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Breaking The Union

Pádraig Yeates

A Capital in Conflict: Dublin City and the 1913 Lockout, edited by Francis Devine, Four Courts Press, 405 pp, €22.45, ISBN: 978-1907002106

This beautifully produced book is a feast for anyone interested in Dublin’s history. While the focus is on the 1913 Lockout it covers almost every aspect of life in the city. Francis Devine is an ideal editor for such a work and he produces a fine introductory chapter which ends, perhaps inevitably, by pointing out that the fundamental questions of collective bargaining and union recognition in the workplace which were at the heart of events back then remain unresolved a hundred years later.

Colin Whitston looks at the British and international dimensions to the lockout and emphasises the importance of realising that the employer was often the aggressor in the industrial battles of the era. Employers frequently applied pressure to force down wages and drive up working hours while developing new fighting organisations to confront the threats from industrial unionism and syndicalism. We are so used to Jim Larkin and James Connolly being characterised as revolutionary firebrands that we forget that the lockout was instigated by William Martin Murphy as president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. He had founded the Dublin Employers’ Federation precisely for the purpose of smashing Larkinism, the Irish variant of syndicalism. Whitston does a good job of summarising international developments and pointing to tensions that existed within the labour movement. However he takes a relatively uncritical view of the effectiveness of syndicalism and the sympathetic strike tactic that lay at its heart. He also fails to analyse the important role played by the British state in the lockout and its aftermath. That said, his essay fills an important gap in the study of the conflict.

“Every house should have a bathroom so that a man’s shirt need not be taken out of the pot for his dinner to be put into it,” Walter Carpenter told the Local Government Board Inquiry into the Housing Conditions of the Working Classes Inquiry in 1913. Lydia Carroll quotes the English-born sweep and socialist agitator at the start of her chapter covering public health and housing in Dublin. She makes excellent use of the material and provides a judicious assessment of Sir Charles Cameron, who was synonymous with public health policy in the city for almost sixty years. He would ultimately become a victim of his own longevity, a pioneer who ended up having to defend an iniquitous system that he had spent his life fighting to reform. She reminds us that Dublin was growing constantly in the decades leading up to the lockout with migrants from rural Ireland supplemented by foreign arrivals such as Jewish fugitives from Tsarist Russia. These all put extra pressure on the city’s crumbling housing stock. Despite the increasing chorus of critics, including the Local Government Board, she points out that under Cameron’s watchful eye the death rate fell from 37.7 per thousand in 1880 to 21.6 per thousand in 1913, while deaths from infectious diseases halved to 2.4 per thousand.

By contrast to most essayists in this collection David Durnin applies a narrow focus to “Medicine in the City”. Its medico-centric analysis of the city’s health service gives us a frightening insight into the mentality of the Irish medical profession and some of our health institutions, in this case the capital’s voluntary hospitals. Durnin tells a sorry tale of how the city’s employers and medical practitioners succeeded in preventing the main benefits of the British National Insurance Act of 1911 being extended to Ireland. We had to settle for the watered down National Insurance Act (Ireland) instead. William Martin Murphy was the main spokesman for the Dublin employers in explaining why providing medical benefits to working families was not a good idea; the voluntary hospitals were appalled at the impact such a change would have on revenue streams predicated on private medicine, while many doctors saw the “contract work” involved as “demeaning and detrimental to their status”. Members of the medical profession interviewed by the Parliamentary Committee investigating the extension of health benefits to Ireland said that “while not against the principle of medical benefits, [they] were wary of participating in a system that would hurt the earning power of the profession”. To prove their point they demanded a 21s capitation fee to co-operate with it, treble the fees paid to doctors in Britain. Durnin seems to blame the workers for putting an additional burden on the medical profession and the hospitals by rioting in the city, attacking the police and providing hundreds more casualties to be treated in the hospitals. He is on slightly firmer ground in blaming coal shortages on the industrial troubles, but is apparently as unaware that the British TUC was bringing coal into the city as he is of the nature of Bloody Sunday. Consequently, despite the damning evidence he has assembled against the private health system in Dublin at the start of the last century, he concludes that “labour disputes and the National Insurance Act combined to seriously threaten the already fragile system of voluntary hospitals”. The issue of financing health services would “prove to be a long lasting problem … well into the twentieth century”. He might have added “and beyond”.

Karen Hunt’s chapter on “Women, solidarity and the 1913 Lockout: Dora Montefiore and the ‘Save the Kiddies’ Scheme” provides a wealth of insights on what was the most contentious aspect of the lockout. As such, it was also the aspect of the struggle on which Irish participants least wished to dwell. Few came out of it well. It also failed to excite as much interest in Britain as might be expected because, as Hunt points out, of internal conflicts within the female suffrage movement. She makes a strong case for regarding the lockout as a critical event in the formal split of the WSPU between militant middle class “sex war” advocates and those who saw the struggle for greater sexual and economic freedom as a means of uniting men and women in a common cause. Hunt takes me to task for portraying Dora Montefiore as one of the “valiant middle class women who provided relief work” in the lockout. Dora Montefiore was certainly valiant and middle class but I must admit to doing her a disservice in underplaying her politics. As Hunt points out, she was not merely engaged in humanitarian work but “doing some of the constructive work for the future of organised industrialisation” by exposing strikers’ children to socialist ideas and to the prospects of a better life in a better ordered society. To this extent the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, was right in identifying the motives of Dora Montefiore and her helpers as not primarily humanitarian. It is a pity Hunt did not amplify more on the low intensity sectarian warfare in Dublin centred on proselytism that would help explain the hysterical reaction of some priests and Ancient Order of Hibernians members to the scheme, but she more than makes up for it by setting the “kiddies” incident in the wider British and feminist context.

Another perspective on the Dublin Kiddies Scheme is provided by Kate Cowan in ‘The Children of 1913’. She argues that Dora Montefiore was offering a short term solution to a long-running problem of child poverty in the city. Cowan looks at the realities of life on the streets and points out that children begging or working were not only vulnerable to abuse by adults but by other children, citing evidence of newsboys and young factory workers (mainly girls) facing intimidation and assault. Street begging increased, partly as a result of adult breadwinners losing their jobs and families being rendered homeless by eviction, but also due to the general breakdown in law and order. Children went on school strikes and, in the case of the Pro-Cathedral school, smashed windows. Children were also used as useful propaganda weapons on both sides. If the Irish Worker published the names and addresses of scabs, regardless of their age, the Irish Independent published those of parents willing to send their children to England.

“Infernos of Degradation” is one of the shorter essays in this book but also one of the most rewarding. Enda Leaney provides a very graphic account of life in the tenements with a good selection from the photographs taken by John Cooke and WJ Joyce of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1913. The NSPCC was one of the most active and effective voluntary bodies in the city. It is the accumulation of detail, horror piled on horror, that gives the chapter its power. Not only were the tenements, once home to the city’s departed aristocracy, unfit for multiple habitation by families, but so were the stables and coach houses adjoining them that were also colonised. Over a hundred people lived in some tenements and inhabitants often did not bother to use closets that were frequently out of order and a health threat in themselves. The contents of the one-roomed flats that made up the vast majority of lettings were minimal, with sacking on the floor serving as a bed and no table on which to serve scanty meals. Death rates in such homes were high and diseases virtually eliminated in British cities, such as typhus, not uncommon. A penurious Corporation did not maintain areas for which it was not legally responsible and Leaney estimates there were “900 streets, lanes, courts, passages and open yards not in the charge of the Corporation”. These accommodated sixteen thousand people and were also home to swarms of flies feasting off the rotting meat and vegetable waste. The numbers employed in manufacturing were falling, and with the decline in industry came a general deskilling of workers. Many general labourers were in casual jobs, making survival all the harder. Young men working as messengers could earn as little as 11s to support a family. One such messenger in Bride Street had a wife and four children. His wife and youngest child were consumptive. The north inner city’s notorious Monto area had counterparts elsewhere in the city, such as Ashe Street in The Coombe. Many of the city’s working class could expect to die in the workhouse and the pub offered a comfortable if potentially corrupting refuge to the family home.

As usual, Tom Morrissey takes up the mantle of devil’s advocate and tries to convince us that William Martin Murphy was a reasonable man, a good employer and someone who just refused to be bullied by Larkin’s “intimidating stature, assertive personality, and a power of rhetoric and invective that stirred up and won the loyalty of very many of the Dublin working class”. However well-intentioned this may be, he stretches the evidence somewhat: he cites Murphy’s intervention in the 1890 building strike to improve pay rates as evidence of his concern for the workers: the fact is that he wanted wages paid by other employers increased to match those he was already paying his own employees. The portrayal of Murphy as a benevolent employer on the trams is also contradicted by contemporary evidence of the very long hours worked by the men, the draconian discipline and the heavy reliance on casuals with “zero hour” contracts. Morrissey argues that Murphy was unfairly criticised for refusing to donate funds for the Hugh Lane Gallery but in fact he went far beyond merely refusing to make a donation. He actively campaigned to prevent the city council adopting the project and used the power of his newspaper empire to do so. When accused during a heated debate on the lockout of not doing enough to resolve the dispute, Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock expostulated: “Who would believe that anything I could have done would move Mr William Murphy? Did not that man take the Corporation ... by the throat on the Art Gallery question, and beat them all by himself?” Morrissey’s attempt to play down the hysteria whipped up by priests and Hibernians against Dora Montefiore and her helpers as merely “unseemly” does neither himself nor his church any favours. But his analysis is stretched beyond breaking point with his claim that Larkin was defeated by September 2nd and therefore the decision to enforce a lockout was an unnecessary strategic blunder. Murphy was intent on smashing the ITGWU. Larkin might well have been defeated by Murphy’s well planned offensive but Bloody Sunday changed all that. The British TUC entered the fray and the stakes rose exponentially. It is a pity that such a distinguished historian as Morrissey has allowed his obvious admiration for Murphy to lead him into defending to indefensible.

John Newsinger’s essay on “Jim Larkin and the Irish Worker” is the antithesis of Morrissey’s. It is a celebration of Larkin and Ireland’s most successful radical newspaper since the days of the United Irishmen. As Newsinger says: “Nothing like it has been seen since.” It was constantly evolving and provided a forum for a wide variety of contributors, ranging from Larkin himself and James Connolly, to Sean O’Casey, Standish O’Grady and its resident “Chief Sub”, Andrew Patrick Wilson. Its task, above all, was to explain the day’s events and their significance for workers. It told stories of dockers’ heroism rescuing small children from the Liffey and of employers’ exploitation, such as the report of an embroiderers in Golden Lane that paid two “children girls of 14 and 16” ten pence for twelve days’ work. It used these instances to inspire readers to strive for an industrial commonwealth where “there will be no child slaves”. As Newsinger points out, “The ferocity of the Worker’s journalism was quite deliberate. Larkin was concerned to make the working class aware of its potential and this involved abusing and diminishing its enemies.” If his essay has a weakness it is the same as Whitston’s, that of accepting fairly uncritically the line promoted by Larkin and Connolly of blaming the TUC for the lockout’s defeat. As Morrissey points out, the fundamental reasons lay nearer home. They were overmatched by the superior resources of the employers, who were receiving secret subsidies from their British counterparts, just as the TUC was more publicly funding Dublin’s workers. Nor were all employers as vindictive as Murphy and George Jacob in victory. At least some reinstated workers without requiring them to sign the “yellow contract” renouncing the ITGWU or cutting pay.

The lockout played an important role in the political education of Larkin and Connolly, as Niamh Puirséil demonstrates in her thoughtful essay “The Echo of the Battle: Labour Politics and the 1913 Lockout”. The first part of the title is a quote from Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy, first published in 1909 and probably his most read work. In it he declared that “the fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle”. Puirséil makes a strong case for the lockout as a hard learning experience for both men that forced them to realise the limits of industrial unionism. Again she quotes Connolly, this time from the 1914 ITUC conference, when he argued that economic and political organisation must “march abreast”. As Puirséil notes, politics is no longer a mere “echo of the battle”. That both men would draw very different political conclusions from the lockout was due to them being very different individuals with very different life experiences ahead of them. It is a pity Puirséil did not look at the longer term influence of the lockout on the Irish labour movement, a task for which she is eminently qualified. But that would have required at least another chapter, if not a book in itself.

In “Poverty paraded in the streets, 1913: the mothers and children”, Ann Matthews brings her formidable intellect and knowledge of working class Dublin, past and present, to bear. She makes the point, frequently missed, that the lockout covered the county as well as the city and that the working class was far from homogeneous. “The existence of class distinction among the women workers of Dublin is deplorable,” the Irish Worker declared in 1911 when the Irish Women Workers Union was getting off the ground. “You find the girl who earns her living as a typist stands icily aloof from the girl who works in the shop and the trades’ girl: they in their turn look down haughtily on the factory hand and again you do not find the factory girl associating with the girls who hawk their goods in the streets.” She reminds us of the importance of the Liberty Hall food kitchen as a provider of hot meals when coal was not available, or affordable, for working class families dependent on open fires to cook meals. Matthews provides an excellent summary of the work done by the Ladies Relief Committee established by the Lady Mayoress of Dublin and the support it received from employers, including some who locked out their employees; but then this relief was meant for families whose breadwinners were laid off rather than those directly involved in the dispute. She covers the sectarian undercurrents to the battle of the soup kitchens well and rescues Grace Neill, Dora Montefiore’s ablest “helper”, from obscurity. If I was able to produce a revised edition of my own book I would certainly take much of her new material on board.

Ciaran Wallace revisits the Hugh Lane Gallery controversy in his essay and explains how “a bitter dispute about modern art … revealed deeper divisions” in the city. Irish nationalism was expanding across the aesthetic as well as the political spectrum when the controversy erupted in early 1913. The Metal Bridge, an ugly temporary structure the gallery would replace, had foundations ideally suited to the provision of a gallery. (It was not, as is often thought the Ha’penny Bridge.) Without any apparent irony, William Martin Murphy opposed it on the grounds that the structure would prevent free movement of fresh sea air among the tenements, something he seems to have overlooked when the railway bridge linking Tara Street and Amiens Street stations was built. An unusual alliance of Labour, Sinn Féin and Unionist councillors supported the gallery project but the majority of nationalist councillors were opposed. They were mindful not alone of the power of Murphy’s newspapers but of the concerns of commercial ratepayers and Irish Party supporters he had rallied to his cause. Wallace provides an interesting alternative view of Murphy to Morrissey’s and highlights the divergent views of those who championed a more pluralist perspective on Irish nationality and the narrow, grasping, outlook of Murphy and his allies.

“A spent force? An Claidheamh Soluis and the Gaelic League in Dublin 1893-1913” by Séamus Ó Maitiu is the most original essay as it breaks into previously untrodden ground. Ó Maitiu traces the slow growth of the league in the city, much slower than in Belfast or even County Dublin, where branches in the unionist heartlands of Kingstown and Blackrock preceded the first Dublin city branch. Larkin, ever aware of the need to extend the cultural scope of the ITGWU, gave generous coverage to league activities in the Irish Worker, and to fundraising activities for St Enda’s School. This interest was not always reciprocated. Given the overwhelmingly middle class nature of its membership, national allegiances took precedence over those of class in the league’s attitude to the lockout. The activities of the TUC were regarded with suspicion but An Claidheamh Soluis declared that “Every Gael hates the black legs of England. They are the rabble and dregs of the human race.” It acknowledged that both sides received help from England. “The men get help of money and the masters get help of the foreign army.” It sought to reconcile the interests of the nation and those of the workers. “The cause of Irish and the cause of civilisation depends on the cause of the workers – the intellectual workers and the craft workers.” There was a reaction to this attitude among many of the old guard, including Hyde, who feared involvement in political issues would damage the league. In many ways the controversy over the Lockout opened cracks that became a chasm when the Irish Volunteers were formed at the end of 1913.

The chapter by Patrick Coughlan and Francis Devine, “In Pursuit of Patrick Donegan, Guinness boatman, 1895-1955: a case of family history” shows the importance of oral tradition in not alone recapturing the past but providing a motor for further research. (Some time ago members of the McCarthy family in San Diego contacted me about their grandfather, Edward McCarthy, the boat skipper dismissed at the same time as Patrick Donegan. Unfortunately I lost their email address when the ireland.com service was closed. If any reader has a contact for them I would very much appreciate if they would forward it to me.) This essay shows how the attitudes of an employer could have a potentially catastrophic impact on the lives of families dependent on their good will. Lord Iveagh saw in Donegan and McCarthy an opportunity to send, at no cost to himself, a chilling message to other employees who might flirt with Larkinism. The suffering inflicted on the families concerned does not appear to have entered his thoughts.

“George Russell and James Stephens: class and Cultural Discourse, Dublin 1913” by Leann Lane, explores the relationship between the Anglo-Irish cultural elite and the new Catholic master class personified in William Martin Murphy. Russell is mainly remembered today for his famous letter “To The Masters of Dublin”, published by The Irish Times, and a complementary speech in the Royal Albert Hall in London that was even more magnificent in its audacity. They both nearly cost him his job as editor of the Irish Homestead. Stephens’s The Charwoman’s Daughter was published the year before the lockout and was the first novel set in the tenements. As Lane points out, it is more realistic than Russell’s indignant moral flights but ends in its own flight of fancy to a happy ending. A more realistic conclusion to the novel would have been unbearable to a contemporary audience.

John Cunningham provides the final essay, “From Disturbed Dublin to Strumpet City: the 1913 “history wars”, 1914-1980”. Why the cut-off point is 1980 is not clear, especially as Cunningham prophesises that we have not seen “the last of the 1913 history wars”. The troubled decade after the lockout, combined with the vicious split in the ITGWU, ensured the “history wars” would be most bitter within the trade union movement itself. William O’Brien won the historical legacy battle for much of the following half century, when Connolly was presented as having saved the ITGWU from the destructive egomania of Larkin that almost destroyed the union in the lockout. The celebrants of the fiftieth anniversary in 1963 could at least afford to indulge their prejudices. No such luxury is available today. If the leaders of the ICTU do not adopt Larkin’s motto of “An Injury to One is the Concern of All” and hang together, they will surely hang separately.

Note: Two small but significant errors are a figure of 301,802 for people living in bad housing (page 130) and the conflating of John Byrne, an ITGWU member killed in the August riots with James Byrne, the ITGWU branch secretary who died in November 1913.

6/05/2013

Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921.

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