Remarks on the 1913 Lockout Tapestry
Liberty Hall, 6 November 2012
Is mór an onóir agus an pléisiúr dom a bheith libh anseo inniu don ócáid thábhachtach seo.
Is mór an t-áthas agus is mór an bród a thugann sé dom bheith anseo i Halla na Saoirse inniu ar an ócáid seo. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Leas-Uachtarán SIPTU, Ms Patricia King as ucht a cuireadh chun an taipéis seo a sheoladh lena sonraítear comóradh an chéid de Fhritdhúnadh Bhaile Átha Cliath 1913. Is ráiteas láidir coibhnis an saothar seo, coibhneas leis na fir agus na mná sin a d’fhulaing anró as cuimse ar son a gcearta agus na cuíchóireála tá sé céad bliain ó shin.
[It gives me both pride and great pleasure to be here in Liberty Hall today on this important occasion. I would like thank the Vice President of SIPTU, Ms Patricia King for her kind invitation to launch this tapestry marking the centenary of the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The work is a powerful statement of affinity with those men and women who suffered enormous hardship to fight for their rights, and for fair treatment, a century ago.]
The centenary of the 1913 Lockout is very significant among the many centenaries that will arise during this decade to 1922. These commemorations are not only about formal occasions or sombre ceremonies; rather they will encourage people to come together and remember collectively the people and events of the time. Community involvement and collective action are the very heart of the events that SIPTU are commemorating with this tapestry. It is through the power of collective action that the workers of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union sought to establish their right to organise to secure a better deal for the ordinary workers of Dublin, and it is very fitting that it is through collaboration that they are being remembered.
George Santayana’s famous epigram is particularly apposite to Ireland today, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or as Padraig Yeates comments in his seminal book on the 1913 Lockout “the past does not have to be a burden”. Padraig, who chairs the 1913 Commemoration Committee, spoke recently about the importance of the union commemoration of 1913 not being overshadowed during the ‘decade of commemorations’ which will mostly remember the events that led to Irish independence and partition. Not only was the social convulsion of the Lockout dramatic, he argues, but it exposed many of the contradictions that had to be worked out, often painfully, in independent Ireland.
The Lockout fits awkwardly into the mainstream narrative of Irish history. The workers were generally nationalists, but so too were many employers, including William Martin Murphy. The strikers’ greatest ally was the British Trades Union Congress without whose aid the strike could not have been sustained.
For too long, our common past has been a battleground of rivalling narratives and interpretations, competing to dominate the pages of our fractured history. This can have the effect of reducing complex events and societal movements to overly simplified interpretations where long held hatreds, prejudices and stereotypes are successfully passed on through the generations into the 21st century.
This tapestry project is a rich symbol of how a new living community of voluntary groups, trade unions, colleges, schools and volunteers can actively participate in reclaiming and understanding the past rather than accepting traditional orthodoxies. Ní neart go cur le chéile – we are stronger together than separated. The evidence will be displayed by this wonderful project which shows just what can be done when many people come together, each to play their own part in a greater project.
I am delighted to see the enthusiasm that the volunteers involved with this project are showing for the history of the Irish workers rights movement, and I hope that the process of working on this tapestry enables everyone involved to reach across the generations and to identify with the tens of thousands of men, women and children of Dublin who suffered so terribly while seeking the right to organise into a Union.
I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of the large group of individuals, community groups, schools and volunteers who are bringing history to life through this major collaboration:
Groups like The Diva Group, the Finglas Art Squad and RADE in the south inner city
volunteers from the Irish Patchwork Society, the Embroidery Guild, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, and the Rowlagh Women’s Art Group
those from SIPTU who have given their skill and time to help to create this project and
the schoolchildren working on the final panels of the tapestry, from Mater Dei School, Basin Lane, St Louis’s in Rathmines and, appropriately, Larkin College in the north inner city.
How appropriate it is to record that the final piece of this historical jigsaw is going to be added by young people, their hands making history.
I also commend Michael Halpenny, Brendan Byrne and Padraig Yeates for the expertise and assistance they have given to the Tapestry project. The National College of Art and Design have been a major support, and last but not least, I must acknowledge the vision and dedication of the artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson, whose creative vision is being realised in this wonderful work.
This year we are embarked upon a ‘Decade of Commemorations’ relating to the 1912 to 1922 period and it presents an opportunity for us all to reflect on the struggles and achievements of Irish citizens in the early 20th century. In this case, the conflict was not with a dominant colonial power with whom we had shared a troubled history. The perceived enemy was within.
The 1913 Lockout has a different emphasis to other upcoming centenaries in that it was primarily a class based struggle between labour and capitalism. While the 1913 Lockout is often seen only in the context of the 1916 Rising, to do so dilutes the unique story of the Lockout as an important chapter of Irish labour history. As Padraig Yeates observes
“Chronologically, 1913 was of course a prelude to 1916 and the triumph of militant nationalism. But to a far greater extent it was a response to a wider and potentially more benign world that beckoned to millions of European workers before they were blasted by the guns of the First World War.”
Following the industrialisation of Irish society in the 19th century, the ordinary working people of Ireland found themselves facing the same issues of mistreatment, appalling pay and conditions and the denial of basic rights that was experienced by their counterparts both in Britain and in the wider Europe.
The historian John Dorney has characterised the class war that ensued in Dublin:
“Some terms in history are undervalued by overuse, and one of them is ‘class war’, but there could be no other term for the bitter ensuing struggle.”
Le slánchéad Fhrithdhúnadh Bhaile Átha Cliath déanaimid cothrom sain-ócáide ón luath fichiú haois a shonrú. D’ainneoin an dul chun cinn a bhí déanta ag gluaiseachta cearta oibrithe in áiteanna eile fán tír, seasann Frithdhúnadh Bhaile Átha Cliath amach de thoradh na slí a thug sé le chéile daoine ó chúlraí éagsúla cultúrtha agus creidimh ar mhaithe le cúis coiteann. Chuir oibrithe na Breataine Móire cúnamh ar fáil d’fhir agus mná Bhaile Átha Cliath ar mhórscála a thaispeáin cumhacht na talún ar a sheas siad i gcomhroinn. Baineadh úsáid as na mórthionscadail seo uaireanta chun daoine a scoilt óna chéile arbh fhearr dá gcomhleas sochaí a bheadh tógtha ar phrionsabail an chirt.
[With the centenary of the Dublin lockout we are marking the anniversary of a virtually unique event in early twentieth-century Ireland. Notwithstanding the small inroads made by workers rights movements elsewhere in Ireland, the Dublin lockout stands out because of the way it united people from different cultural and religious backgrounds behind a common cause. The workers of Great Britain provided support to the men and women of Dublin on a scale that showed the strength of the common ground that they shared. These great projects were sometimes used to divide people whose common interest would have been served by a society built on justice.]
The lockouts saw the birth of new folk heroes in James Connolly and Jim Larkin. They would have been the first to acknowledge that the power of the Labour movement lies not in the individual personalities of the leaders; but rather in the strength of a whole body of workers standing together. Nevertheless, it is right that these men are remembered, and they deserve their prominence on this tapestry; and of course the conflict was highly personalised. Perhaps what is most inspiring about the leaders of the lockout is that, in many cases for the first time, they gave a sense of empowerment to ordinary working people – giving them the courage to work together to seek the basic rights that they had been denied throughout history.
By 1913, Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union had already achieved much in the years since its founding in 1908. I know that this new tapestry will play its part in remembering the wider story and the roots of the labour movement by depicting the 1907 dockers’ and carters’ strikes in Belfast and the 1908 Cork dockers’ strike. These were significant events in themselves, and the suffering of those involved should not be forgotten.
This tapestry project reminds us that the Dublin of 1913 was a grim place for the working class. Dublin had fallen far behind more industrialised towns like Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. Although we must remember that the rise of Manchester involved the owners of the new industries seeking status in the countryside while the factories produced slums in the city. Many Dubliners never had the opportunity to learn skills or a trade, leaving them unable to afford clean or safe housing for their families, if such a thing could be found at all. Many Dubliners of the time lived their whole lives in tenements that were overcrowded, unhygienic and often unfit for human habitation.
With a totally inadequate sewerage system, Dublin was described as having its own distinct smell to complement the ‘social decay and economic stagnation’. In those conditions, TB and other illnesses took a savage toll.
The death rate in Dublin in 1913 was as bad as Calcutta, and child mortality was high, with almost a fifth of deaths in the city in 1908 being children under one year old. It is perhaps hard to believe today that about one-third of Dublin’s population lived in these appalling conditions.
The vast surplus of available labour for unskilled work meant that poverty was deep-rooted in a vicious self-perpetuating circle. Working conditions were very poor and wages were extremely low. Of the thousands of manual workers in Ireland, many worked a 70 hour week for as little as 70p. Unskilled workers were often refused the most basic rights, including the very right to organise.
The picture of Dublin as painted in literature like Strumpet City and Paradise Alley was dark and bleak. Hugh Leonard’s 1980 television adaptation of Strumpet City remains one of the landmark achievements of Irish television and introduced many people to its haunting and humane narrative. And in the character of ‘Rashers’ Tierney, actor David Kelly who died in February, gave life and dignity to one of the great Irish literary characters.
In the book Paradise Alley, set in the East Wall, author John D Sheridan describes:
‘…strikes and baton charges and hearts full of hate… Strikes were the order of the day. Dray-horses champed in their stables, the trams stopped running, plate-glass windows shivered into starry fragments. In the side-streets platoons of policemen waited…The strikes dragged on. The strikers pawned their blue serge suits, their brown boots, their china mantel-dogs, their bedclothes. They fought hunger by going hungry… It’s the women and the children who suffer most in violent times like these. God alone knows what will be the end of it.”
That is the context in which the ITGWU sought to organise and speak up for Dublin workers. On 15th August, 1913, workers refused to give up their membership of the Union, and were dismissed by their employers, until by September 1913, 20,000 workers in hundreds of businesses were locked out.
This tapestry will also tell the story of the first Bloody Sunday – August 31st, 1913 – when James Nolan, James Byrne and Alice Brady were killed, and over 500 people were injured at a mass meeting at the Imperial Hotel.
The struggle required great courage, commitment and solidarity from ordinary, hard-working people. Patrick Kavanagh wrote in his poem for Jim Larkin:
“..And Slavery crept to its hands and knees
And Nineteen Thirteen cheered from out the utter
Degradation of their miseries.”
We should never forget that as Irish people we benefit, to this day, from the changes so bravely fought for by these people.
Academic writing and research on this topic is essential and has a lot to tell us about the history of the Labour movement. The immediacy of this tapestry project brings a whole other dimension to our understanding. When people can look and see the entire story of the lockout in front of them at one time, the visual impact will be enormous – I very much look forward to seeing the work on its completion.
We do face our own difficult times again, nearly 100 years on from the 1913 Lockout. But I believe that Irish people can again show the same determination to bring about positive changes and to help create a society that we can be proud of. As described by the author Raymond Williams, we do have a choice. We can passively remain the victims of history, stuck like a target, or we can actively create a new world by firing arrows through old myths and inevitabilities.
Ag freastal dom ar ócáid Mí Bhealtaine na bliana seo d’fhonn Fhrithdhúnadh Loch Garman 1912 a chomóradh, labhair mé faoin gcaoi inar ghá dúinn bheith ábalta dul siar ar an stair agus a thabhairt ar bord gurb ann d’insintí difriúla ar thréimhsí éagsúla, agus gurb amhlaidh atá sé i ndáil le deighilt agus le haontú na tíre seo ach go háirithe. Is gá dúinn na hinsintí sin a leagan amach taobh le taobh le hómós; is gá dúinn a bheith oscailte don athbhreithniú mar a bhfuil fíricí agus ábhar nua tagtha chun solais; is gá dúinn muid féin a chur i mbróga an duine eile; agus ansin a bheith réidh, faoi dheireadh, chun bogadh ar aghaidh. Agus níor cheart dúinn riamh dearmad a dhéanamh ar mhisneach na ndaoine sin céad bliain ó shin a dteastaigh uathu, agus gan acu ach a gcuid oibre agus a gcuid saothair, teacht le chéile agus an méid sin a chur in iúl i gcomhpháirt.
[At an event in May this year to commemorate the 1912 Wexford lockout, I spoke about how we have to be able to go back in history and realise there are different narratives of different times, particularly in relation to the division and unification of this country. We need to place those narratives side by side with respect, be open to revision where new facts and material is available, put ourselves in the place of the other, and then finally be ready to move on. And we must never forget the courage of those people a century ago who, having only their labour and work, wanted to come together and express that in solidarity.]
We must also ensure that the narratives we revise are not uni-dimensional. The Lockout reminds us, for example, that self-determination sought in the name of nationalism may not only omit the transformation needed to ensure workers, women’s and minority rights, it may indeed include those who reject such rights and certainly subjugate them to the pursuit of profit without obligations or any social responsibility.