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The socialist element to the Irish revolutionary period is one that has been oft neglected and ignored in subsequent historical study of the era, and as we continue on the road to 1916, it is important that we take time to look at the more hard-left elements that had such a pivotal part to play in the Easter Rising. And while revolutionary socialism had established itself in Ireland long before, the year 1913 is still taken as the moment when this ideology first broke into the larger national consciousness, through one of the most famous instances of industrial dispute in western history.
Dublin in 1913 was not a pleasant place to live, if you happened to be one of the city’s unskilled poor. Tenements were jammed with people living in unsanitary conditions: disease, especially TB, was rife, and the infant mortality rate was abnormally high by “civilized” standards. For the labourer class, a livelihood was a difficult thing to find and then a difficult thing to maintain: getting hired was often only possible on a day-to-day basis, and maybe only if you were willing to work for a little cheaper than another guy. Employers held almost all of the power in industrial relations, with the possibility of blacklisting anyone who expressed support for the idea of worker representation and trade unions.
One man trying to alter this was James Larkin, a docker and union organiser originally from Liverpool. A member of the British National Union Of Dock Labourers, Larkin had been involved in somewhat successful strike actions in Belfast and elsewhere, where the relatively new idea of the sympathy strike had been used to great effect, but his aggressive tactics and hardline ideology made him unpopular within the NDLU, so eventually Larkin was obliged to found his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, or ITGWU. He also found time around this period to form a partnership with James Connolly, the two helping to found the National Labour Party in 1912.
Their greatest challenge came about in the famous year of 1913. Membership of the ITGWU had risen quickly since its founding, and employers organized a response, driven especially by wealthy business owner William Martin Murphy. A former IPP MP, Murphy was the owner of the Imperial Hotel, Cleary’s Department Store and had controlling interests in a multitude of newspapers, and while conditions for his workers may not have been the worst in Dublin, Murphy was still adamantly anti-trade union. He, and 300 other employers in Dublin, resolved to bring the ITGWU to its knees by orchestrating a lockout: only those employees who renounced the ITGWU would be allowed to work, and the doors would be closed to anyone else. A notable exception was Guinness, then Dublin’s biggest employer, who enjoyed relatively harmonious relations with the ITGWU, but clamped down on any sympathy strikes quickly.
The 1913 Lockout rapidly escalated, eventually involving over 20’000 employees who found themselves out of work and unable to make any kind of living. For Larkin, Connolly and others, the event was a crucial test of their ideology’s staying power and resolve, and in such a highly-charged atmosphere, where the ability to fed families was under threat, violence was practically inevitable. The employment of “blackleg” or “scab” labour by employers produced ferocious counter-responses from striking workers, which in turn got the authorities involved.
As you would expect, Irish police were largely unsympathetic to the striking workers, and clashes between the DMP and strikers occurred regularly. A number of deaths are attributed to the Lockout and the violence that took place during, usually when police would baton charge workers holding assemblies and protests. The most famous was “Bloody Sunday” on August 31st, when two people were killed in a melee that erupted on Sackville Street (modern day O’Connell Street), the source of one of the most famous photographs of the era, a grainy still that vividly depicts the chaos of fleeing workers and baton-flailing police. Larkin went into hiding that day, having attempted to give a speech from a balcony of the Imperial Hotel, and was eventually compelled to flee to the US.
The attacks by police were the inspiration for the formation of a workers militia, the idea being that they would be trained and armed to defend workers from further attacks. Such entities were a mainstay of Larkin’s revolutionary ideology (though he tried to make the Lockout as non-violent as possible), and Connolly was involved from the start, although initially the main player was an ex British Army Captain named Jack White, who agreed to train the militia. The start of what was dubbed the “Irish Citizen Army” was inauspicious, little more than 40 men assembling in a field to learn very basic drill, with almost no organisation beyond that. The ICA generally were armed only with hurleys, and in the larger context of the Lockout could do little to stem the onslaught of the authorities.
By 1914, the Lockout was essentially over, as the combination of police brutality, a vicious press campaign, clerical opposition and simple starvation prompted the majority of the strikers to give up ITGWU membership and go back to work, on the employers’ terms. The failure to convince British unions to go out on sympathy strikes was the last straw. While support, both financial and moral, flooded in from different parts of the globe, it wasn’t enough.
Murphy and others could rightly claim victory, and the incident fostered an even deeper disillusion in the government and labour systems that Connolly and Larkin were already heavily opposed to. Lasting grudges were also made with the DMP, and the ICA would not be shy about revisiting such things three years later. The ICA survived too, with Connolly becoming its leader after the departure of White, with the Scot altering the ICA’s raison d’etre from being a purely defensive militia designed to protect workers to being a revolutionary force in training, with a new constitution, written by playwright Sean O’Casey, foreshadowing the kind of language that would be used in the Proclamation of 1916. Its numbers would remain relatively small however, and for the next few years its existence was often overlooked, in the wake of the larger drama being played out between the Irish and Ulster Volunteers.
In a larger sense though, the Lockout was not quite the disaster for labour that it seemed at the time. The employers had suffered too, in their own way, and never again would such a large-scale lockout be attempted by management of Dublin’s businesses. The cause of labour was centre-stage for a time, and the ITGWU would recover over the rest of the decade, having a higher membership in 1919 than it had in 1913. Industrial relations and workers rights would gradually evolve to the point that trade unions and strikes became enshrined in laws as entities and actions with legal protection, though it would be naïve to say that we have reached a point of true enlightenment on such matters, even over a hundred years later. But still, the point was made in 1913, and would again in 1916.
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