Great 1913 Lockout

Pat Smyth, Militant, 1983.

Finished article added by June 18th 2004.


In August 1913, 70 years ago, the employers of Dublin decided together that they would destroy the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and with it the 'dangerous' ideas of 'Larkinism'. Their weapon was to be the lockout, and with utter ruthlessness they declared war on the working class.

The struggle was to last six months and at the end the employers failed. James Connolly said it was a drawn battle, and the union was not broken. By enormous sacrifice the workers of Dublin established for future generations the right to organise and to strike. Their struggle is one of the most heroic chapters in the history of the Irish working class.

For generations the workers of Dublin had eked out a bare existence in the foulest slums of Europe. The arrival of James Larkin gave a voice to the mass of workers, the unskilled, who had never been organised. Breaking from the old traditions of craft unionism, Larkin showed the power of trade union solidarity. He had founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909 in a period which saw a growing militancy on the industrial front and a move to the Left on the Dublin Trades Council which decided to revive its May Day parade and organised support for the unemployed. Yet, Larkin faced the bitter hostility of the Irish Trades Union Congress leadership. He was most particularly despised by the bosses, but also by the leadership of Sinn Fein, particularly Arthur Griffith.

Such hostility was a measure of the fear that Larkin engendered in the employers by his success. His use of the sympathetic strike was particularly effective. Carmen, dockers and transport workers refused to touch or handle in any way the goods of a firm in dispute with the Transport Union. In 1911 a major transport strike was won, as were increases for general labourers, billposters, millers, soap and candle makers, brewery workers and many others.

In the same year Connolly was appointed to the position of Belfast organiser. The ITGWU paper, the Irish Workers, was also launched and soon had a readership of 90,000, a remarkable achievement considering Dublin's population was only 300,000. Sinn Fein could only sell between 2,000 and 5,000 copies of its paper. This alone shows that the major developments at this time were around the labour movement.

Political Arm

The growth of the industrial might of the working class led to support for the idea of a political arm for the labour movement. On behalf of the ITGWU, at the 1912 Clonmel conference of the ITUC, Connolly proposed the establishment of a Labour Party. It was agreed, and the same conference went on to pass a revolution that reflected the growing revolutionary consciousness of the working class: “The Congress urges that labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system of wealth production, with its inherent injustice and poverty.” The Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party was what the organisation was now called. The ITUC and the Labour Party was in fact one body until 1930.

By 1913 the ITGWU had grown to 30,000 and the mood in its ranks was one of confidence. The employers seemed to be on the retreat. Then, with a vengeance, came the counter-attack.

Conditions in Dublin had given rise to the bitter mood of the working class. Her death rate was comparable to that of Calcutta. Of the 400,000 people living in Dublin up to 118,000 lived in decrepit tenements. 45% of the working class population of Dublin lived in them, and, of these, 80% of families lived in one room. Two thirds of these tenements were described by a government committee of inquiry as unfit for human habitation. Yet in the two decades leading up to 1913, the population of Dublin’s inner city increased by a fifth and workers were willing to pay huge sums for the meagrest accommodation imaginable.

Poor living conditions were responsible for about one third of all deaths registered in Dublin from 1902 to 1911. Child deaths and those from consumption (TB) were particularly high. In 1911, of 9,118 registered deaths, 1,808 were of children under 1 year. In 1913, 1,144 TB deaths were recorded out of a total of 8,639.

The death rate in Dublin, according to Sir Charles Cameron, the chief medical officer for Dublin, as at that time as bad as that in Calcutta. But not for all of Dublin’s citizens. His figures show that the children of working class families were ten times more likely to die before the age of 5 than those of middle class families.

Abysmal Wages

These conditions were directly linked to the abysmal wages that were paid by the Dublin employers. Without a substantial manufacturing base, Dublin had an unusually large number of unskilled workers and work for these was on an extremely ‘casual’ basis. Working from 12 to 15 hours a day, the unskilled took home on average only 18 shillings a week, many far less. [90p, 60c in 2004]

Not surprisingly, according to Larkin, there were 30,000 evictions a year for non-payment of rent and thousands lived only through the repeated pawning and sale of their meagre possessions. One observer recorded that “from inquiries which I made some years ago, I ascertained that in a single year 2,866.084 pawn tickets were issued in the city of Dublin”.

The arrival of Larkin and the creation of the ITGWU brought the first hope to this hell hole.

Against Larkin and the ITGWU were ranged 404 employers in the Employers Federation and at their head the millionaire William Martin Murphy. In Dublin alone he owned Cleary’s shop, the Imperial hotel, the Irish Independent and the Dublin United Tramway company.

He was the inspiration behind the bosses' determination to smash the ITGWU. From the start he made it plain that he was determined to starve the workers back to work. Speaking to the Chamber of Commerce, he said the employers would have no trouble to get their three meals a day. The worker, he pointed out, had no such luck.

On Friday August 15th, William martin Murphy walked into the despatch room of the Irish Independent and offered his staff the choice of the union of their jobs.40 were paid of at once. Immediately the newsboys of Dublin blacked the Evening Herald and the van men from Easons refused to touch it. They were then locked out too.

On Sunday 17th, Murphy sacked 200 tramwaymen on the same basis. War had been declared. On Tuesday 19th, Murphy paid a special visit to Dublin Castle. Next day special constables were sworn in and police reserves brought in. Trouble was brewing and the employers demanded, and got, the full support from the forces of 'law and order'.

Larkin responded by calling a meeting of the rest of the organised tramworkers. Faced with the same ultimatum from Murphy they decided to strike, and, as Horse Show week got underway, the trams swelled by thousands up for the show, the men abandoned their trams in the streets.

Murphy continued to run the tramways on the basis of scabs. There were scuffles and stones were thrown. Each night Larkin held a mass meeting. On Wednesday 27th he announced that he would hold a mass rally the following Sunday in O'Connell Street. The meeting was promptly banned and Larkin arrested for threatening to arm the workers against the constant police attacks. The magistrate who banned the meeting was himself a shareholder in the Tramway Company.

Out on bail Larkin burnt the proclamation of the meeting in front of a huge crowd which was then again attacked by the police. More of the union leaders, including Connolly, were then arrested and having removed the leadership, the police felt they had a license for terror. A fight broke out in Ringsend as a scab attempted to play on a football team. Police used their batons with abandon.

Later, walking down the quays to pay his union dues, James Nolan was clubbed to death by police. Another worker, James Byrne was severely beaten and died in hospital.

Despite the confusion caused by a last minute attempt by a trades council officer, William O'Brien, to change the venue of the Sunday meeting on August 31st, hundreds of union members and ordinary members of the public arrived on O'Connell Street to see if Larkin would keep his promise to turn up. Heavily disguised, Larkin bluffed his way onto a hotel balcony and started addressing the crowd. Furious, the police dragged him from the building and then turned on the crowd in an orgy of violence. The Evening Telegraph described the scene: "Soon there were scores of people scattered all over the street lying on the ground, their hands to their heads, bleeding from the wounds inflicted".

In court a few days later at Larkin's trial, a Sergeant Paisley swore that he 2saw batons drawn but not used". Yet the Evening Telegraph report of the day reported that "immediately after the scene had ended, a broken baton was picked up in the street. It had been split along its whole length".

The police riot was not confined to O'Connell Street. In the early hours of the morning they swept through the tenements, breaking in doors, smashing furniture and pictures, dragging men, women and children from their beds and beating them savagely. Over 500 people required hospital treatment and 210 were arrested. No disciplinary action was taken against a single police officer.

On September 3rd, the Employers Federation met and decided to follow the example of Murphy in locking out Transport Union members. The coal merchants issued the following statement for all their workers to sign:

“I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me on behalf of my employers. I further agree to immediately resign my membership of the Irish Transport and general Workers Union (if a member) and I will further undertake that I will not join or in any other way support this union.”

The demand to leave the ITGWU was one thing. Now the employers were challenging the whole basis of trade unionism. Thousands of workers in other unions refused to sign and they too were laid off. 28 other unions fell in behind the ITGWU. 25,000 workers were locked out.

The employers were blunt about it. Not only would they starve out ITGWU members, but also anyone who might provide them with funds or food.

Connolly, jailed by the same Tramway shareholder, decided on a hunger strike and a huge campaign was mounted for his release. Larkin, also out on bail, immediately embarked on a campaign to win support for the Dublin workers in Britain. Funds, sympathetic strikes and blacking of goods were absolutely crucial to the strikers. It would not have been difficult to cut off both supplies and markets to the Dublin bosses for these was widespread sympathy for the Dublin workers among the rank and file. But he leadership of the British TUC was to be found wanting, and this was to become a key factor in preventing the workers winning. They were not prepared to take the bosses on. Instead they desperately wanted conciliation and compromise, above all they wanted to stop the dispute spreading to Britain.

Instead of blacking Dublin the TUC gave £5,000 to the strike funds and made an appeal for collections. But there was industrial action. When three men in a Liverpool station stopped work after Larkin’s visit they were sent home. Immediately the entire workforce followed them. The strike spread rapidly to the docks and the next day there were 2,000 out. Then it reached Birmingham, Crewe, Derby and Gloucester. But with sabotage from the top and no national lead, the movement petered out.

Nevertheless the internationalist spirit of the British labour movement was shown in the huge contributions to the strike funds from the rank and file. The Miners Federation voted £1,000 a week, and, in all, the British trade union movement contributed £93,637 to the strike funds – a huge figure at that time.

The failure to extend the strike to Britain was however to prove a crucial weakness. The employers continued to trade using scabs. Dublin was now beginning to suffer. Soup kitchens were set up in Liberty Hall and the first of the food ships, docked on the 27th to be met by cheering crowds. [Arthur] Griffiths [President of a small political group, Sinn Fein] was not so keen. He denounced the food ships as a subtle ploy to undermine Irish trade. A board of inquiry was set up and it found for the workers but the employers were adamant. Reinstatement was impossible. “perhaps now if Larkin was removed….!” they said. In a sarcastic reply, Connolly wrote an editorial in the Irish Worker headlines, “Why not let the bosses appoint our trade union officials?”

Now the Catholic Church was to make its great ‘humanitarian’ contribution to the lockout. Faced with desperate problems feeding the children of the city a plan was proposed to send children to families in Britain for the duration of the strike. As it got underway, however, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, intervened to deplore the decision as a threat to the faith of the children.

A mob of right wing bigots led by priests tore children from the hands of union members as they took them down to the docks. Dozens of people were assaulted and Mrs Montefiore, who organised the plan, was charged with abduction.

On October 27th Larkin was tried on charges of incitement and sentenced to seven months. Connolly launched an international campaign for his release. He then stepped up the struggle against the employers by bringing about a complete closedown of what was still working in the port of Dublin. In Britain rank and file vigilance committees were set up to black Dublin goods. On the 13th November the government released Larkin. The Ranks workers and the Dublin painters who were recently freed from jail by the threat of general strikes in Dublin are not the first. The ruling class, terrified by the power of the working class, has always found ways to bend the law or discover new procedures when their backs are to the wall.

And the forces of ‘law and order’ were showing the people of Dublin just which side they were on. Evictions were starting up for non-payment of rent and the police were helping with enthusiasm, One man who could not pay his rent saw his door broken down, his furniture smashed, himself and his wife beaten with truncheons. His four children marched out singing “God save Larkin said the heroes.” Such was the mood of the Dublin workers.

Pickets were attacked with ferocity and when the employers started to ship in scabs from Britain, troops were brought in to protect them at Jacobs. Nor was there any response from the police when the bosses armed these scabs. Faced with the imported scabs, the union instigated mass picketing and frequent clashes ensued.

Out of these daily battles came the inspiration for one of the most significant developments of the dispute – the Irish Citizen Army. The state, as Marx explained and the workers of Dublin learnt quickly, is in the last instance, merely armed bodies of men in defence of private property. The police were not going to protect picketing workers. One the contrary they were the main threat to them. Clearly they would have to look after themselves.

The Citizen Army trained in the union’s grounds, Croydon Park. They practised drill and armed themselves with hurleys and sticks. In essence they had just produced Ireland’s first workers’ militia – a body similar to that which only a few years later seized power in Russia.

The Citizen Army at last provided some protection to workers, and in particular, they played an important role preventing evictions. Very quickly the police learnt to show a little respect. At Christmas the ITGWU fed 20,000 children in a huge marquee in Croydon Park.

Now though, time was running out. Money was becoming scarce and with it the meagre supplies. On January 18th 1914 the leaders of the ITGWU met secretly and advised those of their members who could do so to return to work without signing the employers document. But Connolly and Larkin were not giving up. Larking returned to Britain to raise more funds but it was clear from the British TUC conference at the end of December that the desperately needed assistance was not coming.

Groups of workers now began to go back to work. On February 10th the TUC formally wound up its Dublin fund and at this stage there were still strikers out, consigned to oblivion. Visitors to Dublin were shocked by the squalor, of the children dressed only in sacks and men and women as thin as rakes with the rags hanging off them.

Many signed the document as they went back, but kept their union cards. Some firms were so glad to see their workers back that they dispensed with this formality. Others were less fortunate. Jacobs picked and chose only those they wanted back, submitting all to a humiliating medical test. Many were not taken back and were not re-employed until the war took the slack out of the economy, or till they went to their deaths in the trenches.

In time it became clear, however, that there was no defeat. The document was not worth the paper it was written on and soon the working class of Dublin was again demanding its fair share.

1913 saw the coming of age of the Irish working class. The struggle and its outcome reflected the changing balance of forces in a society which, though largely still agricultural was not predominantly a capitalist economy. Now the struggle between capital and labour assumed centre stage and the working class proved that, though still in its infancy, it was the measure of the bosses in a trial of strength.

In Europe the tide of revolution was beginning to be felt. A few years later Czarism was to fall and in Germany only the treachery of the labour leaders was to save capitalism. In Britain, as in Ireland, workers were becoming more politically conscious. In the local elections in Dublin in February 1914, Labour came within a couple of thousand votes of the combined nationalists.

The indecisive result of the 1913 battle, and the First World War cut across this process towards revolution, but only temporarily. In the aftermath of the war, the country was swept by a revolutionary fervour kindled in no small part by enthusiasm for the achievements of the Russian Bolsheviks. A soviet was set up in Limerick and there were strikes all over the country. Tragically, however, the movement was without its finest leaders, Connolly who died in what Lenin described correctly as a premature rising, and Larkin who had left for America, worn out. Labour drifted rudderless at a time when its opportunities were greatest.

The rights we have as a class, whether to organise, or even freedom of speech and the vote, we hold only by virtue of the strength of our organisations and our will to fight. The bosses have tried and will repeatedly try, to take back concessions wrung from them through struggle, but what the working class has won it will not give up without a fight. The bosses learnt that to their cost in 1913 and they are still today wary of the labour movement. But, as the economic crisis deepens, they will increasingly turn on the workers to claw back a greater share of production for their profits.

Leadership were with them in battle

Our ability to resist this onslaught will depend in great measure on our leaders. In 1913 the right-wing labour leaders blocked Larkin at every turn, always trying to take the conduct of the strike out of his hands and those of the rank and file. They sabotaged any move towards solidarity action. In Britain only the left wing and the Marxists fought for the Dublin workers.

Without the radical leadership of Larkin and Connolly the workers of Dublin would have defeated. Larkin’s greatness lay in his ability to inspire confidence in the working class in its ability to win. Above all workers could be sure that if they were prepared to fight that their leadership were with them in battle and would not betray the, Larkin was one of them and was prepared to go the whole way. As he said:
“Hell has no terrors for me. I have lived there. 36 years of hunger and poverty have been my portion....Better to be in Hell in any case, with Dante and Davitt, than to be in heaven with Carson and Murphy. I am for revolution. What do I care? They can only kill me and there are thousands more to come after me.”

Imagine what would be possible now if the labour movement returned to the fighting traditions of its founders, Connolly and Larkin. As Larkin was fond of quoting: “the great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

A bold socialist lead from the leadership of the labour movement, holding up in front of workers, the possibilities of a system freed of poverty and unemployment, of an end to exploitation, can rekindle the spirit of 1913. The working class can then set out to finish what Larkin and Connolly started – the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism in Ireland.

To achieve this gaol, as 1913 demonstrated, the labour movement must organise industrially and politically. It must have a programme, around which it can prepare for the socialist transformation of society.

Absorbing these lessons today is the best tribute we can pay to the outstanding struggle so the Dublin working class of 1913.



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