Saving kids, saving souls
A plan to relieve the pressure on locked-out families by caring for their children in England provoked the ire of the Catholic Church, writes Theresa Moriarty
Fr fleming and Fr McNevin with the boy George Burke. Thomas and James McMahon - Freeman’s Journal, 25th October, 1913 Courtesy Dublin City Library
It must have seemed such a practical – even obvious – idea when Dora Montefiore slipped James Larkin a note after his speech in London’s Memorial Hall on October 10th, 1913: to propose that families in England could take the hungry children of Dublin’s locked-out workers into their homes for a respite break from privations and conflict.
After all, speakers at rallies and the pages of socialist journals had been talking for weeks about the lives of women and children. Appeals for support repeatedly framed the Lockout as an “attempt to starve our women and children”. Larkin had spoken of such hardship that night. Seven weeks had passed since the Lockout had begun and thousands faced starvation.
The traditional stand-offs of industrial action, walkouts or lockouts continued as Dublin employers enforced their anti-ITGWU pledge across the city. The sympathetic strike, the customary strike fund and soup kitchen were augmented by a city-wide rent strike, and street meetings and marches, thousands strong.
Elsewhere, boycotts of Dublin goods, especially Jacob’s biscuits, were launched by shoppers and local co-operative societies. Solidarity as well as struggle required innovation and improvisation.
When the London socialist feminist Dora Montefiore answered her own question, “Who will look after the kiddies?” with a plan to bring Dublin children to homes in Britain, she was proposing a familiar feature of such large-scale and long-drawn out disputes.
Twice in the US – in the Lawrence, Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 and in Paterson, New Jersey, in the summer of 1913, children were brought to stay in New York. A good friend from James Connolly’s American years, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, played a leading part in both.
Belgium’s well-planned general strike in April 1913 arranged homes for children among sympathisers in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Closer to home, similar arrangements were planned during the 1912 London dock strike. Early settlements meant neither plan was implemented.
With Larkin’s consent and the backing of the Dublin strike committee the plans went ahead. A London committee of women with experience from the 1912 dock strike and the editor of the socialist Daily Herald launched it through local Herald League branches and the newspaper’s pages. Within days 300 homes were on offer.
Montefiore came to Dublin with Grace Neal, described in the socialist press as “that most valiant and disinterested of trade unionists”, a former organiser of domestic workers’ union, and Lucille Rand, the Roman Catholic daughter of the American political elite.
Meticulous planning went into their arrangements, outlining the scheme at overflowing meetings for mothers in Liberty Hall, listing children’s names, and getting parental consent, preparing the children for travelling, with support from Delia Larkin and the locked-out workers of the IWWU (Irish Women Workers’ Union) and the ITGWU.
They were quite unprepared for the hostility unleashed by the opposition of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh. His letter “to the mothers of Dublin”, published on October 21st, did not use the word “proselytism” but it resonated throughout his address. “Have they abandoned their faith? . . . the plain duty of every Catholic mother . . . they can no longer be held worthy of the name . . .”