Dublin 1913: the “proletarian army” is born

Submitted by Matthew on 28 August, 2013 - 12:00

A hundred years ago (on 26 August 2013) tram workers in Dublin struck after their employer had tried to stop them being members of the Irish Transport and General Workers' union. The strike spread, eventually involving 20,000 workers, and lasted eight months.

It was a bitter dispute — bosses locked out the workers [shut up workplaces as a means of resisting workers’ demands] — but socialists at the time admired the militancy and organisation of the Irish workers. Vladimir Lenin praised the “unparalleled animation” of the Dublin labour movement, and marvelled at how a region that had been mired in religious backwardness and poverty had so quickly become a “country with an organised army of the proletariat”.

How had such a transformation come about?

At the turn of the 20th century the Irish working class was oppressed by conditions of extreme poverty and exploitation. Largely unorganised, workers in Dublin lived in crowded and poorly maintained tenement buildings and worked for miserable wages. The journalist George Russell described working-class Dublin life as “an interesting experiment … to find out how closely human beings can be packed together, on how little a human being can live and what is the minimum wage an employer can pay him.”

Things were not much better in the countryside. Tenant farmers and agricultural labourers had very few rights and a semi-feudal relationship with the powerful landowners. Conditions were compounded by national oppression, with the potential for democratic reform blocked by British rule.

The early Irish trade union movement had been a limited affair. Groups of skilled workers were organised in narrow “craft associations”, but the great mass of urban workers had little organisation to protect them. In Britain, a similar situation had prevailed until the late 1880s when a generation of socialists began to organise workers on a militant, industrial basis known as “New Unionism”. 

With hopes of replicating New Unionism in Ireland, Liverpool-born trade union organiser James Larkin went to Belfast in 1907. Belfast was one of the most important industrial cities in the UK. Larkin was sent by the National Union of Dock Labourers to recruit and organise dockers. He led an important strike in the Belfast docks that briefly bridged the sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant workers. 

Larkin and other socialists went on to unionise most of the ports in Ireland, utilising militant tactics of aggressive industrial action. Wages and conditions begin to improve. However a tension was developing between Larkin’s radical approach and the conservatism of the NUDL leadership (led by James Sexton). The union leadership accused Larkin of embezzling funds when he issued strike pay to dockers without the Executive’s approval. The authorities took their opportunity to teach the troublemaker a lesson, and Larkin was jailed. 

The case outraged a generation of young Irish socialists, who successfully campaigned for Larkin’s release. Once free, he set about creating a new workers’ organisation on the industrial principles of new unionism. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union recruited across the country, becoming the largest union. Its biggest concentration was in Dublin. The ITGWU began to organise the “unskilled”, “general” workers to challenge their exploitation.

The favoured tactic was the solidarity strike. If one group of workers came under attack, others would come out in support, multiplying the disruption.

Rather than a chaotic rabble, the employers of Dublin were now faced with an organised class that would not allow itself to be victimised. The capitalists began to make concessions. Wages began to increase by as much as 25 percent.

The bosses began to plan their retaliation. William Martin Murphy, one of Ireland’s wealthiest businessmen and a prominent Home Rule nationalist, devised a scheme to “crush Larkin” and the ITGWU. Co-ordinated action had made the labour movement strong, and Murphy knew that co-ordinated action on behalf of the employers could be similarly effective. He proposed to the Chamber of Commerce and all the industrialists of the city that from now on no one was to employ ITGWU workers. Workers must renounce involvement with the union or lose their job.

Aware that he was plotting a course for war, Murphy presented his plans to the British authorities at Dublin Castle. He was assured of police and military support in his showdown with the union.

The first systematic sackings of union workers began in Murphy’s own companies, the Dublin United Tramway Company and the Irish Independent newspaper.

After days and weeks of victimisation and lay-offs, the ITGWU called strike action for 26 August, the first day of the Royal Dublin Horse Show. At 9.50 in the morning, when as many trams as possible were clustered in the city centre, staff stopped their vehicles.

But Murphy was prepared. An army of scab drivers were deployed, guarded by police escort, and trams were running again within the hour. Union workers responded by hurling stones at the trams, and later that day thousands rallied for a meeting outside the union’s headquarters in Liberty Hall. Those who addressed the crowd had their homes raided by detectives the next morning.

Dozens of trade unionists were brought before police courts, accused of intimidation, and their leaders were charged with incitement before the police magistrate. The magistrate, E G Swifte, was a substantial shareholder in the Murphy’s tram company.

When Larkin called for a mass demonstration on O’Connell Street, Swifte banned it. At another meeting outside Liberty Hall, Larkin burnt the proclamation setting out the ban. He would be at O’Connell Street, he said, “dead or alive.”

The other union leaders negotiated a route for the march leading from Liberty Hall to the outskirts of the city. The ban, it was thought, would be observed after all. Larkin, however, had got himself smuggled into a room of one of Murphy’s own hotels on O’Connell Street, and addressed a crowd from the balcony. It was an audacious act, but the police responded brutally. A full baton charge of the crowd beneath the balcony left around 500 people hospitalised.

The next day, the Trades Union Congress was meeting in Manchester. Horrified delegates listened to reports of the police violence. The Congress voted to give full support to the strikers.

A city-wide lockout was now in place, and the situation descended into all-out war. Two workers were beaten to death by police and another, Alice Brady, was shot dead by a scab. William Martin Murphy was dubbed “Murder Murphy” for the brutality of his tactics, and his effigy was burnt in the streets.

The great Irish socialist James Connolly was also an organiser in Dublin at this time. He took it upon himself to begin to drill workers into an Irish Citizen Army for self-defence.

Under the immense pressure of starvation and state violence, solidarity from other workers became critical.

The bosses had planned well for the fight, setting aside funds to keep themselves comfortably afloat while they waited for the workers to submit. Those who went into work found they were denied entry or pay until they had abandoned the union. The bosses’ plan revolved around starving out their employees. It was therefore crucial to the workers’ chances of success that as much financial and material support from outside Dublin could be mustered.

When Larkin toured Britain to appeal for solidarity, he addressed enormous audiences, including a packed Albert Hall. Over the course of the lockout, union branches, trades councils and Labour Party branches generated over £93,000 worth of aid (an astounding figure for the time), and ships full of food for the strikers made their way into Dublin. Without this support, it is unlikely the strike could have lasted more than a few weeks.

Despite the crucial difference made by the aid, the city was nevertheless wracked with violence and poverty. To alleviate the situation, one English socialist, Dora Montefiore, began to organise for the children of strikers to be evacuated from Dublin and housed with sympathetic trade unionists in Britain for the duration of the labour war. An appeal in the Daily Herald was met with an enthusiastic response. Hundreds of offers to house and care for children flooded in from London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Space for 40 children and five mothers was offered from trade unionists in Plymouth alone.

Montefiore led a delegation to Dublin to organise the passage of the children to safety. Relieved and exhausted mothers crowded into meetings at Liberty Hall, eager to get their children out of the starving tenements. The capitalist political establishment of the city was deeply alarmed by this development — if workers no longer had to fear for their families they stood a far better chance of holding out. They sought to disrupt the scheme by stirring up sectarian hysteria, and a propaganda campaign was waged by fanatical priests and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who claimed that evacuated children would be placed in the corrupting homes of Protestants and Jews. Children would return to their parents as heathens, they claimed. Moreover, the absence of motherly responsibilities would supposedly lead the women of Dublin into promiscuity and sin!

When parents took their children to the train station they were mobbed by howling priests and men from the Order, leaving mothers and children distraught. This appalling intervention, approved and sanctioned by the Archbishop of Dublin and the Catholic establishment, effectively destroyed the evacuation scheme. Starving children continued to scavenge the bins of the city for food.

The moral, financial and material support from outside Dublin was important, but it was only able to buy the locked out workers more time. In order to strike a crippling blow to the Irish bourgeoisie, strikes would have to spread until it had paralysed not just Dublin or Ireland but Britain as well.

Militants in the trade unions were agitating for this, and there were some small instances of success. Railway workers in the Midlands and dockworkers in Liverpool refused to handle goods from Dublin and a steam ship transporting Guinness to London was effectively stranded by workers who refused to unload it. But the large scale of industrial action in solidarity that was required never came.

The leadership of the TUC held a conference in Ireland and ruled against such a course. The conservative, bureaucratic leadership began to rein in the money and food sent to Dublin, and the strikers were left more and more isolated. After eight months, the union accepted defeat and workers either renounced their membership or accepted they had been sacked.

Despite the best efforts of William Martin Murphy and the employers of Dublin, the ITGWU was not destroyed, and recovered over the coming to years to be bigger than it had been before the Lockout. Nor would the Irish working-class ever return to the level of disorganisation and humiliation it had known before the establishment of the union.

Though the bosses had won a temporary victory, they had done so at a great cost to themselves, and no effort was ever made to repeat such an all-out assault on Dublin’s workers.