The strike that ‘never should have taken place’? The Inchicore rail dispute of 1924

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

Inchicore rail works in the 1920s.

Inchicore rail works in the 1920s.

The early to mid-1920s was a period of despondency for the Irish labour movement. The victory of the Free State regime in the Civil War was accompanied by an all-out assault on the wages and conditions of Irish workers. Major strikes involving postal workers, Dublin dockers and Waterford farm labourers were just three of a whole host of disputes lost by organised labour between 1922 and 1924. But if the objective situation was bleak, the position of the Irish working class was weakened even further by a combination of ineffective leadership and a paralysing divide within the labour movement itself.

The strike begins
The Inchicore rail strike began on 12 August 1924. There were two aspects to it: a demand for a 3/– per week pay rise by the millwrights’ helpers and running shed workers, and a demarcation dispute between WUI vicemen and fitters who belonged to the Irish General Railway and Engineering Union (IGREU). Both disputes were long-standing. The millwrights’ helpers and running shed workers had been in on–off negotiations with the Great Southern and Western Railways (GSWR) bosses for six months, but to no avail. The encroachment dispute between the vicemen and fitters went back further, to the war years, but had been given fresh impetus by the recent establishment of the WUI and the decision of the GSWR to negotiate an agreement with the fitters only, redrawing the line of demarcation further in their favour.
The branch secretary of the WUI at Inchicore was Seán McLoughlin. Previously involved with both the IRA and the Communist Party of Ireland, McLoughlin had thrown his lot in with Larkin after his return in 1923. McLoughlin initially counselled against a strike. He felt that, on the demarcation issue, talks between the WUI, the GSWR and the IGREU should be convened in order to resolve the problem. The existence of long-standing hostility between McLoughlin and the IGREU, however, added to the more important fact that both the IGREU and GSWR had a clear vested interest in defeating the new and militant WUI, ensured that his appeal fell on deaf ears. Following this, the WUI vicemen voted to go on strike.
Two days later the WUI leaders at Inchicore met with the GSWR bosses and managed to win from them the pay increase for the millwrights and running shed workers. No solution, however, could be found for the demarcation issue. As a result, a further branch meeting was held and decided that the entire 700-strong WUI membership at Inchicore should strike in support of the vicemen. At this point McLoughlin’s attitude changed. Although initially opposed to strike action, McLoughlin now concluded that, as the fight was on in earnest, ‘there was nothing else for it but to work as hard as possible for victory’. Picketing was extended to Kingsbridge and North Wall, and carters were encouraged to withdraw their labour in order to cripple commerce.
Despite this escalation, however, trade passing through the railway was only partially disrupted. Efforts were made to gain the support of the ITGWU and the British-based National Union of Railwaymen, but these were unsuccessful. Both organisations were hostile towards the WUI and unlikely in the extreme to back that union in any dispute, far less one that seemed to be directed against another union. WUI activists argued that the dispute was not between themselves and the IGREU. They maintained that it was a conflict between the WUI and the GSWR bosses, as it had been the latter who had set the line of demarcation. This attempt to win backing from the other workers at Inchicore on the basis that it was a capital/labour dispute failed, leaving the WUI isolated and, even at this early stage, unable to place much pressure on the bosses.
The press soon condemned the strike. The Irish Times, in particular, was scandalised at what it saw as an act of ‘industrial bolshevism’ carried out by a combination of ‘unskilled men’, directed against other unions ‘manned by skilled labour’ and a ‘great company’, the GSWR. But whilst such outpourings were entirely predictable—four weeks later the Irish Times was egging on Spanish fascism in Morocco—and of little consequence to the strike, within Inchicore itself developments were taking place that did undermine the WUI. As the strike entered its second week, the GSWR announced its intention to recruit ‘auxiliary labour’—scabs—in order to fill the places of the strikers. Before long, between 200 and 300 scabs—dubbed ‘volunteers’ by the Irish Times—had been recruited, almost all of whom were demobbed Free State soldiers.
In response, the WUI wrote to the president of the Association of Ex-Officers and Men, National Army, and urged the organisation to instruct its members to withdraw from Inchicore. It was to no avail. At a large meeting of the Ex-Officers and Men, a motion was passed by 623 votes to 6 approving the actions of those who had gone to Inchicore. WUI hopes that the other unions at Inchicore would refuse to work with the ‘volunteers’ were dashed when they all declared that the new additions to the Inchicore workforce would be welcomed.
In addition to these problems, the WUI was also hindered by internal weaknesses that were to prove fatal to the strike. According to McLoughlin, the most serious of these related to the Larkin family and their impact on the strike. In the case of Peter Larkin, McLoughlin later said that he ‘did everything in his power to make our position impossible’ and that the strike committee constantly complained about his actions. McLoughlin did not offer any details of Larkin’s alleged wrongdoings, but the fact that he described the temporary executive committee of the WUI as consisting solely of Peter Larkin suggests that the desire to control everything and everyone may not have been solely the preserve of Big Jim within the Larkin family.
More seriously, McLoughlin further alleged that a lorry bearing the name ‘Rapid Transport Company’, ‘known by every worker in Dublin to be the property of the Larkin family’, broke the picket line at Kingsbridge and delivered goods there. It is not known who was behind this action, but for McLoughlin this was a serious blow. Up until then, most of the carters, even many belonging to the ITGWU, had observed the sanctity of the picket line. From the point when the Larkin lorry broke it, however, such unity proved impossible to maintain. ‘Why don’t you hold up Larkin’s yokes?’ was the response now to WUI requests for solidarity action from these same carters.

Striking postal workers in 1922- one of several defeats for organised labour during this period.

Striking postal workers in 1922- one of several defeats for organised labour during this period.

Larkin denounces the strike
The third and final factor was the return of Jim Larkin from the USSR to Dublin on 25 August. Larkin had been in Moscow for some months, where he had attended the fifth congress of the Comintern. Later that evening he addressed a large rally at the Mansion House. After announcing himself to be one of the world’s 25 rulers—following his election to the Comintern executive in Moscow—Larkin focused on matters more local. Clearly of the view that the WUI leaders at Inchicore had acted rashly, and anxious to assert his immediate control over them, he criticised the strike, saying that it ‘never should have taken place’ as it involved ‘no questions of wages or conditions of employment or fundamental principle of labour’. Larkin concluded with the opinion that an acceptable demarcation line could easily have been set by a ‘shop council’.
McLoughlin was concerned about this public denunciation of the strike, feeling that it would be seized upon by the bourgeois press and used to weaken the resolve of the WUI. Larkin’s point about how easily a shop’s council could have resolved matters also seemed simplistic to McLoughlin. On the day Larkin made those comments, McLoughlin had approached the GSWR and the leadership of the IGREU with a plan designed to end the dispute. This envisaged a conference between the two unions to set an acceptable line of demarcation, an agreement by the bosses that they would ratify the pay deal promised to the millwrights’ helpers and running shed workers, and observance of a ‘no victimisation’ policy that would allow the strikers to return to work. That same evening, the IGREU informed not the WUI but the Irish Times that it was rejecting the proposal.
Few options now seemed open to the WUI men. In McLoughlin’s opinion, unless they could stop the import of coal into the GSWR they were beaten. Larkin, he argued, made no effort to achieve this but acted instead like a man ‘bent on ending the strike at any cost’. Larkin also attempted to cut McLoughlin out of the leadership of the dispute—for example, allegedly staging a breakdown of a car in which the pair were travelling in order to prevent McLoughlin from attending a strike meeting at Inchicore. This occurred after a meeting in Cooley, Co. Louth, at which Larkin was said to have told those assembled of the ‘arrangements’ he had made with the USSR government. These were that in the future all emigrants from Ireland would go to Russia, rather than the USA, where they would be given large tracts of land by the Soviets!
The strike grew increasingly bitter. Carters belonging to John Wallis and Sons, who were contracted to Inchicore, were called out in sympathy action on 29 August. Two days later, however, around 25 of the firm’s 80 men scabbed. It was claimed later that a number of these men were beaten up by groups of strikers and warned off from going back to work again. At the same time, the police, who intervened increasingly in the dispute in order to break picket lines and to ferry scabs to work, arrested several strikers.

Tyroconnell Road, Inchicore, c.1932, with the cinema on the right where meetings of the strikers took place on 14 September and 4 October 1924. The latter in particular was a stormy affair that ended in uproar when Larkin stormed off the platform.

Tyroconnell Road, Inchicore, c.1932, with the cinema on the right where meetings of the strikers took place on 14 September and 4 October 1924. The latter in particular was a stormy affair that ended in uproar when Larkin stormed off the platform.

As the dispute dragged on into September, with no apparent prospect of success for the WUI, the focus of the strike leaders shifted away from victory and towards ensuring that all the strikers would be allowed to return to work. Aware that the position of the WUI was becoming steadily weaker, the GSWR had made a number of pronouncements that, in the event of the strike ending, some of the ‘volunteers’ would be retained, with a similar number of WUI men losing their jobs altogether. The figure mooted by the GSWR was around 100. This was unacceptable to the WUI stewards at Inchicore, who insisted that any return to work must be on the basis of ‘no victimisation’.
The end of the strike came suddenly, following a series of meetings on 12–13 September. These began when the GSWR issued yet another public statement offering to take back all of the WUI strikers bar the 100 or so whose jobs had been forfeited to the scabs. Larkin contacted the GSWR and arranged for a meeting. McLoughlin attended this meeting, and at it presented a formula for a settlement that upheld the ‘no victimisation’ principle. The GSWR eventually rejected this document, insisting that the men return on the company’s terms, which upheld both the original demarcation line and 107 job losses.
A mass meeting was held the following morning at Inchicore cinema. McLoughlin was opposed to the company terms but, unknown to him, the WUI leadership had already accepted them. Larkin and the remainder of the executive committee had met without informing him and had drawn up a proposal that would see the men returning to work on the GSWR terms. There was a slight sweetener. Those who lost their jobs were to be paid £2 per week by the WUI, pending their eventual re-absorption into the GSWR workforce as vacancies presented themselves.
Larkin dominated the meeting and called for volunteers to sacrifice themselves to temporary victimisation in order that the strike be ended. McLoughlin opposed these proposals. By this stage he had no trust in Larkin, and argued that those in favour of returning were acting ‘foolishly’, as they did not know for sure what the proposals would actually mean. A large number agreed with McLoughlin, but when the vote was taken a majority backed Larkin. The Inchicore rail strike ended on 15 September. On that Monday morning the WUI members, minus the 107 workers who had lost their jobs permanently, assembled outside Kilmainham jail and marched back to work.

Aftermath of bitter recrimination

Sean McLoughlin later in life. After the strike, embittered by his experience, he left Ireland permanently for England.

Sean McLoughlin later in life. After the strike, embittered by his experience, he left Ireland permanently for England.

The WUI had suffered a damaging defeat at Inchicore. In its aftermath, a mood of bitter recrimination set in. Two factors were at work here. From the outside, Larkin began a campaign of vilification against the Inchicore strike leaders, and against McLoughlin in particular. They were blamed for beginning the strike in the first place and accused of betraying it in the end. At the same time, within Inchicore itself resentment also grew but was directed against Larkin. For many, it seemed that Larkin’s assurances that the sacked men would be maintained financially by the WUI were, as McLoughlin put it, ‘mendacious’, and that the unlucky 107 had simply been cut adrift by the union.
This mood reached a peak at a specially convened meeting, again at Inchicore cinema, on 4 October. McLoughlin and his supporters in Inchicore called the meeting as a means of drawing Larkin into the open, ensuring that his accusations could be dealt with fully. Larkin took up the challenge and arrived at the meeting backed up by the rest of his executive committee, with the intention of securing McLoughlin’s removal as branch secretary. But Larkin had been absent from Inchicore since the end of the strike and was unaware of the hostility that had developed there against him. As the meeting, attended by 200 members, unfolded, it became clear that he lacked support. Proceedings became stormy, and ended in uproar when Larkin stormed off the platform, accusing McLoughlin of planning to have him shot. Order was restored, however, and the business of the meeting continued without Larkin. Motions of confidence were passed in the strike committee, and in McLoughlin as secretary.
Despite this show of support from the Inchicore men, McLoughlin decided to resign from the WUI. He felt that the 107 workers who had lost their jobs had been betrayed by Larkin and that the WUI was ‘finished’ as a result. The following day, McLoughlin handed over all of the branch books and accounts to a group of auditors elected at the meeting. A few days later he left Ireland permanently for England.
After McLoughlin’s departure, Jim Larkin mounted a campaign of character assassination against him. He was accused of running away with union funds, with the figure ranging from £200 to £1000, despite the fact that no financial discrepancies appeared in the branch books and that McLoughlin could account for every penny of branch expenditure. When McLoughlin learned, through friends in Dublin and British communists, of the allegations that were being made against him, he offered to return to Ireland and meet Larkin in a court of law where the matter could be dealt with. Larkin chose not to take up this offer. McLoughlin’s final word on the strike, and Larkin’s role in it, shows the bitterness that the entire business had created.
Inchicore highlighted many of the weaknesses that existed within the Irish Left in the early to mid-1920s. It was a strike that goes some way towards explaining the sometimes puzzling inability of the Left to build a genuine alternative to the unpopular neo-colonialism of Cumann na nGaedheal during these years. The reformism, opportunism, egoism and prosecution of personal vendettas that characterised the Inchicore strike would continue to dog the labour movement for many years afterwards. Ultimately, the main beneficiary of this would not be the Free State administration that remained in power until 1932 but the new republican party set up by Éamon de Valera just two years after Inchicore and dominant in Irish politics from 1932 onwards.

Charlie McGuire is a history researcher at the University of Teeside.

Further reading:

S. McLoughlin, ‘How Inchicore was lost’, NLI, O’Brien Papers, 15,670.

A. Mitchell, Labour in Irish politics 1890–1930 (Dublin, 1974).

E. O’Connor, Reds and the Green (Dublin, 2004).

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