This year, there has been much centenary focus on Ulysses, Joyce’s story of a single day in Dublin. It captured everyday life, and all of the excitement and mundanity one day on the calendar can bring. Reflecting on Irish literature in the centenary year of the 1913 Lockout, literary critic Eileen Battersy insisted that ‘If Ulysses is Dublin’s Odyssey, Strumpet City is Dublin’s Epic.’
James Plunkett, himself a committed Larkinite, captured the heroic nature of the 1913 story in Strumpet City, a work that solidified the place of trade unionist James Larkin in the popular consciousness of a people. To Plunkett, Larkin was the embodiment of a movement that was both political and cultural, and that was broadly known—both by its champions and critics—as Larkinism. In his memoir of youth he writes:
When Jim Larkin came to Dublin in 1908 he was 32 years of age. A handsome young man, tall and broad shouldered, with a commanding presence. His hat was dark and wide brimmed, and my mother remembers it being rumoured in those early days that he never removed it because he was the Anti-Christ and was obliged to hide a third eye that was set in the centre of his forehead.
The 1913 Lockout is often remembered, incorrectly, as a strike. Conscious of how history would recall events, the employers’ federation commissioned the journalist Arnold Wright to pen an account of the dispute, entitled Disturbed Dublin: The Story of the Great Strike of 1913-14. Such a title was no doubt deliberate; a strike is a course of action taken by workers in dispute. A lockout is a tactic of employers. Wright, like many who followed, was attempting to shift blame.
To Wright, the events in Dublin represented ‘the ignominious defeat of the attempt to establish a peculiarly pernicious form of Syndicalism on Irish soil’. Others viewed the events in Dublin differently. In the course of the dispute, Dublin would be visited by influential trade unionists including Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World, while George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Pankhurst and others would address public meetings in support of the workers.
Origin of a Conflict
Historically, many urban centres would come to be defined by their industries. If Manchester was once ‘Cottonopolis’, and Belfast ‘Linenopolis’, what was Dublin? Significantly, an absence of any strong industrial base meant that the largest body of workers in the city were general labourers, workers with a deeply precarious existence. This inconsistency of wage labour was a contributing factor to the dire housing conditions of the city, conditions which led one MP to declare in Westminster that ‘the magnitude of the blot on the capital city of Ireland amounts in itself to a national scandal…thousands of dens breeding tuberculosis.’
It was in Belfast, Ireland’s industrial capital, that the name of James Larkin first came to prominence in Ireland. Born in Liverpool’s Toxteth in 1874, the historian C. Desmond Greaves noted that the Liverpool Larkin grew up in was a ‘hotbed of Fenianism, and it would have been hard for Larkin to escape the nationalist influence’, but an equally important influence on Larkin’s political development was the docks he knew as a place of work. Active in the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), first as a member and later an organiser, he was dispatched to Belfast in 1907, succeeding in bringing out a wide section of the city’s working class in sympathy with striking dock workers. In a backhanded compliment of sorts, the General Secretary of the NUDL, James Sexton, would recount:
Jim Larkin crashed upon the British public with the devastating force and roar of a volcano exploding without even a preliminary wisp of smoke. He swept down upon us, indeed, with the startling suddenness of the eruption of Mount Pelee, and proportionally, his activities were hardly less serious in their results.
What troubled Sexton was not the passion of Larkin, but the tactics. Sympathetic strikes, the ‘blacking’ of goods which workers would refuse to handle, and the creation of a fraternal culture between skilled and unskilled workers had the hallmarks of a syndicalism Sexton feared. Larkin would depart not only Belfast, but the NUDL.
The Birth of Liberty Hall
Dublin may seem a curious city for a union organiser to turn their attention to, but for Larkin the very thing which many viewed as an obstacle was instead an opportunity. Larkin’s new union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), would organise among sections of the working class with no history in the organised labour movement, while also attracting others who were drawn by his militancy away from existing unions. There was an air of excitement about the union, leading to unprecedented strike action. In 1911, Dublin newsboys struck, demanding improved terms from the Irish Independent and other publications in the city. Organised labour also crept into other new terrains, with the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) created in September of the same year.
Central to Larkin’s vision was not just the organisation of workers across the lines of skilled and unskilled, but the creation of a new culture. Out of the decaying Northumberland Hotel on Dublin’s quayside came Liberty Hall, a home to the ITGWU and IWWU, but also the centre of this new counterculture. Of it, the Manchester Guardian would write that ‘no Labour headquarters in Europe has contributed so valuably to the brightening of the lives of the hard-driven workers around it…it is a hive of social life.’ There was theatre, sport, a marching band, and a sense of identity which led James Plunkett to write of how ‘those who previously had nothing with which to fill out the commonplace of drab days could now march in processions, wave torches, yell out songs.’
There was something of an inevitability to employers confronting Larkinism. The challenger would be William Martin Murphy, a former Home Rule MP, described by historian Pádraig Yeates as ‘Ireland’s leading Catholic nationalist businessman.’ Murphy would claim to have no issue with trade unionism per se, but to be hostile to Larkin’s brand of it. Another employer insisted that ‘if Larkin took a single ticket to Buenos Aires or Hong Kong we would not object to our men belonging to the Transport Union. What we object to is Larkinism, not legitimate trade unionism.’
There was much irony then in the course of action pursued by Dublin’s employers; to break the sympathetic strike, they relied on the sympathetic lockout. Murphy would take the lead, but he succeeded in convincing other employers to terminate the employment of any worker who was a member of the ITGWU or the IWWU. It began when Murphy removed forty men and twenty boys from the delivery offices of the Irish Independent on 15 August. Soon, 404 employers declared war on twenty thousand workers.
The Citizen Army
With the assurances of Dublin Castle that the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police would be supportive if he confronted Larkinism, Murphy felt confident in moving against the union. In the early days of the industrial conflict, the brutal reality of what that support meant revealed itself on Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, when a combined force of police moved in against a crowd which had gathered to hear Larkin speak. Many of those injured in the baton charges, which came simultaneously from different directions, were not even members of the union.
That date, 31 August 1913, would enter Irish history as the first Bloody Sunday of a century that would bring more. From a vantage point overlooking the street, the photographer Joseph Cashman would capture the chaos of the moment, in one of the defining images of the revolutionary period. The Daily Herald did not hold back: ‘Crown Cossacks bludgeon strikers, women and children alike. Irish bosses write in blood.’
Such police violence was the catalyst for the formation of a workers’ defence corps, the Irish Citizen Army. For workers to organise themselves in self-defence against police violence was not new, but the Citizen Army was a unique body, emerging not only from the existing class conflict but the broader revolutionary atmosphere of Ireland, where Ulster loyalists had introduced the gun into twentieth-century Irish politics with the birth of the Ulster Volunteer Force. ITGWU official James Connolly, later to lead the union, asked ‘why should we not drill and train men as they are doing in Ulster?’ The constitution of the Citizen Army would insist that ‘the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.’
For nationalist Ireland, the dispute raised interesting questions. For Patrick Henry Pearse, later a signatory of the 1916 proclamation, the dispute forced an evaluation of the economic realities of the city, and the grim realities of life for many:
I do not know whether the methods of Mr James Larkin are wise methods or unwise methods (unwise, I think, in some respects) but this I know, that here is a most hideous thing to be righted and that the man who attempts honestly to right it is a good man and a brave man.
Others viewed Larkinism, with its internationalist language and appeal to class politics—dividing Irishmen into rival camps—as a threat. To Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith, deeply suspicious of Larkin’s fraternalising with British organised labour, ‘Larkinism was disastrous to national progress.’
There were moments of heroism in the Lockout story. The generosity of ordinary British trade unionists, and the assistance provided with the arrival of the foodship SS Hare onto Dublin’s Sir John Rogerson Quay, was never forgotten. When Keir Hardie passed in 1915, James Connolly wrote of how ‘when the vultures of capital descended upon Dublin, resolved to make Dublin the grave of the new unionism, James Keir Hardie was one of the first to take his stand in the gap of danger by our sides.’
In a time when the debate of Irish Home Rule was raging, huge crowds would attend rallies in Manchester, Liverpool and beyond in the winter of 1913. Larkin’s appeal to the Trade Union Congress for a General Strike in sympathy with the Dublin workers fell on deaf ears at a leadership level, Yeates noting ‘far from winning support for his position, Larkin’s tornado of meetings throughout Britain was increasing his isolation from the mainstream labour movement.’ Robert Williams of the National Transport Workers’ Federation perhaps embodied the feelings of many, who felt that ‘it would be idle to pretend that, deplorable as are the conditions in the city of Dublin, our own conditions are in any way satisfactory.’
By 18 January 1914, the position was untenable, with Larkin and the ITGWU advising workers to return to work on the best terms available. In subsequent days and weeks, the men and women of the ITGWU and IWWU were seeking to open doors that employers had closed to them months earlier. Many succeeded in returning to work without signing the pledge to leave the union, and the Citizen Army remained an organised force.
Reflecting on the state of play in the later months of 1914, James Connolly would insist:
From the effects of this drawn battle both sides are still bearing heavy scars. How deep those scars are, none will ever reveal. But the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of the hope in the ultimate triumph.
Many workers felt it more a defeat than a drawn battle, but the Lockout experience did install a class consciousness into revolutionary Irish society. It is Larkin who stands in O’Connell Street today, a monument which includes the borrowed words of the French revolution: ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.’