Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 1

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part I: Some Historical Context

Tracy Ryan’s Strike! reveals one of Ireland’s hidden histories, a David and Goliath story that, quite literally, changed the course of history. The commitment of twelve unionised, working class, urban people in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1980s still resonates in post-apartheid South Africa; and the importance of their actions—including great personal losses—cannot be understated.  As a direct result of the strikers’ courage and grit, the Republic of Ireland became the first western country to ban the importation of South African agricultural goods on 1 January 1987.

Ryan’s play first premiered in Dublin in 2010 and is a fictionalised account of the Dunnes Stores strike against apartheid that began on 19 July 1984 and ended nearly three years later on 12 April 1987.  On that Thursday afternoon in July 1984 in the Dunnes Store on Dublin’s Henry Street, a woman approached the cash register operated by Mary Manning.  Among the items in her shopping basket were South African grapefruit, which Ms. Manning’s union, the Irish Administrative and Distributive Trade Union (IADTU, now known as Mandate) had boycotted at its annual meeting earlier that year.  Subsequently, a union directive ordered staff members not to handle South African products.  Following union orders, Ms. Manning refused to sell the produce and was suspended by the supermarket’s management.  When she walked out of the store, however, she did not do so alone; she was joined by ten of her colleagues and, later, a worker from another branch of the store (see note 1).

Told through a series of Brechtian-like scenes, Strike! uses words, images, and movement to tell the story of this small group of young Irish people whose act of defiance evolved into one of Ireland’s most successful union actions (see note 2). That success, though, was hard earned in the face of opposition from the government, the Catholic Church, Dunnes Stores, and, at times, the union itself.  Before providing a more thorough discussion of the strike in a later post, it is necessary to think a little about the relationship between Ireland and South Africa.  A blog post precludes an exhaustive, complete history of the complex connection between the two countries so this exploration focuses on four people at particular moments in time in order to highlight how Irish people previously shaped South African history.  To do so, I will briefly discuss Dr. James Barry, The Honourable William Porter, Major John MacBride, and Roger Casement.

Born in Ireland but raised and educated in Britain, Dr. James Barry (c. 1799-1865), became a very well-respected surgeon who reached the rank of Inspector General and served in the Cape Colony.  In Wild Irish Women, Marian Broderick argues that Barry treated all patients “equally, even non-whites, lepers, and lunatics.  This policy extended to the prison hospitals, including Robben Island” (see note 3).  (Robben Island is the prison where, in the next century, Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, some of those with union organiser, Nimrod Sejake, who walked the picket line with the Dunnes Stores strikers.) Like the strikers’ protest against the apartheid regime, Barry’s personal and professional life was also an act of rebellion.  Barry’s rebellion, though, was fought privately rather than publicly since Barry was born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley, but lived as a male because, in the early nineteenth century, females were not allowed to study to become doctors.

A Protestant Ulsterman, The Honourable William Porter (1805-1880), was appointed Attorney General of the Cape Colony in 1839 where he served until 1865. J.L. McCracken, in New Light at the Cape of Good Hope, notes that Porter described himself as an Irishman; but he was a Unionist who felt “thankful that I live under the government of the Anglo-Saxon race”.  Even so, Porter sought equality for blacks.  He observed that “[t]his profound contempt of colour, and lofty pride of race contains within it the concentrated essence and active principle of all the tyranny and oppression which white has ever exercised over black” (see note 4).  In 1848, Porter drafted a constitution that allowed male landowners, both white and non-white, to vote.  That equality remained even after the 1910 union of South Africa’s four colonies (the Cape Colony, the South African Republic {aka The Transvaal}, the Orange Free State, and Natal).  The rights of black voters were compromised in 1936, however, with the enactment of the Representation of Natives Act, which removed black voters in the Cape from the common polls and placed them on a separate role of voters.

Major John MacBride (1868-1916), a member of the nationalist group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, moved from Ireland to the Transvaal in the late nineteenth century. Along with another prominent Irish nationalist, Arthur Griffith, MacBride directed celebrations for the one hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s 1798 Rebellion, at which there was prominent Afrikaner participation. At the same time as Ireland’s Celtic Revival movement was flourishing and the Irish people sought Home Rule in reaction to the 1801 Act of Union, the Boers (aka Afrikaners) also sought freedom from Britain.  MacBride led 300 soldiers for the Irish Transvaal Brigade and fought with the Boers against English rule in what would become known as the Anglo-Boer War.  Such actions were tantamount to treason, prompting MacBride’s relocation to Paris after the war where he met Maud Gonne, also an ardent Irish nationalist, who had starred in the title role of W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory’s play, Kathleen Ní Houlihan, which premiered in 1904 at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre.  Following Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, MacBride was tried by court martial and executed.  MacBride’s support of the Boers’s fight for freedom is ironic when considering that the Boers’ Nationalist Party would come into power in 1948, enacting the harsh apartheid laws against blacks that the Dunnes Stores strikers fought to overturn. MacBride and Gonne’s son, Sean (1904-1988), a member of the Irish Republican Army and later an Irish politician who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, publicly supported the Dunnes Stores’ strikers and the strike.

Originally from south County Dublin, Roger Casement (1864-1916) served as British consul in Africa and South America where he publicised the abuses of indigenous people.  Casement, too, was a hero of Irish nationals.  Convicted for treason for his role in the importation of German armaments for Irish rebels around the time of the Easter Rising, Casement was hanged in England in August 1916.  Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, published a biographical novel of Casement, The Dream of the Celt, in 2012.  Vargas Llosa observes that Roger Casement:

lived through the great moments of his time. He was involved in colonisation, decolonisation, and the discovery of the other—the realisation that western civilisation was not the only one and that others deserved to be treated with respect….Casement was one of the first Europeans to realise, through experience and facts, that this [the belief that colonisation brought culture, civilisation, etc. to the rest of the world] was a myth and was not the real reason (see note 5).

Learning “through experience and facts” highlights a link between Casement and the Dunnes Stores strikers. Casement progressed from British civil servant to internationally recognised humanitarian due to his experiences in Africa and South America where he found that the facts of colonisation were at odds with the treatment of human beings.  Likewise, through their experiences on the picket line where they met anti-apartheid activists such as Nimrod Sejake and Marius Schoon, the strikers’ evolved from workers who were following a union directive to people concerned about the facts of apartheid, and emerged as anti-apartheid activists themselves.  The strikers’ Shop Steward, Karen Gearon, recollected this shift in understanding at a 2014 celebration in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s birthday:

In actual fact, we didn’t know how to spell apartheid, that was how little we knew….As we started the strike we began to learn about what was happening in South Africa and what apartheid…actually meant…we believed so much in the workers of South Africa and the ANC calling for a boycott of South African goods so the country would be isolated (see note 6).

In her 2015 contribution to The Moth storytelling series, Gearon singled out Nimrod Sejake, who joined them in July 1984 a few days after the strike began, as the person responsible for the strikers’ apartheid education. Sejake, a black South African union leader and anti-apartheid activist, had been incarcerated with Nelson Mandela in Robben Island before his exile from the country and had been living in Ireland since the late 1960s.  He told the strikers the facts about the black experience in South Africa, likening the oppression of blacks to a pint of Guinness as “the white sat on top of the black” (see note 7).

Part II of this addresses more about the links between the two countries before providing further information about the strike itself.  The short sketches above demonstrate, on a personal level, a few of the ways in which Ireland and South Africa are interconnected.  Tracy Ryan’s Strike!, while a fictionalised account of that historical event, is based on the strikers’ actual experience on the picket line and utilises public and private archival materials such as personal interviews with the strikers, newspaper reports, and union correspondence.  The project, then, finds its voice in the strikers’ real experiences.  Please add your own voice to this story by responding in the comments section with any knowledge you have about the experiences of other Irish people in South Africa, or with stories about South Africans who shaped Irish history. We are also interested in hearing from people such as those who walked the Dublin picket line with the strikers, people who participated in regional responses to the strike outside of Dublin, people outside of Ireland who recall the strike and would like to comment on its importance to the anti-apartheid movement, and people who find inspiration in this story.

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.


  1. See Ms. Manning’s account of the start of the strike here in the YouTube video “Mary Manning - The Dunnes Stores Strike - Nelson Mandela | The Late Late Show”, uploaded by Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland’s national public service media.
  2. Bertolt Brecht, twentieth century a German theatremaker, worked to ensure that audiences understood that the scenes enacted before them were illusions rather than a “slice of real life”.  Brecht did not want spectators to passively empathise with the characters or action onstage. To achieve that goal, Brecht utilised what he called Verfremdungseffekt (sometimes referred to as the Alienation Effect, the Distancing Effect, or the Estrangement Effect) which served to detatch the audience from the onstage action.  To do so, Brecht might place actors onstage when they were not in character, or include film clips that had nothing to do with the play’s narrative, thus reminding the audience of the play’s artifice.
  3. See page 94 for the quotation used above and visit GoogleBooks here for a preview of Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History.
  4. William Porter quoted in McCracken’s book found on pages 95 and 97, respectively.  See Chapter 8, “Porter in a Multi-Racial Society”, for a thorough account of Porter’s perception of Africans and Afrikaners as well as his thoughts behind drafting the 1848 constitution. A preview of the book is available here on GoogleBooks.
  5. You will find Vargas Llosa’s quotation in Mark Lawson’s 20 June 2012 feature article on The Dream of the Celt here on the We Love This Book website.
  6. See Mandate Trade Union’s YouTube video, “Karen Gearon, Dunnes Stores Striker speaks at ANC Mandela birthday”, of Gearon’s speech here.
  7. Listen here to Karen Gearon’s account of the Dunnes Stores strike and Nimrod Sejake’s role in it on the 17 March 2015 edition of The Moth: True Stories Told Live.