Dunne, Seán (1919–69), republican and labour activist, was born in Waterford city, youngest of three children of Michael Dunne, member of the RIC, and Brigid Dunne, and was educated at the CBS, Mount Sion, before moving to Bray, Co. Wicklow, in 1934. At the age of 16 he became involved in labour and republican circles, and joined the Workers' Union of Ireland (1936), playing a significant part in organising the hunger protest marches of 1937 and simultaneously serving his trade-union apprenticeship under James Larkin (qv). During the Emergency he received (1940) a twelve-month sentence for possession of a Mauser pistol and one round of ammunition, and was interned at Arbour Hill and the Curragh, where he was remembered fondly by inmates as a gregarious and entertaining prisoner who opted for an Irish-speaking hut, though they also maintained he was never a member of the IRA. On his release he resumed agricultural work (felling trees) and maintained his links with the WUI, becoming secretary of its agricultural workers' section. Under the influence of Larkin, he concluded from the difficulties in organising farm labourers that they warranted a separate union; this led to the formation (May 1946) of the Federation of Rural Workers (FRW). Dunne was appointed provisional organising secretary and subsequently general secretary, a position he held till 1954, overseeing a period of intense confrontation between farmers and labourers as the latter embarked on a series of strikes, demanding better working conditions and holiday pay. The Federation was particularly strong in Kildare, with over 2,000 members by July 1947, and Dunne contended that the strike in north Kildare would act as ‘a bugle call to the farm workers of every county’. By the end of that year there were 17,000 members in twenty-one counties who embarked on aggressive tactics in pursuit of their claim, including the sabotage of farmers' equipment, earning censure from the catholic church and leading Seán MacEntee (qv) to label Dunne an extreme communist. In the summer of 1947 Dunne agreed to a negotiating initiative on the part of Alfred O'Rahilly (qv), president of UCC. At this stage Dunne was resident in Bray and served on the town's urban council and Wicklow county council. In the general election of 1948 he won a dáil seat in Dublin Co. for Labour, along with three other FRW representatives; and with support from the new tánaiste, William Norton (qv), a bill that guaranteed farm workers a weekly half-day with pay was introduced in the dáil by Dunne (July 1950), becoming law the following year. He held his seat in the 1951 and 1954 general elections but in 1956 was declared bankrupt, a charge that he appealed to the high court and won. Despite this vindication he was unable to contest the 1957 general election owing to financial difficulties: he had been forced to resign as general secretary of the FRW after allegations of misuse of Federation funds.
He married (June 1956) Cora Ryan of Monkstown, whose mother Agnes Veronica Ryan had built up a successful business of fresh-food shops, the Monument Creameries, and received a substantial dowry which he and Cora squandered in various Dublin pubs, exacerbating his alcoholism. Dunne then left Ireland to work in England in an attempt to raise funds to pay his debts, and gave up alcohol. On his return to Dublin (1961) he failed to secure nomination as an official Labour candidate for the general election of that year, but was again elected for Dublin Co. after establishing his own Independent Labour organisation. Perhaps wanting more parliamentary clout, he accepted (1963) an invitation to rejoin the Labour party, and again won a dáil seat for Dublin Co. (1965). At this time he also served on both Dublin county council and Dublin corporation, and was elected to the national executive of the ITGWU.
As well as being a seasoned and meticulous constituency operator, Dunne was an outstanding, if theatrical, orator, and one of his tried and trusted methods of obtaining publicity was to ensure his suspension from the dáil for disorder at an early stage in the day in time for coverage in the widely read Evening Herald. His frequent boast was ‘If Dunne can't do it, it can't be done’, and he invariably carried a ledger full of constituency problems, though parliamentary colleagues recall that his delivery of free Christmas turkeys to needy constituents backfired when he failed to pay the Moore St. traders who had supplied them on credit. Resolutely opposed to partition, he was a prominent figure at various anti-partition demonstrations and frequently boasted of being ejected from the Northern Ireland parliament for waving the tricolour flag of the Republic. Also the first person to address the Council of Europe in Irish, he opted out of a conference of European parliamentarians in Bonn (1968) and resigned from the Irish Council of the European Movement, objecting to membership of potential military blocs and to a pledge that would require representatives to act in unison with other parliamentarians on certain European matters, regardless of domestic party ties. Although he was said to believe passionately in the value of the dáil and the need for its reform, his critics pointed to the discrepancies between his lifestyle and his quoting of reams of James Connolly (qv). Speaking at the annual Labour party conference in 1969, he pointed out that for some time Labour had been accused of lacking policies, ‘and yet as soon as we produce the proposals, every damn thing in the world is wrong with them in certain quarters and particularly amongst political commentators’. In the last years of his life he turned his hand to journalism, and his talent as a playwright was recognised when ‘Dawn chorus’, his play based on the Irish civil war, was accepted for production by RTÉ.
After a revision of constituency boundaries, Dunne contested the 1969 general election in Dublin South-West, though the fierce campaign he successfully fought with John O'Connell of Fianna Fáil undoubtedly took a toll on his already failing health. Opinion as to his political convictions remained divided. Tony McInerney, a former republican internee, acted as his election agent in 1969 and ‘was shocked to find that he did not give one damn about the Labour party, its leader Corish, or anyone on it. His sole object in life was to be back within the precincts of the house. He was literally magnetised by the lure of parliament’. Brendan Corish (qv) maintained, however, after Dunne's death on 25 June 1969 from a brain haemorrhage, that ‘he was his own man in his own setting, an independent spirit who tolerated no mean labels or restrictions.’ His papers were deposited in the Irish Labour History Society museum and archives in 1988.