Archive for March 2013

Not simply a dispute about union recognition

March 4, 2013

This the speech given by Brian Hanley to the Sinn Fein conference, in Dublin on March 2nd 2013, about The Lock Out


Over the weekend of 30-31 August 1913, a few days into what was to become a five month long struggle, the Dublin Metropolitan Police ran amok across inner-city Dublin, attacking strikers and their supporters. Two men died after being batoned, hundreds were injured and many tenement homes were wrecked in vindictive police raids.

This is how one newspaper interpreted these events: ‘into these thoroughfares there have poured all the foul reserves of the slums, human beings whom life in the most darksome depths of a great city has deprived of most of the characteristics of civilization. In the majority of instances they are beings whose career is generally a prolonged debauch, seldom broken by the call of labour. Even when sheer necessity compels toil, it is undertaken unwillingly and merely to obtain the means to enable another spell of besotted idleness. They are essentially birds of night, and foul birds at that.’ That newspaper was the Irish Catholic.

Similar language was used by the Irish Independent, which accused ‘jail birds’ from the ‘reeking slums’ of seeking to impose a ‘reign of ruffianism’ in the city. The Irish Times too, deplored the ‘orgy of lawlessness and cowardly crime.’ A priest who gave evidence at the inquiry into the violence described how women and children of a ‘degraded class’ had behaved like ‘frenzied lunatics’ and asserted that the ‘behaviour of the Police was the only redeeming feature of what was for a Dublin citizen a really humiliating and disgusting spectacle.’


The use of this language helps illustrate the key issue at stake in 1913. This was not simply a dispute about union recognition but about CLASS and POWER: which class would dominate self-governing Ireland: the assumption being that Dublin was soon to have its own parliament and Ireland, Home Rule at last.

The 400 Dublin employers were led by William Martin Murphy and that in itself was significant: a devout Catholic and a nationalist, Murphy was leading a Dublin business class that was still largely Protestant. Having made his fortune in railway building, by 1913 he owned the Dublin United Tramway Company, the Imperial and Metropole hotels and Clery’s department store. Murphy also controlled several newspapers, most notably the Irish Independent.

When Unionists asserted that nationalists would never be able to manage a modern economy, Murphy was held up in answer. Murphy claimed he was not anti-union. Indeed many of the Dublin employers were prepared to deal with craft unions- but they absolutely opposed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Murphy was shocked that what he saw as respectable workers in his Tramway company would want to join forces with what he termed ‘scum’ like James Larkin.

In contrast to the sometimes elitist craft unions Larkin explained how ‘we advocate one society for skilled and unskilled workers, so that when a skilled man is struck at, out comes the unskilled man, and when an unskilled worker is struck at, he will be supported by the skilled tradesman.’ The One Big Union: no isolation of a quarrel.


Employers opposed the Transport Union because it was effective. Observers noted that the ITGWU had ‘considerably raised the wages of the various sections of industry that it organised.’ The union had also ‘brought hope to thousands of lower paid workers by adopting a very aggressive policy extending the use of the sympathetic strike.’

Its popularity was not simply due to industrial muscle. The ITGWU held out a vision of a new world to Dublin’s poorest, in a city with the worst poverty in the then United Kingdom. Even the employer’s historian of the Lock out admitted that ‘the Gothic pinnacles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral look directly down upon the quarter of the Coombe where the degradation of human kind is carried to a point of abjectness beyond that reached in any city of the Western world, save perhaps Naples.’

Through the Irish Worker newspaper, (which sold over 20,000 copies a week) and through the union’s social and cultural activities. Dublin’s workers were given a vision of a new world. The ITGWU gave self-respect, a sense of pride, in a society in which Dublin’s unskilled were looked down on by the upper classes, often despised by the middle class and sometimes derided by cultural nationalists for their supposed lack of Irishness.

By August 1913 the ITGWU had begun to expand its membership into more established sectors of the Dublin workforce, such as Murphy’s tram company, and the employers had decided to crush it at all costs. By September over 20,000 workers were on strike or locked out.


Over the next five months practical solidarity came from ordinary workers across Ireland and Britain: the first shipment of 60,000 food parcels from British trade unionists arrived in September. Radical republicans such as Tom Clarke and some writers and artists also expressed their support.

But the mass of middle-class opinion, both nationalist and unionist, opposed the workers. In the press Larkin was demonized as a foreign troublemaker, an Englishman and even a ‘Liverpool Orangeman.’ The Catholic Church feared ‘Godless’ Larkinism’. Nationalist MP John Dillon described Larkin was ‘a very dangerous enemy to Home Rule.’ Even Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith, while not supportive of the employers saw Larkinism as a diversion from separatism and opposed accepting support from British trade unionists.

The Lock out was ultimately defeated and defeats should not be romanticized. There will be a temptation for some to remember 1913 this year, feel they have done their bit for labour history and then move on to other commemorations. But Irish labour history did not end in 1913: the general strikes, workplace occupations and revolts of the 1918-23 period should be commemorated as well. Despite sometimes heroic solidarity, it is also important to remember that Dublin’s workers were also divided in 1913: in terms of craft, between skilled and unskilled; men and women; Catholic and Protestant.

Even the most progressive trade unionists accepted many of the prejudices of their day. When Mary Ellen Murphy, a teenage striker at Jacobs, was placed in a reformatory in Drumcondra, next to a Magdalene asylum, both Larkin and James Connolly called for her release on the basis that this innocent and ‘pure’ young girl could be corrupted by the company of ‘fallen women.’ Divisions even within the poor….

Today private sector workers are pitted against public: employed against unemployed: native Irish against immigrant: settled against Traveller: and in the North, still, Protestant against Catholic. Our press continues to be controlled by a handful of wealthy individuals: it is probable that today Murphy would be lauded as the type of man we need to help make ‘Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business’ (though to be fair to Murphy he did not reside for tax reasons in Malta).

not over

Commentators compete to tell the low-paid that they no longer need trade unions and that ‘austerity is working’. The localities at the centre of the Lock out, Dublin’s north and south inner cities, remain among Ireland’s poorest: the people who live in them often still stigmatized- sometimes in similar terms to those used in 1913. So then, a lot of unfinished business.