by Patrick Nulty
Trade Unionism and organised Labour movements did not really emerge until the late nineteenth century in Ireland. Craft Unions had on the other hand existed in Ireland in one form or another for almost one hundred and fifty years. These Unions were however, only open to skilled workers like carpenters and coopers. As a result of this only 17,500 workers’ were members of a Trade Union most of whom were skilled craftsmen.
There were a number of reasons for this slow progress in increasing Union members. First of all, Ireland was primarily a rural society and the plight of ordinary people in the towns and cities was not on the political agenda of either Nationalist or Unionist political parties. If you chose to join a Trade Union you were usually risking your job and because the State had no system of Social Welfare you were also risking the health and safety of your family.
At the same time Irish Trade Union activists felt neglected by their British counterparts and “in 1894 they founded their own Trade Union Congress that, by 1900, represented about 60,000 workers” . The plight of ordinary manual workers’ at this time was dreadful. One source comments “The death rate in Dublin, 27.6 per 1000 was as high as Calcutta’s” . Wage rates were also low with thousands of workers’ earning as little as seventy pence a week for a seventy-hour week. Women’s wages were even lower at twenty-five pence per week. One man who was to play a major role in the Irish Trade Union movement came to prominence in Belfast; his name was James Larkin.
James Larkin was the son of an Irish immigrant and was born in Liverpool in 1876. He lived in very poor conditions and was forced to leave school at 11 to work. Larkin joined the National Union of Dockworkers’ and as a result of the education he received at home from his parents became a strong advocate for Socialist ideas. “From the poverty and hardship he saw around him in Liverpool he became a firm believer in Socialism and Trade Unionism from an early age” . Larkin was a great public speaker and rose through the ranks of the Union movement rapidly. He was promoted to the position of paid organiser for the National Union of dockworkers in 1906.
In 1907 Larkin was sent to Belfast to organise dockers there. In Belfast there had been a particular problem about the importation of ‘blackleg’ labour from England. Larkin began to tackle this by actively campaigning for better pay and working conditions. He persuaded the carpenters, coalmen and even the police to join the dockers. Soldiers were brought in to do police duties. In Belfast Larkin managed to unite Catholics and Protestants against a common enemy i.e. the employers’. This was something which neither the British Government or Irish Nationalists had ever achieved. English workers’ who had been subsidising this constant Industrial unrest soon became annoyed at the massive costs involved in maintaining Strike action. AS a result Larkin was suspended from his job in the Dockers’ Union. He moved to Dublin in 1909 and immediately set up his own Union the I.T.G.W.U.
After a slow start the Union started to flourish due mainly to Larkin’s success in getting large wage increases for workers’ in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. The return of James Connolly from America also gave the Union a more advanced political analysis in Socialist concepts like Syndicalism ( A belief in creating large Unions where workers’ would engage in sympathetic strikes leading eventually to a general strike which would overthrow Capitalism ). “As a result of all this, the membership of the ITGWU grew from 4,000 in 1911 to 10,000 by 1913” .
Employers became very worried about developments in Ireland and under the stewardship of William Martin Murphy (A successful businessman who owned Independent newspapers) they began to fight back. Murphy opposed Larkin’s policy of syndicalism (A belief in creating large Unions where workers’ would engage in sympathetic strikes leading eventually to a general strike which would overthrow Capitalism) and was determined to face Larkin down. This dispute and the personnel antagonism between the two men were largely responsible for the events, which followed in 1913. The Dublin United Tramway Company owned by Murphy began to sack I.T.G.W.U. members. Murphy insisted that all employees must sign a pledge not to join Larkin’s Union. On August 21st 1913 Murphy ordered the sacking of 200 tramworkers who were I.T.G.W.U. members a move which angered Larkin. Five days later seven hundred members of the Tram Company went on strike in sympathy with the sacked workers’ leaving Dublin transport crippled. The crisis escalated when Larkin also told his members not to handle any of Murphy’s goods. Murphy told the employers to lockout all Union members until they signed a pledge not to strike. Murphy hoped to starve the workers into submission and in so doing destroy the Union movement.
The police banned a rally for the workers in Dublin’s City centre but Larkin pressed ahead. He entered the Imperial Hotel in a disguise and addressed the crowd from the balcony for only a minute before he was arrested. The police reacted by attacking the crowd. Four hundred and fifty people were injured and one man died. The event became known as bloody Sunday. From this point on the situation began to deteriorate. “By September over 25,000 men in around Dublin were out of work” .
After the arrest of Larkin, James Connolly (who had been campaigning on behalf of the strikers in England) took control of the dispute. Violence became more and more frequent and people like ” Alice Brady while walking quietly homewards with her strike allowance of food, was shot by a scab with a revolver placed in his hands by an employer” . As the striking worker’s received little or no protection from the police Connolly set up the Irish Citizen Army to fight back. They were trained by Captain James White an Ulster Protestant. The involvement of James White showed that the cause of the striking workers’ was an issue which could unite people of various cultural and political backgrounds. The I.C.A. had limited resources and so White was only able to train them with a Hurley. Other weapons were for the large part unavailable. The playwright Sean O’Casey also played a major role in recruiting members because of the influence he had on ordinary Irish people due to the success of his plays and other artistic acheivements.
Life for the striking workers was very difficult and after two months many people were at breaking point. Union funds were too low to give strike pay and there was no social welfare system in place. British Unions raised over £100,000 and food ships came into Dublin port. Food parcels were distributed to families from liberty hall, the headquarters of the I.T.G.W.U. Some English families offered to take in Irish children until the dispute was over. Unfortunately the Archbishop Walsh of Dublin refused to allow this claiming that the families may not be “Catholics, or indeed persons of any faith at all” . Although the Unions in Britain provided money and food for the people of Dublin, Connolly and Larkin wanted them to do much more. They wanted the British Unions to go out on a sympathetic strike and to refuse to handle Irish goods. The British Unions were not prepared for this course of action and refused. “This provoked Larkin always hot tempered into furious personal attacks on British Labour leaders who withdrew financial support” . Eventually after discussions with the employers Connolly and Larkin advised the workers to go back to work. On 18th January 1914 most of the strikers returned to work on the condition that they could keep their Union membership.
At first Connolly and Larkin considered the lockout to be a failure because they had not succeeded in breaking the will of the employers’. On January 30th 1914 Larkin said publicly that the Union had been defeated. Shortly thereafter Larkin went to America where he would spend the next ten years. However with time both men had the opportunity to reflect on events in a more objective manner and during the summer of 1914 Connolly reversed earlier pessimistic comments he had also made and declared in his newspaper The Workers’ Republic that “The battle was a drawn battle” .
To conclude, despite the fact that the lock-out did not produce the immediate results its’ instigators had wished for, it was far from the apocalyptic defeat which many people including Connolly and Larkin had believed it to be at first. The Irish Citizen Army lead by James Connolly would go on to play a major role in The Easter rising of nineteen sixteen. Overall the Irish Trade Union movement has grown steadily and today Trade Unions in conjunction with employers’ have a significant influence over Government policy. This can be seen clearly through the national wage agreements over recent years such as Partnership 2000.
Edwards, R.D. James Connolly, Malaysia 1980
McNamara, G. Understanding Trade Unions yesterday and today, Dublin, 1988
Collins, M.E. Ireland 1868-1966, Dublin, 1993
Connolly J. The Workers’ Republic, Dublin, 1915
Collins, M.E. An Outline of Modern Irish History, Dublin 1974 .
Maguire, D. History of Ireland, Hong Kong, 1991
One of the books used for this research topic was Understanding Trade Unions Yesterday and Today by G. McNamara. The book was published in 1988 by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This gave a guide to the Trade Union movement in Ireland from the turn of the century up to the nineteen eighties. It included information on key historical figures and events in the movement with particular attention being paid to James Larkin and the Dublin Lock-out of 1913. This was a valuable source of information because it gave information about Larkin’s background, the events leading up to the lock-out, the events during the Lock-out and its’ consequences for the people of Dublin. It was also useful because it contained useful quotes from people who were involved in the events theirby giving excellent historical insights. Why it merited study Two reasons why this topic merited study were that: 1) it gave an insight into ordinary daily life in Urban Ireland and 2) It was the first real attempt by the Irish working class to improve their living standards by direct action. How did this improve your Understanding of Irish history ? Many books present Irish history as going straight from Parnell and the battle for Home Rule in the eighteen nineties straight to the Easter rising and it’s aftermath in nineteen sixteen. This topic covered the period between these two key events in Irish History. Secondly the life of people in Urban Ireland has not been fully explored by historians and the Dublin Lock-out of 1913 gives a clear picture of the lives of the Urban working class and their struggles