Lockout – 1913

Even after 100 years the 1913 Lockout still overshadows the Irish Labour movement and progressive politics in Ireland, argues Brian Hanley.

The Lockout remains the most iconic moment in Irish labour history. The images of 1913 are immortalised on union banners and referenced repeatedly by union leaders. The Lockout is also the only aspect of Labour history that finds its way onto secondary school curriculums. But the fact that senior Fine Gael politicians can call for 1913 to be accorded a place among the ‘decade of commemorations’ speaks volumes about how the events of that year have been forgotten, misinterpreted or deliberately distorted. The Lockout has been sanitised beyond recognition and will be commemorated this year by many who would prefer to ignore the reality of what took place in 1913.

The comforting myth of 1913 is that poor Dubliners fought a losing battle against an evil employer but within a few years the justness of their cause was recognised. W.B. Yeats condemnation of the Dublin employers for ‘fumbling in a greasy till’ is taken to represent contemporary educated opinion. No one today denies that the Dublin working class was exceptionally poor in 1913. But that is nothing new. Even Arnold Wright, employed by the employers to write their history of the Lockout admitted that “the Gothic pinnacles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral look directly down upon the quarter of the Coombe where the degradation of human kind is carried to a point of abjectness beyond that reached in any city of the Western World, save perhaps Naples.” But also common at the time were assertions that Dublin’s poverty was the result of the idleness and personality defects of the poor themselves, who refused to drag themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Few today, publicly at least, will defend the employers leader William Martin Murphy. Instead, they argue, while there were obvious injustices in 1913 that had to be rectified, unions in 2013 no longer represent the poor and downtrodden. Employers will agree that Murphy was unnecessarily confrontational, while union leaders will accept that Jim Larkin and James Connolly’s tactics are not applicable to today’s conditions. For many of those who will pay lip service to commemorating 1913 the story of Irish working class struggle ends there: there will be no clamour from Fine Gael to remember the bitter strikes and occupations of 1922-­23, when the new Free State Army fired on pickets and arrested trade unionists.

That the Lockout occurred under British rule and saw the formation of the Citizen Army is also convenient for those who regard it as a mere curtain-­raiser for Easter 1916, (after which of course, such injustices were not to be repeated). That republicans such as Tom Clarke and Padraig Pearse were sympathetic to the strikers allows some to assume that all radical nationalist opinion felt the same way. The Murphy owned Irish Independent calling for Connolly’s execution in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising seems to confirm his villainy and isolation from the mood of nationalist Ireland. What many of these interpretations miss is that 1913 was about class: which class would govern in an Ireland that expected to have its own parliament within a few years.

Far from being a cartoon villain, Murphy was the most dynamic business leader of his day, a Catholic nationalist made good in a Dublin business world still dominated by Protestants. From railway building, in Britain, West Africa and Argentina, as well as in Ireland, by 1913 he owned the Dublin United Tramway Company, the Imperial and Metropole hotels and Clery’s department store. Most significantly Murphy turned a moribund weekly Irish Independent into a best-­selling daily paper, revolutionising Irish journalism in the process. The paper was selling 107,000 copies a day by September 1914.

Murphy was a risk-­taker extraordinaire, an entrepreneur who would surely be lauded today, as he was then, as the future for Irish business. A devout Catholic, Murphy had been a Home Rule MP but was a critic of party leader John Redmond. He turned down a knighthood in 1907 on the basis that he could not accept such honours while Ireland did not have self-­government. Murphy tolerated craft unions in his companies, provided they accepted strict codes of conduct for workers. He and his fellow employers made clear on several occasions that they had no difficulty in negotiating with ‘responsible’ trade unions. But Murphy was shocked that respectable artisans would associate with what he called ‘scum like Larkin and his followers’ in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU).

What Murphy and his colleagues in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce objected to was organisation of the unskilled and crucially their organisation by Larkin. Murphy made clear that his argument with Larkin’s union was not about wages and conditions but because business could not co-­exist alongside the “system known as ‘syndicalism’ or ‘sympathetic strikes’.” What is often forgotten is what would now be called ‘middle Ireland’, the mass of middle-­class nationalist (and unionist opinion) agreed with Murphy in 1913. The ITGWU, personified by Larkin were dangerous, irresponsible and ‘anarchistic’. Worse, they were unleashing onto the streets people whom the middle and upper classes despised and feared.

The Dublin working class were despised by ‘middle Ireland’

Some of the reactions to Bloody Sunday 1913 when police batoned strikers in O’Connell Street illustrate these attitudes. The Irish Independent claimed that “a deliberate attempt is being made to establish a reign of ruffianism in the city. Out of the reeking slums the jail birds and most abandoned creatures of both sexes have poured to vent their hatred upon their natural enemies, the police.” The Unionist Irish Times deplored “an orgy of lawlessness and cowardly crime. In the worst streets of the city women assisted men in assaults on the police.” But most instructive of all was the following passage from the Irish Catholic (owned by Murphy):

“Into these thoroughfares there have poured all the foul reserves of the slums, human beings whom life in the most darksome depths of a great city has deprived of most of the characteristics of civilization. In the majority of instances they are beings whose career is generally a prolonged debauch, seldom broken by the call of labour. Even when sheer necessity compels toil, it is undertaken unwillingly and merely to obtain the means to enable another spell of besotted idleness. They are essentially birds of night, and foul birds at that.”

The class hatred behind such words is obvious and it is no surprise that the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary, largely drawn from the farming class in rural Ireland, shared many of these views. They already disliked the people they policed in Dublin’s tenements and during 1913 they were in open conflict with the inhabitants of the north and south inner-­city.

The vast majority of the strikers were Catholics, but the Catholic Church too feared ‘Godless’ Larkinism and its impact on ‘their’ flock. The Home Rule party claimed to represent Irish workers and even to be a ‘labour’ party but with few exceptions, it supported the employers in 1913, its deputy leader John Dillon warning that Larkin was “a very dangerous enemy to Home Rule, the government and the Nationalist Party.” Radicals such as Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith, while not supporters of the employers, were also hostile to Larkinism as a diversion from separatism. In the press Larkin was demonised as a foreign troublemaker, an Englishman and a ‘Liverpool Orangeman.’

The growth of the ITGWU after 1909 represented a challenge to the Irish elite, both unionist and nationalist. Though unionists continued to preach resistance to Home Rule, most nationalists were certain it would eventually come to pass. They were determined to prove that self-­government would be orderly and well managed, not the chaos that unionists predicted. Their perceptions were shared to an extent by established craft unions.

Living standards, levels of education and housing had been steadily improving in Ireland since the late 1800s; except for the Dublin poor. Then Larkin and the ITGWU arrived on the scene, spreading the ‘divine gospel of discontent’ in the ‘OBU’, the one big union. As Larkin explained “we are going to advocate one society for Ireland for skilled and unskilled workers, so that when a skilled man is struck at, out comes the unskilled man, and when an unskilled worker is struck at, he will be supported by the skilled tradesman.” All were welcome in the union’s ranks, though it was the large numbers of unskilled, often excluded from other unions and subject to the whims of employers that were primarily attracted to it.

The ITGWU organised dockers and carters, but also paper-­boys and golf caddies, sandwichmen and bill posters. During 1911 the union fought a six-­ month battle in Wexford town, where workers were locked out by iron foundary bosses. Larkin’s sister Delia became general secretary of the Irish Women Workers Union organising in Dublin’s Jacob’s biscuit factory. In the autumn ITGWU members blacked goods from Britain because of a railway strike there.

When porters were dismissed because of this, industrial action spread, until the Great Southern and Western company locked out some 1,600 men. The strike ended in defeat and the railway directors were so pleased that they issued gifts of clocks to 121 station masters as a token of their having helped defeat ‘Larkinism.’ But business was alarmed. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce met in emergency session and urged employers to unite against what was “not a strike in an ordinary sense…but the beginning of a social war.”

Arguing that strength lay in there being ‘no isolation of a quarrel’ by 1913 the ITGWU had 20,000 members, winning a violent general strike in Sligo and gaining some support among farm workers in Co. Dublin. But its heart was in Dublin city itself. There Larkin had succeeded in recruiting some of the most insecure casual labourers to the ITGWU. But he knew that the future of the union depended on expanding into those who held more secure employment on the railways and tram lines. In May a leading shipping company recognised the ITGWU, a move that shocked most of Dublin’s employers, who then looked to Murphy, as president of the Chamber of Commerce to stop the spread of Larkinism. That the union was recruiting among tram workers and in the Irish Independent itself further antagonised Murphy.

The scene for the Lockout was set. But the appeal of Larkinism in Dublin went beyond membership of the ITGWU. Through the pages of his paper, the Irish Worker, which sold perhaps 25,000 copies a week in 1913 (remarkable as newsagents refused to stock it) Dublin’s workers were given a vision of a new world, in which they and not their ‘masters’ would flourish. Employers and the wealthy in general were ridiculed. The union’s social activities, such as drama, music and dance classes at Liberty Hall and carnivals and fairs at Fairview’s Croydon Park, all offered new horizons for some of the poorest and most downtrodden.

A cartoon from the Irish Independent in 1913 opposing Locked Out workers children being cared for by British families

The ITGWU gave workers self-­respect, a sense of pride, in a society in which Dublin’s unskilled were looked down on by the upper classes, despised by the middle class and often derided by cultural nationalists for their supposed lack of Irishness. The growth of the ITGWU cut across the idea of a nationalist Ireland united against a foreign oppressor and against the belief that class division existed only in the relationship between Anglo-­Irish landlord and the Irish tenant farmer. This explains in part the bitterness of the Lockout; resented in normal times, Dublin’s unskilled were hated when they fought back.

The ITGWU went down to defeat in 1914, which in part explains why the Lockout can be so easily commemorated. Had the workers won then the political impact on Ireland in 1914 might have led to different outcomes. By 1920 the ITGWU had grown to 120,000 members but by then labour was playing a supporting role in a nationalist revolution.

The Irish Independent, despite its views on the Easter Rising, was able to swim with the Sinn Féin tide after 1919 (though Murphy himself did not live to see this). It remained the best-­selling newspaper in the new Free State. The class makeup of the leadership of this revolution was apparent in the membership of the First Dáil; 65% of Sinn Féin TDs were from professional or commercial backgrounds, a category that made up just 7% of the working population according to the 1911 census. There were no TDs who had been urban or rural labourers. The class that formed the backbone of the ITGWU in Dublin during 1913 remained largely unrepresented in the new state. One of the tasks for commemoration during 2013 should be to restore their struggle to the centre of Irish history.

Published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.14

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