The 1913 Dublin Lockout and its true legacy

Cillian Gillespie, Socialist Party Ireland

“Crushing Larkin: The Tycoon Who Saved Dublin From Anarchy”. That was the headline splashed across the front page of the September 2013 issue of Irish magazine Business Plus.

This magazine, a mouthpiece of Ireland’s capitalist class, is celebrating an individual who – along with most other Dublin bosses – attempted to starve 25,000 impoverished workers and their families for six months. This class has not lost the brutal callousness it displayed 100 years ago.

The tycoon in question was the notorious William Martin Murphy or “Murderer Murphy” as he became known among Dublin’s working class.

The article echoes much of the bile and slander levelled against Jim Larkin by that Murphy’s yellow press in 1913.

On 3 September that year Murphy convened a meeting of 404 Dublin bosses that demanded the city’s workers sign a pledge repudiating their membership or support for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), then led by Jim Larkin. Failure to do so meant they faced being locked out of their jobs.

Today, Ireland’s ruling class is once again waging a class war against workers and the unemployed, this time through a vicious programme of austerity and wage cuts.

Tragically, this is currently a one-sided war due to the cowardice and betrayal of the trade union leaders.

In recent debates and discussions on the anniversary of the lockout, trade union leaders have hypocritically claimed to hold to the traditions of the working men and women who courageously stood against Murphy and his cronies.

But today’s union leadership is light years removed from the real revolutionary socialist ideas of Larkin and James Connolly that laid the basis for building the Irish workers’ movement in the early years of the last century.

Growing workers’ movement

Jim Larkin, born in Liverpool of Irish parentage in 1874, arrived in Belfast as an organiser with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in January 1907.

The NUDL was one of the unions that emerged in Britain during the period of “new unionism” in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

This movement sought to break with the craft unionism of relatively privileged workers, to unionise unskilled, low-paid and casualised workers.

Larkin began to organise casualised dock workers in Belfast. The momentous dockers and carters strike that began in May 1907, which successfully united Protestant and Catholic workers in common struggle, was the highpoint of the movement.

Larkin came into increasing collision with the leadership of NUDL based around James Sexton. Eventually Larkin’s effective use of militant methods, such as the sympathy strike, resulted in his expulsion from the NUDL in late 1908.

In response, Larkin launched the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in early January 1909. The radical programme of the ITGWU stood for a retirement age of 60, the eight-hour day, universal suffrage for men and women, and the creation of an “industrial commonwealth”, a society where working class people would own and control the wealth they produced.

Membership of the ITGWU mushroomed from 3,000 members in 1909, to just under 30,000 members on the eve of the lockout.

All sections of the working class were involved in an explosive strike movement that led to the development of new unionism in Ireland among its mainly casualised and deeply exploited working class. In 1913 alone, 30 strikes took place in Dublin that resulted in wages rising by 20%.

In September 1911, the Irish Women’s Workers Union (IWWU) was launched in the aftermath of a strike in Jacob’s biscuit factory in Dublin by 3,000 of its mainly female workforce.

It was not only on the industrial front that the growth of the workers’ movement found its expression.

Launched in the same month as the IWWU, the Irish Worker paper – edited by Larkin – had an average weekly circulation of 20,000 and became the paper of the Dublin working class.

In May 1912, in a motion moved by Connolly and seconded by Larkin, a decision was made at the conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) to establish a Labour Party in Ireland.

Ireland’s capitalist class, headed by Murphy, watched with increasing trepidation the rapid growth of this new workers’ movement and the potential for socialist ideas to gain support among working class people.

In 1913, Dublin’s tenement slums had a death rate on a par with Calcutta and Moscow. Dublin’s rack-renting landlords, many of whom were also employers, profited considerably.

The lockout was a calculated decision to smash militant trade unionism and the potential emergence of a socialist movement in Ireland.

Lockout begins

In 1913, William Martin Murphy was the chief shareholder and director of the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC), the owner of Independent Newspapers, a major department store and the Imperial Hotel on Dublin’s O’Connell Street (then Sackville Street).

When it became clear that Larkin was seeking to unionise workers in Murphy’s business empire he sought to make a pre-emptive attack.

On Friday 15 August, 60 members of the ITGWU working in Independent newspapers were sacked. Immediately, newspaper boys from across the city refused to sell the Irish Independent and Evening Herald.

The following Tuesday, workers in the prominent Eason’s shop came out in solidarity action with the striking Independent workers.

Within the week Murphy sacked 200 members of the ITGWU working in the DUTC. Members of the union working for the company, who at this stage were in a minority, voted for strike action.

On the morning of Tuesday 26 August, drivers and conductors across the city abandoned their trams and grounded the entire service across Dublin to coincide with the beginning of the Horseshow in the plush surroundings of Ballsbridge, south of the city centre.

As the dispute escalated Murphy enlisted the support of Dublin Castle, then the headquarters of British rule in Ireland, to make sure the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) would be ready to clamp down on striking workers. Other elements of the capitalist state would soon come to Murphy’s assistance.

On Friday 29 August EJ Swifte, Dublin’s chief magistrate and a shareholder in DUTC, banned a union demonstration due to take place the following Sunday on Sackville Street.

Over that weekend the DMP, many of whom were drunk, went on a brutal rampage across Dublin to smash the growing revolt of Dublin’s working class with a “dictatorship of the truncheon”.

Tenements were raided. On Saturday 30 August two workers, James Nolan and John Byrne, were savagely beaten to death by the DMP on Dublin’s quays.

At 1pm the following day, workers gathered on Sackville Street to hear Larkin speak, as he had promised to do in spite of Swifte’s ban on the demonstration.

The DMP went on a ‘police riot’ and indiscriminately beat up union members and bystanders gathered on the street.

By the end of what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ over 500 were hospitalised by the thuggish repression of the DMP.

Solidarity from Britain

The Dublin lockout had an enormous impact on the outlook and consciousness of workers in Britain. It coincided with the period of “the great unrest”. 40 million days were lost in strike action in 1912.

Instinctively, the ranks of the British labour movement displayed enormous solidarity as the dispute developed.

This solidarity was reflected by the volume of money raised and food sent to alleviate the suffering that Dublin’s poor endured during the dispute. £150,000 – £10,000,000 in today’s money – was raised by trade unions and socialist organisations in Britain.

But key to winning would be industrial action by British workers themselves. The potential for such action to take place was indicated early on in the dispute when 14,000 transport workers in Liverpool and other British cities refused to handle goods that came from Dublin.

Later in the dispute workers in South Wales refused to handle coal that was destined for the city.

When Larkin was imprisoned at the end of October, an enormous outcry by workers in Britain forced the Liberal government to bring about his release after it suffered humiliating setbacks in three separate byelections.

Upon being released Larkin went on a speaking tour, his famous “Fiery Cross” tour, in all major cities in Britain with the explicit aim of directly appealing to workers over the heads of the British TUC leaders.

Tens of thousands came to hear him speak, showing the extent to which he and the struggle of the Dublin workers were a source of inspiration.

Church and state

At the end of October, with conditions worsening, two socialist supporters of the locked-out workers in Britain devised a scheme to send the strikers’ children over to homes of Britain’s labour movement members.

But “the kiddies scheme”, as it became known, was used by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to whip up a mood of sectarian hysteria by claiming it was an attempt to proselytise the children in non-Catholic’s homes.

Catholic priests and members of the sectarian Ancient Order of Hibernians organised mobs to confront parents and their children at train stations and ports on their way to England.

Combined with this, state repression became a feature throughout the dispute. Hundreds of workers were arrested and imprisoned and armed police terrorised workers on the streets and in their homes.

Scabs were legally armed by the bosses and were not afraid to open fire when confronted by strikers and their supporters.

Alice Brady, a 16 year old Jacobs’ worker, was tragically killed by one such scab on 18 December.

This repression led Connolly and Larkin to draw the conclusion that a workers’ defence force was needed.

On 23 November, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was founded at a Dublin City centre meeting. In the following weeks the ICA defended workers against violence from police and scabs.

Betrayal and end of dispute

Towards the end of November, the British TUC called a special conference for 9 December to nominally discuss the question of solidarity action with Dublin workers.

It was the first such conference to take place in the TUC’s history, indicating the pressure the leadership was coming under from the rank and file of the labour movement.

The conservative and reformist leadership of the TUC was not interested in taking the necessary steps to ‘blacken’ or refuse to handle all goods bound to and from Dublin and consequently bring the Dublin bosses to their knees.

In fact, some of them had condemned solidarity action taken by workers in Britain. They were fearful and suspicious of the revolutionary ideas of Larkin and Connolly, which meant engaging in an all out confrontation with the capitalist class.

None of the 9 December conference delegates were elected or mandated. They were mainly handpicked union officials.

In reality, it was a state-managed event that would betray the working class of Dublin. Rigged votes were heavily stacked against taking any meaningful action in Britain, a fatal blow that left the Dublin labour movement isolated.

On 18 January, the leadership of the ITGWU advised their members to go back to work on whatever terms they could get.

In the short term it was undoubtedly a significant setback for the union. But the bosses had failed to smash the union as an organised force.

The legacy of the dispute, in terms of the courage and resilience displayed by the workers of Dublin, would mean that the workers’ movement in Ireland would emerge as a much more powerful and cohesive force from 1917 to 1923. This was a period when socialist revolution was the order of the day in Ireland.

The lockout’s legacy today

Some sections of the capitalist establishment in Ireland have chosen a different tack than Business Plus when looking back at the events of the lockout.

They are astute enough to realise the respect in which the working class people of the 1913 lockout and their leaders are held among workers and young people today.

To mark the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’, an official state commemoration took place on O’Connell Street where a wreath was placed at the statue of Jim Larkin.

When seeing such a spectacle, James Connolly’s words come to mind: “The apostles for freedom are often crucified while living and sanctified while dead”.

This is certainly true of Connolly himself and of Jim Larkin. These two giants of the workers’ movement were guided by socialist ideas and the confidence that the working class could take ownership and control of the resources of society, and plan the economy according to human need.

At a time of deep capitalist crisis in Ireland and Europe, these ideas have never been more relevant.

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