Today is International Worker’s Day and in honor of the thousands of workers across the United States striking for their rights and livelihoods, we’ll be discussing the Dublin Lockout 1913.
Since it’s Workers’ Day and the United States is experiencing a revolution in worker rights, I thought it’d be fun to take a minor break from Central Asia and return to Ireland to discuss how Jim Larkin, James Connolly, and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) led one of Ireland’s largest strikes, fundamentally changing labor not only in Ireland but around the world.
Working and Living Conditions in Ireland Prior 1914
The Ireland of the early 1900s was an Ireland in the midst of great upheaval and change. If we think back to our episode on Easter Rising, there were a lot of organizations and movements agitating for various causes such as women’s rights, nationalism, home rule, Gaelic cultural revival, and worker rights. On top of all of that, the living and working conditions for many people in Ireland were abysmal, pouring fuel to the growing flame that would take over Ireland for the next decade.
Lack of work for unskilled workers, limited access to trade unions, and employment being given on a daily and arbitrary basis trapped many Irish workers in poverty. Not only was access to work unpredictable, but even if someone was lucky enough to have job they would be subjected to bogus fines, constant surveillance, and arbitrary firings often for being “lazy”, “wasting time”, or for being accused on being drunk or fighting while on the job. When workers tried to join unions, employers would blacklist them, preventing them from finding work in the city, driving them into extreme poverty or forcing them to move to another city where they could find work.
Living conditions were hardly any better than the working conditions with many workers crowded into tenement building rife with disease. It is said that 835 people lived in fifteen houses on Henrietta Street. This led to poor hygiene and cramp living conditions contributing to a high rate of disease amongst the tenement population. Tuberculosis was the most common disease and according to a 1903 study by Dr. John Lumsden, there were 50% more tuberculosis deaths in Ireland than in England or Scotland. The infant mortality rate was also higher than England, with an estimated 142 deaths per 1,000 births.
Ironically, there were 70,000 trade unionists in Ireland, but 3/4s of them were in British based unions. This meant they were reliant on British interests when it came to support for strikes and walk outs. Additionally, since many of Ireland’s workforce was considered “unskilled” they undercut the power of the strike since most employers considered them easy to replace. Couldn’t pressure an employer to cave if he was not scared about losing his employees. So, the question for Irish trade unionists was how to break the employer’s back with the resources they had on hand? Enter Jim Larkin and James Connolly.
Jim Larkin and James Connolly
Jim Larkin is a giant in Irish history. Considered to be a visionary, charismatic leader as well as a egotistical, pain in the ass Larkin was a dynamic force that changed labor history, not only in Ireland, but around the world.
Larkin was born in Birmingham to Irish immigrants and became a docker and a union organizer in Liverpool. He was also a syndicalist, a version of socialist who believed that the only way to overthrow capitalism was by uniting all workers in one big union and relying on mass strikes.
Larkin was sent to Belfast to organize the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). While there, he led a strike of dock and transport workers and first used the tactic of the sympathetic strike. A sympathetic strike is when workers, not directly involved in the dispute, go on strike in support of their fellow workers. His strike was somewhat successful, catching the attention of Irish workers, but upsetting British labor organizers and so he was transferred to Dublin. I’m sure that seemed like a good idea at the time, but boy would they regret that decision.
As soon as Larkin got to Ireland, he set about organizing unskilled workers in Dublin, alarming the NUDL who weren’t ready to confront the powerful Dublin employers. They suspended Larkin from the NUDL, and he, along with assistance from James Connolly, formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which exists today as the Services, Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU).
Connolly, who we talked about in great depth in our Easter Rising Episode, was an Edinburgh-born activist who joined the British Army at the age of fourteen. His experience with British imperialism radicalized him and he deserted to join the socialist cause. He created the Irish Socialist Republican Party, protested the Boer War, and wrote a book about the history of Irish labor before meeting Larkin and creating the ITGWU. Connolly, who was a nationalist himself saw the cause of a free Ireland tied to the liberation of all workers. He once explained that “There are no real Nationalists in Ireland outside of the Irish Labour Movement. Others merely reject one part or other of the British Conquest—the Labour Movement alone rejects it in its entirety and sets itself to the re-conquest of Ireland.” (Padraig Yeates, The Dublin 1913 Lockout)
The ITGWU was the first Irish trade union that catered to both skilled and unskilled workers and soon spread from Dublin to other Irish cities. Larkin believed in establishing trade unions to bring about a socialist revolution and that the general strike was the workers’ most powerful tool. He led several strikes from 1908-1910 with few successes but he perfected the use of sympathetic strikes and boycotting (which originated in Ireland under Parnell’s leadership during the Land Wars). He began to see victories in 1911, using sympathetic strikes to increase the wage rate for unskilled Dublin workers by 20 to 25 percent and creating a culture where businesses who didn’t negotiate could expect trouble from workers of all industries. Larkin convinced hundreds of workers that the worst thing they could do was cross the picket line and “an injury to one is an injury to all.” With this victories under his belt, he felt it was a perfect time to swell the ranks of the ITGWU.
Between 1911 to 1913, the ITGWU members rose from 4,000 to 10,000, its backbone being the city’s carters and dockers. Big business was terrified. Yet, Larkin had to walk that fine line of supporting strikes without harming the employment chances of his ITGWU’s members. He wanted to grow the union before authorizing a mass general strike and often told his members to keep working for now. It wasn’t quite the right time for a mass strike. Not everyone listened to him.
On August 26th, 1913, the Dublin tram car drivers and conductors pinned their ITGWU pins on their lapels and abandoned their trams, going on strike. 40 minutes later, Murphy’s scabs got the trams running again. It wasn’t an auspice beginning for Larkin and the strikers, but it would turn into a 7-month battle between the workers and businesses of Dublin.
William Martin Murphy and his Co-Conspirators
The ITGWU’s biggest opponent was William Martin Murphy, the chairman of the Dublin United Tramways Company, major shareholder of the B&I Line, and owner of Clery’s department and Imperial Hotel. He also controlled the Irish Independent, Evening Herald, and Irish Catholic newspapers. He was an Irish native who felt he was defending the Catholic, middle-class way of life against the socialist terror espoused by Larkin. He claimed to give his workers fair wages and yet many of his employees were poorly treated, given only one day off in 10 days and forced to work up to 17 hours a day. His tramway workers were paid less than their counterparts in Belfast and Liverpool and suffered several fines, could be placed on probationary periods for six years, and constantly harassed and haunted by a series of informers.
Murphy claimed he supported trade unions in principle but despised the ITGWU because Larkin was a dangerous revolutionary. Murphy called a meeting of 400 employers in July 1913, and they agreed that the ITGWU could not be allowed to unionize the Dublin workforce. Starting in August 1913, he fired 400 workers he suspected of having ITGWU membership.
Murphy and 400 of Dublin’s employers agreed to lock out any employee who refused to sign an oath to never join the ITGWU. It should be noted that Guinness, the largest employer in Dublin, refused to lock out its workforce. It also refused to join Murphy’s group, but donated money to smaller, struggling businesses and forbade its workers from participating in sympathetic strikers. It fired the six who did but looked the other way when 400 of its staff joined the ITGWU. Larkin tried to get the six rehired but without success. Many businesses in Dublin were hurt by the strike and in October 1913 the Shipping Federation in England interceded. They financially supported 600 strike breakers in Dublin to keep the ports open, sent ships to the Dublin ports to protect trade, and spent 10,000 pounds to keep several smaller Dublin businesses afloat.
Larkin was arrested for sedition on August 28th and was on bail the next day. He and Connolly planned a demonstration on what is now O’Connell Street but was Sackville Street at the time for the 31st. The demonstration as banned. On the 29th, Larkin burned the proclamation banning the demonstration and said,
‘People make kings and can unmake them. I am a rebel and the son of a rebel…I recognize no law but the people’s law…I will be in Sackville Street on Sunday next dead or alive and if I am dead, I hope you will carry me there.”Jim Larkin
On August 30th, the police published another warrant for his arrest, but Larkin wasn’t dissuaded from speaking on the 31st.
Casimir and Constance Markievicz disguised Larkin in Casimir’s frock coat and trousers, stage makeup, and beard. He was smuggled into Murphy’s Imperial Hotel by Nellie Gifford, sister-in-law to Thomas MacDonagh of Easter Rising fame. From the balcony of the hotel, he called to the crowd, claiming that he had kept his promise before he was arrested-again. He would be released a week later. The police attacked, killing two workers, and injuring 400-600 more. Constance was caught in the violence and her husband Casimir published his own account in the Freeman’s Journal:
“There was no sign of excitement, no attempt at rescue, and no attempt at a breach of the peace, when a savage and cruel order for a baton charge-unprecedented in such circumstances in any privileged country-was given to the police. It was equaled perhaps by the Bloody Sunday events in St. Petersburg. Scores of well-fed metropolitan policemen pursued a handful of men, women, and children running for their lives before them…I saw many batoned people lying on the ground, senseless and bleeding. When the police had finished their bloodthirsty pursuit, they returned down the street batoning the terror-stricken passerby who had taken refuge in the doorways. It was, indeed, a bloody Sunday for Ireland.”Casimir Mackievicz
This would be known as the first of many Bloody Sundays in 20th century Irish History. The violence against the strikers grew as the strike wore on, with Alice Brady shot dead while bringing home a food parcel and Michael Byrne, an ITGWU official, tortured to death in a prison cell.
On September 2nd, tenement buildings collapse on Church Street, killing seven people, including three children and an ITGWU member. This fanned the anger of the workers. On the 7th, the TUC in Dublin organized a mass rally to assert the rights of workers and attempted to negotiate with businesses. They failed.
Within a few weeks, 15,000 workers were locked out and dependent on the ITGWU for food. There were local efforts to support the strikers. The local mayor raised 10,000 pounds with a majority of it coming from two Catholic bishops. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul tried to fill in the gaps, although there is no public record of their donations. Aid was distributed via the Catholic church, although various Protestant churches also tried to help. Constance Markievicz was often seen preparing food for the poor while other members of the ITGWU tried to alleviate the strikers’ suffering the best they could. And yet, they couldn’t make something out of nothing and so Larkin turned to the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Britain. The TUC sent 106,000 pounds in financial aid and hundreds of shipments of food. The first food shipment arrived on September 29th and contained 60,000 family boxes. While the admissions to Dublin workhouses in 1913 were lower than the preceding year, the mortality rates drastically rose during the lockout, especially for children. This strike was going to cost the strikers everything.
The plight of the children of strikers was appalling and Madame Dora Montefiore tried to help by creating the “Kiddies’ Scheme.” This plan, which only lasted from October 18th to 29th, paired starving children with British families until the workers’ won their battle with Murphy and the others. This, predictably, drew the ire of the Catholic Church and Nationalists who feared the children would lose their faith, their identity, and refuse to leave British life for life in Dublin. Yet, those who denounced the plan did little to help the children in need.
Larkin was arrested again on October 27th and Connolly took his place as leader. To encourage the strikers, a statement from Larkin from prison was published in the Irish Worker although Connolly most likely wrote it. In this statement, Larkin/Connolly argue
“This great fight of ours is not simply a question of shorter hours or better wages. IT IS A GREAT FIGHT FOR HUMAN DIGNITY. For liberty of action, liberty to live as human beings should live.”Jim Larkin/James Connolly
Larkin was released on November 13th
The Irish Citizen Army
Murphy relied on the police and British military to act as strike breakers. As early as September 22nd, the army was called in to protect coal deliveries. When that failed to stop the Lockout, the Shipping Federation sent 600 strike breakers on November 6th. These men were protected by the Dublin Metropolitan policy. Approximately 400 ITGWU members were brought to court on several different charges, and many were imprisoned. Some, like Frank Moss a union organizer who was stationed in Swords, even went on hunger strike to protest the police’s cruelty.
The strike breakers were involved in several shootings that ended in severe injuries or death but were never disciplined for excessive force. While it is tempting to think of the strike breaks as purely British, there were several Irishmen amongst their ranks. Larkin contested every prosecution of his union members in court, but also realized that they needed a more proactive solution if he wanted to protect his people.
So, he, along with James Connolly and ex-British Army Captain Jack White founded the Irish Citizen Army on November 25th, 1913. Larkin described it as a
“new Army of the people, so that Labour may be able to utilize that great physical power which it possesses to prevent its elementary rights being taken away.”Jim Larkin
They were armed with hurley sticks and bats and were used primarily to defend the striking workers. The creation of a citizen army wasn’t unusual for labor and socialist groups at the time and given the level of violence the strikers were facing on a daily basis; the ICA was deemed vital for the survival of the strike. Unfortunately, the first time the ICA saw action, they fled along with the strikers they were supposed to protect.
Maybe this is why Connolly decided to take a more militant approach towards the organization. He and his deputy Michael Mallin turned the ICA into a more formal military organization with a focus on drilling, marching, and uniforms. The army consisted of mostly unskilled workers who were no more radical than the average Irish person joining the Volunteers. But between 1914 and 1916, Connolly and many of the ICA members would be radicalized by the horrors of the world war and the inability of Irish politicians, like Redmond, to do more than cave to England’s demands for more men and supplies while ignoring Ireland’s demand for Home Rule. This radicalization combined with its commitment to a militant response would make the Irish Citizen Army a formidable foe during Easter Rising.
The level of violence converted some British artists and activists. George Russell wrote to the “‘The Masters of Dublin’ that: ‘You may succeed in your policy and ensure your damnation by your victory.” (The Dublin Lockout Month By Month) Even some nationalists, such as Patrick Pearse, grew sympathetic to the striker’s cause. After Bloody Sunday, Pearse wrote,
“An employer who accepts the aid of foreign bayonets to enforce a lock-out of his workmen and accuses the workmen of national dereliction because they accept foreign alms for their starving wives and children…. [is] a matter for a play by Synge.”Patrick Pearse
I actually visited Michael Mallin’s house in Inchicore, Dublin during my trip to Dublin. It’s a small building that was being renovated when I was there, but there’s a plaque that’s rather nice. and identified the building as headquarters for the Irish Citizen Army. If you go on the Richmond Barracks tour, not only will you pass Mallin’s home and learn about the barracks’ role in Easter Rising, but you’ll also get a bit of poetry and song and a brief history of Irish Labor, including the ICA and the Lockout, so highly recommend.
The Lackluster Support of Nationalists and Troubles with British Trade Unions
The Lockout lasted for seven months and during that time Larkin alternated between encouraging his strikers and attacking the TUC and other British trade unions for not supporting their Irish brethren. He traveled to Britain after his release on November 13th and attended several meetings with British trades unions into December. Instead of building relationships, he alienated many of his British counterparts by arguing they weren’t doing enough to help the Dublin workers. He once said to the members of the TUC,
“Comrades in the British Labour movement. Your leaders suggest…that you…are prepared to back up your sympathy only in word and money value, but not in deeds. If that was correct one might feel dispirited”Jim Larkin
Even though the TUC sent funds and food, Larkin wanted their workers to go on sympathetic strikes and boycott materials from Dublin. Larkin truly believed this would have forced Murphy to settle the strike on the workers’ terms. There are two things to consider here. One, we must acknowledge, even if maybe Larkin would not want to, that the British provided an astonishing amount of support financially and via the food shipments. And there actually were a couple of unsanctioned sympathetic strikes amongst the British railway workers. However, as Larkin would argue,
“We say all your money is useful, but money never won a strike. Money can’t win a strike. Discipline, solidarity, knowledge of the position and the strength to carry out your will – these are the things.”Jim Larkin
Larkin approached union work very differently from many other trade unionists, it’s one of the reasons the NUDL sent him to Dublin in the first place. He was far more militant than his counterparts, believing in the power of mass strikes lead by a single trade union. Additionally, he was on the ground, fighting for worker rights, while the British trade unionists were risking far less than Larkin and the Dublin workers. He had also been in and out of jail multiple times, hunted by the police, and responsible for thousand of people’s lives. It is understandable that Larkin would find the British excuses and lack of commitment frustrating. Larkin also had doubts about the commitment of trade union leaders, aware that there had been conflict between the leaders and workers during Britain’s own strikes. If the British labor leaders would try to temper the militant nature of their own members, why would they support Dublin’s workers? He believed the leaders would only act if they were forced to by external actors and from pressure within their own ranks.
The reality, of course, is far more complicated. There seems to have been three reasons the TUC didn’t call for sympathetic strikes. One, the British trade unions had been on almost constant strike between 1909 and 1912, leaving them exhausted. The British trade union got into an argument with their own workers during their own strikes about how militant they should be or even the usefulness of sympathetic strikes. They weren’t going to risk it for Dublin workers. Second, the trade union leaders were doubtful about how successful a British strike would be. It was one thing to get workers to risk their livelihoods for their own benefit, but to risk everything for Ireland. That seemed less than likely to work. Third, there was a growing unease about Larkin and his methods, and they may have feared him as much as they hated and respected him.
In the end, their own reluctance combined with Larkin’s increasingly bellicose nature, led the TUC to holding a special conference where they formally refused to call a nationwide strike and they disowned Larkin.
When Larkin wasn’t alienating his own trade unionsts, he was alienating the rising Nationalists and Home Rulers. The Lockout was occurring during the middle of the Home Rule crisis and many Home Rulers felt that Larkin was jeopardizing any chance Home Rule had at passing. Yet, they could not ignore the violence and an Irish Party MP, Richard McGhee wrote to John Dillion,
“It will be a serious mistake for our entire Irish Party to remain silent as if it approved of the devilish work [of the police]…The trade unions of Britain are stirred to the deepest indignation. I know nothing that will cause more injury than for those unions to think that we the Nationalist Party are indifferent to the conflicts of William Martin Murphy and his victims.”Richard McGhee
Dillion, who was holding the line while Redmond campaigned in the North, decided that the best policy for the IPP was to remain silent about the Lockout. For the Nationalists, the strikers were too reliant on the English. Helena Moloney would write that there was a “unwholesome Englishness of Larkin & the strike” (Book Review: The Dublin Lockout, 1913: New Perspectives on Class War & its Legacy)
End of the Strike
Despite the fears of a Larkinite sweep of the elections, only one out of ten of Larkin’s candidates won a seat. This, combined with TUC’s rejection and the specter of starvation, forced Larkin to gather his strikers at Croydon Park on January 18th, 1914, and call off the strike. Murphy refused to compromise and, for the moment, won a great victory.
Most of the Dublin workers who went on strike were on the brink of starvation and forced to renounce their ITGWU membership and return to work. Those who could not return to their former jobs, joined the British Army, and saw combat in WWI. Larkin went to America to raise funds and support for the ITGWU and to recover from a strike that took everything out of him. Although, while in America he was arrested for being a Communist and spent time in Sing-Sing before being pardoned and deported back to Ireland in 1923, so not sure how much rest he got.
Connolly and many members of the Irish Citizen Army would die in the Easter Rising and those who survived worked with the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. The ITGWU fell apart after Connolly’s death until William O’Brien, Thomas Foran, and T. D. Daly resurrected it. By 1919, the ITGWU’s membership was approximately 120,000 people with 350 branches all over Ireland.
Larkin may have failed to achieve better pay and conditions for workers, but it is considered, today, to be a watershed moment in Irish labor history. It organized a large subset of unskilled workers into a union, broke idea that the Irish unions were tied to the British unions, sparked the creation of the Irish Citizen Army which would have its own huge role to play in Irish History, created the ITGWU which others would use to continue the fight for Irish rights, and terrified Irish employers from never again trying to break Irish workers like Murphy did. Many companies would be forced to declare bankruptcy after the strike. Like the Irish Women’s Rights campaign going on at the same time, the Lockout proved, not only to Irish employers, but to the Irish themselves that they were strong when they stood together. It brought together activists and intellectuals that otherwise would never have met, and the relations built during the Lockout would bear fruit going into 1914 and beyond.
The Dublin 1913 Lockout by Padraig Yeates
The Lockout of 1913 by Michael D Higgins
The Dublin Lockout Month by Month
Book Review: The Dublin Lockout, 1913: New Perspectives on Class War & its Legacy
The Formation of the Irish Citizen Army 1913-16 by John Dorney
Frank Moss – A Forgotten Labour Leader of 1913 by Christopher Lee
Class War in Dublin – The Lockout of 1913 by John Dorney
British Labour movement solidarity in the 1913-14 Dublin Lockout by Ralph R. Darlington
‘An Injury to One is the Concern of All’: Dublin Port, the Namebook, the 1913 Lockout and the Sympathetic Strike by Padraig Yeates
Easter 1916: the Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend
A Nation and Not a Rabble by Diarmaid Ferriter
Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary by Anne Haverty
The Labour Hercules: the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republicanism 1913-1923 by Jeffrey Leddin
Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker by Emmet O’Connor