He saw parallels with this nearer to home. He hated that the dock workers in Belfast were paid their wages in the local pub by the head stevedore, the person who would pick the men to be employed the following week. The implication being that if you if you treated the stevedore to a few pints in the pub on Friday, then he would look after yo the following Monday. John Quinn thought that there should be a fairer way to be hired and to be paid.
It was whilst he was away at sea that John's new wife Margaret Polland aged 18 , gave birth to a son in the Belfast Workhouse. He was called James. John and Margaret lived in lodgings in Millfield for the first few years of their marriage and rather than taking to sea again for long stays away from home, he instead found work in the Deep Sea Division at the docks. Unfortunately, in December 1897 while Margaret was pregnant with her second child, their son James died. He succumbed to Pertussis and Broncho-pneumomia which was more than likely brought about by their living conditions. Millfield was one of the poorest and most overly populated areas of Belfast at that time. Their daughter Mary Catherine was born above Margaret Foley's grocer shop at 61 Millfield in 1898.
The next few years saw the family grow and move on in the world. They left their lodgings and, via Fleet Street and Dock Lane, ended up at 77 North Thomas Street. The year was now 1910. It was also during these years that Ireland and more relevantly to John Quinn, Belfast, became embroiled in the wave of strikes for better working conditions and pay. John played an important if minor role in this struggle and in the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
The book the 'Irish Transport and General Workers Union - the Formative Years' quotes:
"Within three weeks Larkin had 400 members in Belfast and shortly afterwards, a branch in Derry. By April 1907 he could claim a total of 4000 members and had opened three offices. The cross channel dockers, who were Protestants, had their rooms at 11 Victoria Street; the Catholic deep-sea dockers were at 41 Bridge End. Three delegated were appointed, Thomas Cupples, John Quinn and John Davidson. The branch affiliated to the Trades Council on 9th April and was represented by Larkin, Quinn, Savage, Morrow and Davidson."
It is a family story that the first temporary headquarters for the new union was at John Quinn' s home, probably 3 Dock Lane and that Larkin had slept on the floor on more than one occasion. It is not known if John' fellow workers and union colleagues knew that he had buried a second child just tow month's before the above meeting. John Quinn Jr had died of tubercular meningitis aged just one year old.
The dock strikes and riots were at their height in July 1907 and it was during an incident outside Corry's timber yard on Garmoyle Street that John Quinn was one of those arrested for 'riotous behaviour'. As reported in the Irish News newspaper at the time, the police officer who arrested John stated:-
"About 2:30 pm there was a disorderly crowd around an upturned timber van. Some of the timber was strewn across the tram rails. A tram came from the direction of the Northern Counties Railway. When it reached the timber the tramway men attempted to remove it. The crowd (about 200) commenced to throw stones. Prisoner threw two stones. His worship returned the prisoner for trial, fixing bail in the same amount as the other cases (£20 and two sureties of £10)".
The sureties put up at the trial were in the name of ???? and ???? publicans at ???? And Maddens bar, Belfast. At his trial John was found not guilty of the charge against him, no one else could be found to say he had any stones in his hand.
By 1909 a split between various unions was on the cards. The National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) who were mostly Protestant, wanted to remain closely tied to the English union with their strength based at Liverpool. The ITGWU wanted to concentrate on Irish employment grievances which differed from their English counterparts in that Orange and Green politics were a fact of life in Ireland. It is a family story that in order to show that the ITGWU did not wish to be seen as partisan and wanted to represent all shades of opinion in Belfast that a march was organised to show unity. John Quinn was at the head of this march and it was he who was supposed to have carried the Union Jack flag.
But unity was not forthcoming, hence at a very heated meeting held in Belfast on 12th January 1909 as disorder in the room increased.
John Quinn, the deep-sea dockers delegate, moved that ' the dockers of Belfast no longer recognise the National Union of Dock Labourers while James Sexton is General Secretary'. The motion was seconded by Edward Magee. But in the uproar that followed it was impossible to discuss the motion, much less put it to the meeting..... The meeting broke up in confusion in which the platform received a hail of discarded NUDL badges and one bottle.
Because of his union activities John became very unwelcome at the dock yard. The family story is that John turned up at the gates seeking work every day for two years but was always turned away.
John never worked in the Deep Sea Division again and financially it was a very difficult time for the family. Margaret Quinn, his wife, became the main bread winner. She visited the large houses on the Antrim Road taking in second hand clothes which she later sold on. At one stage she sold herrings from a wheelbarrow. The older daughters in the family were part-timers at Gallahers tobacco factory, going to school in the morning and work in the afternoon.
Being blackballed from the docks, John Quinn (probably using another person's identity) again took to the sea. His first journey was in January 1911 aboard the 'Teeling Head' to Riga. The following year John was hired as a fireman on board the most famous ship of all, the Titanic. In early 1911 the Titanic was newly completed but had yet to pass it's sea trials before it could be handed over to the White Star line. A temporary crew was needed to complete these trials and take the ship to Southampton for the maiden voyage. The crew list for this voyage states:
The said crew shall be on board this steamer on Monday morning 1st April 1912; firemen at four o'clock and seamen at six o'clock, and from that time until she is safely moored in one of the Southampton docks they shall perform all work required of them by the officers in command without any further payment than is entered against their names. Firemen to clean down after arrival as may be required. Food and bedding will be provided on the way round to Southampton; also tickets for the return journey to Belfast.
An extra five shillings per day was paid to these men because the trials were delayed in Belfast Lough because of bad weather. Some of those men on board the Titanic tried to be taken on as crewmen for the maiden voyage but that compliment had already been hired at Southampton. John Quinn returned to Belfast via Liverpool.
These were bad years for the family with the death of two more children, Brigid in 1915 and Robert in 1916.
The events in Dublin in 1916 was not lost on John Quinn as he was a firm supporter of James Connollys socialist views as well as knowing him in person. When John's final child was born he was named in his hero's memory, James Connolly Quinn was baptised at St Joseph's Catholic Church , Sailortown, in July 1917. Connolly Quinn became a bookie and was a popular figure in the docks area. He is also father of Patricia Quinn (Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the grandfather of Johnny Quinn (drummer with Snow Patrol).
John Quinn spent the remainder of his days as a sailor. He died at his home, 77 North Thomas Street on 12th August 1935. As his funeral left his home a wreath arrived from James Larkin and the Trade Union Leadership in Dublin, recognition at last of his contribution to the trade union movement in Belfast.
John Quinn was born on 3rd March 1876 at 86 Little Patrick Street. He was the son of a shoemaker. His father, Alexander, made and repaired the heavy boots that were worn by the men at the docks. Alexander and his wife Catherine had nine sons who all grew up to live and work in Sailortown.
In his early career John Quinn was a sailor on the 'windjammers' that left Belfast for many destinations in the world. He visited Russia and the Baltic on several occasions where he is known to recall an event at the docks that had a great impact on him. He told how Cossacks on horseback would patrol the docks and when the time came for the Russian workers to be paid for their work, they would be paid with grain instead of money. The Russian dockers did not get paid much for their labour but this was compounded even further when the Cossacks would take their 'cut' from the men too. John Quinn thought it unfair that not only did the workers not get paid a proper wage but they were exploited by the authorities too.