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‘Remembering the 1913 Lockout its Sources, Impact and Some Lessons’ Address at the 2013 Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture

Dublin, 18 June 2013

It is a great pleasure to be able to return to social history, even for a little while, and it is an honour to have been asked to deliver the 2013 Michael Littleton lecture.  May I thank Clare Duignan, for her invitation to give the lecture on the subject of the 1913 Lockout – surely one of the most significant founding events in the emergence of the Irish State.

The Littleton lecture celebrates a life delivered to the public world, through public service broadcasting at its best.  Michael Littleton was Head of Features and Current Affairs at RTÉ who sadly left us all too soon in 2002. His passion for radio is renowned. It is acknowledged by many that Michael Littleton was responsible for the modernisation of current affairs reporting in Ireland, and thus, he can be credited with having contributed greatly to our development as a society, and to have enhanced our capacity as citizens to engage in an informed manner in debating and shaping the way we live.

In the role of Editor of Arts, Features and Drama for RTÉ Radio 1, he forged initial links for RTÉ Radio with a wider, international programme making community in Europe and further afield.

At a more personal level, Michael is remembered by colleagues as a great teacher and mentor. A highly strategic thinker, he expressed that skill in public, and in private too, after all – he played chess for Ireland.  Michael Littleton is survived by his wife, Terry, who I am delighted is with us this evening. While all of us can be grateful for his professional contribution which was profoundly democratic, I know he is missed in a particular way by his colleagues, his many friends, and by his family. 

Tonight the Littleton Lecture takes as its focus the Dublin Lockout of 1913.   I would like to reflect, in my brief time, on some aspects of its sources and significance, its impact on those involved, and the response it evoked.   

I am indebted to the now considerable literature on the topic, and I would like, in particular, to thank historian Diarmaid Ferriter for the assistance that enabled me to develop tonight’s lecture by taking into account the newly digitized Census material.  

When reflecting on the context of the Dublin Lockout, we are so fortunate to now have access to the original household forms from the 1911 census and I would like to pay tribute to all those at the National Archives of Ireland and others who have worked to digitize the material, and make it freely available to all, providing us with the potential of recovering the story of our ancestors, reflecting on it, and forming an opinion. 

In May 2013 another valuable resource has been launched.  The Century Ireland online project, as part of the Government’s commemoration programme, is producing a fortnightly online newspaper with contemporary accounts of what Ireland was like at the time; it includes documents, photographs and contextual essays and interviews.  This, free to access resource, is a joint venture between the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Boston College, the National Cultural Institutions and RTÉ, which hosts the site. By 2023, this will be an unparalleled resource for archives relating to the revolutionary period.

Many of our listeners will no doubt remember the Lockout through James Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City.  Many more will have viewed the RTÉ series adapted for television by the late Hugh Leonard.    In a decade of centenaries, however, it may be necessary to outline how the Lockout of 1913 came to be.

In 1988 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of The Lockout Alan MacSimoin described the beginning of what would be remembered as the greatest confrontation between workers and employers in the history of the Irish Trade Union Movement, personalized in the confrontation between Trade Union leader Jim Larkin and the leading Irish owner of Tramways, newspapers and property, William Martin Murphy.

“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 disorganizing 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 in the morning 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.  Their demands were reinstatement of parcels staff, and equality of hours and wages with the tramway workers of Belfast.”

The Lockout had begun.  The dispute would last from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914, and is generally viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history.  Central to the dispute was the workers' right to organize.

The main protagonists in the Lockout were William Martin Murphy on the side of the employers and on the side of the workers Jim Larkin and James Connolly.  

William Martin Murphy was 30 years older than Jim Larkin but was regarded as the most successful figure in Irish business at the time.  From modest beginnings in Cork, as the son of a Cork building contractor, he displayed an early ability for commerce.  He established his wealth through business dealings that initially were most successful in London but which extended as far as Africa.  For many years before the Lockout he had been admired as one of the great successes of native capital.  A Home Ruler and anti-Parnellite, he wished for a native government but yet one that, as he put it, ‘retained the jewel of a connection with the British Crown’.  By 1913 he was the owner of the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, the Irish Catholic, Clery’s Department Store, the Imperial Hotel and where he would choose to mount his fight, the Dublin United Tramways Company.      

He had been somewhat disillusioned with the decision of the Committee of the Federation of Dublin Employers to enter into a Conciliation Board for employers and employees by a vote of 18 votes to 3.  This had arisen as a result of previous strikes that were, to a large extent, a result of Jim Larkin’s efforts on behalf of ITGWU members and others.  Murphy organized more than 400 Dublin Employer’s to seek a pledge from their employees that they would cease their membership of the ITGWU if they were existing members, and give an assurance not to join in the future, if they had not already joined.

The employers in question agreed to lock out all workers who refused to sign the following 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”

Within a fortnight the larger farmers in the Dublin region had sought a similar declaration from their workers.

William Martin Murphy saw his project as the defeat of what he had called Larkinism, which he saw as a variation of Syndicalism and a threat to the basic structures of employer-employee relationships, and indeed the basic structure of any future Irish State.  Later in the dispute his newspapers would write of this target as ‘Satanic Socialism’.

Standing as the major opposition to William Martin Murphy was Jim Larkin who, in the years preceding, had a number of successes in organizing workers and improving their wages and conditions. 

Larkin’s reputation was achieved principally by the extraordinary power of his oratory and what was perceived by his members to be a fearless commitment to the moral rights of workers.  His view of the worker was a utopian and deeply ethical one.  His aim was a commonwealth of co-operation.  He was incidentally deeply opposed to the abuse of alcohol and had drawn criticism on account of his interventions on the subject of wages being squandered by dockers, for example, on drink.  It is interesting too that the major cultural events that were organized from Liberty Hall, as were the outings, were alcohol free.

For Seán O’Casey, with whom he retained a close friendship, and to whom he remained a hero to the end, he is the major figure of the period.   On the day of his death O’Casey wrote:

“It is hard to believe this great man is dead…for all thoughts and all activities surged in the soul of this labour leader. He was far and away above the orthodox Labour leader, for he combined within himself the imagination of the artists, with the fire and determination of a leader of a down trodden class”[1]

However, in refutation of any suggestion that Larkin’s ability was confined to oratory, David Krause, Seán O’Casey’s friend, wrote of Larkin:  

“Although he became known as the great strike-leader, it was his aim to organize unions, not strikes, and it was the absolute refusal of the employers even to enter into open negotiations that invariably led to the strikes which Larkin himself deplored and accepted only as labour’s last resort.  But he was a marked man in Dublin, feared by the capitalists he had come to scourge, and even assailed by the Catholic clergy who at that time had little sympathy with the trade union movement.  In spite of the fact that he was denounced by many priests and by the Catholic press, Larkin boldly insisted that he was a Catholic and a Socialist at a time when the Irish Catholic newspaper was frantically warning the people that Socialism was tantamount to Satanism.  Shortly after the union was forced to strike in late August 1913, that newspaper came out with a leader called ‘Satanism and Socialism’, warning the strikers to listen to their priests and go back to work, to renounce Larkin who was referred to as ‘that Moloch of iniquity’.  The editorial also introduced a political note when it stated that Larkinism or Socialism was the enemy of Ireland’s national ideals as well as Christianity: ‘From beginning to end Socialism is anti-Christian and un-patriotic.  There is scarcely a single national ideal long cherished by our people of which the Socialism now daily and nightly preached at Beresford Place is not the negation’.”

In attempting to recover the atmosphere of the Lockout it is useful to consider how these two figures have been represented.  Earlier historical evaluations were inclined to ask succeeding generations to choose between two heroic figures.  On the one side a founding figure in the struggle for workers’ rights and on the other a hero of native business.  More recent scholarship has avoided such extremes and has offered us a more complex account of the period, the motivations, the social forces and, above all, the contradictions within and between the groups of participants on each side of the conflict.

Also, in coming to terms with the context of the Lockout we also now have available some fine studies of the working life of the people of Dublin, including the lives of those in the tenements, work such as that of Kevin C. Kearns Dublin Tenement Life – An Oral History.  The confrontation that was the Lockout took place in a city marked by poverty and hunger, and it was a deeply divided city in class terms. 

In 1913, Sir Charles Cameron, the Medical Inspector for Dublin, had reported, “it is certain that infants perish from want of sufficient food”. Overall, the death rate in Dublin in 1911 per thousand people was 22.3. In London it was 15.6.[2]

With a totally inadequate sewerage system, Dublin was described as having its own distinct smell to complement the 'social decay and economic stagnation'.[3] In those conditions, TB and other illnesses took a savage toll.

Many years later Seán O’Casey would recall his life in the tenements and describe a similar scene:

“Then, where we lived, with thousands of others, the garbage of ashpit with the filth from the jakes was tumbled into big wicker baskets that were carried on the backs of men whose clothing had been soaked in the filth from a hundred homes; carried out from the tiny back yards, through the kitchen living-room, out by the hall, dumped in a horrid heap on the street outside, and left there, streaming out stench and venom, for a day, for two days, maybe for three, till open carts, sodden as the men who led the sodden horses, came to take the steaming mass away, leaving an odour in the narrow street that lingered till the wind and the rain carried trace and memory far into outer space or in the heaving sea. Hardly a one is left living now to remember how this was done, or the work remaining behind for the women to purify the hall and kitchen so that the feet felt no crunching of the filth beneath them, and the sour and suffocating smell no longer blenched the nostrils.”[4]

The death rate in Dublin in 1913 was worse than Calcutta, and child mortality was high, with almost a fifth of deaths in the city in 1908 being children under one year old. [5]  It is perhaps hard to believe today that about one-third of Dublin’s population lived in these appalling conditions.

The Census of 1911 to which I have referred depicts a Dublin of great contrasts; at the exclusive Kildare Street Club, there were 6 visitors on census night, including a landowner, a land agent, a retired colonel, the official starter at Irish race meetings and Lord Fermoy.  Thirty-two staff attended to their comfort.  The German waiters from the Shelbourne hotel lived nearby on Kildare Street, while W.B.Yeats and Lady Gregory were staying around the corner in Nolan’s hotel on South Frederick Street.  The census also describes the vast number of servants required to keep the Vice-regal lodge in the Phoenix Park ticking over for the benefit of the Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen and his wife Lady Aberdeen, the women’s rights activist and founder of the Women’s National Health Association.

There is notably, no return for a number of well-known Irish feminists, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, as she and a number of other suffragettes refused to co-operate with the census in protest at the lack of the vote and remained defiant in the face of the threat of legal action.

But perhaps the greatest value of the census records is the detailed picture you can build of ordinary people living their lives, and unfortunately, experiencing the death and deprivation of loved ones. The 1911 census asked a new question of women- how many children had been born to them, and how many remained alive. Their answers on the Census forms bring abstract statistics about child mortality right down to the household level. Particularly in the inner city tenements, you can see terrible attrition, with losses of over 50% of children to many families.   For example, ten families lived at 24 Gloucester Street in 1911, most families occupying one room.  At that address, 47-year-old Annie Doran had given birth to eight children; only three survived. Her neighbour in the same house, 44-year-old Katherine Cavanagh, had lost four of ten children, and another neighbour in the house, Catherine Taylor, had lost two of five.

I, myself, spoke to a woman who in recalling life in the tenements spoke of the practice of a woman in a neighbouring room putting her dead baby in a shoebox, placing it on the top of a press and waiting for assistance for its burial.

The 1911 Census can be more easily understood in terms of its significance by taking the returns from some families as illustration. The Dorans and the Taylors, each family numbering five, lived in one room apiece, while the Cavanaghs, with six, had two rooms. 26,000 families in Dublin in 1911 lived in one-room dwellings, making Dublin the most overcrowded in Europe. The decay of Dublin was epitomised by Henrietta Street, on the north side of the city, where an astonishing 835 people lived in just 15 houses. The street had once been salubrious and home to a generation of lawyers, but by 1911 was overflowing with poverty.

At number 10 Henrietta Street, the Sisters of Charity ran a laundry with more than 50 single women living in the house. There were members of 19 different families living in number 7.  Among the 104 people who shared the house were charwomen, domestic servants, labourers, porters, messengers, painters, carpenters, painters, a postman, a tailor and a whole class of schoolchildren. Out the back there was a stable and a piggery.

It is from such tenements that workers emerged for work that was, for many, casual labour.  When the workers who were locked out, or who had gone on strike in support of those locked out, received their ultimatum from the employers as to the pledge, the workers coming from such conditions, or having escaped from its extremes of poverty, refused to give up their membership of the Irish Transport General Workers Union. 

They were immediately dismissed by their employers, and by September 1913, 20,000 workers in hundreds of businesses were locked out.[6]  Events were to unfold dramatically, particularly following the arrest, imprisonment and release on bail of Jim Larkin and the holding of a public meeting that had been arranged by James Connolly and others for Sackville Street.  With the help of some actors such as Helena Moloney, Jim Larkin had addressed supporters from the balcony of the Imperial Hotel.  

In the response to the meeting an interesting division is revealed between progressive and conservative Nationalists.  Among those attending the meeting were Constance Markievicz and Thomas McDonagh.  Both would comment later on the clash between those attending the meeting and the police, after Larkin had been re-arrested.  Most commentators were in agreement that the Dublin Metropolitan Police, assisted by the RIC had reacted with unnecessary violence. With the Lockout Ireland was to experience its first Bloody Sunday - August 31st, 1913 – as a result of which James Nolan and John Byrne would later die, and over 500 people were injured.  Following tetanus contracted from her being shot in the wrist by a strike-breaker, 16 year old Alice Brady would also die.  Both James Larkin and James Connolly gave short speeches at Alice Brady’s funeral. 

That is the context in which James Larkin and James Connolly sought to build the ITGWU which the general union hoped would speak for Dublin workers but which would usher in their commonwealth of co-operation, ultimately transform society, including the building of an entirely different Ireland.

These union founders and leaders that brought a new more militant trade unionism to Ireland were imbued with a sense of intellectual engagement with the theme of the worker and society.  While they had a commitment to improving the lives of working people, they also had to grapple with the role of labour in the wider independence movement. It is important to recognise the significance of the new language they were using.  In retrospect, there seems to be an extraordinary optimism around their language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was a sense of revolution being in the air, of great changes under way, that would sweep an old order away.

The late Donal Nevin[7], a committed and painstaking chronicler of so much of Irish labour history, suggests that when you analyse the writings of James Connolly between 1896 and 1903, you get a sense of a messianic fervour and the idea that the collapse of the capitalist system was imminent. 

Donal Nevin wrote that the moment of the lockout has to be looked at in a broader international context.  It was not just James Connolly or indeed Jim Larkin, who fervently believed that this could be brought about in a relatively short space of time; there were others internationally like De Leon in the USA, and John Leslie in Scotland, who thought likewise, and brought a corresponding sense of urgency,   vigour and commitment to changing society. 

In the Ireland of this time there were a number of different themes informing the atmosphere of change.  It was a time of agitated and urgent organisation on a number of fronts, for example, – a cultural revival, a nationalist revival as well as a suggested labour awakening.  There was not only a sense of urgency but a sense of determination.   Historian Diarmaid Ferriter suggests that, to employ the words ‘Irish Republican’ and ‘socialist’ in the same breath seemed possible.  There was also the idea that it was not necessary to wait for middle class endorsement in order to bring about a new socialist regime or a new socialist existence. 

The Lockout, and particularly the events of Bloody Sunday, August 31st, 1913, saw artists responding to the society and to the crisis they saw unfolding around them.  Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel charts how writers such as G.B. Shaw, AE – George Russell and James Connolly coming from different perspectives arrived at a shared denunciation of the Lockout and particularly of the police response to the meeting of Sunday August 31st.  O’Ceallaigh Ritschel writes of how Patrick Pearse, who was part of a conservative reaction to John Millington  Synges’ Playboy of the Western World, had, by the time of the Lockout, moved to a position of defending the lockout workers.

After the Lock-out had taken hold and in response to the shocking scenes on Sackville Street where police baton-charged hundreds of civilians, Pearse began to develop an economic critique of British imperialism. Commenting in 1913 at the height of the Lockout, Pearse had written in A Hermitage:

“Twenty thousand Dublin families live in one room tenements. It is common to find two or three families occupying the same room: and sometimes one of the families will have a lodger!  There are tenement rooms in Dublin in which over a dozen persons live, eat and sleep. High rents are paid for these rooms, rents which in cities like Birmingham would command neat four –roomed cottages with gardens. These are among the grievances against which men in Dublin are beginning to protest. Can you wonder that protest is at last being made? Can you wonder that the protest is crude and bloody? I do not know whether the methods of Mr James Larkin are wise methods or unwise methods (unwise, I think, in some respects) but this I know, that here is a most hideous thing to be righted and that the man who attempts honestly to right it is a good man and a brave man.”[8]

Now following the reaction of the police and the RIC to the meeting Larkin had addressed on August 31st, Patrick Pearse wrote:

“An employer who accepts the aid of foreign bayonets to enforce a lock-out of his workmen and accuses the workmen of national dereliction because they accept foreign alms for their starving wives and children….[is] a matter for a play by Synge.”

W.B. Yeats too, was forthright in his charges against the Dublin Nationalist newspapers who demonized the workers.

“I charge the Dublin nationalist newspapers with deliberately arousing religious passion to break up the organization of the workingman, with appealing to mob law day after day, with publishing the names of workingmen and their wives for purposes of intimidation...Intriguers have met together somewhere behind the scenes that they might turn the religion of Him who thought it hard for a rich man to center the Kingdom of Heaven into an oppression of the poor.”

The Irish Times which had a consistent ‘anti-Larkin’ line, in 1913 for example, was nonetheless prepared to publish Yeats’ poem, ‘September 1913’ and George Russell’s (AE’s) polemic ‘Open Letter to the Masters of Dublin’.  

“We read in the dark ages of the rack and thumb screw.   It remained for the twentieth century, the capital city of Ireland to see an oligarchy of 400 masters deciding openly upon starving 100,000 people and refusing to consider any solution except that fixed by their pride. You masters asked men to do what masters of Labour in any other city in these islands had not dared to do. You insolently demanded of those men who were members of a trade union that they should resign from that union; and from those who were not members you insisted in a vow that they would never join it. Your insolence and ignorance of the rights conceded to workers universally in the modern world were incredible and as great as your inhumanity”[9].

George Russell was not the only public intellectual or writer to be galvanised into action by the Lockout and the response to the Sackville Street meeting.  He, and others, were now writing and speaking with an increasing social militancy that had clearly found its focus in the 1913 Lockout and the events that followed Larkin’s imprisonment.

At what was perhaps the major oratorical event outside Dublin, Russell shared a platform with James Connolly, who Russell described as “a really intellectual leader”, and George Bernard Shaw at a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 1st November.  Russell's speech was again highly critical of state and church authorities, particularly the police and William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin. The speech caused fury in the constitutional nationalist press; the Freeman's Journal accused A.E. of hiding anti-Irish sympathies in his socialism. The response in the media is clear evidence that for many a Nationalist independence was seen as not needing to carry a burden such as the liberation of workers’ rights.

At this time there was also an exchange of views in print between Russell and Connolly, each reading and responding to the other's theories of social and political organisation through the columns of the Irish Homestead and Connolly's books on labour in Ireland. Each offered the other a constituency difficult to reach – in Russell's case the urban worker, in Connolly's the farm labourer and smallholder[10].  This alliance, of course, was not to emerge, even in the later decades of the new State.

These exchanges, the variety of forums for the articulation of views and the preponderance of artistic voices gives a sense of radicals with a utopian vision yet meaningfully engaged with the society around them. You also have an evocative sense of suffering humanity amidst the crisis.  For example, running through the speeches from both sides on the Lockout are references to hunger and starvation.  This is echoed in the words of James Connolly, for example, as quoted by O’Ceallaigh Ritschel:

“You cannot build a free nation on the basis of slavery. We are against the domination of nation over nation, class over class, sex over sex. But if we are to make Ireland the Ireland of their dreams and aspirations we must have a free and self-respecting and independent people. You can never have freedom or self-respect whilst you have starvation, whether it is the green flag or the Union Jack that is flying over our head. If there is nothing in your stomach it matters mighty little what flag is flying.”

This reference to starvation is something that unites James Connolly and Patrick Pearse in their response.  The absence of resources for food for one’s dependents, and the fact that employers and those who stayed at work would eat, while those on strike would be hungry, was a feature of William Martin Murphy’s address to 700 of his tramway workers.

Many listeners will have read James Plunkett’s Strumpet City (1969) this year, as part of Dublin’s One City One Book initiative. Within its pages we see life as lived and suffered by convincingly drawn ordinary people. Neither propagandistic nor sentimental, James Plunkett remained true to his belief that “the duty of a good writer of fiction or drama is not to preach. It is to absorb, to observe, to distil and to reveal- gently’[11].

James Plunkett, drew among other sources on Arnold Wright’s Disturbed Dublin: The story of the Great Strike 1913-14[12] which was published as the employers’ defence of the Lockout, and in which workers are referred to as “damaged material” due to their low standard of living and low energy levels born of poverty, a reminder of the extremity of the views being expressed at this time.   However, in fairness to Arnold Wright, Disturbed Dublin acknowledges the horror of the atrocious housing conditions of the tenements.

Plunkett’s book is I believe faithful to history in both its depth and detail.  The book used for illumination one of the great tragedies of Dublin one hundred years ago when on the evening of 2 September 1913, two houses in Church Street collapsed without warning with 7 killed and many more injured.  This tragedy exposed the vulnerability of the tenement dwellers crowded into the rooms of once great houses, and underlined the poverty and the plight of the occupying families.   

Be it the Lockout, or the squalor of tenement existence both Nationalism and the Church were challenged as to their response.  The former Nationalism, had some members within it such as Thomas McDonagh, Thomas Ashe, Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse who supported the Lockout but there was, not just antipathy, but clear hostility from such figures as Arthur Griffith and his Sinn Féin paper.  Indeed, during the Summer of 1913 Douglas Hyde, President of the Gaelic League, attempted to expel Thomas Ashe and Patrick Pearse on account of their support of the locked out workers.  It is clear, even at this stage, that Home Rule, or a restored Irish Parliament within the British empire, for many Nationalists who sought it, was not to be encumbered by carrying the burden of workers’ rights.

As to the Church, the most serious clash between those locked out and the Church occurred following the offer of supporters in Britain, who were sympathetic to the Lockout, to host Irish children.   The confrontation led to a battle for the children travelling between Westland Row and the boat at Kingstown. 

It opened with cries of “throw them in the Liffey” addressed to  Dora Montefiore and Lucille Rand, promoters of the scheme and when the departure had been successfully blocked, Montefiore and Rand were arrested on charges of kidnapping.

The defeat of the scheme involved a large number of priests, with many joining the original 5 and a large crowd who had been swayed by their addresses.  ‘Have Faith of our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Glorious St. Patrick’ rang out as the children were returned to their homes in the tenements. Archbishop Walsh opposed the proposal that strikers’ children go to England for relief, not just on religious grounds, but also because of the fear that it would make them discontented with the homes that they would inevitably come back to sooner or later.

During the Lockout food ships sent by the British TUC had helped to sustain morale.  The assistance would have a value, in today’s terms, of about €10 million.  The same TUC however would not take the further step of supportive, sympathetic strike action. 

The content and the style of Jim Larkin’s leadership in advance of a special TUC Conference that was called had further antagonised his opponents within the trade union movement. When the time came to vote at the Conference, where delegates were largely chosen or selected, it was 2,280,000 votes against and 203,000 in support of a sympathetic strike in solidarity with the Irish workers who were locked out.

After four months of being locked out from their livelihoods, their children starving, and their families in dire hardship, the Lockout ceased in January 1914 and the workers were defeated.  James Connolly would write in Forward:

“And so, we Irish workers must go down into hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal.”

But while William Martin Murphy had won a victory in the short term, he was not successful in his greater aim of smashing the ITGWU or organized general trade unionism.  Through the heroic efforts by members and organisations it had recovered sufficiently to defeat a further attempt at lockout in 1915 as other employers recalling the cost of 1913 refused to join Murphy in his action.  By 1919 the International Labour Organisation would establish some of the principles he opposed as basic international labour law.  While membership was initially decimated, by 1921 the ITGWU had 120,000 workers throughout the country.  The union that William Martin Murphy had opposed had survived.  A Housing Commission also followed and it showed incontrovertible evidence of poverty and slum life near the heart of empire.

The role of the Irish labour movement and its leadership, in shaping Ireland’s democracy, is acknowledged by writers on the Lockout. The  work of Donal Nevin on James Connolly [13] and Francis Devine in relation to the history of SIPTU [14] is important. One of the most interesting things about what has been written on Irish labour history over the last ten to fifteen years is that the published books go beyond hagiography and demography; they are not particularly interested in extremes, but rather attempt to restore the real complexity of individuals who were trying to make history, who were trying to make a difference.

Today, talk of James Connolly must include his temperament, his frequent displays of volatility and the confusing and ambiguous relationship he had with Ireland.  Larkin too was inspirational in many ways but somebody who was exceptionally difficult to collaborate with. William O’Brien has often been presented as somebody who was a very destructive and malign force. However, Tom Morrissey[15] reassesses him as a much more rounded character, emphasising his contrariness and the fact that he died widely honoured but not widely liked, but also stressing the important role he played in terms of his intellect and of what he characterises as O’Brien’s deep humility. 

We must always respect what James Connolly and Jim Larkin brought to the Trade Union Movement and what they faced in terms of the Lockout of 1913, the social forces that colluded and combined to defeat them.  It would later be left, however, to people like William O’Brien in the decades after 1916 to focus on the actual structural aspects of trade union organisation; not a glamorous job but one that was crucial in keeping labour organized in the 1920s and 1930s.

The impact the Lockout had on the development of trade union consciousness in Ireland was vital. Dermot Keogh has argued that 1913 is important because of its contribution to that process, but that such a consciousness was not necessarily socialist, let alone revolutionary. [16]   This may be one reason why ten years after 1913, in 1923, a TUC Annual Report referred to the fact that working class electors still did not see the importance of having independent working class representatives.[17].  That is a particular reading of the situation that working class voters found themselves in, ten years after the lockout.  It highlights the great dilemma facing socialists in the 1920s and 1930s: how were they to appeal successfully to these voters?  The electorate that was unionised seemed to think that trade unions were adequate for looking after their economic interests, but that their other main concern, nationalism, was going to be catered for by political parties that were centrist.  There is that difficulty in a country that does not have a very advanced industrial society, and has been, in any case, cut off from its industrial base in North East Ulster. 

What was witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s was a record of some progress, but also of some less progressive developments in relation to labour issues.  Some of the important legislation of the 1930s, the Workmen’s Compensation Act, and the Conditions of Employment Act, for example, were designed in some respects to prevent exploitation, and the setting-up of the Agricultural Wages Board was another enlightened development.  Then, during the Second World War, there was the Wages Standstill Order, and the Trade Union Act and the fallout from that, leading to the existence of two trade union congresses.

One question that has to be asked is whether or not there could have been a more rapid improvement or even a healing of these divisions in the early 1950s, if so many people had not emigrated. As mentioned earlier, in 1913, Archbishop Walsh opposed the proposal that strikers’ children go to England for relief; not just on religious grounds, but because it might make them discontented with the homes to which they would inevitably return. There were certain similar concerns a few decades later on the part of government.  Of course, in the 1940s and 1950s, the young people who emigrated generally did not come back, but the permanence of their absence was not always clear.

During the Second World War, there was an interesting exchange of memoranda between the Department of External Affairs and the Department of Industry and Commerce about the threat that might exist if they did come back.  There was no guarantee that Britain would continue its liberal policies with regard to the intake of Irish immigrants. In a revealing document from the Department of Industry and Commerce in 1942, the author expressed a fear about ‘the dumping home of workers who no doubt will have imbibed a good deal of “Leftism” in Britain’ [18] and wrote about possible contingency plans for this. 

According to this document, it was quite clear that the threat of social revolution was going to be at its highest in the late 1940s and 1950s, with a whole swathe of unemployed individuals who, it was feared, were not going to take their situation lying down, who were actually going to fight to assert their right to challenge the status quo and perhaps demand what they had witnessed in places like England in the context of the emerging welfare state. 

In relation to women and the labour movement, it was quite clear that, in the early twentieth century, there was a great sense of vigour, vitality and commitment to change. Delia Larkin announced in 1911 that Irish women workers were as wide-awake as male workers.  When you consider the strike action in Jacob’s biscuit factory, where 3,000 women withdrew their labour to achieve their aims, which they did after a week, or the laundry workers’ strike which lasted three months but achieved two weeks paid holidays for working people, pioneering a norm for most industrialised workers, you can see the kind of trail women were blazing in the early twentieth century.

This trail went cold in the early 1920s.  There was a continuing growth in female trade union membership, but it was largely in mixed unions, which were not demonstrating enough vigour with regard to either equal pay or career progression. 

Then in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a problem with a more hostile climate for female workers, particularly trade unionists.  In the Conditions of Employment Act of 1935, along with sections designed to limit the exploitation of workers, there were provisions restricting the jobs available for women.  When you look at the response of some of the organized women to these restrictions you can sense a seething anger. 

The Joint Committee of Women Societies and Social Workers for example, suggested that the Act was one of the most reactionary pieces of legislation in that period and it placed Ireland at the head of an International Labour Organisation blacklist that highlighted countries that were actively discriminating against women in the workforce.  But when the Irish Women Workers’ Union went to look for the support of the Labour Party and the trade unions in its campaign against the act, support was not forthcoming.

It is also true that politicians, most notably Sean Lemass, who introduced the Conditions of Employment Act, were clever enough to link their concerns about women in the workforce with concerns that were already being expressed within the labour movement.  In referring to the ferocious reaction that had greeted his Act with regard to its provisions that affected female workers, he used what was called the ‘Derry card’: did they want a situation as they had in Derry where the men stayed at home minding the babies and the women went to work in the factories?  This particular card was very much bound up with the broader debate about the mechanisation of industrial workplaces.  What were traditional male roles?  What were contemporary female roles?   How was work that had been done in the home being translated into these factories?  Lemasss’ comments on men minding the babies while the women worked outside the home echoed exactly the comments of Senator Tom Foran, President of the ITGWU at the time, and Foran added: ‘do we really want this in this holy island of ours?’ [19]  That was the hostile climate in which women were operating in the trade union movement in the 1930s.

However, in 1953, when the Irish Women Workers actually brought the equal pay agenda to Congress, it is clear that its spokespersons were also keen to distinguish between different women within its ranks.  They were not going to look for equal pay for unmarried workers, for example.  Indeed, female trade unionists like Louie Bennett were not great feminist liberators in that context and should not be analysed as such. They were women of their era and they had concerns about certain classes of men being replaced in the workforce and doubted whether this was a good idea.

There was a huge growth in female trade union membership; by the 1970s, there were about 150,000 members. What is important to note is a sense of change, which was relevant to the 1980s as well; the shedding of some of the more patriarchal attitudes in the trade unions and other achievements for women that took place during a time of great unemployment. 

The influence of the Catholic Church with regard to labour questions was significant, particularly in the 1930s and deliberate scaremongering on the threat and evils of socialism coloured discussions on worker’s rights. Even though not successful, the primary school teachers’ strike of 1946 was important in demonstrating what organized professional workers could achieve through trade unions. The teachers strike was significant, too, in what it revealed about the role played by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles MacQuaid, who initially supported the claims of the teachers but then encouraged them to back down.  This was part of the practised ambiguity of the contributions made by the Catholic Church to labour and trade union questions during the post-war era. 

There was the promotion of the idea that the church was in favour of a ‘just wage’ but it would not define what constituted a ‘just wage’, because it conveniently deemed this to be a matter for the professional economists. In a sense the Church appeared to give with one hand only to take back with the other.  Its spokespersons sometimes maintained a very blatant middle class denial of the extent of poverty, of unemployment and of destitution in Ireland. 

For example, one Catholic social theorist, Seamus O’ Farrell, in a contribution to the Jesuit journal Studies in 1951, wrote about ‘the stupid propaganda of the calamity mongers’ who were determined to drive Ireland into communist slavery because they kept emphasising poverty.  He suggested that poverty fifty years before had been real but was now comparative; if actual destitution was to be found in Ireland, it was rare and avoidable.[20]  There was a sense of denial and the communication of a fear that highlighting the concerns of the unemployed was something that was ultimately going to lead Ireland into Communist slavery.  The denial of poverty was not confined to the thirties. Indeed it would be the 1970s when it would be ‘rediscovered’ at a Conference in Kilkenny.

The decades of social partnership warrant a separate treatment and adequate consideration. As a form of partnership or - as a source would describe it - a type of new corporatism, it had its achievements; but also its consequences in terms of blunting competing interests.

I think, however, that historians should consider difficult questions about whether there was too much focus on wages at the expense of the broader social issues.  Padraig Yeates has described one of the key lessons of 1913 as demonstrating “the need to broaden the agenda from work place issues to the wider social, political and economic situation”[21]. 

Such a lesson has a moral significance as we reflect on the increased drift and acceptance of models of economy and society and their connection that led to deregulated workers, extreme individualism, and an economic and social crisis from which we are struggling to recover. 

Finally, the Lockout also compels us to ask questions about our role in the wider international world of work – we are challenged to respond to the workplace tragedies of Pakistan where 300 textile workers were killed in a fire, or more recently in Bangladesh where over 1000 textile workers were crushed in a building collapse.  Today we learn about such disasters even more quickly than citizens in Ireland’s countryside learned of the collapse of Dublin tenements in 1913. As global citizens we are required to respond to such disasters, informed by our own Famine related past, and those who assisted us, but conscious too of the benefits we have achieved as a result of those, a century ago, who had the courage to struggle for the rights of workers.

In conclusion, I believe that it is vital that a new generation have a deep and textured understanding of the 1913 Lockout. Eric Hobsbawm, the legendary British historian who died recently, expressed concerns late in his career that:

“The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.”[22]

Without good history teaching, there is no shared idea of a public past. Now, more than ever, with a contemporary crisis and commemoration of a fascinating and difficult past, we need to empower all our citizens with an appreciation of how we got to where we are. This is not invoking the cliché about learning the lessons of history; rather, it is about seeing history as essential to understanding who we are today and who we might be, in co-operation with others, in the future.

Knowledge of history is intrinsic to citizenship. To have no knowledge of the past is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom. Knowledge of history allows us to debunk myths and challenge inaccuracies as well as to expose deliberate amnesia or invented versions of the past. It enables us to understand the formation of identity and the significance of diversity, nuance and context. It is thus knowledge we can bring to all experiences and walks of life. To not embrace and reflect on history is to reject an essential cultural endeavour; to not think about evidence, proof and the methods of researching the past is to ignore crucial tools of enlightenment and empowerment.

I encourage all the listeners and participants in tonight’s discussion to consider further the upcoming decade of commemorations as an opportunity for utilising the many new resources now available to professional and amateur historians alike, as aids to their citizenship. I also encourage our listeners to reflect with empathy and respect on the plight of the working families of Dublin who 100 years ago were courageous participants and victims of the great struggle between capital and organized labour now known as the Great Lockout of 1913.

Oíche Mhaith. 

[1] Seán O’Casey, Drums under the windows (London, 1945)

[2] Catriona Crowe (ed) Dublin 1911 (Royal Irish Academy, 2011)

[3] ibid, p. Xxi

[4] Seán O’Casey, in Feathers from The Green Crow, page 239, quoted in Krause, D. Seán O’Casey The Man and His Work, page 6     



[7] Donal Nevin, Between Comrades: James Connolly: Letters and Correspondence 1889-1916 (Dublin, 2007)

[8] UCC Multitext Project in Irish History p 15  

[9] Irish Times, 7 October 1913

[10] Nicholas Allen, George Russell and the new Ireland: 1905-30 (Dublin, 2003)

[11] Irish Times obituary of James Plunkett, 31 May 2003

[12] London, 1914

[13] Donal Nevin, James Connolly: A Full Life (Dublin, 2005)

[14] Francis Devine, Organising History: A centenary of Siptu, 1909-2009 (Dublin, 2009)

[15] Thomas J Morrissey, William O’Brien, 1881-1968 (Dublin, 2007)

[16] Dermot Keogh, The Rise of the Irish Working Class (Dublin, 1982), pp.245-50

[17] Donal Nevin (ed): Trade Union Century (Dublin, 1994) p.50

[18] National Archives of Ireland, Department of the Taoiseach, S11582A, ‘Irish Labour Emigration’, 18 May 1942; Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland (London, 2004)

[19]  Seanad Eireann Debates, 27 November 1935

[20]  Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘The stupid propaganda of the calamity mongers’: The middle-class and Irish politics, 1945-1997’ in Fintan Lane (ed) Politics, society and the middle class in Ireland (Palgrave, London 2011) pp.271-289

[21] Irish Times, 25 August 2003

[22] Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth century Life (London, 2002)