The Dublin Lockout 100 Years On

Original design for 107 Cowgate by @IsMiseMick
Original design for 107 Cowgate by @IsMiseMick

This article first appeared in November’s edition of The Irish Voice and can be viewed at their website here.

By Jim Slaven

‘This struggle would be the Irish Armageddon between Capital and Labour’.
-Sean O’Casey

100 years ago Dublin was in the middle of the Ireland’s greatest ever industrial dispute. In fact it could be argued that the 1913 Lockout was the most momentous struggle between Labour and Capital on these islands. At the beginning of the twentieth century industrial strife was sweeping Europe. While many of the centenary events have portrayed the Lockout as just another strike during what was undoubtedly tumultuous times, the significance of the lockout lies in its relevance today. The sheer scale, at one point involving 20,000 workers, and uncompromising ferocity of the dispute shook Irish society and the political ramification shook the British Empire to its core.

Both sides were led by huge political figures, individuals who in many ways still cast a shadow over Irish society. The workers leaders, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, were both remarkable men and remarkably successful union organisers. Working together these two men, one born in Edinburgh and one in Liverpool, had combined there contrasting skills (and personalities) to build the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Larkin was a renowned orator, able to assemble and inspire huge crowds, he was feared and despised by bosses across Ireland. Connolly was the self educated Marxist theoretician and political philosopher. Connolly was also a playwright and songwriter and during the 1913 Lockout wrote his workers anthem ‘The Watchword of Labour’.

Then send it aloft on the breeze, boys,
The slogan the grandest we’ve known,
That labour must rise from its knees, boys,
And claim the broad earth as its own.

Facing them over the barricades was an equally determined and motivated foe in the form of William Martin Murphy. Owner of many businesses including Dublin Tramways and several newspapers who spewed out anti union propaganda relentlessly. William Martin Murphy was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, immensely powerful and immensely class-conscious.

Dublin in 1913 was a city of incredible poverty. A death rate matching that of Calcutta and the vast majority of unskilled workers living in overcrowded tenements lacking proper sanitation and ridden with disease. Despite these conditions Connolly and Larkin’s ITGWU had been steadily growing which led to increased class-consciousness among the working class and a demand for better conditions at home and at work. As Patrick Kavanagh set out in a poem first published in The Bell, then edited by Peader O’Donnell, in 1947.

And Tyranny trampled them in Dublin’s gutter
Until Jim Larkin came along and cried
The call of Freedom and the call of Pride
And Slavery crept to its hands and knees
And Nineteen Thirteen cheered from out the utter
Degradation of their miseries

In August 1913 Murphy decided he had to act, declaring:

‘We certainly shall prevent any man in our service using threats and intimidation against any other man to force him to join the association. We have given authority to the manager to summarily dismiss any man who is guilty of that conduct, and he can go to Mr. Larkin for his pay.’

Cowgate Originals John MacLean Soviet stamp design T-Shirt now available at 107 Cowgate.
Cowgate Originals John MacLean Soviet stamp design T-Shirt now available at 107 Cowgate.

On 19th August he fired all unionised staff at his Irish Independent newspaper and then did the same at his Dublin Tramway Company. A week later 700 tram drivers and conductors went on strike in solidarity with their ITGWU colleagues. In retaliation Murphy locked out workers from his various businesses throughout Dublin. The Great Lockout of 1913 had begun. The British state moved quickly to back Murphy charging Connolly and Larkin with sedition. Larkin was bailed on condition he had nothing more to do with the dispute. Larkin promptly ignored this court order and addressed a rally in O’Connell street from a hotel balcony. In an event which became known as Bloody Sunday the British police attacked the rally and following running battles two striking workers (James Nolan and John Byrne) were left dead. Understanding that the only people who could protect workers from such abuse from the British state was the workers themselves Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army. This workers army is recognised as the first of its kind in the world.

The day after Bloody Sunday Larkin was again arrested and refused bail. This meant he could not attend the funerals of the dead strikers. On the day of one of those funerals, James Nolan’s, the Employers Federation backed Murphy and declared a general lockout involving over 400 companies that left 20,000 workers locked out. Nolan’s funeral was led by Scotsman James Keir Hardie and during the oration he clearly outlined the nature of the enemy.

‘The power of Landlordism has been broken. Absentee landordism has been wiped out, and now a new power of evil has grown up in our midst- the power of Capitalism. Here you have one man in Dublin owning your tramways, with shares in all kinds of public works, and that man is to you what the landlords of old were to your fathers. He has the power over you.’

Recognising the need for solidarity Connolly and Larkin embarked on a series of speaking tours throughout Scotland, England and Wales. Workers rallied to the cause of the striking workers in Dublin by sending food to those the bosses in Dublin were trying to starve into accepting a non union pledge. Unofficial action spread as workers refused to be complicit in the Lockout. Liverpool dockers were sacked for refusing to deal with cargo from Dublin. In solidarity with them 10,000 rail workers went on strike.

Sadly the British union bureaucracy was somewhat less supportive and refused to call out their workers in solidarity. Despite repeated calls for them to intervene on the side of the strikers the TUC refused and offered only to ‘mediate’ between the Larkin and Murphy. In December 1913 the TUC voted not to call a strike in solidarity with the striking workers in Dublin. With the ITGWU nearly broke and with an increased number of scabs arriving from England on January 1914 the union told their members to return to work.

Following the defeat and in the midst of the despondency around him Connolly was crystal clear in his thinking and certain where responsibility for the workers defeat lay.

‘Sufficient to say that the working class unity of the first days of the Dublin fight was sacrificed in the interests of sectional officialism. The officials failed to grasp the opportunity offered to them to make a permanent reality of the union of working class forces brought into being by the spectacle of rebellion, martyrdom and misery exhibited by the workers of Dublin. But sectionalism, intrigues and old-time jealousies damned us in the hour of victory’

The significance of the 1913 Lockout lies not in the names and dates but in the politics. If, as many have recently tried to do, you strip out the politics from the dispute its meaning becomes obscured. Following the defeat of the workers Ireland was on the path to revolution. Connolly recognised that only when the Irish people can determine their own future, without outside interference or impediment, can Ireland’s workers be free. Patrick Pearse recognised that any national revolution must have a social dimension. Out of the ashes of the Lockout arose the Easter Rising.

And what of the key players in the Lockout? History has not been kind to William Martin Murphy. Over the last century he has consistently been correctly identified as the villain of the piece. Despite recent attempts to rehabilitate his reputation. Jim Larkin was left physically and psychologically broken by the workers defeat and left Ireland a few months after the Lockout ended and did not return to Ireland for nearly ten years. As we know Connolly went on to lead the Irish Citizen Army into the Easter Rising and following his execution he took his place next to Pearse’s Zeus in the pantheon of republican martyrs.

Larkin watched the Irish revolution from the United States and on St Patrick’s day 1918 he established a James Connolly Socialist Club in New York in honour of his old comrade. One of the first speakers to address the Connolly Club was John Reed, who had only recently returned from Moscow. Reed gave a first hand account of the Bolshevik revolution and its leading figures. James Connolly would surely have approved.

As is often wise the last word must go to that famous son of Dublin, Brendan Behan, who wrote his poem, Jim Larkin, after attending Larkin’s funeral in 1947.

Following the coffin through the city’s open mouth last night,
Was it we ourselves in the coffin?
No; we were in the street marching,
The living grateful to the dead.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s