By Edward T. O’Donnell
Eighty-seven years ago this week, on Aug. 26, 1913, thousands of Dublin’s workers went out on strike. It was the largest labor action in Ireland’s history and the culmination of several years of increasingly radical tactics by Dublin’s fledgling unions. But as with just about any major event in Ireland in these years, the Dublin Lockout, as it came to be known, was soon transformed from a dispute between labor and capital to a vital chapter of the nationalist struggle.
The leader of the strike was James Larkin, a Liverpool-born Catholic and radical socialist. He had emerged in recent years as a leading figure in the effort to improve the lot of Irish workers — among the worst paid and worst housed in Western Europe. In 1908, he organized the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and built it into a formidable labor union encompassing thousands of workers from a broad array of skills and trades. Over the next few years, the ITGWU organized strikes and engaged in hard-nosed negotiations to win wage increases and improved conditions for workers.
Flush with his success, Larkin set his sights on the Dublin United Tramway Company, owned by William Martin Murphy, the richest man in Ireland. Murphy, a staunch conservative, resolved to destroy Larkin and the ITGWU by organizing Dublin’s leading employers in a united front against the union. When they demanded that their workers resign from the ITGWU or be fired, Larkin called the strike, which began on Aug. 26. Murphy and his fellow employers proceeded to lock out their workers. The employers enjoyed the support of the media, including Murphy’s Irish Independent, and the Catholic clergy and by mid-September 25,000 workers were locked out.
By then the struggle had become bitter and violent. On several occasions, locked-out workers assaulted workers hired to replace them. Squads of the Dublin Metropolitan Police routinely drew their batons and charged crowds of strikers, killing two workers on one occasion. The latter incident prompted Larkin’s fellow radical socialist James Connolly to form the Irish Citizen Army to protect workers.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the workers hung tough for four months, pooling their meager resources and setting up soup kitchens. By January, however, the strike was over. The ITGWU ran out of money and its erstwhile brethren in the British Trades Union Congress voted to end financial support. Workers returned to their jobs on Murphy’s staunch anti-union terms with little to show for their sacrifice.
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The legacy of the Dublin Lockout of 1913-14 was that it established a firm link between trade unionism and radical nationalism. The bitterness of the defeat, especially the decision of the British Trades Union Congress to cut off funds, left many workers convinced they would never receive a better deal while Ireland remained under British colonial domination. Connolly, a major proponent of this view, took over the ITGWU when Larkin left for the United States on a fund-raising mission. Two years later, Connolly committed the union’s socialist militia, the Irish Citizen Army, to the conspiracy that became the 1916 Easter Rising.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Aug. 24, 1803: United Irishmen leader James Napper Tandy dies in exile in France.
Aug. 25, 1946: Ben Hogan captures his first major golf title, winning the PGA Championship at Portland, Ore.
Aug. 28, 1877: Charles Stewart Parnell is elected President of Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, a movement dedicated to regaining parliamentary independence from Westminster.
Aug. 28, 1963: Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle opens the civil rights March on Washington with a prayer.
Aug. 23, 1785: War of 1812 naval hero, Oliver Hazard Perry born in Kingston, R.I.
Aug. 23, 1912: Dancer and actor Gene (Eugene Curran) Kelly born in Pittsburgh.
Aug. 25, 1913: Cartoonist Walt Kelly born in Philadelphia.
Aug. 28, 1896: Writer Liam O’Flaherty born in the Aran Islands.
Aug. 29, 1871: Artist and brother of William, Jack B. Yeats, born in London.
Aug. 29, 1936: Senator John McCain born in the Panama Canal Zone.