The Belfast Boycott: ‘Where’s the bread, Fred?’

This week's Times Past column by Jonathan Smyth takes a look at the famous Belfast Boycott in the early 1920s.

In August 1920, the Dáil Cabinet ordered a boycott of Belfast’s banks and insurance companies, which swiftly spread to all other areas of trade between the North and South of Ireland. The Boycott Committee ordered the citizens of the Irish Free State to stop dealing with the Ulster Bank, the Northern Bank and the Belfast Bank and ‘that any persons in the possession of notes’ from these banks would have them ‘confiscated’.

The creation of two separate jurisdictions as a result of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 saw the eruption of troubles in Northern Ireland through civic disorder and ‘communal violence’. In his article for the RTE website, Daithi Ó Corráin notes that the troubles began in July 1920, and persisted until 1922, causing the loss of many lives, with Belfast ‘the epicentre’ where a small nationalist population resided. The ultimate aim of the Belfast Boycott was, in the words of one poster, to ‘kill partition’ and return to the unity shared previously prior to May 1920. Violent incidents related to the boycott erupted across many counties including Cavan.

On September 2, 1920, the shopkeepers of Cavan Town met in the Town Hall to chew the fat over how the boycott should proceed. Most of the traders had already ended their contracts with the Belfast companies and made it clear that the decision was not based on a business’s religion but that they would wait on a whitelist of companies before again purchasing supplies from the North. Mr P.A. Galligan told the meeting that Cavan was very slow to act compared to other counties and said that in Clones alone, over £40,000 had been ‘transferred’ from its local branch of the Ulster Bank.

Mr Galligan acknowledged people's fear that there’d be no bread, but he reminded them that Dublin’s bread was good stuff too and the Dublin bakers would be able to take the place of the Belfast ones. He asked the traders for a solid front, telling them we can’t let them through from the North, and if we do allow that to happen, then ‘another body will take action’.

Dublin bread might be a ha’penny higher per loaf but was anyone going to complain? Locally produced food had to be sold locally before considering its export abroad to England, otherwise they should expect the ‘vigilance committee’ to come knocking, said Mr Galligan.

In October, only one Belfast firm, Messrs. B. Hughes Bakery, was allowed a permit to deliver throughout Ireland, for one month, and only to where bread was most needed. An ‘Expelled Workers Fund’ was created to support the Belfast people who had lost jobs and it was widely reported that in the shipyards employees faced aggressive action.

Bread vans were targeted in situations where shopkeepers continued to buy bread from the North. For example, on mid-day of March 19, 1921, a motor van proceeding to Ballinagh with floury loaves of Belfast bread, was made to pull in at Killycannon by three ‘unmasked men’ who ordered the driver to turn into a bye-road that led to Cornaseer before petrol and paraffin was poured over the van and it was set alight. The driver returned to his employers the Cavan County Stores and, later that afternoon, police and soldiers attended the site of the attack. Bread vans were also burnt at Cootehill railway station; on the Rock Road near Cavan railway station; and at Killeshandra, a motor belonging to Messrs. Inglis, bakers from Belfast was singled out.

Those caught dealing with Northern firms had their details published on bill-posters dispersed around towns. One particular trader from Co Cavan surnamed Smyth had been ‘wrongly accused’ of breaking the boycott in May 1921 and, to hold onto local trade, he placed the following advertisement in this newspaper: ‘My name has been appended to a Circular issued as one who continues to Trade with Belfast, notwithstanding the Boycott. I desire to say at once this information is false and without foundation, as all my stock, together with my invoices, will prove to the contrary’.

Another lady who owned a shop in Cavan town, published a notice stating: ‘I offer my apology for having bought some small Parcels of Goods from Belfast, but I guarantee this Will Not occur in future.’

The Collins-Craig Pact agreed in London by Michael Collins and Sir James Craig brought the boycott to a conclusion in January 1922. The Dáil recorded that ‘the boycott was originally instituted on account of the imposition of religious and political tests’, further adding, ‘these tests are now to be withdrawn’. Sir James Craig gave his word that a return to work for Catholic employees would be facilitated. On the following Monday, Belfast’s commercial travellers were out again in their hundreds throughout Ireland and not a bedroom was to be had between Coleraine and Killarney, for they were all booked by the travelling salesmen.


On May 8, 2006, Bagatelle frontman Liam Reilly took centre stage in a novel fundraising event for Cavan General Hospital’s Kidney Dialysis Unit, when he performed his songs at the Imperial Bar. His piano playing talents were much looked forward to, as were the string of hits that made Bagatelle famous with favourites like ‘Summer in Dublin, ‘Leeson Street Lady’ and ‘Second Violin’. Later, that August, more money was raised for the Kidney Unit by Steve Duggan who did the Longford half marathon while kicking a football along the route.

Before the Renal Unit opened in Cavan, patients had to make up to three journeys a week to Dublin for treatment. The Dialysis Unit in Cavan General Hospital first began receiving people for dialysis in December 1994. The unit was setup with the generous support of the general public of Cavan and Monaghan who raised £200,000 in the previous year for the Irish Kidney Association, which went towards building the new unit. One of the first people to attend Cavan Hospital for dialysis was 90-year-old Mr Tommy Hoey, of Ballinagh, who summed up the feeling of the kidney patients when he said: ‘It took me 10 minutes to get here this morning instead of two hours to Dublin!’


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