The Labour Party was founded in Clonmel Town Hall in May 1912 as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress. Prior to this there had been people involved in the labour and trade union movement. Jim Connell, a native of Crossakiel, wrote the Labour anthem ‘The Red Flag’ in December 1889. Having worked as a docker in Dublin, he moved to London and joined the independent Labour Party.
The Meath Labour Union was active in the county and had twenty two branches by 1914. This organisation claimed a membership of over two thousand in 1916 and supported Home Rule prior to the Easter Rising. In January 1918 the Meath Labour Union decided to affiliate to the Irish Trade Union Congress but four months later decided to change their minds as the Congress supported the Russian Revolution and was heavily infested with socialism. The first Meath branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was founded in February 1918 and seven more Meath branches were formed later that year. One of the members was David Hall from Culmullin who went on to be active in the Labour Party.
In the summer of 1918 Thomas Johnson, later leader of Labour, and Cathal O’Shannon spoke at a meeting in Trim on labour issues. The Labour Union decided not to contest the general election in 1918 and concentrate on the local elections. They decided to remain neutral in the general election to facilitate a clear-cut decision by the electorate on the national question.
On 1 May 1919 the first Meath Labour Day Rally was held in Dunshaughlin. In June 1919 one of the founders of the Labour Party, William O’Brien, spoke at Navan of his admiration for the Russian Revolution.
The 1920 Urban elections were the first local elections contested by the party. In Navan Stephen Walsh, labourer, from New Lane was elected as was Peter Fox, labourer from New Bridge. In Kells Patrick Connolly from Church Lane was elected and in Trim four Labour candidates were elected with another candidate describing himself as Sinn Fein Labour. Labour won 45% of the valid vote and held a majority on the Trim council. In the County Council elections no Labour candidate won a seat but two candidates were successful, describing themselves as Sinn Féin Labour.
In January 1922 Cathal O’Shannon was selected as the Labour candidate in the Meath-Louth constituency. Cathal O’Shannon was born in Randalstown, Co. Antrim. One of the founders of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast O’Shannon had been involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He mobilised a hundred volunteers at Coalisland on Easter Sunday 1916 but they dispersed when they received no orders from Dublin. O’Shannon was interned and later went on hunger strike. He urged Labour to contest the 1918 election and later supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Prior to the election O’Shannon had been an occasional visitor to Meath. In April 1920 O’Shannon was deported from London for making a seditious speech to a Labour meeting. He was charged with making a similar speech in Kells. O’Shannon was a great admirer of the soviets.
At an election meeting in Navan O’Shannon said with the British gone it was time to build a new state and address the issues which affected people’s day to day lives such as housing and unemployment. O’Shannon had a runaway victory gaining more than two quotas. In the 1922 elections, the Labour Party won 22% of the vote, with seventeen of its eighteen candidates being elected. The outbreak of civil war and the refusal of those against the Treaty to take their seats in the Dáil cast Labour in the role of the first official opposition party in the State, a role they held until 1927.
The next general election was held a year later in 1923 and Meath had been separated away from Louth. O’Shannon contested Louth and finished bottom of the poll. David Hall contested Meath for Labour and was elected.
O’Shannon was a candidate in Meath in 1927 but failed to be elected. He remained a prominent figure in the Labour movement and became Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1941. He served as a worker’s representative for twenty-three years on the Labour Court from 1946. He died in Dublin in 1969. His son, also Cathal O’Shannon, became a distinguished broadcaster and journalist.
David Hall was an agricultural worker who was elected to the Dunshaughlin Rural District Council and served as its chairman in 1920. This entitled him to sit on the County Council. Hall was elected T.D. for Meath in 1923. 1927. In April 1927 Hall supported Dan Breen when he entered the Dáil in 1927 to support the removal of the Oath of Allegiance. Hall was re-elected in the June 1927 election but decided not to contest the September 1927 election.
Peadar Cowan contested elections in the 1930s and 1940s as the Labour candidate but failed to be elected. Jimmy Tully was the next Labour T.D. to represent Meath. He was first elected in 1954 but lost his seat in the subsequent general election in 1957. Re-elected in 1961 he held his seat until 1982, topping the poll on a number of occasions.
Mr. Tully served as Minister for Local Government from 1973 to 1977 and as Minister for Defence from June 1981 to March 1982. Tully was appointed Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981 under Michael O’Leary. As Minister of Defence he travelled to Egypt and was sitting just four rows behind Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt when Sadat was assassinated. Mr. Tully received facial and hand wounds in the attack. In 1982 Tully retired from politics and died ten years later in May 1992.
Frank McLoughlin served as Meath Labour T.D. from 1982 to 1987. Brian Fitzgerald was elected in the swing to Labour in 1992 but lost his seat in 1997. Dominic Hannigan won a seat in Meath East in the 2011 general election. He had held a seat in the senate during the previous four years.
In early 2012 Labour members held the chairs of all three town councils in the county, the chair of Meath County Council and the chair of the VEC.