It is only when you see a complete set of Saothar, which first appeared on May Day 1975, sitting on a library shelf that you appreciate what an achievement for the Irish Labour History Society (ILHS) the journal is. This is remarkable given the almost total absence of any academic base for the subject in 1975. It is even more remarkable when the continuing narrowness – perhaps even the narrowing – of that base is considered. These days, following the ‘collapse of socialism’ and ‘end of history’, labour history studies are fast disappearing from third level institutions. The strength of the ILHS, and therefore its journal, has never been reliant on academia however. There has been strong support, no strings attached, from the labour movement. This is reflected in the unique image of the journal with its ‘fraternal’ advertisements from trade unions.
An interesting question, when gazing at the thousands of pages of text, is: how much of this work would have been published were it not for Saothar ? The suspicion is that very little of it would have appeared elsewhere. This is not to denigrate the standard of the contributions over the years – for Saothar has been acclaimed for reaching and maintaining high standards of scholarship – but to observe that labour history and working class experience have never been popular subjects in Irish economic and social history studies
A second, very important, observation is that many of those who contribute to each issue of Saothar are first-time historians – young research students, labour movement activists, civil and public servants, teachers and those from other disciplines pursuing a particular interest. Reading through the ‘List of Contributors’ each year is to realise the breadth of encouragement offered by the Society and its journal. It is a policy in which the journal takes great pride and one that has seen a number of contributors – having broken their publication ‘ducks’ in Saothar – go on to establish significant roles for themselves in Irish historiography.
Almost no book on Irish labour or social history now appears without some reference to Saothar material; this shows the journal is being used. This is encouraging as after issue five it was consciously decided to attempt to create a ‘working tool’ for labour historians. The ‘Sources’ and ‘Bibliography’ sections, in particular, have been acknowledged and utilized as an essential starter reference before the research plunge is taken.