The Dublin Lock-out (Irish: Frithdhúnadh Mór Baile-Átha-Cliath) was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers which took place in Ireland's capital city of Dublin. The dispute lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914, and is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history. Central to the dispute was the workers' right to unionise.
Irish workers lived in terrible conditions in tenements. An estimated four million pledges were taken in pawnbrokers every year. The infant mortality rate amongst the poor was 142 per 1,000 births, which was very high for a European nation. The situation was made considerably worse by the high rate of disease in the slums, which was the result of a lack of health care and cramped living conditions, among other things. The most prevalent disease in the Dublin slums at this time was tuberculosis (TB), which spread through tenements very quickly and caused many deaths amongst the poor. A report published in 1912 claimed that TB-related deaths in Ireland were fifty percent higher than in England or Scotland, and that the vast majority of TB-related deaths in Ireland occurred amongst the poorer classes.
Poverty was perpetuated in Dublin by the lack of occupational opportunities for unskilled workers. Prior to the advent of trade unionism in Ireland, unskilled workers lacked any form of representation. Furthermore, there were many more unskilled labourers in Dublin than there were jobs for them. Thus unskilled workers often had to compete with one another for work on a daily basis, the job generally going to whoever agreed to work for the lowest wages.
Jim Larkin and the formation of the ITGWU
James Larkin, the main protagonist on the side of the workers in the dispute, had a history within the trade union movement. His first experience with trade unionism in Ireland had been in 1907 when he was sent to Belfast as local leader of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) after working as a docker in Liverpool. While in Belfast, Larkin organised a strike of dock and transport workers. It was also in Belfast that Larkin developed his tactic of the sympathetic strike, whereby workers who were not directly involved in an industrial dispute with employers would go on strike in support of other workers who were. The Belfast strike was moderately successful and boosted Larkin's standing amongst Irish workers. However, his tactics were highly controversial and as a result Larkin was transferred to Dublin. Unskilled workers in Dublin were very much at the mercy of their employers. Employers who suspected workers of trying to organise could "blacklist" them, practically destroying any chance of future employment. Nevertheless, Larkin set about trying to organise the unskilled workers of Dublin. This was a cause of concern for the NUDL, who were reluctant to engage in a full-scale industrial dispute with Dublin employers. As a result Larkin was suspended from the NUDL in 1908. Larkin then decided to leave the NUDL and set up his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU).
The ITGWU was the first Irish trade union to cater for both skilled and unskilled workers. In the first few months after its establishment it quickly gained popularity, and soon it had spread to other Irish cities. The ITGWU was used as a vehicle for Larkin's syndicalist views. Larkin believed in the bringing about of a socialist revolution by way of the establishment of trade unions and the calling of general strikes. After initially losing several strikes between 1908 and 1910, the ITGWU became more successful after 1911, winning several strikes involving carters and railway workers. Between 1911 and 1913, membership of the ITGWU rose from 4,000 to 10,000. This trend did not go unnoticed by employers, who soon became alarmed by the rise in popularity of the new trade union.
Connolly and the Irish Labour Party
Another important figure, in the rise of an organised workers' movement in Ireland at this time, was James Connolly, an Edinburgh-born Marxist of Irish descent. Like Larkin, Connolly was a talented orator. He became known for his speeches on the streets of Dublin, in support of socialism and Irish nationalism. In 1896, Connolly established the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and the newspaper The Workers' Republic. In 1910, Connolly became involved with the ITGWU, and was appointed its Belfast organiser in 1911. In 1912, Connolly and Larkin formed the Irish Labour Party, intended to represent workers in the imminent Home Rule Bill debate in Parliament. Home Rule was never implemented, due to the start of World War I. It was suspended for one year, then indefinitely, after the rise of militant nationalism following the 1916 Rising.
William Martin Murphy and the employers
Foremost, among employers opposed to trade unionism in Ireland, was William Martin Murphy. Murphy was a highly successful businessman born in Castletownbere Co. Cork. In 1913, he was chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company and owned Clery's department store and the Imperial Hotel. He also controlled the Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers and was a major shareholder in the B&I Line. Murphy was also a prominent nationalist and a former Home Rule MP in Westminster. Even today his defenders insist he was a charitable man and a good employer, and that his workers received fair wages. Yet conditions in his many enterprises were often poor or worse, with employees given only one day off in ten while being forced to labour up to 17 hours a day. Dublin tramway workers were paid substantially less than their counterparts in Belfast and Liverpool and were subjected to a regime of punitive fines, probationary periods extending for as long as six years, and a culture of company surveillance involving widespread use of informers. Murphy was vehemently opposed to trade unions, which he saw as an attempt to impede on his business. In particular, he was opposed to Larkin, whom he saw as a dangerous revolutionary. In July 1913, Murphy presided over a meeting of 300 employers, during which a collective response to the rise of trade unionism was agreed. Murphy and the employers were determined not to allow the ITGWU to unionise the Dublin workforce. On 15 August, Murphy dismissed forty workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week.
Course of the dispute
The resulting industrial dispute was the most severe in Ireland's history. Employers in Dublin locked out their workers, employing blackleg labour from Britain and elsewhere in Ireland. Dublin's workers, amongst the poorest in the United Kingdom, were forced to survive on £150,000 from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other sources in Ireland, doled out dutifully by the ITGWU. A scheme, whereby children of Irish strikers would be temporarily looked after by British trade unionists, was blocked by the Roman Catholic Church, who protested that Catholic children would be subject to Protestant or atheist influences when in Britain. The Church supported employers during the dispute, condemning Larkin as a socialist revolutionary.
Notably, Guinness, the largest employer and biggest exporter in Dublin, refused to lock out its workforce. It had a policy against sympathetic strikes. While it refused to join Murphy's group, it sent £500 to the employers' fund. In turn, it expected its workers not to strike in sympathy, and six who did were dismissed. 400 of its staff were already ITGWU members, so it had a working relationship with the union. Larkin appealed to have the six reinstated, but without success.
Strikers used mass pickets and intimidation against strike breakers. The Dublin Metropolitan Police in turn baton charged worker's rallies. A DMP attack on a union rally on Sackville Street (now known as O'Connell Street), in August 1913, caused the deaths of two workers, James Nolan and John Byrne. Over 300 more were injured. This was provoked by the illegal appearance of James Larkin to speak out for the workers. The event is known as "Bloody Sunday", as are two subsequent days in 20th century Ireland. Another worker, Alice Brady, was later shot dead by a strike breaker, while bringing home a food parcel from the union office. Michael Byrne, an ITGWU official from Kingstown, died shortly after being tortured in a police cell. In response, Larkin, his deputy James Connolly, and ex-British Army Captain Jack White formed a worker's militia named the Irish Citizen Army, to protect workers' demonstrations.
For seven months, the lock-out affected tens of thousands of Dublin's workers and their families, with Larkin portrayed as the villain by Murphy's three main newspapers, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, and the Evening Herald. Other leaders in the ITGWU at the time were James Connolly and William X. O'Brien, while influential figures such as Patrick Pearse, Countess Markievicz and William Butler Yeats supported the workers, in the generally anti-Larkin media.
End of the Lockout
The lock-out eventually concluded in early 1914, when calls for a sympathetic strike in Britain from Larkin and Connolly were rejected by the TUC. Most workers, many of whom were on the brink of starvation, went back to work and signed pledges not to join a union. The ITGWU was badly damaged by its defeat in the Lockout, and was further hit by the departure of Larkin to the United States in 1914 and the execution of Connolly for his part in the nationalist Easter Rising in 1916. However, the union was re-built by William O'Brien and Thomas Johnson. By 1919, its membership surpassed that of 1913.
Although the actions of the ITGWU and the smaller UBLU were unsuccessful in achieving substantially better pay and conditions for the workers, they marked a watershed in Irish labour history. The principle of union action and workers' solidarity had been firmly established. No future employer would ever try to "break" a union, in the way that Murphy attempted with the ITGWU. The lock-out itself had been damaging to commercial businesses in Dublin, with many forced to declare bankruptcy.
W.B. Yeats' "September 1913"
September 1913, one of the most famous of W. B. Yeats' poems, was published in the Irish Times during the lock-out. Although the occasion of the poem was the decision of Dublin Corporation not to build a gallery to house the Hugh Lane collection of paintings (William Martin Murphy being one of the most vocal opponents of the scheme), it has sometimes been viewed by scholars as a commentary on the lock-out.
- Rebel City- Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, by John Newsinger, Merlin Press Ltd 2004
- UCC web source; accessed Nov 2009
- Kostick, C., (1996), "Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917 to 1923", p. 18
- Guinness 1886–1939, SR Dennison & Oliver McDonagh (Cork Univ. Press 1998). ISBN 1-85918-175-9 See: Chapter 8, "The employees; work and welfare 1886–1914", and chapter 9, "Industrial Relations 1886–1914".
- Marjorie Howes, "Postcolonial Yeats: Culture, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere", Field Day Review, Volume 2 (2008), p. 67 and footnote
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- The Irish Story archive on the Lockout.Retrieved 2013-07-09
- "History Podcast with Lockout:1913 author Pádraig Yeates". Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- "Brief background to dispute". Retrieved 24 June 2007.
- "Biography of James Connolly". Retrieved 24 June 2007.
- Church opposition to sending children to England