Minister for Communications and Natural Resurces Pat Rabbitte led the tributes to former trade union activist and Labour councillor, Frank Lewis. Mr Lewis, Ballyartella, died last Wednesday and was buried in Monsea graveyard on Friday, with Minister Rabbitt giving the graveside oration.
The following is the full text of Minister Rabbitte’s graveside oration at Monsea graveyard.
I find it hard to believe that I have known, respected and admired Frank Lewis for 39 years and harder still to believe that he is gone. Frank Lewis was a gentleman, a natural leader, an accomplishedorganiser, a labour stalwart and a rock of common-sense. He was a
loyal colleague never reticent about bluntly asserting his own views. He commanded authority and respect in the often fraught and
contentious world of trade unionism.
He thought about politics and issues rather than following whatever was the fashion of the time. He cared about his own community and how it could be enhanced. He enjoyed sport and before Tipperary, in more recent years, produced some national household names in rugby, Frank was a member of the team that won the Munster Junior Cup in 1948.
He served two terms as Chairman of Tipperary (North Riding) County Council and a term as Chairman of Shannonside when it had responsibility for the promotion of tourism in the region. He was interested in Education and Health Policy and again worked creatively within the structures to improve outcomes in both areas. Along with his comrade and friend John Ryan he ploughed a long furrow for the Labour party in Tipperary North sometimes in good times and sometimes in difficult weather.
Frank Lewis was a big man with a broad vision, confident in what he believed and, consistent with his values, independent minded and determined.
Frank Lewis, as was the pattern at the time, started work in the aluminium factory at the tender age of 14. The struggle at that time was to avert closure of the factory because raw material was hard to source during the war. Most of the workforce were taken to England to help the war effort. The remaining workforce were obliged to cut turf to drive the furnace because it was the only fuel they could get.
When their comrades returned after the war a clandestine campaign started to organise a union and tackle the poor wages and conditions. It was a bitter campaign for union recognition culminating in a 3 week strike. Eventually the company settled with the union and pay and conditions were improved. After that the young Frank Lewis was nominated to represent his fellow workers becoming part-time Secretary of the Nenagh branch of the ITGWU in 1952.
As he climbed up the trade union hierarchy, Frank never forgot Castle Brand or the early lessons forged in war-time conditions in the
struggle for union recognition. When I met Frank in 1974 he was District Secretary of the union responsible for the county and for some of the most difficult industries like mining, food and drink and, by then, an elder statesman of the trade union movement. When I joined the union as an official I served some of my apprenticeship under Frank’s tutelage. He taught me more than, at the time, I had the wisdom to know.
Frank, of course, was almost alone with the late Dan Shaw in union officials who knew the difficult mining industry well. His experience was learned the hard way in Slivermines and, at that time, Tynagh and Tara were opening up. Frank and I made common cause in an organisation called the Resources protection Campaign because of a shared view in the 70s that the country had serious prospects offshore as well as onshore. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out that way but the very last time we met he asked me in my present job what I thought were the prospects.
As a trade union leader he was tough but fair; he was a man of shrewd judgment unlikely to take on a battle he couldn’t win but strategic enough to make gains for his members in other ways. He was the dominant figure in these key sectors for many years, prepared to confront unpopular challenges but never losing the support of the majority of his members.
During those years the pay and conditions set for key sectors under Frank’s leadership were the terms applied nationally. The national leadership of the ITGWU was his for the asking but he was never going to leave Nenagh or Tipperary or the lifestyle about which, when youmet him in later years, he was always philosophical.
My last meeting with him a few months ago was in the Thatch Cottage in Ballycommon. I always enjoyed meeting him and Ballycommon was no exception although in the preceding public meeting he didn’t hesitate to get to his feet to tell me in trenchant terms where I was going wrong in Government.
I mentioned the campaigns he fought with John Ryan, He also soldiered with the late Martin Kennedy, and I know some of his family are here today, right up to the most recent contests with Virginia O’Dowd and of course with Minister of State, Alan Kelly for whom he was a source of inspiration. Labour in Tipperary will miss his common-sense advice.
Frank Lewis, Shop Steward, Branch Secretary, District Secretary of the country’s largest union. Local political activist, Labour Party member and officer, Councillor and Chairman. Captain and President of Nenagh Ormond Rugby Club. Founding member of Save Our Lough Derg Campaign. Founding member of the Save Nenagh Hospital Campaign. Family man proud of his extended flock and especially, he told me, of his grandchildren. Frank lived life to the full. His was no narrow vision of what it meant to be a citizen of this Republic.
The enormous contribution made by Frank Lewis meant that Irish trade unionism, his local community and his country are the better for having known him.