The Dublin Lock-out of 1913
ireland / britain |
Tuesday March 08, 2005 22:16 by Alan MacSimoin - WSM
When the workers of Dublin fought for union rights
1913 in Ireland saw a six month struggle by Dublin workers to defend their freedom to be members of a militant trade union, the Irish Transport Workers Union. In the course of that struggle they were attacked by the police, the catholic church and sections of the nationalist movement. But they also set up a workers militia to defend their pickets and protests.
The Dublin Lock-out of 1913
In 1913 militant trade unionism had a tremendous task ahead of it.
The poverty of manual workers was appalling. The death rate in
Dublin, 27.6 per 1000, was as high as Calcutta's, The slums were the
worst of any city in either Ireland or Britain. 20,108 families were
recorded as living in a single room. An Irish Times editorial
commenting on a report about Dublin housing wrote that "28,000 of
our fellow citizens live in dwellings which even the Corporation
admits to be unfit for human habitation. Nearly a third of our
population so live that from dawn to dark and from dark to dawn it is
without cleanliness, privacy or self respect. Sanitary conditions
ruled out ordinary standards of savage morality''
If slum figures were higher than the rest of the "United Kingdom
of Great Britain and Ireland", wage rates were lower. Thousands
worked a 70 hour week for as little as 70p. Women's wages could be as
low as 25p. Rents, however, were higher than in Britain.
Jim Larkin arrived from Liverpool in 1907 as an organiser for the
British National Union of Dock Labourers. Immediately he threw
himself into the work of organising the unskilled into the union,
Strikes for recognition and higher wages broke out in Belfast, Newry
Before long friction developed between the new Irish members and
the British leadership of the NUDL. The union officers, and in
particular the general secretary, James Sexton, became alarmed at the
combative spirit of the Irish branches. Soon they were settling
disputes over the heads of the members on strike, sending them back
to work on the basis of weak and paltry deals arranged with employers
behind the strikers' backs. Twenty years before the NUDL had done a
good job of organising labourers in Britain but its leaders had
become divorced from any real control by the membership. They were
now more concerned with 'respectability', seeing their role as
mediators who worked for 'fair play' and industrial peace.
BIRTH OF A UNION
Some of the most active members, grouped around Larkin, broke away
and on January 4th 1909 founded the Irish Transport Workers Union.
The union, whose name was to be enlarged to ITGWU, began in humble
surroundings. Its first office was a bare room in a tenement in
Townsend Street, Dublin. Its assets were "a couple of chairs, a
table, two empty bottles and a candle".
Many of the founding members came from the infant socialist
movement. Among their influences was syndicalism. This was the idea
that all workers, regardless of trade, should be in 'one big union'
which would use whatever methods were necessary to win in their
battles with the bosses, The syndicalists held that the interests of
workers and bosses were absolutely opposed and their end goal was a
general strike to throw out the bosses and establish socialism. This
was only one of the influences present and it was not clearly defined
but it can claim much of the credit for popularising the notion of
the 'sympathetic strike'.
A man who was to play a significant role in the union was James
Connolly. At the time the ITGWU was set up he was in America where,
along with fellow-Irishman Patrick Quinlan, he formed a branch of the
syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in Newark, New Jersey.
Shortly after he became secretary of the IWW Building and
Constructional Workers Industrial Union in the area. It is also worth
noting that when Jim Larkin went to America in 1914 to raise funds
for the impoverished ITGWU he also joined the IWW. (The IWW saw
itself as a revolutionary union, a fair proportion of its founders
and prominent activists were anarchists ).
WEXFORD LOCK OUT
By 1910 the ITGWU was claiming 3,000 members and was admitted to
the Irish Trade Union Congress. It quickly established a name for
itself as an aggressive defender of its members and as a union that
refused to make shoddy deals over the workers' heads. A forerunner of
the 1913 lock-out took place in 1911 in Wexford when two foundries,
Pierces and the Star Works, told their staffs "no workman is
acceptable if a member of the ITGWU" The lock-out lasted six
months, saw the importation of scabs from England and RIC (police)
from Dublin, and the RIC killing of a worker called Michael Leary.
The bosses caved in, though as a face saving exercise they insisted
that the strikers form a different union. This was the Irish Foundry
Workers Union (which was affiliated with the ITGWU and two years
later dropped the pretence and became a regular branch).
Between 1911 and 1913 the union, mainly by the use of sympathetic
strikes, won victories in Dublin.
These benefited not only its own growing membership, but other
trades also. Through the union's control of the carting industry
(transport), engine drivers, coach makers, cabinet makers, sheet
metal workers, carpenters and all the building trades got increases
in pay. Among its own membership, dockers, labourers, coal and grain
fillers, bottle factory workers, biscuit makers, mineral water
bottlers and railway workers received pay rises. The increases varied
between 15p to 50p weekly - no small sum for the times.
WILLIAM MARTIN MURPHY
If the workers were happy at this turn in events, the bosses
certainly were not, They banded together in the Dublin Employers
Federation. Their leader was William Martin Murphy, owner of the
Irish Independent, Evening Herald, and Irish Catholic newspapers, the
Dublin Tramways Company and holder of big interests in hotel and
Murphy's plan was to use the weapon of starvation to break the
union. On September 2nd 1913 he spelled out his policy to the Dublin
Chamber of Commerce - "The employer all the time managed to get
his three meals a day, but the unfortunate workman and his family had
no resources whatever except submission, and that was what occurred
in 99 cases out of 100. The difficulty of teaching that lesson to the
workmen was extraordinary."
MURPHY GETS READY
During the months of July and August Murphy was preparing for a
showdown, by swelling the ranks of his employees with new recruits
who had to sign an undertaking that they would not join the ITGWU. He
also arranged with the British authorities that in the event of a
strike the tramway company "was assured of the most ample
protection for their men by the forces of the Crown".
On August 12th 1913 a notice was posted in all tramway depots
saying that there would be no recognition for "Mr. Larkin or his
union". Meanwhile Larkin, in an attempt to consolidate the recent
gains, had come up with a scheme for a Conciliation Board. By 18
votes to 3 the Committee of the Employers Federation agreed to his
proposal. It can be argued that Larkin was naive to think that any
long term arrangement could be maintained that would be beneficial to
the workers. Murphy didn't want even a short term one, vowing to
"smash the Conciliation Board".
THE FIGHT BEGINS
On August 21st nearly 200 men and boys in the parcels office of
the Tramway Company received the following notice: - "As the
directors understand that you are a member of the Irish Transport
Union, whose methods are disorganising the trade and business of the
city, they do not further require your services. The parcels traffic
will be temporarily suspended. If you are not a member of the union
when traffic is resumed your application for re-employment will be
favourably considered "
On the morning of August 26th, the first day of Horse Show week,
Murphy got a shock. At ten o'clock the tram drivers took out their
union badges and pinned them in their buttonholes, They then walked
off their trams, leaving them stranded in the middle of the road. The
strike was on. The demands were reinstatement of and parcels staff,
and equality of hours and wages with the tramway workers of Belfast.
THE GANG OF 400
Despite Murphy being only one of a minority of three on the
question of the Conciliation Board, the Dublin bosses rallied around
him. Each employer deposited, in the name of the Employers
Federation, a sum of money in the bank. If a depositor came to terms
with the union he lost all his money. The first boss to follow Murphy
was Shackleton of Lucan, followed by Jacobs and the coal merchants.
Then on September 3rd 400 employers met and pledged not to employ a
single person who remained loyal to the union.
They agreed to lock out all workers who refused to sign this
pledge - "I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given
to me by or on behalf of my employers and further I agree to
immediately resign my membership of the Irish Transport and General
Workers Union (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not
join or in any way support this union." Ten days later Dublin's
big farmers joined in and issued a similar ultimatum.
LIES AND SLANDERS
Murphy used his newspapers to claim that the tram strike was
collapsing and to attempt to split the strikers by printing all
manner of lies and slanders against Larkin. The Irish Catholic of
September 6th: "They are poor and have naught, but if they were
rich tomorrow, debauchery would soon have them in poverty again... by
folly or malice of their so-called leader, they have been placed in
deplorable straits... all this to gratify the vengeful whims of an
adventurer who has been battening on their credulity". Murphy
pretended that his objection was only to "Larkinism" and not to
legitimate trade unionism. This lie was easily exposed by mention of
the previous efforts of the tram workers to organise. In 1903 Murphy
had smashed the "Dublin and District Tramways Trade Union" and
victimised its leading members.
The workers of Dublin met the threat to destroy the Transport
Union with a heroic resistance. All over the city thousands chose the
lock-out rather than sign the notorious document. Each trade served
by labourers walked out when the labourers were ordered to sign. Most
tradesmen showed solidarity. Even the United Builders Labourers Trade
Union, who had been in conflict with Larkin, refused to sign and
marched out "to help the ITGWU boys". The women and girls
marched out from the factories once the document was produced. By
September 27th there were 24,000 locked-out. Within another two weeks
the number rose to about 30,000. 32 unions were involved, all
sticking up for the rights of the Transport Union, and trade union
The first attempt at conciliation was tried by the leaders of the
British TUC, who sent a special delegation to Dublin. If they didn't
realise this was a serious battle, the employers did and told them to
The close co-operation between the bosses and the state forces
revealed itself early in the struggle when Larkin was arrested on
charges of seditious libel and conspiracy, because he had advised
workers to defend themselves against assaults by the police. Out on
bail, he was announced as the main speaker for a mass meeting in
O'Connell Street on August 31st. The meeting was banned by the
authorities in Dublin Castle. Larkin addressed a huge crowd outside
Liberty Hall, burned a copy of the banning order and declared that he
would speak in O'Connell Street on Sunday. The RIC ended the meeting
with a violent baton charge.
All Dublin waited to see if Larkin would keep his promise. The
street was packed on the day. Hundreds of police lined up on both
sides. Suddenly on the balcony of Murphy's own Imperial Hotel a
bearded man appeared. The false beard was discarded, Larkin had kept
As he began to speak he was quickly arrested, Then, before the
crowd had even recovered from their surprise, the RIC fell on them
with a brutal baton charge. Men, women and children were felled and
beaten as they lay in the street. Hundreds were admitted to hospitals
Throughout the struggle this brutality was repeated all over the
city. One of the most scandalous incidents was a police attack on a
block of tenements, Corporation Buildings, in the city centre. This
was home to many strikers. At two o'clock on a Monday morning the
police invaded. Tenants were beaten without regard to age or sex,
homes were wrecked. Even a baby of a few months was left with an eye
Police thuggery inevitably produced fatalities, James Nolan, a
young union member, was beaten so badly that his skull was smashed
in. John Byrne also lost his life at the hands of the RIC. A young
striker Alice Brady was travelling home with her food parcel from the
union office when an armed scab shot her dead, Michael Byrne,
secretary of the ITGWU in Dun Laoghaire was tortured in a police cell
and died shortly after release.
Pickets were attacked by police, meetings were broken up. Strikers
responded with stoning of trams driven by scabs. Larkin said the
workers should arm and defend themselves, This cry was translated
into the formation of the Irish Citizen Army which was trained by
Captain Jack White DSO, an ex-British Army officer who now fully
supported the workers' cause and later joined the ranks of the
anarchist movement during the Spanish Civil War, The ICA was a
workers' militia armed with sticks and hurleys, for protection
against police and blacklegs. (Later the hurleys gave way to rifles
when the ICA took part in the 1916 rising).
SUFFER THE CHILDREN...
Then, as now, the Catholic church enjoyed a lot of influence. From
the beginning it had opposed trade unionism, and had then tried to
back 'moderate' unions against ones that fought hard for their
members, In 1911 in Sligo, Dr, Clancy, the bishop, denounced Larkin
as a socialist and forbade the people to attend the public meeting of
the union. (Showing that clerical power is not always as strong as
bishops would wish, the public meeting was one of the largest ever
seen in Sligo.)
In spite of great efforts, including a food kitchen in Liberty
Hall, it was obvious that the strikers' children were suffering from
Murphy's "starvation policy ". Some good people in Britain offered to
take children into their homes until the situation improved. The
union, while fearing public hostility would be whipped up by
religious bigots, agreed to co-operate because of the childrens'
The union's fears were real. Dr. Walsh, Catholic Archbishop of
Dublin, despite assurances that the children's religion would be
safeguarded, attacked the plan. He also stated that it was
unacceptable because sending children to comfortable homes with three
appetising meals a day would make them discontented with their slum
homes when they returned. As children were taken to the boats and
trains, gangs of thugs were organised to try and prevent their
departure. These were marshalled by priests and officers of the
Ancient Order of Hibernians. A campaign of slander claimed that the
children were being taken away so that they could be made into
Protestants All this had its effect. However, many children did
manage to get to Britain and Belfast.
A LOVE OF IRELAND... BUT NOT ITS WORKERS
Three years before the 1916 rising, the 'national movement' was
growing fast. We know the attitude of the socialists, they were to be
found in the thick of the struggle. What then was the attitude of the
nationalists? Some, such as Tom Clarke, Sean Connolly and the
Countess Markeivicz, took the side of the workers. But the majority
refused. Arthur Griffith, the leader of Sinn Fein, refused to help
because his movement was "national not sectional". He went on the
describe the food ships sent by British trade unionists as an
"insult", Even the more radical Irish Republican Brotherhood refused
to involve itself in a "sectional" dispute, When, at a meeting of the
Irish Volunteers in the Rotunda on November 25th, ITGWU members
challenged this they were attacked with hurley sticks and thrown out.
No matter how much they talked of 'justice', and no matter how
strongly some individuals sympathised with the union, the objective
of all nationalists-from Home Rulers like Murphy to radicals like the
IRB - was an independent capitalist Ireland. That is why they could
not support the workers in such a major battle, one that could have
destroyed the unity of the nationalist movement along class lines.
Once the lock-out was general in Dublin the two sides' strength
could be clearly seen. On one side was the vast majority of the
Dublin working class, on the other not only the employers of the city
but the whole of the British ruling class and its state machinery. If
the union was not to be ground down in a protracted war of attrition
the struggle would have to be spread across the Irish sea. The ITGWU
had always responded to calls for solidarity action from British
unions, now when it was fighting for its very life it demanded that
this action be reciprocated.
Who should be appealed to? The bureaucracy of the unions or the
rank and file? The ITGWU founders' experience of the NUDL let them
know what could be expected from the bureaucrats. Would officials who
had betrayed their own members behave any better towards members of
another union, an Irish one at that? From the first they appealed
directly to the rank and file, and met with a great response.
On September 16th railway workers in Liverpool began to black all
traffic to Dublin, soon some 13,000 were locked out or on strike as
far afield as Birmingham, Sheffield, Crewe and Derby. This action was
totally unofficial, organised by rank and file committees who aimed
towards a national stoppage in support of Dublin. Sadly the railway
union leaders, in particular J.H. Thomas, managed to prevent the
strike spreading, isolate the militants and secure a return to work.
There was a great fighting spirit and a real willingness to take
solidarity action, but the militants were too unorganised and
uncoordinated to overcome the manoeuvres of Thomas and his cronies.
The ITGWU launched a second appeal for solidarity action. Larkin
spoke at meetings all over Britain, his "fiery cross" crusade. In
response a second wave of unofficial action spread across Britain. In
South Wales two train drivers were sacked for refusing to carry
Dublin traffic. 30,000 of their fellow workers on the railways struck
in support of them. Once again Thomas used all his schemes and
pleadings to get the strikers back to work he ended up describing the
two sacked train drivers as "a disgrace" to trade unionism!
Union officials reported great difficulty in keeping their members
on the Liverpool and London docks from coming out in sympathy. There
was no lack of support for the ITGWU's struggle but the militants
just did not have enough co-ordination to take on the, bureaucrats,
and break their hold.
The pressure from below was such, however, that the TUC called its
first ever special conference. They hoped to kill off unofficial
action by seeming to be doing something themselves, All eyes turned
on the TUC. Delegates to the special conference were not elected from
within their unions but simply selected from the ranks of the more
cautious executive committee members. The vote for sympathy action
was lost by 2,280,000 to 203,000. A shameful betrayal orchestrated by
timid officials afraid to step outside the bounds of 'conciliation
Nevertheless Ł150,000 was collected for Dublin, which was a
massive amount in those times. (A debt we repaid during the 1984/85
miners strike when Ireland contributed more per head of population
than any other country). The food ships sent by the British TUC
helped to maintain morale and keep the wolf from the door. But they
were no substitute for the strike action that would have brought the
bosses to their knees.
By the end of the year there had been two meetings between the
union and the employers but negotiations were broken off when the
employers refused to give any guarantee against victimisation in the
re-employment of workers. There were still almost daily picket line
battles between strikers and armed scabs and RIC. Many union members
were still being injured and arrested. After 16 year-old Alice Brady
was murdered in December angry strikers caught a revolver carrying
scab and beat him to death. Another was thrown into the Liffey. But
it was now plain that the union was fighting a losing battle.
BACK TO WORK
By mid-January 1914 a drift back to work had started. A month
later there were still 5,000 brave men and women sticking it out in
circumstances of the direst poverty The last group to accept defeat
and return to work were the magnificent women of Jacobs who held out
What was the significance of the defeat? Some, such as the
historian Desmond Greaves, say it was not a defeat. In reality it was
a crushing defeat. Victimisation happened all over the city, the
union was financially broken and its membership decimated. A climate
of demoralisation and despondency prevailed.
DOWN... BUT NOT OUT
However such defeats are not always terminal. A hard core of
determined members kept the union together It was an uphill task,
They were thought unrealistic and had to put up with much shrugging
of shoulders and cynicism. Yet by October 1915 they were strong
enough to win a dispute with the Dublin Steam Packet Company. Murphy
had once again called for a lock-out but this time his employer
friends refused to follow him They had won two years earlier but at a
great financial cost. They were in no hurry to spend such large
amounts of money again.
By 1921 the union was truly back on its feet. 120,000 workers all
over the country were carrying ITGWU cards. The seemingly unstoppable
tide of militant trade unionism, often called Larkinism, had been
stopped and tamed but the union had survived. The potential was still
there for further and greater outbreaks of class warfare.
Today we can get demoralised when we look at the wave of
emigration sweeping the 32 counties, the job losses, the very low
level of struggle, the feeling of almost total powerlessness and lack
of confidence among our friends and work mates. It is a little like
the period after 1913. Just as then, it has fallen to small numbers
to keep the ideas of class struggle and solidarity alive. It is
usually unexciting and undramatic - but it is vital. We are laying
the foundations for the struggles of tomorrow, the struggles we hope
will take us into a world that can offer a real future to us all.