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


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 . . .”

He rebuked mothers prepared to send away their children, “without security of any kind that those to whom the poor children are to be handed over are Catholics, or indeed people of any faith at all”.

The next day a group of children preparing to travel to London was thwarted, by angry priests and crowds at the Tara Street baths; on Westland Row trains and on the Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) boat. There Rand was arrested and, with the children, detained by the police.

Later, ITGWU dockers, carrying children on their shoulders, forced a way through more angry crowds mustered at the North Wall, not simply by clerical opposition, but by Ancient Order of Hibernians mobilisations, and put 20 children and accompanying adults on the Liverpool boat.

The streets and squares, the railway stations and quaysides were contested territory all week. At Amiens Street station, where children were trying to go to Catholic homes in Belfast, the same roaring, assaults, pushing and dragging led to police stopping parents and children from boarding the train. Hibernian crowds attacked a group at Kingsbridge that weekend to prevent a father sending his two young sons to stay on Lord Cloncurry’s Kildare estate.

Even the archbishop returned to the argument, worried “this fantastic policy” would make the children “discontented with the poor homes to which they will sooner or later return”.

By then the “kiddies” scheme was called off. Its funds were redirected to feeding the children at Liberty Hall, overseen by Grace Neal and Delia Larkin. Between November and February, the “kiddies” fund fed 3,000 children every morning in Liberty Hall, “2,907 children and maternity cases” were clothed and from December 12th, dinners provided to nursing mothers, employing a staff of 22, among them “locked out and victimised” young women workers.

The “kiddies” scheme, publicly announced and organised openly, had been financed independently, by street collections, from theatre queues and at sports grounds, through raffles and donations. It appealed to women, and to those unable to make financial contributions, but who could feed another mouth at the table. Private family custom in times of domestic crisis was transformed into public forms of industrial solidarity.

October’s events were conducted at a time of rising crisis. Always in the background loomed Ireland’s contested future – Home Rule or Ulster rebellion. Locked-out Dublin faced more immediate concerns. The strike-breaking ship, the Lady Jocelyn, was already being tracked recruiting along the English coast, when Montefiore first raised her idea.

And, through it all, Liberty Hall was awaiting Larkin’s trial. He was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment on October 27th. Only one week had passed since enthusiastic meetings had greeted the three English organisers’ plan.

Their straightforward presentation, starvation or solidarity, became a point on which Dublin divided.

Theresa Moriarty is a researcher, who has published articles on early Irish women’s trades unionism, Delia Larkin, the Dublin lockout and trades unions during the first World War.