Part eight of Michael Johnson’s series on the life and politics of James Connolly. The rest of the series can be found here.
While the Home Rule crisis raged in Ulster, the southern Irish labour movement was about to engage in a class battle of unprecedented militancy.
Connolly, along with Jim Larkin, would be at the centre of events during the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, Great Britain was convulsed by an unprecedented wave of syndicalist-inspired strike action known as the “Great Unrest”.
Dockers and railway workers took prolonged strike action and, inspired by ideas of working-class solidarity, much of the unrest took the form of unofficial strike action in sympathy with other groups of workers, bursting the knell of bureaucratised trade union structures.
Larkin and Connolly’s ITGWU was part of this wave of class militancy, and the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913 looms large as the longest and most bitter dispute of the period. In the years of the Great Unrest, Connolly had succeeded in organising the young women mill workers and the dockers in Belfast, while in Dublin the Jacob’s biscuit factory, the foundry workers of Wexford and the railways also came under auspices of the ITGWU.
As Connolly wrote: “The ITGWU up and down the docks preached most energetically the doctrine of the sympathetic strike, and the doctrine was readily assimilated by the dockers and carters.
“It brought the union into a long and bitter struggle along the quays, a struggle which cost it thousands of pounds, imperiled its very existence, and earned for it the bitterest hatred of every employer and sweater in the city, every one of whom swore they would wait their chance to ‘get even with Larkin and his crew’.”
To get even, the bosses coalesced around the figure of William Martin Murphy, whose Dublin United Tramways Company was a major target of Larkin’s organising drive.
Murphy, a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the rail and tramways of west Africa and south America, owned the Irish Independent newspaper, Dublin’s Imperial Hotel and was the founder of the Dublin Employers’ Federation in 1911 for the “mutual protection and indemnity of all employers of labour in Dublin.” He laid down the gauntlet to the ITGWU, declaring that if it tried to organise the Tramways “it will be the Waterloo of Mr. Larkin.”
On 21 August 1913, Larkin dismissed around 100 workers for trying to join the union and issued an ultimatum: the union or your jobs. The union struck back. Timed to coincide with the Dublin Horse Show, the workers walked off the trams and appealed to the working-class of Dublin for support. Connolly recounted that when workers were faced with Murphy’s ultimatum, “in every shop, factory and sweating hell-hole in Dublin, as the agreement is presented they march out with pinched faces, threadbare clothes and miserable footgear, but with high hopes, undaunted spirit, and glorious resolve shining out of their eyes.”
Both sides steeled themselves, and Connolly was recalled from Belfast to help prepare the workers’ for battle. Meetings were organised all across Dublin, with a plan to hold a mass rally on 31 August. The state stepped in and banned the meeting. Larkin and four other union leaders are arrested and then bailed. The morning before the planned rally, Connolly too was arrested for calling upon the workers to arm themselves. Upon receiving a jail sentence for three months, Connolly declared a hunger strike and was freed in a week.
Despite the threat of being arrested on sight, Larkin announced that the planned on O’Connell Street will go ahead. With the help of Constance Markiewiecz, Larkin disguised himself as an elderly clergyman and booked a room in Murphy’s Imperial Hotel. Appearing on the hotel balcony, Larkin ripped off his beard, to the roars of the assembled workers as he began to speak. Larkin was arrested once again, and the police sprang into action, hurling themselves at the crowd at the bosses’ behest, truncheons drawn, in an orgy of state violence. Around five hundred workers are hospitalised and the employers declare a general lock out.
The Bolshevik leader Lenin, wrote at the time that: “The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children…People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.”
At this point, the union’s headquarters in Liberty Hall were turned into a hub for welfare, and the British TUC sent two shipments of food. By now, the workers were beginning to attract support from leading intellectual and cultural figures such as Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, and future leaders of the Rising, Padraig Pearse and the old Fenian Tom Clarke. Arthur Griffith, on the other hand, was bitterly opposed to the workers.
As hunger began to bite, the British suffragist and socialist Dora Montefiore organised a scheme on October to have the children of starving Dublin workers looked after in Britain. The Catholic Church siding, as ever, with the forces of oppression, whipped up an hysterical campaign against the proposal, denouncing the plot to “kidnap” good Catholic children and expose them to the malevolence of English Protestants. It was decided instead to send some of the children to Catholic homes in Belfast. Montefiore recalled how, when she reached the train station with Larkin’s sister and fellow union organiser Delia Larkin: “At one end of the platform, in front of the compartment into which the parents were attempting to get their children, there was a compact, shouting, gesticulating crowd of Hibs. In the centre of the crowd was the little party of children and parents, and among them were the priests, who were talking, uttering threats against the parents, and forbidding them to send their children to Protestant homes. Some of the women were upbraiding the priests for allowing the children to starve in Dublin; and according to an American paper, whose correspondent was on the platform, ‘one woman slapped the face of a priest who was attempting to interfere’.”
When Archbishop of Dublin, William Joseph Walsh, wrote an open letter condemning Montefiore’s scheme, Connolly angrily denounced the Archbishop, writing to him that if he was “as solicitous about the poor bodies of those children as we know you to be about their souls” then he would call on the bosses to negotiate an end to the strike. Connolly immediately suspended free meals at Liberty Hall, referring people instead to ask the Archbishop. The point was made. Catholic aid organisations were flooded, forcing Walsh to issue an appeal for funds and a settlement of the dispute.
On 27 October, Larkin was jailed for sedition and on 1 November, Connolly addressed a meeting of 10,000 people at London’s Albert Hall. Chaired by George Lansbury, the meeting also heard from the revolutionary socialist suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, and was one of the factors which led to Sylvia’s expulsion from the increasingly bourgeois Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Connolly called for everyone to vote against the Liberal Government in the upcoming by-elections until Larkin was freed. The Liberal majority was substantially reduced in Lithlingow and the Liberals lost Reading. Lloyd George commented: “There are explanations, the most prominent of which is, probably, Jim Larkin.” Larkin was released soon afterwards.
In one other respect the Lock-Out displayed the advanced level of working-class solidarity in Dublin. Since September of 1913, the idea of working-class armed self-defence had been gaining popularity. The violence of the police and the scabs during the Lock-Out made it a practical necessity.
In October, the workers formed the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA) as a union militia for the defence of meetings and pickets, armed largely with hurley-sticks. In the class struggle, the workers learned how the right to freedom of association is not handed down, but is guaranteed only when they are willing to defend it for themselves. Connolly wrote how “three men had been killed, and one young Irish girl murdered by a scab, and nothing was done to bring the assassins to justice. So since justice did not exist for us, since the law instead of protecting the rights of the workers was an open enemy, and since the armed forces of the Crown were unreservedly at the disposal of the enemies of labour, it was resolved to create our own army to secure our rights, to protect our members, and to be a guarantee of our own free progress….
“An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as members of an army officered, trained, and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future. Neither Home Rule, nor the lack of Home Rule, will make them lay down their arms.…”
As demands for a general strike grew, following an appeal for support from Connolly and Larkin, the British trade union leaders called a special meeting on 9 December in Farringdon Hall, London. Connolly presented the case for holding out further, but the bureaucrats acted to suppress the Irish workers’ militant struggle. Larkin’s condemnation of the British union leaders provoked howls of outrage, and the TUC rejected further support for the Dublin workers, effectively starving of them of the funds needed to continue. As 1914 dawned, workers began to drift back to work without having signed a repudiation of the union. The union leaders prepared an organised retreat to conserve the union’s organisation and prevent more widespread blacklisting. Height As the Dublin Relief Fund was exhausted, Connolly recalled in ‘The Isolation of Dublin’ in February 1914 that for “the first days and weeks of the struggle, the working classes of Great Britain attained to the height of moral grandeur expressed in that idea, all labour stood behind Dublin, and Dublin rejoiced.”
However, as the strike went on, “we asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin, and for answer the leaders of the British labour movement proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin.”
He wrote bitterly that “the working class unity of the first days of the Dublin fight was sacrificed in the interests of sectional officialism. The officials failed to grasp the opportunity offered to them to make a permanent reality of the union of working class forces brought into being by the spectacle of rebellion, martyrdom and misery exhibited by the workers of Dublin. All England and Scotland rose to it; working class officialdom and working class rank and file alike responded to the call of inspiration; it would have raised us all upward and onward towards our common emancipation. But sectionalism, intrigues and old-time jealousies damned us in the hour of victory, and officialdom was the first to fall to the tempter.
“And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. Dublin is isolated.”