An Irishman's Diary

 

Ireland has comparatively few labour martyrs and the only one with anything resembling a national profile, James Connolly, is as much a member of the nationalist pantheon as that of labour.

Industrial relations are dull by nature and even dramatic high points such as strikes and lockouts amount to little more than molehills compared with the historic pageant of armed conspiracies, risings and executions. If Robert Emmet had led a protest march by 80 trade unionists through the Liberties of Dublin in 1803 to protest at unsafe working conditions in his local munitions factory (it had an appalling safety record with at least one explosion and two deaths), he might well have been executed, but he is unlikely to have been commemorated.

Similarly, if Tomas Ashe had died after being force-fed in Mountjoy Prison for leading a strike over union recognition, instead of for making seditious speeches, he would not be remembered now as the first of of many hunger strikers to die for Ireland in the last century.

In fact Ashe was not the first Irishman to die as the result of a hunger strike for political objectives in the 20th century; that distinction goes to someone sent to prison four years earlier for the more mundane cause of trade union recognition.

The man was James Byrne, who lived with his wife and five children at 5 Clarence Street, Dun Laoghaire. He was the local branch secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in Kingstown, as Dun Laoghaire was then known, in 1913. It was the year of the great lockout and Byrne was arrested several times for alleged intimidation of strike-breakers. Byrne denied the charges and, when offered bail in return for being bound over, refused on principle because he believed it would be an admission of guilt. Committed to prison on October 20th, he began a hunger and thirst strike.

Byrne was following the example of James Connolly, another ITGWU official, who had gone on strike in Mountjoy the previous month over what he felt was unjust treatment of workers by the courts. When Connolly intensified his action to include a thirst strike he was released within a few days. The Viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, sent his own car to Mountjoy with the order for Connolly's release and Countess Markievicz, one of the most prominent supporters of the ITGWU in its battle over union recognition, had a taxi dispatched to bring Connolly to her home to recuperate.

Unfortunately Byrne was not as well known as Connolly and he had the misfortune to begin his protest when one of greatest controversies of the lockout was at its height - the "Dublin Kiddies" scheme. This seemingly innocuous project by some British socialists to bring the children of ITGWU members to England to escape the worst hardships of the dispute incurred the wrath of the Catholic church, which feared for the spritual, if not the physical welfare of the children. Archbishop Willie Walsh also expressed concern that life in England might give the children unrealistic expectations when they returned to Ireland.

Byrne was released at death's door after five days, but he passed over that threshold a few days later in Monkstown hospital, leaving his family destitute. The ITGWU had little in the way of funds but it made what amends it could by turning his funeral into a mass demonstration through Kingstown to Deansgrange cemetery, where Byrne was buried in the family plot. Connolly gave a funeral oration, telling the crowd that the dead man had been "murdered as surely as any one of the long list of those who had suffered for the sacred cause of liberty"; but Byrne returned promptly to obscurity, disappearing from accounts of the lockout and not even being mentioned on the roll of honour for lockout victims in Liberty Hall.

For 90 years Byrne has rested, forgotten, in the heart of Deansgrange,under two great yews. Now, thanks to the enthusiasm of local labour history enthusiasts, including members of SIPTU and IMPACT in Dun Laoghaire, that omission is at last being rectified. A monument is being unveiled today at Deansgrange by the SIPTU president, Jack O'Connor, in one of his first major official engagements.

Seamus Fitzpatrick, who helped to organise today's event and whose own father was an ITGWU shop steward in 1913, said he hoped local trade unionists would turn out again, as they did 90 years ago, to pay their respects to "Dun Laoghaire's forgotten labour leader".

People are asked to be at the gate of Deans Grange cemetery at 1.30 p.m. to honour a man who did not kill anyone and did not advocate killing anyone, but who was willing to die for his principles.