Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

The Irish in Labor


by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian

One hundred years ago on August 19, a force was born that 
changed Irish history. It is doubtful that the Easter Rising of 
1916 could have taken place without the organizational ability 
of the Irish Citizen Army which sprang from the labor union 
movement in Dublin and the effects of the Great Dublin 
Labor Lockout. Yet, that movement was very slow to organize 
in Ireland compared to the remarkable impact that the Irish 
had on organizing labor earlier in America which will be 
presented in Part Two. 
	The labor union movement was slow to grow in Ireland, 
partly because there was little industry in the country outside 
the north-east and most businesses, industrial and otherwise, 
enjoyed government support which meant local constab­ulary 
would enforce any antiunion action of the employers. Further, 
the few trade unions that did exist were headquartered in 
England and focused on working conditions rather than 
management-labor relations.
Some organizations did exist, but they were more nationalist 
oriented and focused mainly on political change and the land 
issue, despite the fact that condi­tions of the working class in 
larger cities like Cork and Dublin were deplorable. In 1911, 
Dublin's workforce was unskilled, unorganized and 20% were 
unemployed. Those who did find a job earned half the wage 
being paid in London. Almost 30,000 worker's and their families 
lived in oneroom flats in decaying tenements where greedy 
landlords failed to provide decent sanitary living conditions 
causing disease to take inordinately high death tolls. A report 
published in 1912 claimed that TB ­related deaths in Ireland 
were fifty percent higher than in England.
The first indication of change came with the arrival of James 
Connolly in 1896. He had been blacklisted in Scotland for trying 
to organize workers there and was invited by the Dublin Socialist 
Society to try his hand as a paid labor organizer in Ireland. He 
had little success since the laborers had been so intimidated by 
man­agement and in 1903 he left for the United States, frustrated 
by his lack of progress. Five years later, James Larkin took up 
the challenge and began to reap the seeds that Connolly had 
sewn.  In 1906 Larkin had been sent as General Organizer of the 
British-based National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL) in 
Belfast, but his tactics were so controversial that in 1908 he was 
transferred to Dublin to recruit dock labor there. In Dublin he 
found that all unskilled workers were at the mercy of employ­ers 
who 'blacklisted' anyone suspected of union activity, destroying 
their chance of future employment. Outraged by conditions 
bordering on serfdom, Larkin set about trying to organize them all, 
regardless of trade. That became a concern for the NUDL who 
were reluctant to engage in an industrial dispute with Dublin 
Businessmen. As a result Larkin was suspended from the 
NUDL in 1908. He quit and set up his own Irish Transport 
and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) to mobi­lize the city's 
unskilled labor.
Meanwhile, Connolly had been involved in the American 
Labor movement and published a newspaper aimed at the 
Irish labor market in America. It featured many articles on 
Irish happenings and he realized that there was  where his 
heart had always been. Connolly returned from America 
in 1910 and settled in Belfast to con­tinue organizing the 
ITGWU there. In August, 1912 Connolly was called to 
Dublin where one of the greatest labor struggles in the 
history of western Europe was about to begin. By 1913 
Larkin and Connolly had signed up 10,000 members making 
their organization Ireland's largest and most militant union 
with its own blend of union­ism, republicanism and socialism. 
Larkin, a hero to the working class, preached that workers 
should share ownership of the product or service they 
produced and should control the government in a socialist 
economy as opposed to Communism where the state 
controlled the unions.
	In 1913, he and Connolly were determined to break the 
anti-union stance of the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC) 
owned by William Martin Murphy, an ex-MP and proprietor of the 
city's biggest newspaper, largest department store and hotel, and 
founder of the anti-union Dublin Employers' Federation (DEF). A 
dis­pute began when Murphy demanded that his employees quit 
membership in the ITGWU or be fired. Larkin and Connolly knew 
this was a death threat against the Union, so they called for a 
walkout by the Tram workers on August 26. Murphy locked them 
out and brought in scab labor. The strike was a daring move, since 
labor unions had never succeeded in Ireland where government 
troops supported employers. Ironically, 33 years earlier the Land 
League had introduced a ban on work and services against the 
landlords which was so successful it became a stan­dard tactic. 
Named for the first landlord's agent against whom it was used, 
the Boycott was essentially a strike and Connolly, a student of 
Land League tactics, knew that well. In America, as a paid 
organizer for the American labor union movement, he learned 
that a well planned strike was an effective weapon.

Larkin called a series of sympathy strikes, affecting other parts 
of Murphy's empire as well as the businesses supporting him. 
The DEF supported the DUTC by locking out all who belonged 
to the union and replaced them with strike breakers. By late 
September, the dispute involved 20,000 workers across the city 
and their dependants. Larkin planned to remove dependent 
children from the effects of the strike by sending them to caring 
families of union workers in England, but the Catholic church 
stepped in and forbade it fearing the children would eventually 
become Protestant!
Violent clashes between workers and the police were frequent, 
especially where scab labor was employed. On 31st August, 
Dublin Police baton charged a crowd leaving two dead and 
hundreds injured. In November 1913, Connolly formed the Irish 
Citizen Army (ICA) at their union headquarters in Liberty Hall 
to protect workers. The ICA would become a far more 
significant force than originally planned. However, despite 
Larkin's fund-raising trips, by January 1914, it was evi­dent that 
the workers had lost the dispute.  Lacking the resources for a 
prolonged campaign, starving workers began to drift back to work 
on the employers' terms. Larkin conceded, We are beaten, but truly 
they had achieved something significant. They had mobilized a 
Dublin labor force for the first time and the cost to employers 
insured that the lockout as a tactic would never be used again 
and employers would never again treat their employees with the 
same indifference as before. In Easter Week 1916, the tenement 
dwellers would take revenge on the businesses which supported 
Murphy, but in October 1914 Larkin, worn out and frustrated, left 
for America. James Connolly ably filled the vacuum. After the union 
defeat in the great Dublin Lockout, Connolly began preaching a more 
militant stance against the merchants and their government 
supporters. Fearing that he would incite a rising before they were 
ready, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), who had been secretly 
planning just such an action, snatched him on 19 January 1916 and 
held him for 3 days. Connolly was briefed on the plans for the Easter 
Rising and given a seat on the Military Council. He gladly promised 
the support of the ICA. In April, the proclamation of the Irish 
Republic was printed on a press in the basement of Union headquarters 
in Liberty Hall. 
	On April 24, James Connolly led the Irish Citizen Army, along 
side the IRB and the Irish Volunteers, into the streets of Dublin and 
the pages of Irish history. Organized labor was now a factor in 
Ireland's future just as it had been in America.
(Next issue - the Irish in American Labor)

RE:  The National Hibernian Digest,  
     Vol. LXXX No. 4,  July - August 2013  Pg. 10, 13