Irish Marxist World sympathiser Sean Heffernan reviews the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history, the Dublin Lockout of 1913.
Tuesday August 26th, 1913 would become a never to be forgotten date by the many forlorn citizens of this fair city of Dublin. At 9:40am, the first trams belonging to William Martin Murphy’s Dublin United Tramway’s Company (DUTC) ground to a halt. Following the lead of their much heralded figurehead, James Larkin, many men belonging to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) ceased working and began a strike in support of better pay and conditions. Larkin and his men reckoned that within a few days the tram system would be back to normal and the men would have better working conditions and more money in their pocket.
Alas, they did not reckon on the attitude of the DUTC’s owner, William Martin Murphy. He was by far the richest businessman in the city, with ownership of Independent Newspapers, the DUTC, a large stake in the Great Southern and Western Railway Company and Clery’s department Store. He presided over a public transport company where “keep them lean, keep them keen” seemed to be the order of the day. There were many inspectors in the Tram Company, whose job it was to, in effect, spy on other workers and report any and all discrepancies. Any way that the Tram Company could cut corners, it did so. With all these inspectors around there was a plethora of paranoid men fearful of them, whose blood would run cold even at the sight of an inspector. There were also other drivers who played to Murphy’s every tune in the hope that if any of the inspectors were to pass away, he would be promoted. Many of the tram workers were an uneasy bunch, and Murphy, by paying the inspectors a higher wage than the drivers, ensured it was to remain that way.
So the tramway drivers, with their ‘Red Hand’ badges, and their union head, James Larkin, were now pitched in battle with the most fearsome businessman in Dublin, if not Ireland. At the time James Connolly was very active in the labour struggles in Belfast, and would not become a prominent figure in Dublin until later. Many middle class people were horrified that the trams had gone on strike during Horse Show week, and the Viceroy to Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, and his good wife were due to attend the show, and the organisers did not want any hitches to mar the event. From that morning and for a few days later, dozens of trams were stopped and attacked by striking drivers in an attempt to further hinder the activities of the DUTC.
As usual, the Independent Publications, most notably the ‘Independent’ Newspaper and the ‘Evening Herald’, were full of stories of mobs roaming the streets, that they had not affected the service of the trams whatsoever, and that any men on strike would surely return to work in the next few days after they see through James Larkin. A few days later, the Tram Company was forced to suspend all services after nightfall, and began issuing drivers and ticket collectors with revolvers to protect themselves. As The Tramway company owner was a ‘Justice of the Peace’, he was legally entitled to issue workers with the weapons. The first persons to join the dispute, after the tram workers, were the paperboys, who regularly sold papers in the city’s main thoroughfares. But these sellers, many bare-foot, were not to be seen on Dublin’s streets that night.
On Wednesday 28th of August, Larkin and other prominent members of the Trades Council were arrested and taken to the Bridewell. Larkin got his mother to telegraph James Connolly, and he was to arrive within the next couple of days to take over the situation should Larkin remain in prison.
At this time the newspapers The Independent, The Evening Herald, and the Catholic Leader, all owned by Murphy, did their utmost to try and discredit Larkin and his allies in every way possible. The paper Irish Freedom was a nationalist publication, which tried to bring the thoughts and ideas of Sinn Fein to a wider audience. Throughout the strike, its editor, Arthur Griffith, argued that capitalism was not the problem, but rather way the British abused it. Irish Capitalism, run along Irish lines, was the answer – not socialism. The Irish Worker was the only genuine left-wing paper in the city at the time. It regularly carried articles from Larkin, Connolly and other important trades-union members.
Another important author on the events as they unfolded was Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a determined socialist and good friend of Larkin. When once asked to write a column about rats, his editor mused “I really do not know what I can do with you. You have written about rats as if they were an oppressed minority!” He went on to set up the left of centre publication ‘The Irish citizen’ with his wife Hanna. His pieces in the Daily Herald were to provide honest and unabridged accounts of the different events that flared during the lockout. His publication The Irish Citizen was to print many articles from many luminaries such as Countess Markevicz and Maude Gonne.
The following Monday, Murphy called a meeting of the main business owners in the city, and at that meeting the ‘Dublin Employers Federation’ was born. At the following meeting a week later, Jim Goode, owner of the largest building firm in the city, approached the meeting with an idea that was to light up Murphy’s eyes. He had before him a contract document that he believed all employers should issue to all their workers. It stated “I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers, and I further agree to resign my membership of the Irish Transport and General Members Union (If a member), and I further undertake not to join, or in any way help this union”.
As a result of the new document being circulated, many men and women walked out of their jobs and many premises ground to a standstill. The Employers Federation had decided to ‘lockout’ their workers – i.e. refuse to let them work inside their premises unless they agreed to reject the ITGWU and everything it stood for. The employers then began issuing statements to the press, stating that if the workers signed the pledge and left the ITGWU, they would gladly allow them back to work. This blurred the fact that the only other main Union in the city was run on the behest of Murphy, and he bankrolled it, as he saw his creation as a deterrent to the ITGWU and a tool with which industrial peace would be guaranteed in his many companies. The Trades Union Congress was deeply concerned at the unfolding developments in Dublin, and, at a hastily convened meeting on the Friday, agreed to send a delegation to Dublin.
A few days later, the Jacobs biscuit factory began locking out workers of the ITGWU. This caused consternation, and pitch battles ensued between locked out workers and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) trying to protect any scabs. Pitch battles between police and ordinary civilians, on strike or on protest marches, were a common sight during the lockout. But the bloodiest battle of all was to become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. On Sunday 31st of August, marchers heading home from a rather large rally organised by the Trades Council were attacked by a large group of DMC officers, fresh from bouts of drinking in the pubs nearby. In the melee hundreds of civilians were badly injured and one policeman died – he received fatal injuries when he fell off his horse. A short while after the peace was restored, and the fracas dissolved, many still drunk DMP men ran riot around the Gardiner Street/Summerhill vicinity, knocking down many doors and smashing every item in the houses concerned. Many victims of these attacks were left in dire straits as a lot of the items were bought on hire purchase. With the DMC allowed to handpick the juries, even if the evidence against them were as clear as day, they all got off the charges due to ‘technicalities’ etc.
When the TUC delegation returned from Dublin, it was agreed that financial donations would be sent to Dublin from the TUC war chest and other individual unions. This money would be used to pay strike money to many of those on lockout. The payments ranged from 5s for Men and 2s6d for Women. Various coal, depots and flour mills also began adopting Murphy’s stance and refused to employ workers who did not completely renege on the ITGWU. Along the docks, ITGWU workers were ordered to black out ‘tainted’ goods produced in disputed firms and ready for shipping. As a result of this the prices of coal, bread and flour in particular rose sharply. As a result, many families found it harder to provide a decent meal for all concerned.
At first it was mainly the Church of Ireland who set up dinner halls, where children who joined their schools were guaranteed at least one decent meal a day. As a result, many Catholic parents began enrolling their children into these schools. This horrified Archbishop Walshe who, looking on from the splendour of his mansion in Dromcondra, set about trying to reverse the situation. As a result, many Catholic families were offered clothes for their children and money up front if they agreed to take their kids out of the ‘birds nests’ and back into Catholic Schools. This job was looked after by the Saint Vincent DePaul (SVdeP), which back then was a racist grouping that would stop at nothing to try and undermine all other faiths than Catholicism. Any children who refused to go back to Catholic Schools were often followed to school by SVdeP volunteers and verbally and physically abused as a result.
Within a few weeks the situation had become so dire on the ground that the TUC agreed to send over shipments of food parcels to help feed the locked out workers. Until around about March, the TUC was sending about £15,000 of food a week which was keenly accepted by all locked out workers. The situation seemed to be in complete stalemate, with nothing they had not seen in the previous weeks taking place.
Enter Dora Montfieore. Dame Dora Montfieore was an aristocrat with socialistic leanings, and she devised an idea whereby Dublin children would be sent to mainland England so they could be looked after by a host family till the lockout was over. At a meeting in the Royal Albert Hall alongside Jim Larkin, Montfieore presented her idea to him. The idea had worked 2 years previously when the country of Belgium was gripped in industrial turmoil. Miss Montfieore and her helpers arrived in Dublin on the 26th of October, and began spelling out the ideals of the ‘Dublin kiddies scheme’ as she called it. This immediately enraged the Catholic clergy, who thought that a catholic child, who died of hunger, and pain, was a far better sight to behold than a happy healthy catholic child in England staying with a protestant family. That Monday, Dora and her helpers attempted to take a group of children onto a boat bound for Holyhead in Wales. The priests got wind of this, and a group headed by Father Landers of Westland Row stormed into the port with followers, determined that the children did not leave the city. The priests then ran onto the ship and in an aggressive manner pleaded with the children not to travel to England. In a fit of panic and despair, some of the children departed the boat, but a group of them, accompanied by a neighbour from the street where they lived, defied all the venomous taunts from the priests and stayed onboard. Demented mobs of Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) members now stood guard at both Westland Row train station and Dublin Port.
Many innocent parents had to flee the train station as they could not convince the AOH members that they were not ‘kidnappers’ and had a genuine reason for travelling. Soon enough, the Evening Herald broke with the ‘shock’ revelations that there was a group of the kids who were living with a Protestant family in England and were said to have missed mass last Sunday. The paper did not care that the children were being well fed and given warm clothes to wear, only that they did not attend a religious building a few days earlier.
After a few months, due to the ever-present mobs of supporters of the clergy, the scheme was winded down, with only a fraction of those intended getting to go to England. Dora Montfiore was arrested along with her helpers on accusations of ‘kidnapping Dublin children’. She was found guilty, but bound to the peace after she made a promise to leave that country that night. Both she and some of her helpers suffered severe nervous breakdowns as a result of their experiences in Dublin.
After impassioned pleas by many, most notably Archbishop Walshe and senior Liberal Party member George Askwith, both sides came together for a tribunal of inquiry aimed at resolving the lockout dispute. In hindsight it now seems obvious that the employers were out to wreck any chance of an agreement being reached before the tribunal even got underway. Thinking they had victory in the bag, the employers demanded that the session be held in public. This was to be a major mistake on their part. The trade union side, and most notably Larkin, played a blinder and delivered a knockout blow to the prestige of Murphy and his cronies: “We are out to break down racial and sectarian barriers. My suggestion to the employers is that if they want peace we are prepared to meet them, but if they want war, then war they will have”. In the end the tribunal found that indeed the workers did have a right to better pay and conditions, but it also demanded an end to sympathetic strikes in the future, and in all cases that the unions should sit and talk with employers to try and resolve an impasse, and that strike action should only be used as a last resort.
The employers, with their tails firmly tied behind their legs, rejected the findings of the commission and stated they would in no way honour them. This was a body blow to the liberals, including those in the Irish Party who believed that half-baked woolly gestures towards the unions and the workers would end the whole dispute.
Larkin also had many enemies within the trade union movement, most notably in Britain. He was never afraid to publicly criticise, as he did at many meetings, those in the hierarchy of the TUC whom he felt were undermining the ethos of the Trade Union movement. Many times when he lambasted union leaders for things he perceived they were doing behind the scenes, the leaders’ foot soldiers would come out and publicly attack Larkin for his outburst, only for Larkin’s words to be matched by the actions of said leader. These people obviously enjoyed the privileges that being head of a union afforded them, and they were not going to let some failed Liverpool docker take it away from them. They had to regularly contend with the fact that, while they personally despised Larkin, the majority of their rank and file members loved him.
Meanwhile the food parcels kept arriving every few days and the judiciary were doing their best to trample all over the working classes of Dublin. A young girl, Anne Brady, was killed when she contracted tetanus after being shot by a strikebreaker. The bullet, which grazed the ground before it hit her arm, gave her the deadly disease. The scab was freed from custody, yet again due to a technicality, even though the evidence was as clear cut as any that he was guilty, at the very least, of manslaughter. In the same court on the same day that the strikebreaker was freed, an ITGWU member was given a month’s hard labour for tripping up another scab.
James Connolly, with the help of the retired Army Major James White, set up the Citizen Army. This was incorporated so Dublin might have a force of workers resembling that of the Ulster Volunteer Force up in the North. In reality, it was merely a badly patched up group of men with ill equipped armaments and only minor knowledge of battle techniques. None the less, it gave a lot of striking workers a great pride to be seen by friends and relatives marching to drills in Croydon Park, and it gave them an outlet to take their minds away from the depressing drama that was Dublin 1913.
So for the next few months, James Larkin went around Britain on his ‘fiery cross’ mission in a bid to win many followers and more money for the cause of the locked out workers of Dublin. Many of the union leaders in mainland Britain were alarmed by Larkin’s actions and his threats to call out the workers of mainland Britain in sympathy with their Dublin comrades. They did not mind if the leaders of Dublin workers had to waddle in the shit for months, but they were damned if they were going to have to get their hands dirty too. They preferred the method of strong words alongside piecemeal actions, and were determined that Larkin would not get them to fulfil all the promises they made to the workers of Dublin in the past at various rallies in the capital and across Britain. The fact that The Irish Times alluded to this after the lockout was all but over demonstrates the enormity of their weasel words.
The employers with the aid of help from the National Shipping Federation (NSF) began bringing in ‘free labour’ from Britain and beyond. Attracted by the lure of higher wages than normal, many men left places such as Liverpool and Bristol and began to work in Dublin. These scabs had no sympathy for the strikers of Dublin and their children as they allowed themselves to be puppets in the employers’ theatrics. The first company to use this ‘free labour’ was TC Martins, the Timer Merchants on the docks. The use of the free labourers cost companies a lot more to employ because of the high wages they had offered to entice them over. They also cost a lot to the ratepayer for the amount of policeman who had to employed to help the companies operate freely against the backdrop of disgruntled locked-out unionised worker. The NSF brought a large container ship to Dublin and 600 men made the hovel their home for the next few months.
The situation dragged on for weeks with speeches and counter speeches, Larkin travelling across the length and breadth of Britain giving talks, and police brutality continued, conveniently overlooked by the judiciary.
At the end of January there was a special delegate conference of the TUC, where the Dublin crisis was to be debated. A few days beforehand, another set of talks between the Dublin Trades Council and the employers failed yet again due to the stubbornness of the employers. Once again, at the conference, Larkin stood up and lashed out at named individuals, condemning them for various reasons which clearly antagonised him. Other members of the hierarchy of unions, whose leaders’ Larkin lambasted, attacked Larkin for his speech and resolutely defended their leader. Obviously they had wanted the top job when he retired or passed away, and were doing a good job in copper fastening that ambition. At the end of the conference the TUC delegates agreed to continue sending help to Dublin, but what that help might be they did not say.
As the end of February approached things began to look bleak. The ITGWU strike fund was getting smaller and the food ships carried less stock than before. Many men began to return to work as a result. A lot of employers did not ask their employees to renounce the ITGWU, or to leave it, but merely to agree to handle ‘tainted’ goods. The vast majority of employees agreed to this and trudged back to work, enduring the same conditions as pre-lockout times, but this time their status as a member of a trade union was secure.
By the start of March things got even bleaker. It became obvious that, though words were said to the contrary, the TUC was pretty soon going to cancel the food shipments and funding for the trade unionists involved in the struggle. This enraged Connolly and Larkin, who both launched scathing broadsides at those across the water in their own indemonstrable styles.
And so Larkin and Connolly, due to the treachery of those in the leadership of the TUC, had to call on workers to return to work, but only so long as they were allowed to remain in the union and did not have to handle tainted goods. By the start of April, most men who could get their jobs back (many places were filled by free-labourers, and the employers preferred to keep them on), basically continued from where they left off, working in the same pre-lockout conditions, and earning the same pay. While Jacobs only wanted to take back a few locked-out workers, because they had a load of ‘free-labourers’ on their books they did cut working hours from 55 to 50 hours, a week, which was heartily welcomed by the staff.
By the end of it all, Murphy’s persona was dealt a shattering blow. Many people were able to carry on participating in the ITGWU, and due to severed links by many of the TUC with the ITGWU, Larkin was now able to go to Britain and sign up many more people to his union.
One often wonders how different the outcome might have been if the TUC had played a more hands-on role and genuinely matched their words with the corresponding actions. There is no doubt that if the lock-out had been a total success in Dublin, the momentum from it would have reverberated around the UK, where similar scenes would have manifested in industrial heartlands such as Manchester and Sheffield. The belief of many Left thinkers is that the leaders of the TUC saw how bloody, prolonged and time consuming the struggle in Dublin was, and when faced with the possibility of similar scenes on their own doorstep said “no thanks”, and let the chance to emancipate the workers go by. If things had worked out the way they should have, with people properly playing the roles they were assigned, Fianna Fail might not have existed in this day and age, and Noiraid and the Reagan administration might have been arming the employers in its ensuing battle with the Socialist administration of Ireland!