Battle engaged

Adrian Grant traces the events in Dublin from the opening blows in the summer of 1913 to Jim Larkin’s order to return to work in January 1914

Police, armed with clubs, charge strikers in Sackville Street. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Police, armed with clubs, charge strikers in Sackville Street. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)


By the close of the 20th century’s first decade, the Irish labour movement had experienced significant change. After Jim Larkin used militant syndicalist tactics on the Belfast docks in 1907, he travelled south, kicking up similar, yet smaller, storms in Cork in Dublin.

By the end of 1908 his union, the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers, had had enough and suspended him. He was left with few options and chose the only one that seemed feasible – the establishment of an Irish-based general workers’ union.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) was formed in January 1909 and made an immediate impact. After successfully gaining recognition from the controlling craft unions in the Irish Trade Union Congress, the ITGWU found itself involved in a number of disputes across the country.

These disputes occurred during a militant wave in Britain known as the “Great Labour Unrest”, and mirrored the Dublin dispute in many ways. The Employers’ Federation was formed in response to the new militancy amongst the unskilled during 1911 and a proto- citizens’ army of sorts was assembled during a lockout in Wexford in 1912.

In 1909, Cork witnessed the formation of a local Employers’ Federation and a workers’ militia during a strike and lockout in the city. Capital and labour, employers and unskilled workers, as well as William Martin Murphy and Jim Larkin were on a collision course in the opening years of the 1910s. By the summer of 1913, the scene was set for a showdown of epic proportions in Dublin.

While the genesis of the lockout can be traced back much further, the opening blows of the dispute came in the summer of 1913 when Murphy began taking active steps against the ITGWU in Dublin. On July 19th, he summoned his workers to a meeting where they were warned that any one of them who was a member of the ITGWU would be sacked.

So began a process where Murphy intended to purge his companies, in particular the Dublin United Tramways Company (DUTC), of ITGWU membership. Murphy’s actions were not unprovoked. Two of Larkin’s major aims in Dublin were to bring the employees of Guinness’s brewery and the DUTC into the ITGWU fold. Having failed to crack the hard nut that was the Guinness workers in any significant way, he threw all his efforts into bringing the tramway workers into the ITGWU. In a tactic typical of Larkin, he singled out Murphy as a target to which he could direct his vitriolic attention.

Murphy was not averse to the principle of trade unionism. He was insistent that he did not oppose the unionisation of his employees, but a union that he could control, or at least one that did not subscribe to the syndicalist tactics espoused by Larkin, was the only acceptable option. He viewed syndicalism as a kind of terrorism that was being introduced to the industrial life of Dublin and he was prepared to fight to the last in order to defeat it.

It would appear that Murphy knew exactly what he was doing when he began sacking ITGWU members in August. On the 15th, 40 men and boys who worked for the Irish Independent were sacked. In reaction, delivery vans were attacked and the newsboys refused to sell Murphy-owned papers. A week later, Murphy went to Dublin Castle and was assured of the support of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the RIC and the military if his actions should result in trouble on the streets.

Events came to a head on August 26th when DUTC employees dumped their trams on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in protest at Murphy’s restrictions on ITGWU membership. The class war imagery of the event is compounded in modern minds due to the fact that the Dublin Horse Show was due to begin on the same day.

The action of the workers was intended to be a grand gesture: trams abandoned in O’Connell Street, the transport system linking the middle-class suburbs with the city centre immobilised and the power station workers following suit to cripple the infrastructure of the entire city. These plans, though, did not materialise completely.

While the sight of trams blocking O’Connell Street was shocking, the reality of the situation was quite different. Less than a third of the total DUTC workforce downed-tools and it was reported that the trams were up and running again within 40 minutes. Those attending the Horse Show did not have to thread through the streets in their expensive attire. Their frustrations were limited to extra waiting times, but the trams were able to leave them off right outside the venue.

Murphy and Dublin Castle were well prepared for Larkin’s response to the sackings and ultimatums of the previous weeks. Large numbers of police were called into action immediately and cleared O’Connell Street efficiently. The workers had a final trick up their sleeve, but it was one Murphy had anticipated. It was hoped that the power workers in Ringsend would walk out when news of the strike reached them. However, only nine boilermen and a few labourers took action. Murphy immediately replaced them with scab workers and a police cordon was swiftly put in place around the plant.

It seemed the great battle between capital and labour in Dublin was nothing more than a mid-morning scuffle. The following morning, the newspapers carried an interview with Murphy in which he declared that Larkin’s “strike” was the “feeblest and most contemptible attempt that was ever made”. He was confident that he could replace the workers out on strike within a few days and believed that they would be clamouring to get back to work before long anyway.

However, Murphy was aware that the central tactic of syndicalism was the sympathetic strike. The employers of Dublin had come up against it before and failed to match the solidarity of the workers in their application of sympathetic lockouts. This time things would be different and the employers were ready to take Larkin on in a bitter and prolonged battle.

Larkin was not admitting defeat though. On the evening of the 26th, perhaps anticipating further trouble, he addressed a crowd outside Liberty Hall and called for the workers to arm themselves as a precaution against police brutality. He made it quite clear that if Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers could be justified in doing so in the north, then he and the workers of Dublin would be justified in fighting against a police and military force that had made it clear whose side they stood on.

On the 28th, Larkin and the other Labour leaders were arrested, but released later in the day. The following days would see intense rioting and violence in Dublin as the dispute escalated.

On the 29th Larkin addressed a crowd of 10,000 at Beresford Place and burned an order proclaiming a planned meeting in O’Connell Street on the 31st. The next day, serious rioting spread across the city and many people were injured by police baton charges. Two labourers, James Nolan and John Byrne, were both caught up in the rioting and died due to injuries sustained by police baton blows.

A warrant was issued for Larkin’s arrest but he went into hiding in Countess Markievicz’s house in Rathmines. Some of the other Labour leaders were also arrested and released on bail, although Connolly was held after declaring that he would not keep the peace, nor did he recognise the British government in Ireland.

William O’Brien was now directing the union campaign and decided that the banned O’Connell Street meeting should instead take place at the ITGWU’s social centre in Croydon Park. But crowds making their way up O’Connell Street from Beresford Place, were suddenly addressed by a figure on the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel (now Clery’s).

Larkin had managed to sneak into the hotel dressed as a bearded clergyman, but as soon as he began addressing the crowd with his distinctive Liverpudlian accent, the police acted. Larkin was swiftly arrested before police flowed in from the side streets and baton charged the crowd, many of whom were passers-by returning from Sunday Mass at the Pro-Cathedral. Riots continued into the night and spread throughout the city with working class areas engulfed by fighting and police raids. Over 400 people were treated in hospital and 30 police officers were injured. Ireland had witnessed its first Bloody Sunday.

As the lockout entered September 1913, events took a turn which would ensure the longevity of the dispute. The day after Bloody Sunday, the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) began its annual meeting in Manchester. The delegates were provoked into action after hearing eyewitness accounts of the police violence. The decision was quickly taken to support the Dublin workers with money, fuel and food. The British labour movement would send almost £100,000 to Dublin before the end of the year, ensuring that the workers could struggle on against the disproportionate means of the employers until January 1914.

The living conditions of working class Dubliners in 1913 were among the worst in Europe. With the press spotlight on Dublin because of the lockout, a horrendous tenement collapse in Church Street on September 2nd brought home the gravity of the situation. Seven people, including three children, were killed when their tenement buildings collapsed. There had been collapses before, but the death and injury tolls had never reached such a scale.

The anger at the danger of this unfit housing (with up to 16 people sharing single rooms) was directed at the slum landlords, many of whom were the very employers that were supporting Murphy in his war against Larkinism.

As September wore on the employer offensive ratcheted up a notch. Many more employers were joining Murphy in locking out ITGWU members across the city. His next move was to gather around 400 Dublin employers and ask them to take action against Larkin’s union. They pledged not to hire ITGWU members and to sack all those in their employ who remained in the union.

Ironically, Murphy was mastering the very technique that he was trying to defeat. His addition of air-tight sympathetic action to the capitalist arsenal in an industrial dispute was an attempt to finally and heavily defeat Larkin and the idea of syndicalism in Ireland.

Throughout what remained of September and into October, sporadic violence continued on the streets of Dublin and its suburbs. What had been a very urban- based conflict spread to rural Co Dublin when farmers locked out ITGWU affiliated agricultural labourers.

A number of conferences were also held between employers, workers and British trade unionists. Each of these ended in failure, mainly due to the resolve of the employers in their fight against syndicalism. The workers agreed to return to work if all ITGWU members were reinstated. This was rejected by the employers who argued that the ITGWU would destroy Irish industry, and besides, they would not now simply sack the workers who had taken the strikers’ places.

One issue that roused emotions greatly was the kiddies’ scheme. The organisers of the scheme aimed to send the children of striking Dubliners to working-class families in Britain, where they could enjoy a temporary reprieve from the starvation and terrible conditions being endured at home.

Archbishop Walsh condemned the scheme as a proselytising effort that should be resisted by any mother wishing to call herself a Catholic. Attempts to send the children to Britain led to ugly scenes when protesters, led by priests, tried to prevent them from boarding boats and trains out of Dublin. The influence of the church, coupled with Larkin and Connolly’s severe condemnation of the Catholic clergy and hierarchy during these protests, may well have alienated some who were sympathetic to the ITGWU’s case beforehand.

A significant development, that would have repercussions in years to come, was the formation of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The militia was formed on November 13th to protect workers from police attacks and keep them fit and disciplined during the lockout.

Under the leadership of Capt Jack White and armed with pick handles, their presence on the streets is said to have affected a noticeable change in police behaviour. In the aftermath of the lockout, the ICA would come under the leadership of Larkin and later Connolly, who led it into rebellion with the Irish Volunteers in 1916.

The lockout death toll grew throughout the winter. Alice Brady was a 16-year-old member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union. On December 18th, she was inadvertently shot in the wrist by a scab worker. She died in hospital as a result of tetanus from the gunshot wound on January 1st, 1914.

James Byrne, the Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) ITGWU branch secretary, died of pneumonia after coming off a hunger strike in a Mountjoy jail cell with awful conditions. On November 4th, Connolly gave the oration at his funeral, which was attended by over 3,000 people.

Finally, a scab worker, Thomas Harten, was kicked to death on January 17th, 1914. His alleged assailant was given two years for aggravated assault while Patrick Traynor, who shot Alice Brady, was acquitted, feeding the notion that the law stood on the side of the employers.

The workers continued in their fight throughout the winter months, buoyed by the support of financial and food aid that was arriving from Britain. This though, was never going to be enough to ensure victory. The employers had the means to continue the lockout for much longer than the workers could hold out for, even with British aid.

Larkin went on a tour of Britain to raise funds and try to have the TUC commit to officially extend sympathetic action to the British ports. In theory, an action such as this would have completely closed Dublin off and left the employers in a precarious position.

However, the internal politics of the British labour movement would play a pivotal role in Dublin’s fortunes. The TUC leaders were afraid of a radical upsurge of militancy in the British labour movement. Sanctioning a blockade of Dublin would play into the hands of the militants and weaken the position of the leadership. At a specially convened TUC conference to discuss the issue on December 9th, a resolution proposing the blockade of Dublin was defeated. Larkin and Connolly knew they had played their last card and blamed the British trade union leaders for selling out the Dublin working class.

A blockade of Dublin would have placed severe pressure on the Dublin employers and strengthened the hand of the workers, but whether it would have changed the outcome of the dispute is difficult to speculate on. In any case, the return to work started to become noticeable in late December.

On January 18th, 1914, Larkin told workers gathered at Croydon Park to return to work on the best conditions they could secure, but not to sign anything which would renounce the ITGWU. The lockout, which was already staggering to an end, was over.

Adrian Grant is a postdoctoral researcher at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and the author of Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-36.

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