Edward Phelan: Ireland and beyond

2009 marked the 90th anniversary of the creation of the International Civil Service and establishment of the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. A special programme of events was held to celebrate the occasion.
Amongst these the ILO launched two books* providing a wide cover of the history, evolution, development and continuing programmes of the Organization in the perspective of its Century Project in 2019. They add to the vast corpus of political, social and other literature about the struggle to establish an international organization with the purpose of improving conditions for workers. Its unique tripartite structure provides representation through national government, employer and worker organisations. ILO Archives is the principal source of official photographs and extensive historical references for the 90th anniversary publications.
Authors of The ILO and the Quest for Social Justice are all former ILO officials. It tells the story of the Organization founded in 1919 in the belief that universal and lasting peace goes hand in hand with social justice. Since then the ILO has contributed to the protection of the vulnerable, the fight against unemployment, the promotion of human rights, the development of democratic institutions and improvement of the working lives of women and men everywhere.
In its history the ILO has sometimes thrived, sometimes suffered setbacks, but always survived to pursue its goals through the political and economic upheavals of the last 90 years.
Ireland and beyond
Edward Joseph Phelan (1888-1967) was born at Summer Hill, Tramore, County Waterford, in the south-east of Ireland, the eldest son of Thomas and Bridget Phelan, née Carroll. Tramore was then emerging as a popular seaside resort and largely middle-class dormitory of Waterford city, a major port, seven miles to the north on the River Suir.
Bridget’s father was a “prosperous businessman who had established the first mineral water factory in Waterford”. Her son was more impressed by the fact that his father, like his father before him, was a master mariner. Seafaring was his starting point. His memoirs, grounded in the conviction that his eventual career was the outcome of a mentality rather than a plan, began with the sea and never got far beyond the establishment of the ILO. Psychologically, that made sense.
His life to 1919 was a series of unlikely accidents, and yet, he believed, their very diversity prepared him to be “the first international civil servant”, and the choices he made at each juncture reflected a pattern. By 1919 the mentality had matured, and his course was fixed on the ILO. It would see him appointed Chief of the Diplomatic Division in 1920, then Assistant Director in 1933 and Deputy Director in 1938, and finally Acting Director in 1941 and Director-General in 1946.
Edward Phelan and the ILO
He was one of the main architects of the ILO Constitution, drawn up as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This led him into the ILO as the first international civil servant, where he worked closely with the key figures of the Organization’s early years, Albert Thomas and Harold Butler. As its fourth Director-General (1946-1948), he secured the ILO’s post-war future.
His personal memoirs, long unpublished, offer a first-hand perspective on the ILO’s early history. Brought together in the book with some of his lesser-known journal articles, they tell the fascinating story of his life, from his early childhood in Ireland through his first years at the newly formed ILO, up until the ILO’s exile in Canada during the Second World War.
Parts Two and Three of the book consist of a telling collection of Phelan’s memoirs (abridged) from the early days in Liverpool to the momentous occasion when President Roosevelt received the International Labour Conference at the White House in 1941.
The unique volume includes a biographical essay by the distinguished Irish labour historian Emmet O’Connor, as well as an introduction by C. Wilfred Jenks, Director-General of the ILO (1970-1973), and Forewords by former Taoiseach of Ireland, Sean Lemass and the current Taoiseach Brian Cowen. It contains a selected bibliography of Edward Phelan’s writings and lists further reading on ILO history. The Irish Government was active in promoting the book and made a financial contribution towards the cost of publishing Edward Phelan and the ILO.
The book cover shows details of a mural depicting Irish labour by Limerick born, Sean Keating (1889-1977). The painting was a gift to the ILO from the Irish Government in 1961 and is located in the former ILO building (1926-75), now Centre William Rappard, headquarters of WTO, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Ita Marguet, May 2010
Note: Acknowledgement is given to ILO publications in preparation of this text. *The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919-2009. (Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009). Price: Sw.fr.50. *Edward Phelan and the ILO: the life and views of an international social actor (Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009). Price: Sw.fr. 50. Books can be purchased from Sales Department, ILO Publications, Geneva, Swsitzerland or on-linehttp://www.ilo.org/global/What we do/Publications/ILOBookstore/lang—en/index.htm