powerhouse of international business and the fast food trade, operating in 119 countries and serving tens of millions of customers on a daily basis. News of the multinational arriving in Dublin in 1976 was first reported in the Irish media in September of that year, when it was noted by The Irish Times that the company had purchased the old premises of the Hospital Sweepstakes on Grafton Street. The company was understand to be paying something in the region of £50,000 a year in rent for the premises.
The first branch of the restaurant in Ireland opened to minimal fanfare, and this is how the May 1977 opening was reported in The Irish Times:
A feature on the restaurant soon after its opening noted that it opened for about thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, far removed from the 24/7 branches in the city centre today. A 1978 report noted that the place was almost always busy, with a plain hamburger costing only 28p, a small chips 23p and a cup of coffee costing 17p. A journalist reviewing the restaurant for The Irish Times wrote that “the decor is far from appealing and my friend was convinced the seats are specifically designed so that if you relax you fall out of them.”
The expansion of the brand saw a second restaurant open in October 1978, this time on O’Connell Street. Like the first branch, this one remains open today.
McDonald’s were involved in a massive labour dispute in 1979, which lasted for almost six-months and saw the company entangled in a media storm, dragging workers through the courts in an attempt to stop them picketing the premises. This dispute began when workers within the company began to join the ITGWU union. At the time, it was reported that pay in McDonald’s was 85p an hour. The Anarchist Worker newspaper reported that “management refused to recognise the union or even to talk over the phone to union officials.” Coming out on March 16th, the workers involved picketed the two restaurants demanding the right to union recognition.
Tony Royle has written briefly of the 1977 strike in his study of the rights of McDonald’s workers in Europe. He wrote that this dispute began when the ITGWU recruited between six and eight workers, and issued a claim for improvements in pay and conditions to which McDonald’s did not respond. When the union balloted these members for strike action, they were joined by three more workers and pickets were placed on the O’Connell Street restaurant. Solidarity was forthcoming from the Bakery Workers’ Union who stopped bread supplies to the company for a period, and the mass pickets had an impressive effect, with the unions membership in McDonald’s growing to almost thirty. McDonald’s took a High Court injunction against the Union, in an attempt to restrict the numbers on the picket to just three outside of each branch. Two full-time officials of the ITGWU were arrested on the picket line at O’Connell Street, and tensions were high throughout the dispute. An account of this dispute from the employers side is available here, in the testament of franchise owner Michael Mehigan.
The Union of Students in Ireland was among those who supported the workers cause, and it urged students working part-time for the chain to join the ITGWU. The dispute was in the newspapers too when the O’Connell Street branch was “raided” by masked individuals, who done some damage to the premises.
The dispute was only brought to an end in September, when McDonald’s agreed in principal to accept a Labour Court recommendation on the matter, though in Tony Royle’s book (Working For McDonald’s in Europe: The Unequal Struggle) it is claimed that the company was still non-union in 2000.
While the 1977 dispute is well remembered in Dublin to this day, a very peculiar incident in 1988 deserves mention too. McDonald’s invited the Irish press to come to their O’Connell Street branch in May 1988 to see the “Lord Mayor of Moscow, Chairman V. Saikin” as he “sampled his first ever Big Mac”. Saikin was visiting Dublin on diplomatic business, but had just signed an agreement with McDonald’s which would see the firm open twenty branches in Moscow. Saikin visited the O’Connell Street branch, inspected the freezers and restaurant, but refused to eat a Big Mac, departing the restaurant and leaving a McDonald’s P.R person to remark embarrassed that “he obviously has a very busy schedule”. The Soviet Ambassador was also at the restaurant, and remarked to the Irish media that his daughter ate at McDonald’s “very often”. The headline ‘Hammer and Pickles’ did actually appear in one newspaper!
My thanks to Irish Anarchist History who sent on the links to the relevant pieces in their archive for this article. The IAH blog continues to collect and scan fantastic historical documents, from pamphlets to newspapers.