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Ireland’s Greatest Strike

In April 1920 a general strike demanding the release of prisoners rocked Ireland and brought the country to a standstill – one hundred years later, it remains the pinnacle of Irish labour history.

In the collective memory of the Irish left, the defining moment of the Irish revolutionary period remains the so-called Limerick Soviet of April 1919. It produced powerful and emotive iconography – with currency printed by the Strike Committee which took control of the city – and has been the subject of television documentaries and an excellent study by the historian Liam Cahill.

However, it was April of the following year which produced the greatest contribution of the labour movement to the struggle for Irish independence, with a two day general strike which brought almost the entire island of Ireland to a standstill. It remains the most significant and well-observed general strike in Irish history.

The demand of the labour movement was for the release of prisoners and internees in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison, who had embarked on hunger strike in pursuit of political status, but the day demonstrated the power of organised labour unlike anything witnessed before. In quiet Irish towns, self-styled Soviets were established by workers and officials of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). 

In a period of just forty-eight hours, the strike had gone from an idea to a realisation, leading the Irish Trade Union Congress to gloat that ‘probably never has there been so sudden and dramatic a strike in the history of the Labour movement anywhere. Without previous warning the whole nation had responded.’ Reflecting on events in Ireland, the Manchester Guardian proclaimed that ‘it is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike.’

Ireland at War

The Irish War of Independence is popularly said to have begun at Soloheadbeg, Tipperary, on 21 January 1919. Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary transporting gelignite were ambushed by the Third Tipperary Brigade of what would become the Irish Republican Army. Yet the action was taken by a local unit acting of their own volition, at a time when the picture nationwide meant the republican movement was not yet in a position for a prolonged campaign. The flu influenza of 1919 would ultimately claim the lives of more British soldiers in Ireland than any republican campaign.

By 1920, things had changed significantly. Now, Ireland had a revolutionary parliament – Dáil Éireann – with a published Democratic Programme which affirmed that ‘the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation.’

The revolutionary Dáil was a one party parliament – consisting entirely of representatives of Sinn Féin, a party which drew support from across all social classes and which was concerned primarily with the question of Irish sovereignty. The Labour Party had stepped aside in the 1918 general election, allowing Sinn Féin a clear run in what became primarily a referendum on the question of Irish nationhood.

73 of 105 Irish seats were taken by Sinn Féin, in what one Royal Irish Constabulary observer described beautifully as ‘the triumph of the young over the old.’ Labour’s reward was the drafting of the Democratic Programme, a task which fell on party leader Thomas Johnson. A remarkable document, it remains contested just what – if anything – it meant to most of the Dáil’s parliamentarians, one later dismissing it famously as ‘mostly poetry.’

The Irish labour movement viewed the document not as a work of poetry, but as a concrete expression of what could be achieved in the revolutionary situation. The strength of the labour movement lay not in the Labour Party, but in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, a union which had been founded by Jim Larkin and James Connolly in 1909. By the time of the Irish revolution the union was explicitly syndicalist in outlook, insisting on the OBU (‘One Big Union’) as the vehicle of choice, as ‘with this machine in their possession the workers of Ireland can break all their chains with ease and from the mere rallying cry of political parties turn freedom into a glorious reality.’

With the growth of Dáil Éireann – strengthened by local elections in January 1920 which put many of Ireland’s local government structures into the hands of separatists – the Irish Republican Army also went from strength to strength, viewing itself as the armed force of an Irish Republic.

The opening months of 1920 witnessed coordinated attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks across the island of Ireland, the burning of income tax offices, the shooting dead of intelligence police officers on the streets of Dublin and, in response to all of this, the deployment of additional forces to support the beleaguered RIC, with the arrival of the so-called Black and Tans.

Utilising the draconian Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison reflected the unease of the authorities. Men,  many imprisoned without charge, found themselves in an increasingly crowded prison. When a hunger strike was launched on 5 April 1920, demanding political status, Irish labour was compelled to act.

To the Workers of Ireland

The hunger strike within the walls of the prison had an immediate effect on public feeling. In his memoir The Four Glorious Years, prisoner Frank Gallagher recounted the sporadic action of Dublin workers, to his mind, ‘the strike of a hundred men had become a city, a nation in revolt.’

It started in the most nationally-conscious sections: the railwaymen, the dockers, the grocers’ curates. Without warning, a thousand workers at Broadstone Railway Station downed tools, and leaving the outbound trains standing in the station, they went in a body to Mountjoy. From Inchicore the workers at the railway shops set out in a similar procession. Soon, the processions became marches. Banners and bands and tricolours brought brightness and music to those striding columns.

From the Catholic hierarchy came condemnation of the worsening situation inside the prison, with a statement saying it was their ‘solemn duty to call the attention of everyone concerned to the appalling tragedy that seems imminent in Mountjoy Prison.’

Sending the urgent need to act, a manifesto was issued by the leaders of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, following frantic meetings on the eleventh and twelfth of April. The decision was made to call a General Strike for the thirteenth, with an issued manifesto, addressed ‘TO THE WORKERS OF IRELAND’, insisting that:

You are called upon to act swiftly and suddenly to save a hundred dauntless men. At this hour their lives are hanging by a thread in a bastille. These men, for the greater part our fellow workers and comrades in our trade unions, have been forcibly taken from their homes and their families, and imprisoned without charge….

….As trade unionists, we have only one weapon left – general strike – a weapon that may be used but seldom and only in times of supreme crises.

The Day Ireland Stopped

With the exception of the northern industrial powerhouse of Belfast, Ireland came to a complete standstill on the day of the general strike. The Irish Independent newspaper, which only seven years earlier had poured total contempt on organised labour during the 1913 Lockout, now reported enthusiastically on the stand taken by the workers.

In Dublin, it was estimated that 1,500 tramway men were among the strikers, and the newspaper reported that ‘even business houses owned by Unionists were closed owing to their employees joining in the strike.’ The report from Waterford noted simply that ‘not a single man turned up to work.’

The strike had been brought about so suddenly that word of it had not reached more remote parts of rural Ireland until on the day, but tools were quickly downed. ‘Republican and red flags’ were a frequent feature of the rural demonstrations. Jim Connell’s The Red Flag was widely sung, as was Peadar Kearney’s The Soldier’s Song, which had been sung in battle in the Easter Rising and would later become Ireland’s national anthem as Amhrán na bhFiann.

Reports from regional branches of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union to Dublin headquarters paint a remarkable picture of how perfectly observed the strike was. From Tralee, County Kerry, came word that:

All organised labour responded. Meetings of protest were held. The Trades council was turned into a Workers Council who took full control of everything. We had our own police who kept order, saw that all business was suspended, issued permits for everything required. Pickets patrolled the streets. In fact the workers controlled all. Workers showed that they were highly organised and that they can carry out any orders at a moment’s notice.

The demand of the strike – for the release of the Mountjoy internees and prisoners – was not granted. On the following day, the industrial action continued. A remarkable feature of the contemporary press coverage of these events is the ever-present nature of the word Soviet.

Reporting from Waterford, the Freeman’s Journal carried an account that ‘the whole city… was taken over by a Soviet commissioner, who was in the employ of the railway, and three associates. The Sinn Féin Mayor abdicated and the Soviet took possession of the Town Hall… For two days, until the telegram arrived reporting the release of the hunger-strikers from Mountjoy Prison, the city was in the hands of these men.’

For the labour movement – and the Labour Party – in Britain, the events in Ireland could not be ignored. J.H Thomas, General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and elected M.P, was in Dublin at the time of the general strike. Addressing a thousand railwaymen in Dublin’s Lower Abbey Street at a meeting that was arranged before the strike, he nonetheless commended events, telling the ground that ‘I believe you Irishmen have given the greatest demonstration and manhood and true comradeship that it is possible to give.’

Late on the second day of the general strike came news of victory – the opening of the prison gates at Mountjoy, and the release of the imprisoned men. It was a remarkable victory for Irish labour, as historian Emmet O’Connor has rightly observed, ‘through prompted by a national issue, the strike uncovered the social revolutionary dynamic bubbling at the base of the movement.’

From General to Munitions Strike

April 1920 installed a new confidence in the rank and file of the labour movement in Ireland, but The Watchword of Labour, newspaper of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, struck a note of caution and expressed its hope for such action across the Irish sea:

A general strike in Ireland alone won’t bring freedom, and won’t even bring down a government. For an industrial object a general strike in Ireland won’t embarrass the British government over much. Its greatest value in this respect lies in the possibility of a concurrent movement across the water, upsetting a government and perhaps a social system.

Irish labour closely watched developments in Britain, and learned the lessons it could from industrial agitation there. In May 1920, East London dockers refused to load munitions on to the S.S. Jolly George, knowing they were intended to be used against the forces of the Russian revolution. Days later in the docks of Dublin, the same stand was taken in defence of the Irish revolution, and railwaymen quickly followed the lead of Dublin dockworkers.

This stand, captured brilliantly in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley,  was warmly applauded by the socialist leader John Maclean, who wrote that ‘Irishmen now refuse to supply the Army of Occupation with the ammunition that may be used to kill themselves when off industrial duty. This is surely the most sensible thing Irishmen have ever done in their history of toil and trouble.’ The munitions strike continued for several months, and greatly restricted the ability of the British armed forces to move material – and men – across the island of Ireland.

Overall, the Irish revolution, despite the active involvement of thousands of working-class trade unionists and even a workers’ militia in the form of the Irish Citizen Army, was concerned primarily with the achievement of Irish sovereignty. Social questions were a distant second to that goal.

Éamon de Valera, when asked on the relationship between the national and social movements in a time of revolution, was adamant that the national movement in Ireland ‘never made any promise to Labour, because while the enemy was within their gates the immediate question was to get possession of the country.’

Still, events like the April 1920 general strike are a reminder of the role of organised labour in the struggle for Irish nationhood. In Ireland’s on-going ‘Decade of Centenaries,’ the role of the working-class should not be forgotten.