Swift, Laurence John (1896–1990), labour leader, was born in Dundalk, Co. Louth, the eldest of two sons and one daughter of Patrick Swift and his wife, Alice Deane. His father followed the family trade of baking, his mother was a daughter of a Dundalk businessman. John was an altar and choirboy, received a Christian Brothers' education, primary level, and began employment as a junior law clerk. After the collapse of Patrick Swift's co-operative bakery, the family moved to Clanbrassil Street, Dublin in 1912. John went to work as an apprentice in Galbraith's bakery but was dismissed after the 1913 Dublin lock-out. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1915 and was drilled by Éamon de Valera (qv). The same year 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 conscription in the first world war, not on grounds of pacifism but of socialism and republicanism. Eventually he took up duty 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 in Paris for a few months before returning to Ireland where he was employed in Bewley's bakery. He was promoted to foreman in 1926 but retained his union card, and the following year was elected shop steward in Bewley's. He joined the Labour party in 1927 and remained a member all his life. Having served as a national organiser of the bakers' union from 1936 to 1943, he was increasingly involved in trade union activity at national level, with membership, as well as officership, of such bodies as the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) and ICTU. From 1943, he served as vice-president of DCTU under the presidency of Jim Larkin (qv), succeeding him in 1945. He was elected general secretary of the Irish Bakers' Confectioners' and Allied Workers' Amalgamated Union in 1943, becoming president in 1946; later he was treasurer from 1949 to 1958. During this period he flirted briefly with politics, standing unsuccessfully for the Labour party in the 1942 Dublin Corporation elections. He was editor of the Bakery Trades Journal from 1936 to 1947 and contributed a regular column ‘Bolivar's half hour’.
He was a major force in founding the People's College in Dublin, 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 ‘for 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 1977, assuming 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 political articles to the Irishman, Torch, Workers' Action, Irish Times, and the ‘Reflections on labour history’ series in the Irish Socialist. A competent linguist, he spoke fluent French and German and had a good working knowledge of Danish, Swedish and Hebrew. Many of Swift's dissenting views in the 1930s to 1950s became the orthodoxy in the 1970s and 1980s.
Swift married Harriet Hendry in September 1941. They had three children, Alice, John and Grosvenor (Patrick). He died in St Vincent's hospital, Dublin, 20 March 1990.