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)
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.