West awakens to worker rights

Labour activity and strikes in Galway and Sligo proved that the movement was not solely a Dublin phenomenon, writes John Cunningham


The major strikes of 1913 in Galway and Sligo reveal as much about the wave of unrest known as “Larkinism” as does the Dublin lockout. In providing a broader context, they show that the Dublin conflict was not a singular struggle rooted in that city’s circumstances, rather that it was the high point of a social movement affecting urban Ireland.

With populations of 13,000 and 11,000 respectively, Galway and Sligo were very different to Dublin, which had 300,000. They were also quite different from one another.

Galway’s population had fallen in every census since the Famine, and only language revivalists were optimistic. Sligo was a more bustling place with a substantial Protestant population – 20 per cent in the early 20th century – and with a spirited if highly-factionalised political culture. Tradesmen there were able to maintain both a trades council and a trades hall. Galway had neither.

The holding of the 1911 Irish Trade Union Congress in Galway was an attempt by union leaders to extend their movement to the city. Jim Larkin was one of those who advocated targeting Galway, and he addressed a large public meeting in Eyre Square during the congress in June.

If Galway tradesmen were successfully unionised as a result, Larkin’s constituency of unskilled workers proved less eager. But if he did not organise, Larkin probably did inspire. Dock labourers independently established a Galway Workers & General Labourers Union (GWGLU) in August 1911, a few months after his visit.

Sligo’s labourers became organised one month after Galway’s, when an ITGWU speaker was invited by the trades council. That speaker, Walter Carpenter, was denounced as “an imported mischief maker” by Bishop Clancy of Elphin, who subsequently instructed Catholics to boycott a meeting addressed by Larkin. Clancy’s flock paid little heed.

Merchants in both places also organised themselves. A Galway Employers’ Federation was founded in January 1912, taking its name from predecessors in Cork and Dublin. And just as William Martin Murphy dominated employer affairs in Dublin, equally single-minded men came to the fore in the west.

In Galway, ‘Máirtín Mór’ McDonogh of Thomas McDonogh & Sons dominated local trade and public life, so he was the obvious leader of employers. In Sligo, Arthur Jackson of the Steam Navigation Co was the chief defender of business interests. Interestingly, both had connections with the artistic avant garde: Máirtín Mór was a cousin of Padraig Ó Conaire; Jackson had married a Pollexfen, an aunt of the Yeatses.

Men like Máirtín Mór and Jackson did not defer to anyone, least of all their workers. For their own part, after decades of deference, workers were impatient to assert themselves. As elsewhere, issues of organisational principle sparked disputes as often as demands for improvements in conditions. Unions sought union-only “closed-shop” agreements to protect their members from victimisation. For employers, this was an unwarranted interference in their right to hire, fire and manage.

The Galway lock-out of March 1912 was sparked by the GWGLU’s rejection of a statement of employers’ rights issued unilaterally by Máirtín Mór’s federation. Employers promptly locked out the union’s 500 members. Within a week, civic leaders had brokered a compromise agreement which gave material concessions, and balanced the employers’ rights to hire and fire with a “no victimisation” clause. The negotiated peace was uneasy, both sides girding themselves for the seemingly-inevitable rematch.

Relieved that their small union had managed to survive a lockout, GWGLU leaders sought the protection of a larger entity. Their first approach was to the ITGWU, but Larkin’s tardiness in responding to enquiries gave offence.

The National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) was keener. While the NUDL had criticised Larkin’s promiscuous approach to recruitment when he was its Irish organiser in 1907-08, it readily accepted GWGLU men unconnected with the docks.

Galway employers watched warily: “The workers are getting an insolent manner of late,” complained one to a journalist.

Both Galway and Sligo experienced major strikes in the period March to May 1913, Galway’s lasting five weeks and Sligo’s eight. Each involved about a thousand workers and caused hardship on a proportionately similar scale to the Dublin lockout.

Sligo’s strike was the more bitterly fought. The roots of the 1913 Sligo dispute lay in the settlement of a shorter strike of 1912. For several decades, Arthur Jackson had deftly managed labour at the port, keeping unions at bay by favouring particular stevedores and work gangs in order to prevent his employees making common cause. Taken by surprise and obliged to concede a union-only regime in 1912, he moved to reassert his authority. Just as William Martin Murphy would do, Jackson liaised with the authorities, and arranged a supply of strike-breaking “scab” labour. While courting recently-excluded local stevedores, he also contacted the Shipping Federation, an international strike-breaking agency. Arrangements made, he set about provoking a strike.

The strike began in a small way on March 8th, 1913 with a disagreement about a bonus for sailors represented by the ITGWU. Refusing to accept a subsequent apology from the sailors, Jackson replaced them with non-union labour. He continued to act provocatively until most workers in the docks, yards and mills of the town had gone on strike rather than handle what their union considered to be “tainted goods”.

Matters deteriorated on March 19th when 29 strike-breakers from Liverpool arrived by train. Hundreds of police were on hand to escort them to the docks, where they were put to work unloading the strikebound SS Liverpool. Women and girls armed with sticks succeeded in boarding the vessel and the Liverpudlians had some difficulty in beating them back.

Other fierce battles were being fought nearby. In the course of one battle, a striker, Patrick Dunbar, received a fatal blow to the head. Dunbar’s strike-breaking assailant was subsequently charged with murder but acquitted on grounds of self-defence. The death of Dunbar prompted local dignitaries to offer themselves as arbitrators. The ITGWU seemed disposed to compromise but Jackson proved deaf to the appeals of the mayor, the bishop, and even a board of trade negotiator who arrived in late April.

Then, suddenly and mysteriously, on May 6th, 1913, Arthur Jackson conceded completely. Sligo folklore has an explanation for his concession, but the key factor in the outcome was the determination of the long-subjugated working-class families of Sligo, a determination reinforced by the killing of Dunbar.

A second factor was division among employers, rooted in local politics.

Jim Larkin considered the 1913 victory in Sligo to be a major achievement of the ITGWU. And while the outcome of the contemporaneous Galway strike was less decisive, the NUDL there negotiated an honourable compromise.

The developments would have a considerable impact on local politics and on labour politics in particular. John Lynch in Sligo and William O’Halloran in Galway, full-time organisers of the labourers’ unions, were soon elected to their respective local councils. Henceforth, it was the representatives of labourers rather than those of tradesmen that would be recognised as the authentic voice of the “labour” class.

John Cunningham is a lecturer in history at NUI Galway, and a research project leader at the university’s Moore Institute. He is joint-editor of Saothar, the journal of Irish labour history.

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