Swift, (Laurence) John (1896–1990), trade unionist and labour historian, was born 26 August 1896 in Dundalk, Co. Louth, the eldest of two sons and two daughters of Patrick Swift, a master baker, and his wife Alice (née Deane), daughter of a Dundalk businessman. Known generally as John, he was an altar- and choirboy. Having received his primary and secondary education from the Christian Brothers in Dundalk, he began work as a junior law clerk. After the collapse of Patrick Swift's co-operative bakery, the family moved in 1912 to the Clanbrassil Street area of Dublin. John joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and was drilled by Éamon de Valera (qv). He worked as a confectioner in several Dublin bakeries, including Galbraith's and Johnston Mooney and O'Brien's, and in 1915 joined the Irish Bakers' National Amalgamated Union. After the Easter rising, he secured work at Bewley's bakery but later that year was dismissed by the foreman for attempting to unionise his colleagues. In 1917 he emigrated to London where he worked in a lead-works. He spent a term in prison in England in 1917 as a conscientious objector to military conscription, on grounds of socialism and republicanism rather than pacifism. Eventually though, he served with the King's Own Royal Lancasters as a cook in Arras, where he was wounded by shrapnel in March 1918.
Demobilised in the winter of 1919, he worked for a period as a baker in the Army and Navy Canteens, a civilian organisation, initially at the Curragh and later in Belfast. For several months in the mid 1920s he was employed as a builder's labourer in Paris. In 1924, following his return to Dublin, he re-joined the bakers' union (renamed in 1918 as the Irish Bakers', Confectioners' and Allied Workers' Amalgamated Union (IBCAWAU)) and was re-engaged as a confectioner in the now unionised Bewley's bakery. He was elected shop steward in Bewley's in 1927, and retained his union card after his promotion to foreman around 1930. In 1927 he joined the Labour party and remained a member all his life. He served as a national organiser of the IBCAWAU (1936–43) and was editor of the Bakery Trades Journal (1936–47), to which he contributed a regular column, 'Bolivar's half hour'. Increasingly involved in trade-union activity at national level as a member and officer of such bodies as the Dublin Trade Union Council (DTUC) and the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), from 1943 he served as vice-president of the DTUC under the presidency of Jim Larkin (qv), succeeding him in 1945. He was elected general secretary of the IBCAWAU in 1943, and became president (1946) and treasurer (1949–58) of the ITUC. During this period he flirted briefly with politics, standing unsuccessfully for the Labour party in the 1942 Dublin Corporation elections. Swift led a three-person IBCAWAU delegation to the USSR in 1963. Arranged through the Soviet Food Workers' Union, this was the first Irish union delegation to visit the USSR since that of the DTUC in 1929. The following year, in Stockholm, he was elected president of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Associations, which represented more than one-and-a-half million members in sixty countries. He retired from that position and as general secretary of IBCAWAU in 1967, shortly before his seventy-first birthday.
It was in the fields of culture and education that Swift made his most distinctive contribution to the trade-union movement. In the IBCAWAU, he was the progenitor and leading figure in a wide range of initiatives, including the formation in the late 1920s of a choir and orchestra of union members and their relations, which were sufficiently proficient to perform publicly; the establishment of a bakery school in the union's premises in 1935; and the organisation of exhibitions of bakery students' work at the Royal Dublin Society's spring shows in Dublin in 1937 and 1938. The latter led to a takeover of the bakery school by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. Swift was also responsible for the acquisition in 1946 of new national union premises, Four Provinces House, in Dublin's Harcourt Street, to cater, not alone for the union's administrative requirements, but the cultural and social needs of its members. Designed by the eminent Irish architect Michael Scott (qv), Four Provinces House was adorned with many works of art by such distinguished artists as Laurence Campbell (qv), Hilary Heron (qv), Frances Kelly (qv), Nano Reid (qv), and Frank McKelvey (qv). In 1947 the union established a members' library of some 6,000 volumes which were selected by Swift.
Swift was also a major force in founding the People's College in Dublin in 1948, a co-founder of the Secular Society, which existed from 1933 to 1936, and of the Spanish aid committee, which helped those fighting on the republican side in the Spanish civil war. Thirty years later he was the founding president of the Ireland–USSR Society in 1966, and was the first Irishman to receive the Soviet decoration the Order of Friendship between Peoples. Together with Fergus D'Arcy and Ken Hannigan, he was a prime mover in the formation of the Irish Labour History Society (ILHS) in 1973, having earlier contributed to labour history with his publication History of the Dublin bakers and others (1948). He retired as president of the society in 1978, and assumed the role of honorary president. He wrote the policy document on worker democracy for the revitalised Labour party in 1969, and contributed scholarly articles to Saothar and other ILHS publications as well as a stream of articles on trade union, political, historical and other topics to the Irishman, Torch, Workers' Action, the Irish Times, and the 'Reflections on labour history' series in the Irish Socialist. A competent linguist, he was reasonably fluent in French and German, and could also converse in Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Russian. Many of the dissenting views he held in the 1930s to 1950s became the orthodoxy in the 1970s and 1980s.
Swift married Harriet Hendy in September 1941; they had three children, Alice, John and Grosvenor (Patrick). He died at the age of ninety-three on 20 March 1990 in St Vincent's hospital, Dublin.