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The Dublin lockout of 1913

The Dublin lockout is an important part of working class history, but there are few accessible sources of information. We review a new book which puts this right

Perhaps only those who have taken a particular interest in the history of the workers' movement in Britain will have heard of the Dublin lockout of 1913 and then maybe will only know what happened in general terms, for instance that the workers' leader was called Larkin and that mobs led by Catholic priests prevented workers sending their children to the rest of Britain for the duration of the dispute. Up to now the most accessible source of information about it has been James Plunkett's 1969 novel Strumpet City but that was a novel. Now Irish Times journalist Padraig Yeates has produced a 600-page account, based on original contemporary sources, called simply Lockout: Dublin 1913 (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 19.04 euro). It is an important contribution to working class history, especially as the events in Dublin in 1913 and 1914 raise general issues concerning trade unionism, nationalism, and the role of religion.

Ireland in 1913 was in the midst of yet another Home Rule crisis. A Liberal government was trying for a third time to bring in Home Rule for Ireland in the form of a parliament which would have certain powers within the United Kingdom and the British Empire. The Unionists in Ulster, supported and egged on by the Tory opposition, were mobilising to resist coming under the control of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin.

One revealing aspect of Yeates's book is how the socialist analysis of the Irish Home Rule crises has now become the standard view. We have always attributed the conflict in Ireland between Nationalists and Unionists to a split between two sections of the capitalist class there whose vital interests differred: the developed industrial capitalists of the North who were an integral part of the overall British capitalist class and who wanted to remain a full part of the UK so as to have continued free access to the markets of Britain and its Empire, and the fledgling capitalists of the rest of Ireland who wanted protection from the competition of British products behind a tariff wall. To win popular support for their respective positions the Northern capitalists played the Orange card while the other side played the Catholic card. Hence what was essentially a split in the capitalist class in Ireland appeared as a religious conflict between protestants and catholics.

Yeates takes this for granted and accepts that Irish nationalism was essentially the nationalism of the rising Catholic "middle class" (in the 19th century sense of small business and professional people). One of these was the leading Irish businessman, William Martin Murphy, who was a central figure in the Dublin lockout. The chairman of the company that ran the Dublin trams and owner of the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and the Evening Herald, he had been an Irish Party MP on the anti-Parnellite wing, i. e., the wing that was particularly influenced by the Catholic Church which had enjoined the Irish Party MPs to disown Parnell because on his affair with a married woman.

Murphy, Yeates tells us, "saw home rule less as an opportunity to seize the levers of state power and patronage than as a chance to develop Irish industry. His increasing criticism of Redmond's leadership of the Irish Party had less to do with the fact that Redmond had been a Parnellite than with his inability to gain greater fiscal powers from the Liberals for the proposed home rule parliament" (pp. 4-5).

However, it was not in his capacity as a Nationalist politician that Murphy has earned his notoriety in British and Irish working-class history. It was as the leader of the Dublin employers (most of the bigger ones in fact were not Nationalists but protestants and Unionists). But it did show that workers in Ireland could expect no charge in their condition from a Home Rule – or even an independent – government.

Syndicalism
The whole affair started in July when James Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (and he was a leader with followers, even if he could still be described as a working-class fighter), decided to organise the Dublin tramway workers. Murphy replied by sacking members of the union. The union then got its other members to black the Dublin tram company. It also organised a big protest demonstration in the centre of Dublin on 31 August, which the government banned and which turned into a police riot in which many passers-by were beaten up – yet another bloody Sunday. Murphy's next move was to get the Dublin employers to agree to require their workers to sign a form stating that they would have nothing to do with the ITGWU; those who refused were sacked, in effect locked out.

Larkin was what was called at the time a "syndicalist", which meant someone who believed that the way forward for workers was combined industrial action on the basis of "an injury to one is an injury to all". In practice it meant that other workers – ideally, all other workers – should take action in support of any group of workers on strike by blacking goods produced by or supplied to their employers – the "sympathetic strike".

People who call themselves syndicalists today tend to be doctrinaire anarcho-syndicalists who repudiate any form of political action and rely on strikes only, including one big final general strike to overthrow capitalism. Larkin and the others were not so doctrinaire; in fact Larkin himself had been elected as a Labour councillor to Dublin City Council in 1910 (but had been disqualified because of a previous criminal conviction). Their position was well summed up by Tom Mann, the most prominent English syndicalist of the time (and former member of the Socialist League and future member of the Communist Party) in a speech he gave to the locked-out workers in Dublin on 27 January 1914, as written up by Yeates quoting a contemporary report:

"'trades unionism is syndicalism'. His object was 'to combine all workers in each industry, to raise them all nationally and internationally, so as to take over control of the whole economic system.' In that way the proletariat 'could fix the number of working days, the abolition of employers, capitalists and government--which latter is only a functionary of the employers.' The 'ideal of the co-operative commonwealth will be realised'" (p. 531).

This was all very well in theory but to be effective it would require a very high degree of class consciousness, so high in fact that, if it existed, workers would be in a position to take direct political action to end capitalism. The syndicalists, however, advocated the use of this tactic by workers who were not fully class-conscious, i. e., not socialist-minded and who still thought in sectional rather than class terms, and while leaving the state in the hands of the representatives of the capitalist class. Another factor working against its success was that under capitalism the employers always have the whiphand. If they so choose they can, because they own so much wealth, always break any strike by starving the workers back to work. This was in fact the choice of the Dublin employers in 1913. Murphy had already insolently, but unfortunately pertinently, reminded his workers of this when he addressed them in July right at the beginning of the dispute:

"Murphy told the tramway men that the company's shareholders 'will have three meals a day', whether the strike succeeded or not. 'I don't know if the men who go out can count on this'" (p. 7).

Faced with this tactic by the employers of trying to starve into submission the workers in the ITGWU and those in other unions that had taken action to support them, a sympathetic strike by British transport workers (seamen, railwaymen, dockers) was one option. This was what Larkin favoured. Another option was to enable the workers to hold out longer by providing them with food and/or money. This was the option the TUC chose, and unions and union members contributed considerable amounts of food (carried to Dublin in specially freighted ships) and money. Yeates estimates this at the equivalent today of 10 million Irish pounds (12.5 million euro or £8 million sterling), an impressive display of working-class solidarity, and it did allow the workers to hold out until the end of January 1914.

The Catholic Church
Another initiative in this sense, not from the TUC but from individuals sympathetic to the Dublin workers, was to lodge Dublin workers' children with sympathisers in England and Scotland while the dispute lasted. This seemed a reasonable tactic, but when they heard of it the Catholic Church went ape. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh (who was an Irish Nationalist and had also been one of those who had instigated the campaign to topple Parnell) immediately issued a statement condemning this as a danger to the children's souls. This was the green light for the most outrageous actions by his priests. Screaming mobs led by priests stopped the children going. The Irish Catholic wrote about protecting "the children whom degraded and dissolute parents would fain surrender to Socialism or to any other Satanic influence" (p. 321).

One of the few to denounce the Catholic Church's stance on this issue was the poet W. B. Yeats who declared at a public meeting "some day we will have to reckon with those who have fomented fanaticism in Dublin to break up the organisation of the workers" (p. 297).

Both Larkin and James Connolly, the IGTWU's Belfast organiser who had been called to Dublin to help, were practising Catholics who claimed, contrary to all the evidence, that Socialism and Catholicism were not incompatible. Yeates quotes from a sermon given on 12 September by Father John Condon, a leading Dublin theologian of the time, which raises the intriguing question of what Larkin and Connolly were told when they went to confession:

"I have to tell you, beloved brethren, that the word Socialism connotes a body of doctrine which no Catholic who values his faith can accept; and I say further, that the Catholic who, with his eyes open, gives his sympathy and support to the methods and aims of Socialism is a recreant to his creed" (p. 157).

Archbishop Walsh, addressing a meeting of the St Vincent de Paul Society on 27 October, took up an even worse position preaching that only faith in God providing a better life in heaven could make the poor happy ("pie in the sky when you die"), a reminder of one important reason why socialists oppose religion:

"he dismissed outright the belief of Larkin and his fellow-socialists that the poor could save themselves by some form of social revolution. He believed that happiness was possible in this urban hell only for those willing to accept their lot; 'holidays' in England would make the attainment of that spiritual goal far more difficult" (p. 313).

Larkin, to give him his due, told the priests not to interfere. Connolly, too, had replied, in his pamphlet Labour, Nationality and Religion, to an attack on socialism by a Jesuit priest, Father Kane, in his 1910 "Lenten Discourses". Father Kane, incidentally, had evidently read some SPGB publication as Connolly quotes him as saying at one point: "Now, as to the Socialist system. In the official declaration of the English Socialists we read – the object of Socialism is 'the establishment of a system of society, based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by, and in the interests of the whole community'".

The Irish Nationalists
The Irish Nationalists and Home Rulers were no more favourable to the workers. Some denounced the aid given by the TUC as "English charity" and even hinted that it was intended to further disadvantage Irish industry by raising wages so as to make it less competitive with English industry. One of these was Arthur Griffith, the narrow-minded founding member and theoretician of Sinn Fein, who, records Yeates, felt that "British trade unionists were exploiting the lockout to undermine Irish business" (p. 353). He also attacked in article in Sinn Fein on 25 October the view that "Capitalism not England is the enemy" by claiming:

"Not Capitalism, but the abuse of Capitalism oppresses Labour . . . Not in the destruction of the Capitalist, but in his subjection to the law of the State, interpreting the conscience and the interests of the Nation, will Labour be delivered from its oppression and restored to all its rights. I affirm that the evils of the social system, as they exist in this country and in Great Britain, are wholly due to English policy and Government . . ." (p. 354).

Fellow narrow nationalist and later Irish Republican hero and martyr, Patrick Pearse, took up a similar position, stating that he believed that "the root of the matter [dire and desperate poverty] lies in foreign domination" (p. 221).

In fact, there weren't many who were actually saying (correctly) that "Capitalism not England is the enemy". Connolly, who by now was well on the way to becoming a physical force republican (and, like Pearse, a future republican hero and martyr), argued in effect that "Capitalism and England are the enemy". Larkin wouldn't have disagreed but his approach was more down-to-earth: "Home Rule does not put a loaf in anybody's pocket" (p. 181); Redmond (leader of the Irish Party) and Carson (leader of the Ulster Unionists) were "both simply the mouthpieces of the capitalist class" (p. 254); "Home rule would 'clear the decks for the workers'" (p. 272).

That's about all it did. In 1921 Ireland – or 26 of its 32 counties – did get an independence of sorts but capitalism remained—and so, as predicted by socialists, did its problems. The facts themselves – the continuing dire and desperate poverty, unemployment, emigration, slums, and ill-health – were to confirm that it was indeed not "English rule" or "foreign domination", but capitalism, that had been the cause of the problems the workers in Ireland had had to face in 1913, 1914 and before.

The sympathetic strike – or rather the resistance to the lockout – ended in failure at the end of January in face of the intransigence of the employers and after the TUC had decided it could no longer afford to continue sending food and money. Larkin advised his members to go back while still refusing to sign the anti-union form. The employers took most but by no means all of them back but didn't insist they sign the form.

Larkin blamed the TUC for not having called a general sympathetic strike of transport workers in Britain. Maybe this would have made the employers bend a little, by perhaps getting them to offer a "no victimisation" clause, i. e., the restoration of the status quo before the dispute. Which could hardly be called a victory. Basically, however, the reason for the failure was that the "syndicalist" tactic wasn't as effective as its advocates imagined.