The 1913 Dublin Lockout: Helots and slaves of an empire

The Dublin lockout which took place from the 26th August 1913 to 18th January the following year stands as one of the most marked episodes of entrenched class conflict in Irish history.

Over 20,000 workers and 80,000 dependents were directly affected, as over 400 employers locked out members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) for refusing to sign a pledge to resign from the union and against sympathetic strike action. The city was paralysed by the dispute and saw pitched battles between scabs with police backing and picketing workers who went onto organise the Irish Citizens’ Army.

The lockout was the bosses’ response to the growing class tensions in Ireland. In particular it reflected their concern over the growing power of organised labour and the influence of the revolutionary socialist ideas of Jim Larkin and James Connolly who stood at the helm of the ITGWU. 1911 had seen Connolly lead the Belfast linen workers into an ultimately successful struggle against a brutal regime of speed-ups and attacks on conditions, whilst the Irish Labour Party was established in the same year. Between 1911 and 1913 the ITGWU had grown from 4,000 to 10,000 and was able to play a leading role in disputes involving carters and railway workers.

Connolly described the actions of the ITGWU in relation to the National Seamen and Firemen’s Union call for a general strike in all ports in 1911 as having embodied a class conscious from of trade unionism and which won it the loathing of Dublin’s capitalists:

“The call was in danger of falling upon deaf ears, and was, in fact, but little heeded until the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to take a hand in the game. As ships came into the Port of Dublin, after the issue of the call, each ship was held up by the dockers under the orders of James Larkin until its crew joined the union, and signed on under union conditions and rates of pay. Naturally, this did not please the shipowners and merchants of Dublin

“But the delegates of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union up and down the docks preached most energetically the doctrine of the sympathetic strike, and the doctrine was readily assimilated by the dockers and carters. It brought the union into a long and bitter struggle along the quays, a struggle which cost it thousands of pounds, imperilled its very existence, and earned for it the bitterest hatred of every employer and sweater in the city, every one of whom swore they would wait their chance to ‘get even with Larkin and his crew’.” (Daily Herald 6 December 1913-all of Connolly’s articles mentioned available at the Marxist Internet Archive,

As in the current period even the most basic demands of organised labour had become too much for the Irish ruling class. A bosses’ conspiracy against the ITGWU was formalised at an Employers’ Federation meeting in July 1913. The chief instigator was the Federation’s chair, William Martin Murphy, the millionaire chair of the United Tramways Corporation and owner of Clery’s department store, who also had a leading interest in the British and Irish Steam Packet Company. He was an Irish Rupert Murdoch of his day and used the Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers to slander the labour movement. From the 15th August onwards Murphy began do sack workers he suspected of ITGWU membership from United Tramways, which the ITGWU responded to by calling a strike on 26th August. In retaliation to this over 400 employers attempted to force workers to sign a pledge which renounced membership of the ITGWU and sympathetic strike action.

However, the workers of Dublin refused to be cowed and stood defiant in a dispute which would ultimately run on into 1914. Many of those on strike were not directly involved as members of the ITGWU. For instance Connolly emphasised the fact that members of the United Building Labourers’ Union joined the locked out ITGWU members out of instinctive class loyalty despite the fact the union had no strike fund. (Irish Worker, August 30th). Thus it quickly became evident that the lockout was not a ‘normal’ dispute over working conditions or pay. It was in fact a life and death struggle between the forces of labour and capital over the principle of the working class’ right to organise. This naturally extended to the forces of state repression. The Sunday after the strike began saw the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charge an ITGWU rally and kill two striking workers. During the course of the dispute there were repeated incidents of state violence against pickets. These were not the only murders inflicted on those involved in the strike. Michael Byrne, an ITGWU official from Dún Laoghaire, was killed by the torture techniques used by the police whilst a young striker Alice Brady was shot dead by a scab having collected a food parcel for her family.

As the strike developed large numbers of scab workers were brought in from Britain to attempt to break the strike. Connolly argued that “Deliberately, and with malice aforethought, they armed a gang of the lowest scoundrels in these islands, and after daily inflaming them with drink, sent them to and fro in the streets of the capital, inciting and maddening all those upon whose liberties they were helping to make war.” (Irish Worker, 13th December) In response to this repression, the Irish Citizens’ Army was established under the leadership of Connolly and ex-British Army officer Captain Jack White. It drilled and paraded publicly in Dublin’s streets and was active in defending picket lines.

In this sense the lockout was raising the question of ‘who runs society?’ The working class had effectively brought Ireland’s biggest city’s economy to a standstill, whilst the state’s role in the words of Engels as “armed bodies of men in defence of private property” was clear for all to see and being actively challenged by the ITGWU. In this situation the reality of the class allegiances of nationalism and liberalism were fully exposed. Despite its promises of delivering home rule in 1911 the Liberal government had allowed Lord Carson to organise and arm 50,000 in the Ulster Volunteer Force yet was without caution in clamping down on the organisation of the republican Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens’ Army. Larkin was arrested during the dispute after addressing a public meeting and exposing the role of the police as agents of the employers. Reflecting on this Connolly commented that it was the British Liberal government “that has turned Dublin into an armed camp, in which the citizens walk about in terror of their lives in the presence of uniformed bullies – in short, it is the Liberal Government that has lent itself to the employers to imprison, bludgeon, and murder the Dublin working class.” (Irish Worker, November 1st)

The forces of Irish bourgeois nationalism were directly involved in the dispute as employers, including Murphy who was an ex-Irish nationalist MP. Sinn Fein was similarly unwilling to support the working class in struggle. Its leader Arthur Griffith sarcastically sneered that a locked out worker was “not an Irish working man at all. He is a unit of humanity, a human label of internationalism, a brother of the men over the water who rule this country” (quoted in In this sense the lockout reflected an ongoing division in republicanism between those who aspired to build a movement fighting for the interests and mobilising the “men of no property”, as Wolfe Tone had called for in 1798, and those with a narrow nationalist conception affiliated to the rich and powerful of Ireland. During this dispute those who would go on to play leading roles in the Easter Rising came out in support of the ITGWU such as Constance Markievicz who joined the Irish Citizens Army and supported the locked out workers.

Working class solidarity was not confined to the borders of Ireland. The British Trade Union Congress (TUC) was meeting as the lockout began and pledged to give full support to the locked out workers. Food ships were sent to Dublin and £150,000 provided to the ITGWU to support the dispute. Over the course of the lockout a desperate situation emerged in Dublin and large numbers of strikers’ children were sent from Dublin to Liverpool, Glasgow and other parts of Britain and were taken into the homes of trade unionists and socialists in order to avert starvation. Arguably the most potent show of support for the Dublin working class was when 25,000 gathered in Manchester to hear Connolly and Larkin speak and show support for the ITGWU. Connolly juxtaposed this position with the large mobs which had gathered in a cloud of reactionary jingoism the night before the hanging of Fenian prisoners in 1867:

“To this latter-day gathering to be an Irish working class rebel – standing for all and more that the immortal three had stood for – was to possess a passport to their admiration and esteem. So much had education accomplished – so much and so far had the toilers of England progressed towards a realisation of their true position – realising at last that they are not citizens, but helots and slaves of an Empire.” (Irish Worker, 1st November)

Yet despite this solidarity and the widespread support for the lockout in both Ireland and Britain amongst the working class this was not enough for the workers to win the dispute. As the tactics of the ITGWU in earlier disputes had shown, there was a need for a class conscious and ultimately a politically motivated form of trade unionism to beat the bosses. This was only the more so in a dispute which was about far more than this or that element of pay and conditions but about who controls society and the basic right to trade union organisation. The solidarity of the capitalist class and their state lackeys therefore needed to be replicated in the organisation of the working class. As Connolly explained:

“We argued that a strike is an attempt to stop the capitalist from carrying on his business, that the success or failure of the strike depends entirely upon the success or non-success of the capitalist to do without the strikers. If the capitalist is able to carry on his business without the strikers, then the strike is lost, even if the strikers receive more in strike pay than they formerly did in wages. We said that if scabs are working a ship and union men discharge in another port the boat so loaded, then those union men are strike breakers, since they help the capitalist in question to carry on his business. That if union seamen man a boat discharged by scabs, these union seamen or firemen are by the same reason strike-breakers, as also are the railwaymen or carters who assist in transporting the goods handled by the scabs for the capitalist who is fighting his men or women. In other words, we appealed to the collective soul of the workers against the collective hatred of the capitalist.” (Forward, 9th February 1914)

This is to say that the working class’ conscious solidarity needed to be mobilised where workers’ power lies, in the means of production. Yet in December the TUC refused to do this; at a special conference on the lockout in December the TUC, Transport Workers’ Federation and Federation of Trade Unions refused to commit to any industrial action. In the aftermath of this the National Union of Railway Workers reopened the North West and London lines for boats to Holyhead, and threatened workers who refused to do so with disciplinary action. Similarly the Seamen and Fireman’s Union forced the opening of shipping lines by threatening to replace their Belfast and Dublin workers who refused to work them with union workers from Britain. For Connolly there was no question that “Sufficient to say that the working class unity of the first days of the Dublin fight was sacrificed in the interests of sectional officialism.” (Forward, 9th February 1914) The very unions such as the Seamen and Fireman’s Union that had benefited from the ITGWU’s previous action were those which effectively secured the defeat of the lockout.

Therefore the lessons we must take from the experience of 1913-1914 are both negative and positive. The dispute showed the potential and bravery of the working class entering struggle and our power and ability to bring society to a standstill. The working class held out for six months, organised its own defence and stood against all the other political tendencies in Ireland and the slander put out against it by the bosses’ press. However, despite the heroism of the workers of Dublin and the support they received from workers across Ireland and also in Britain, the dispute was ultimately lost. A huge responsibility for this lay with the leaders of the trade union movement. Unlike the ITGWU the TUC’s leaders did not have a political understanding based on the necessity of class struggle and the need for strikes to be won through the fullest mobilisation of the working class against capital to force concessions and ultimately struggle for socialism.

The modern leaders of the Irish labour movement stand in the same tradition as their British counterparts in 1913 and have moved far from the traditions of the Labour Party and ITGWU that stood so heroically during the lockout. In this sense the lessons of this period are pertinent for our struggles today. We are faced with a Labour Party which is not merely failing to oppose, but is actually in government implementing austerity measures and attacks on workers’ living standards such as the household tax and Industrial Relations Amendment Bill which will both hit the low paid worst. The only real alternative for the workers and young people of Ireland is to be found in the methods of Connolly and Larkin. The coalition must be broken. Only the mobilisation of the working class against all attacks to both the private and public sector workers and a struggle under the political banner of a socialist united Ireland offers a solution.

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