Mike Quill is one of the most celebrate trade unionists in American history, remembered for the actions of his militant New York union of underground workers. The title of L.L Whittemore’s biography is quite fitting, describing him as “the man who ran the Subways”. His offer to finance the removal of Admiral Nelson from the Pillar in O’Connell Street is a great story, which we detail below.
Mike Quill is a truly fascinating figure in both republican and trade union history. Born in County Kerry in 1905, he was active with the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence, and his name appears in Kerry’s Fighting Story, documenting the war there. Quill’s family were deeply republican, and his role in the war was that of a dispatch rider. He was active with the Kerry no.2 Brigade.
Mike Quill took an active role in the Civil War, opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty and participating in the capture of Kenmare by republican forces. In a 2002 address at a Siptu conference in Kerry, labour historian Manus O’Riordain noted that ‘during those years Mike Quill also had his first experience of industrial struggle when he and his brother John were fired for staging a sit-in strike in a Kenmare saw-mill.’
Like many men who had fought in the Civil War, Quill was to settle in the United States, arriving in 1926. Quill found himself employed with the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), having first worked a variety of jobs. The IRT were the private operator of the New York underground of the day, and Quill was among the men to bring the Transport Workers Union of America into existence in April 1934. Quill would go on to become one of the most influential and capable union leaders of his time, organising men who worked on the New York underground.
Many of the workers around the new union were Irish migrants, and indeed many, like Quill, had been veterans of the revolutionary period. As historian Brian Hanley has noted:
It was a combination of former IRA veterans, among them Quill and Gerald O’Reilly, members of the Clan na Gael, activists in the Communist Irish Workers Clubs and the American Communist Party itself which proved crucial to the foundation of the TWU.
‘Red Mike Quill’ would become one of the leading trade unionists of his time, and it should be said that Quill was a passionate supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King was the keynote speaker at the 1961 convention of the TWU, and in a 1956 letter to King from the leaders of the TWU it was noted that:
Once again we want to take this opportunity to congratulate you for the mature and courageous leadership you have given not only to the people of Alabama but all Americans in the fight to wipe out the scourge of segregation from our national life.
Quill’s union, in 1964, extended a rather unusual offer to the people of Dublin when he offered to finance the removal of Admiral Nelson from O’Connell Street.
In January 1964, Quill made the offer on behalf of the Transport Union “cheerfully to finance the removal of Lord Nelson”. He made the offer in a letter to the Taoiseach, and it was responded to publicly by Sean Moore, then Lord Mayor of Dublin. The Irish Times reported the Lord Mayor as stating that the Corporation had no power to remove Nelson, as the monument was under the guardianship of trustees.
The Irish Times noted that Quill said his union would pay for the removal of Nelson from his pedestal and his transportation to Buckingham Palace, where he said Nelson was “respected and loved for his many and victorious gallant battles on behalf of the British Crown.” Quill wrote that he believed the statue gave the impression to visitors, owing to its sheer scale, that to the Irish it meant what the Statue of Liberty meant to Americans. Quill suggested a statue of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly or Jim Larkin be placed on top of the pillar instead of Nelson. As a compromise, “since there are two governments in Ireland today”, Quill suggested President John F. Kennedy as a statue to place in the centre of O’Connell Street. Kennedy had been assassinated only months prior in November 1963, and discussions were under way regarding a potential monument for Kennedy in Ireland.
Quill noted that his union were willing to finance the removal of Admiral Nelson “in a dignified manner and without hatred or rancour on the part of anybody.”
The Lord Mayor of Dublin “thanked Quill for his offer” the newspaper noted. Surely the offer of the radical New York subway workers union to remove Nelson from his vantage point is one of the most unusual chapters in the story of Nelson’s Pillar? Just over two years on from the offer, the monument was of course targeted by militant republicans.