1916 is often mentioned as an important year in Irish history, and it’s due to get a lot more attention with the centenary of the Easter Rising occurring next year. However, just 3 years before that was another momentous time for Ireland that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves. It’s all to do with a man by the name of James Larkin (or ‘Big Jim’ as he was commonly known), who fought for worker’s rights, introduced trade unionism to Ireland, and generally made the country a better place in more ways than one. Here’s what you need to know about 1913, the year of the now infamous ‘Lockout’.
Dublin in the 1900s
100 years ago Dublin was an entirely different city to what it is now. The knock-on effects of the Potato Famine of the mid-19th century were still being felt - rural areas still offered little opportunities for a population which was beginning to thrive once again. Unless you were a member of the wealthy upper classes, if you lived in the countryside you either earned a living through agriculture or, failing that, you lived in poverty. Industrialisation and urbanisation had hit Ireland in a big way however, so everyone who was able made their way to the cities in search of earning a decent wage. As a result the cities - Dublin in particular - became horrendously overcrowded.
Much of the Georgian houses in the city centre - which we now know as sleek offices - were then tenements. Each room in a single house would be the home of at least one whole family, and usually more than one. The worst of these tenement slums was Henrietta street, which at its worst had 835 people living in just 15 houses. All of the usual problems that come with poor living situations like those in Dublin were even more exaggerated; infant mortality rates stood at 14% and deaths from tuberculosis were 50% higher than in England or Scotland. As well as all of the above, the people in these tenements had little or no work despite the wave of industrialisation.
The vast majority of workers were unskilled and uneducated, and they had to compete with one another on a daily basis for casual work that paid a pittance - usually the people who agreed to work for the lowest wage (and who got there first) would win the job for the day. The hiring took place in pubs, which didn’t help matters either - alcoholism was widespread among the lower classes, and drinking with the foreman (and buying him drinks too) was often the only way to get him to notice them, and thus slightly increase the chances of them getting a day’s work from him. Over in England and Scotland, workers had been dealing with similar conditions for much longer and had begun to organise themselves and fight for their rights. Among the things they demanded were a decent wage, reasonable working hours and better working conditions. Employers at the time however were archaic, very conservative, and only concerned with making as much money as they could, as fast as they could. So the battle was long and difficult, and when it eventually made its way to Dublin it became even more so.
James Larkin was born in Liverpool in 1876 to Irish immigrant parents.Liverpool at the time was in a similar situation to Dublin, and the Larkin family were one of many families who lived in the city’s slums. From the age of 7, James began working in various manual labour jobs to help support his family, attending school in the mornings and working in the afternoons. When his father died he left education completely and took an apprenticeship (all by age 14). It didn’t work out however, and he spent a few years as a sailor, docker, and in various other odd jobs, with intermittent unemployment in between. Eventually by 1903 he had worked his way up the ranks to become a dock foreman.
Along the way, he had also developed an interest in socialism and joined the Independent Labour Party. He participated in a docker’s strike in 1905, losing his job as a foreman as a result. Undeterred, he joined the National Union of Dock Labourers and quickly became a valued union organiser. Having successfully organised workers like himself into unions in Preston and Glasgow, he then made his way to Belfast in 1907. Again he quickly organised dock workers and lead them to take strike action. It was in Belfast that Larkin first used the tactic of sympathetic striking, where workers not directly involved in the docker’s strike joined them in support. It was a very controversial tactic and ended up with Larkin being kicked out of Belfast and sent to Dublin instead! As always, this small setback did nothing to stop him, and he set about organising Dublin workers as soon as he arrived. However, Dublin employers held much more power than those in other cities; they had no qualms about blacklisting workers who joined unions. The NUDL were weary of the entire situation knowing it would get very complicated and dangerous. They suspended Larkin so he couldn’t continue his work. Again, this was no cause for concern; he merely set up his own union instead, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The Origins of the Lockout
The ITGWU was unique in Ireland because it catered for both skilled and unskilled workers. For that reason it spread like wildfire. Between 1908 and 1910 it lost several strikes, but people still took notice nonetheless. When it finally began winning from 1911 onwards, membership soared from 4,000 people in 1911 to 10,000 by 1913. This caused much annoyance for the dominating employers in the city like William Martin Murphy.Murphy owned the Dublin Tramway Company, Clery’s department store, the Imperial Hotel, and three of Ireland’s biggest newspapers at the time. He despised trade unions and saw Larkin as a dangerous revolutionary.
This wasn’t altogether untrue; Larkin was strategically using the ITGWU as a vehicle for his increasingly political views. He wanted to bring about a socialist revolution through unionising and striking. Meanwhile another important figure in the workers’ rights movement was gaining prominence; James Connolly. Connolly was a staunch socialist and a talented orator and writer, known for his speeches on socialism and nationalism. He founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and became involved with the ITGWU. He and Larkin partnered together to form the Irish Labour Party so that workers would have representation in Parliament - yet another cause for major concern for Dublin employers and a step in the right direction for Larkin and his ideals. In response, William Martin Murphy called a meeting of 300 employers in July 1913. They began dismissing any workers they suspected of joining the ITGWU: Murphy personally dismissed over 300 of his own employees.
The Beginning of the Lockout
The dismissal of ITGWU workers was the spark that began a war between the employers and the unions. Workers across the city went on strike in all industries - the city more or less came to a standstill. In response, employers locked out their workers and brought in ‘blackleg’ labour from the UK to keep their businesses up and running. There was national outcry when this happened, not least because of the tensions that existed at the time - Ireland was in the midst of a long struggle for independence from Britain, and was on the brink of achieving home rule, so employers hiring British workers was seen as not only unethical, but unpatriotic too.
The lockout dragged on and on, meaning that the already poor working classes became even poorer with no work first for days,then weeks, then months. Strikers organised mass pickets outside their places of employment and in prominent parts of Dublin city. Strike breakers became hostile towards strikes and clashes became common, increasing in violence as the lockout wore on. The nation became totally divided between those who supported the strikers and those who didn’t. The British Trade Union Congress sent a massive £150,000 to help struggling workers provide for their families, and attempted to organise a ‘Kiddies Scheme’, where children of workers would be sent to families in Britain to be cared for, on a temporary basis until the lockout ended.
This added an entirely new dimension to the lockout. The Catholic Church, which at the time was respected by everyone across the country and had considerable power, refused to let the Kiddies Scheme go ahead on the basis that the children would be influenced by Protestant influences if taken into British families. In doing so, they declared their support for the employers. Furthermore, William Martin Murphy’s newspapers (three of the most important in the country) published articles on a daily basis portraying Larkin as a villain. The Dublin Metropolitan police began to baton charge workers. Clashes became so intense that a number of workers died as a result of baton charges and several hundred were injured.
When the violence escalated, James Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army, a volunteer militia force, to protect workers during demonstrations. As usual, Larkin didn’t take this lying down. The baton charges by the police were in fact a response to what is probably one of the biggest acts of defiance outside of actual war in the history of Ireland. By this time in the Lockout, he had been banned from holding meetings or speaking in public, but he managed to sneak into William Martin Murphy’s Imperial Hotel on O’Connell Street. He reached a balcony facing the street and stepped outside, speaking to the masses of workers that had assembled below. Leading figures of the Independence movement, who were becoming more and more well known in the run up to the Easter Rising of 1916, were also very outspoken about their support for the worker’s cause, adding fuel to the fire.
The Lockout’s Conclusion and Legacy
By early 1914, workers had been on strike for almost 6 months and were on the brink of starvation. It was clear that no real resolution was forthcoming. Larkin and Connolly made a last ditch attempt to whip up sympathetic strikes from the TUC, but to no avail. Dublin workers had no choice left but to go back to work. In most cases, their employers only re-hired them if they signed a pledge not to join a union, and blacklisted workers were refused employment. With all of their options exhausted in Ireland, many were forced to join the British army, and were in the trenches of World War 1 soon after. Larkin left for the US in 1914 and Connolly was executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising.However, although bent the ITGWU was not broken. William O’Brien and Thomas Johnson came on board to set it to rights, and by 1919 its membership had surpassed that of 1913. Although eventually defeated, the actions of the ITGWU and the workers in the 1913 lockout resulted in a change for the better for working conditions in Ireland. No employer could ever attempt to ban their employees from joining unions again, and over the coming years pay and conditions did slowly improve. Worker’s solidarity and the importance of unions had also been firmly established, making Ireland a better place for everyone.