406 Days: The Debenhams Picket Line – A moving chronicle of the longest dispute in Irish labour history

As a raw, no-nonsense record of an event that many viewers will have only half-grasped, this film could hardly be bettered

406 Days: The Debenhams Picket Line
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Director: Joe Lee
Cert: PG
Starring: Carol Quinn, Brian Roche
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

The lengthy, fraught strike at Debenhams branches in Ireland already feels like something from the history books. The fuzzy barrier that was the pandemic can do that to the recent past. For those not directly caught up in the battle between workers and a distant corporate mass, the details fold into half-remembered background noise that scored months of scarcely plausible unreality.

All the more reason to seek out Joe Lee’s moving, acutely focused documentary on the phenomenon. Winner of audience prize and, from Dublin Film Critics Circle, best Irish documentary at the recent Dublin International Film Festival, 406 Days imposes strict order – the sort you need when organising an industrial dispute – to get its narrative across with absolute clarity. The injustices are plain. The lingering anger is palpable. The film is most notable, however, for the warmth of its embrace. One has to keep reminding oneself that the former strikers – mostly women – are looking back only a few short years. 406 Days feels like the retelling of a legend.

The opening sections allow the interviewees to express their bafflement at the glib, impersonal nature of their dismissal. In the spring of 2020, just as the pandemic was properly setting in, the employees were told, largely by email, that the chain was permanently shutting it stores across the nation. “My god. That’s our jobs gone. That’s 24 years of my life gone,” one of the heroes tells the camera. The company further stated that it would stump up neither a previously agreed ex gratia two weeks’ pay for each year of service nor a statutory two weeks of entitlements.

How can you fight when your opponents are leaving the battlefield? The workers soon realised they had some strategic advantage. They organised protests to stop stock being removed from stores in Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Dublin. They lay down in front of trucks. The Garda inevitably became involved. Four hundred and six days later, the protest wound down as the longest such dispute in the nation’s history.


Joe Lee, who has a long, distinguished history in the Irish film industry, has devised an effective frame for his story. Aerial drone cameras patrol the now-deserted stores – brand names still visible – as the participants talk us through the cold logistics and the emotional stress of the operation. One can’t help but ponder how butch capitalism can so coldly create public spaces and then, on an economic whim, spirit them back into ghostly shells. These were not just places where people worked and shopped. They were places where people made friends, plotted lives and celebrated the year’s festivals.

Not for the first time, an industrial dispute forced hitherto ordinary folk to take on the discipline of soldiers in a combat zone. As events progressed, the other side came up with successive offers but, strengthened by their experiences on the picket line, the workers bravely held out for fair recompense. Through it all they seem to have maintained surprising good humour. “We were one of the posher picket lines,” one says, laughing, as they remember they had something so luxurious as a tent.

Clocking in at an efficient 90 minutes, 406 Days cannot hope to offer a comprehensive record of everything that went on over that epic dispute. The film-makers have made a reasonable choice to focus on the strikers and so, we see events largely from that side of the barricade. As a raw, no-nonsense record of an event that many viewers will have only half-grasped, 406 Days could hardly be bettered. Inevitably, it gestures towards the Dunnes Stores workers who, decades ago, bravely protested the selling of South African goods during apartheid.

It deserves to be shown in schools.

406 Days: The Debenhams Picket Line opens on Friday, May 26th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist