Sep 2, 2013
The following appeared in the July-August 2013 Workers’ Fight, journal of the revolutionary workers group of the same name active in Great Britain.
At 9:40 a.m. on August 26, 1913, Dublin’s streetcar workers in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) responded to the firing of union members by going on strike. This was to spark the famous five-month Dublin lockout, which pitted 20,000 locked-out workers against the Dublin bosses.
At the time, after more than 700 years of direct British rule, the conditions for workers in Ireland were far worse than in Britain. In Dublin, 20,000 working-class families lived in single rooms. The annual death rate was appalling, higher even than in Calcutta, with its plague and cholera infestations. Meanwhile, an increasingly affluent Irish capitalist class was exploiting Irish workers on behalf of British capital.
Up to the launch of the ITGWU, most organized Irish workers had been affiliated with British trade unions, without getting much in return. This changed following the arrival in Belfast in 1907 of James Larkin. Born in Liverpool of Irish parents, Larkin was angered by the poverty he saw all around him and decided to use his experience as a trade-union activist on the docks in Britain. In December 1908 he was one of the organizers of the ITGWU – an Irish-based union open to all unskilled workers. Two years later, Britain’s 1910 strike wave spread across the Irish Channel and, in 1911, there were four major strikes in Ireland, mostly involving the ITGWU. By 1912, the ITGWU membership had risen to 41,000.
At this point William Murphy entered the ring. A Catholic nationalist, he was then the richest businessman in Dublin. His empire spanned the manufacture of streetcars, the running of public transport in Irish towns, as well as newspapers, hotels and finance. His workers were low paid, spied upon and subjected to fines and instant firings. Larkin rightly described him as a “foul and vicious blackguard, a modern capitalistic vampire.”
Murphy had vowed to “smash” the rising ITGWU. On August 15, he had fired 60 newspaper workers in the union and 200 streetcar workers who refused to handle his newspapers. Murphy urged his fellow employers to renege on their agreements with the ITGWU, which responded in kind by calling streetcar workers to strike.
Workers were locked out and Larkin was arrested with other ITGWU leaders, though soon freed. On Saturday, August 30, following police baton attacks on 6,000 demonstrators, rioting developed. As the rioting spread, inhabitants from nearby slums reinforced the rioters. The lockout saw its first fatalities. James Nolan and John Byrne were killed by police batons. Three days later, Nolan’s coffin was followed by a mile-long procession.
The next day, a planned rally on Sackville Street was banned. Thousands nonetheless turned up hoping to see Larkin – who appeared disguised as an old man. But he was quickly arrested and the police went on a rampage, injuring 460 workers within a few minutes. As news spread, rioting broke out all over the city in working-class areas. Police then targeted the poorest tenements, smashing anything they could with their batons. Sunday, August 31 became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Hoping that the situation would resolve itself, the British government waited another three weeks. Then it called in George Askwith, who had negotiated with the unions during the 1910 strike wave in England. While Askwith condemned the employers’ attack on workers’ rights, Murphy boasted that he would continue eating three square meals a day. If the workers chose to starve, it was their own choice.
In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday,” Larkin called for the setting up of a workers’ militia, capable of protecting demonstrators against the attacks of the police. This militia came into being at the end of September, in the form of the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), which trained by night in Croydon Park.
By October, Larkin was again free and touring Britain to mobilize support. In front of crowds of 25,000 he called on workers to refuse to handle Dublin’s “tainted” goods. Workers responded with protest strikes in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. But the last thing the British TUC leaders wanted was any kind of collective action, leading Larkin to note that the TUC leaders were “about as useful as mummies in a museum.” Using the excuse that the lockout was “purely Irish,” they defused the spontaneous wave of solidarity that was growing among British workers. Instead, they offered their financial assistance to the Dublin workers and funded food ships for the strikers, leaving British workers in the role of passive spectators.
For the Dublin workers, however, this support was a double-edged sword. In January 1914, the TUC leaders felt it was now safe to turn off their funding. In the end, having been isolated by the TUC leadership from their only natural ally, the British working class, the Dublin workers were starved back to work.
Despite its defeat, the Irish working class had demonstrated its ability to fight, regardless of religion or sect, using its own organizations, the ITGWU and ICA, for its own class interests – and not just against the British – but also against the Irish capitalists who claimed to represent the “Irish nation.” As Lenin wrote in the early days of the lockout, “The Dublin events mark a turning point in the history of the labor movement and of socialism in Ireland. Murphy threatened to destroy the Irish labor unions. He only succeeded in destroying the last remnants of the influence of the nationalist Irish bourgeoisie over the proletariat in Ireland.”
And even if this tradition was largely drowned in blood, first by the British after the 1916 Easter Rising and then by their Irish stooges after the partition between the north and the south, the struggle of the Dublin workers remains an example of class independence for today’s and tomorrow’s battles.