“Too long, aye! Far too long, have we, the Irish working people been humble and inarticulate. The Irish working class are beginning to awaken. They are coming to realise the truth of the old saying
‘he who would be free must strike the blow’.” Jim Larkin
We in Ireland are living through the “decade of remembrance”. Most commemorate events, associated with Republicanism or Unionism that happened 100 years ago. But yet every year in every decade the North endures an annual ritual of loyal orange parade celebrating the Protestant Ascendancy. Mostly the Catholics either go on holiday or sullenly watch, helmed in behind police lines as hordes of loyalist mobs chant sectarian and racist insults. Republicans too have their annual celebrations for the Easter Rising, the hunger strikes, Wolfe Tones’ anniversary etc. Already we have had the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Most of these celebrations have in Ireland pitted one “side” against the “other. History has always been used as a weapon to keep workers divided against each other rather than unite to oppose their exploitation at the hands of the ruling classes.
However there are occasions, (sadly too few) when bitter class warfare breaks out exposing the real nature of the ruling classes. These are definitely events that need to be commemorated celebrated and learnt from.
One such occasion 100 years ago was the 1913 lockout in Dublin. Most political activists know that the two outstanding leaders during the lockout were James Larkin and James Connolly but of course the real heroes were the workers themselves.
Dublin in 1913 was very unlike Belfast in that it had no real industrial base. However, Dublin, whilst less industrialised than Belfast, had nevertheless established a Trade Association in 1867, fourteen years before Belfast did. For some, trade unionism itself was seen as a foreign importation, especially by employers, Churches and extreme nationalists.
Unemployment was rife and work mainly casual in Dublin. The ruling classes had abandoned inner city Dublin for the outer areas so by 1913 inner city was a vast slum. One third of the population lived in city centre tenement slums, where overcrowding squalor and terrible sanitation along with poor diet gave Dublin probably the highest infant mortality rate in Europe.
Little had changed in the 70 years when this was written:
“Dublin-rent and split-worm eaten, mouldering, patched and plastered-unsightly to the eye, unsavoury to the taste and not very grateful to the olfactories-here there is but one step from magnificence to misery from the splendid palace to the squalid hovel” (Lock out - Dublin 1913, Padraig Yates, Gill and Macmillan, 2001)
Life was a daily struggle to survive, rates of alcoholism, prostitution and violence were all high. The older craft and skilled trade unions were conservative in outlook, uninterested in organising the unskilled. Since the 1880’s a number of attempts had been made to organise the unskilled and semi-skilled workers who had traditionally been excluded from the mainly British based craft unions. This was known as “new unionism”.
However it was the arrival of Larkin in 1907 that saw the new unionism establish deep roots among the workers. A fiery orator and a believer in militant industrial action, James Larkin was a syndicalist in outlook. Although he quickly organised workers for the National Union of Dock Labourers all around Irish docks, he quickly fell out with the Union General Secretary James Sexton (a former member of the Fenian brotherhood) and was imprisoned on the word of Sexton for allegedly misusing union funds for a strike in Cork. Far from damaging his reputation, his spell in jail made him a hero for the small socialist left.
Released, he established the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, at the beginning of 1909. The leaders, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, concentrated on organising the unskilled workers. Already Belfast had seen the 1907 dock strike which united Catholic and Protestants together in common struggle. In 1911 Wexford, in 1912 Galway and in early 1913 Sligo: all saw militant action by the unskilled. The ITGWU rapidly became the largest trade union in Ireland. Larkin’s use of the sympathetic strike had managed at least to bring - in 1913 - the purchasing power of the wages back to the level held at the turn of the 20th century.
New unionism in Ireland was part of an international upsurge in class struggle in both Europe and the USA. Thus it is no accident that imperialist rivalry over the wealth of the world led directly to the First World War and the unleashing of a rabid nationalism that operated in the interests of the Imperialist powers and turned worker against worker.
New unionism hit Dublin like a wave in 1913. From January to August that year there were 30 major disputes the vast majority of which involved the ITGWU affecting among others coal merchants, iron foundries, and biscuit factories. The employers decided to fight back.
Their leader was William Martin Murphy who, although described as a good employer, had workers who sometimes had to work 17 hours a day in a harsh disciplined regime, with a culture of bullying and informing. Murphy was President of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, and as an Irish Nationalist and former MP, was actually closer to Sinn Fein thinking than that of John Redmond’s Irish Party. The employers strategy had been predetermined in July of 1913 when over 300 of them had decided their response to the new unionism.
When the ITWGU members brought trams to a halt on August 26th Irish capitalism responded in brutal fashion:
- Workers suspected of membership of the ITGWU were dismissed.
- Scabs were imported from Britain.
- The media, controlled by Murphy launched denunciation after denunciations against Larkinism.
- The Catholic Church took the side of the employers as usual denouncing Larkin himself as an atheist, a Protestant and a Communist.
- The legal authorities included people like Police Magistrate E G Swifte who was a substantial shareholder in the DUTC and who dealt with cases arising from the Lockout.
- The full force of the power of the state in the guise of the police and military was turned against the poorest working class in Europe.
The workers, in turn, responded with mass pickets, attacks on scabs, and self protection for the strikers after two workers were killed by police baton charges. There was a meeting to be addressed by Larkin in the centre of Dublin. The Police banned it. They then baton charged those who assembled. Hundreds were injured in the baton charge and subsequent violence. Both James Nolan, James Byrne and Alice Brady also paid with their lives for being on the side of the workers. An ITGWU official was found dead after being tortured in a police cell. A female worker, bringing home a food parcel, was shot dead by a strike breaking scab.
The female suffrage paper the “Irish Citizen” expressed concern at the plight of women workers locked out by Jacob’s and their families. It says,
‘A conflict which suddenly throws out of employment over 600 girls cannot fail to be of deep concern to all who are interested in women’s conditions of work’.
It reminded its readers that Larkin had always promoted women’s rights, and contrasts his position with that of John Redmond, who refused to seek votes for women in the promised Home Rule parliament.
“On September 2nd, 1913: Seven people die when two tenements, No 66 and 67 Church Street, collapsed. The dead include four children, including six year old Elizabeth Salmon. Her 17 year old brother Eugene, died when he tried to rescue her. Salmon was one of the SIPTU workers locked out by Jacob’s.”
From August until January 1914 over 20,000 workers with about 80,000 dependants resisted in the bitterest and largest union dispute in Irish history before suffering a terrible defeat.
But valuable lessons were learnt, not merely by militant Irish workers but by workers worldwide.
In October 1913, speaking from Liberty Hall, Connolly announced his intention to organise and discipline a force to protect workers meetings and to prevent thugs and police from breaking up their meetings. Larkin was also to announce a few weeks later a similar plan. Speaking to a mass crowd of workers, Larkin said:
“I would advise the friends and supporters of this cause to take Sir Edward Carson’s advice to the men of Ulster. If he says it is right and legal for the for the men of Ulster to arm why should it not be right and legal for the men of Dublin to arm themselves so as to protect themselves.” (p21, Lock out - Dublin 1913, Padraig Yates, Gill and Macmillan, 2001)
However it was only when Larkin left for America and Connolly took up the position of General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in October that the full potential of the Army was exploited. Connolly was a serious revolutionary, not a bombastic orator who played the crowds for cheap cheers. His attitude is well summed up here.
"If you or anybody else expects that I'm going to waste my time talking ‘bosh' to the crowds in Beresford Place for the sake of hearing shouts-then you'll be sadly disappointed. I would rather give my message to four serious minded men at any cross roads in Ireland and know that they would carry it back to the places they came from and that it would fall on fertile ground and bear fruit for the future."(Robbins 1977 page 27.)
On 19th November 1913 Larkin and Connolly founded the Irish Citizen Army, arguably the first Workers Army in Europe. It consisted of over 350 men, mostly union members, and outlasted the lockout. It was no idealistic and romantic concept that drove the Citizen Army on. Rather it was the hatred of a system that had working people who had no holidays and who lost a day's pay on bank holidays. To organise in the unions was considered almost worse than subversive. The ICA played a heroic and socialist part in the 1916 Rising, whilst also realising that that those with whom they were fighting with (i.e. advanced nationalists) would one day be their class enemy.
Connolly and Larkin had no illusions about nationalists, or about their leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. William Martin Murphy, was a former Home Rule MP at Westminster. The Irish Parliamentary Party represented the interest of the large farms, the small and large shopkeepers, and native Irish capitalist interests. Whilst appalled at the violence unleashed by the Dublin police, they had no love for Larkin, Larkinism, Connolly or the working classes, both urban and rural. Indeed James Connolly had in his writings and agitation made a clear distinction between nationalists and advanced republicans
“Although venting his anger against the nationalist parties in Ireland, Connolly nevertheless made a clear distinction between nationalists such as Redmond (leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) and anti-imperialists or “advanced nationalists” such as Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith, realizing that:
“the Irish Nationalist even with his false reasoning, is an active agent in social regeneration, in so far as he seeks to invest with full power over its own destinies a people actually governed in the interests of a feudal aristocracy.” (Connolly: Socialism and Nationalism, 34.)
The 1913 lockout was a clear example of the hatred of the ruling class for the workers. In their despair after defeat, many people enlisted in the British Army and indeed more Irish people died for Britain in the First World War than either fought or died for Irish freedom in the same period. In the aftermath of the war of independence and the bitterness against all things British, it was understandable that those Irishmen who died in British uniforms were all but forgotten.
But the 1913 lockout should not be seen, as unfortunately some on the left see it, as a purely economic struggle divorced from politics. It was in essence a very political struggle against a background of a reactionary alliance in the north resisting the establishment of Home Rule and advocating the partition of Ireland. In Europe meanwhile the Second International, originally committed to oppose war, capitulated to the forces of chauvinism and began to support the war efforts of their own bourgeoisie.
But in a small country, dominated by the then greatest imperialist power in the world the weapon, forged in the 1913 lockout the Irish Citizen Army, and upheld the fundamental principles of Internationalism. They participated in the 1916 Easter rebellion. For some on the left this participation is an embarrassment. A recent publication by a small left wing group in Ireland on the 1913 Lockout fails to mention the role of the ICA in the 1916 rebellion. They fail to see the correctness of Connolly’s position. Tactical alliances are necessary in the struggle for national liberation and Connolly and the ICA had no illusions about the class nature of their allies in 1916. Who expects to see a “pure revolution" with the good guys (workers) on one side and the baddies (capitalists) on the other? Reality is much more complex than that!
James Connolly, with Larkin gone to the USA, at the outbreak of the World War had no easy options. He came from a tradition of socialism that had preached a gospel of discontent against the ruling capitalist class. Workers were to rise against their own ruling class in the event of an outbreak of war between competing Imperialistic powers. This attitude was best summed up in the slogan, "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains."
The Irish labour movement emerged alongside a strong strand of nationalism, which perceived its interests separate from the ruling British state, whilst an equally strong unionist ideology developed amongst those who were most industrialised.
The relationship between labour and both these competing ideologies was therefore bound to be complex. Did labour ignore the national conflict and recruit on the basis of bread and butter issues, or was it to subordinate the political aims and objectives of the working class to a broad multi class alliance? Connolly was put in the latter camp by the modern school of revisionists and unionist apologists. However he did not accept that choice. It was neither bread and butter issues nor subordination. He had a clear unequivocal position that the cause of labour was the cause of Ireland.
In essence he was saying that the working class had the only true objective interest in completing the national revolution. The bourgeoisie was so tied in by commercial and industrial links that any form of separation that occurred between Britain and Ireland would be in the long term interests of that class unless the working class took control of the revolution and transformed the relationship between the imperialist power and its colony. He saw little difference in his enemies during the lockout and those whom the Citizen Army fought in 1916. They were all part of the same rotten capitalist system that was sacrificing millions in the mud of Flanders for imperialist gain.
James Connolly was a battler for his class, a theoretician , an organiser a trade unionist and a teacher. That he died, shot by the soldiers of an imperialist power, is to his credit, not to his shame.
His summing up of the consequences of the Lockout is well worth recalling:
“From the effects of this drawn battle both sides are still bearing heavy scars. How deep those scars are, none will ever reveal. But the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of the hope in the ultimate triumph. No traitor amongst the ranks of that class has permanently gained, even materially, by his or her treachery. The flag of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union still flies proudly in the van of the Irish working class, and that working class still marches proudly and defiantly at the head of the gathering hosts who stand for a regenerated nation, resting upon a people industrially free."
The lockout put the Irish labour movement firmly into the mainstream of Irish society. Trade union membership grew rapidly from then on until the early 1980’s. Sadly, however, the mainstream leaders of that movement have over the years since 1913 betrayed their own movement. Repeatedly the labour movement endorsed coalitions with the right wing Fine Gael party, and today a split from the Labour Party endorses the austerity programme aimed at pauperisation the working class whilst filling the coffers of the bankers, speculators and builders.
Most of the issues confronting the working class in 1913 still exist today. Capitalism learns from its mistakes. Today it is much more subtle: “trade unionism is old fashion”; “times have changed”; "we need to modernise", etc. All the soft language does not hide the reality - capitalism is a brutal system driving down the living standards of the majority of people. Only the emergence of a mass labour movement can turn back the tide of austerity. North and South, it is in the interests of all workers to struggle for such a goal for that is the only way to liberate us all from the shackles of a cruel, demeaning and utterly corrupt economic system that prevents us all from achieving our full potential.