The Great Lockout of 1913 by Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Published in 1913, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

One of the most controversial elements of the Lockout was the so-called ‘kiddies’ scheme’, the brainchild of English socialist Dora Montefiore (the ‘London lady’ of the headline).

One of the most controversial elements of the Lockout was the so-called ‘kiddies’ scheme’, the brainchild of English socialist Dora Montefiore (the ‘London lady’ of the headline).

James Larkin arrived in Ireland in 1907 to begin his union organising work. The first members were enrolled on 20 January 1909 in the new Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). By 1911 the ITGWU had about 4,000 paid-up members, but this number had doubled by the end of 1912 and had increased to 10,000 by the middle of 1913. Larkin’s great achievement was to convince workers to adopt his syndicalist tactics and use mass solidarity action, including widespread use of the sympathetic strike, to win major concessions from employers.

Almost immediately after the establishment of Larkin’s union, William Martin Murphy, as leader of the Dublin Employers’ Federation, resisted the advance of new unionism. Murphy said that he had no objection to ‘a legitimate union’ but that he wouldn’t stand for them to ‘ally themselves with disreputable organisations or become Larkin’s tools’.

Strikes had occurred frequently in Ireland, but industrial relations seemed more settled at the beginning of the second decade of the century. For the most part Dublin had escaped labour unrest, but between 1908 and 1913 there had been an endless number of small skirmishes between employers and Larkin’s union members, and between 1911 and 1913 the union, mainly by the use of sympathetic strikes, won victories in Dublin. At its simplest, the basic cause of the dispute was the refusal of a consortium of Dublin businessmen, led by Murphy, to recognise the right of workers to join the ITGWU.

On 15 August 1913 Murphy ordered employees in the Irish Independent to choose between membership in the ITGWU or their jobs, an intentional confrontation with the union. About 40 employees refused to resign from the union and were laid off. Later Murphy gave the same ultimatum to his Dublin United Tram Company workers. On 25 August 1913 tramcars all over Dublin stopped in their tracks. It was the first day of Horse Show week. All the drivers and conductors affixed the Red Hand union badge to their clothes and ordered the passengers off because they were on strike. Though the trams were started again, Larkin’s action was to shut down the tram system and instigate a general strike. Under Murphy’s leadership, the owners rushed up strike-breaking workers and the Lockout was under way.
In response, Murphy organised all but a handful of Dublin’s major employers not only to sack all ITGWU members but also to force their employees to sign a pledge never to join the union. Inevitably, the dispute degenerated into naked class warfare. Murphy’s antipathy towards Larkin and the ITGWU was ideological as well as economic. Like many conservative nationalists, he feared syndicalism as a vehicle for Anglicisation, socialism and secularisation.

One of the most controversial elements of the Lockout was the so-called ‘kiddies’ scheme’, the brainchild of English socialist Dora Montefiore. Under this scheme, strikers’ children would be looked after in England by union families until the dispute was over. The idea aroused the intense hostility of the Catholic Church, which was engaged in a proselytising ‘war’ with Dublin’s Protestant churches. It was concerned that Catholic children would be ‘corrupted’ by atheist or Protestant households. Archbishop of Dublin William Walsh also feared that the children would not be able to return to the slums after living in more prosperous surroundings.

The Lockout lasted into early 1914 and involved some 20,000 workers, with widespread privation and starvation. British unions donated £100,000, an incredible sum at today’s valuation, to support the locked-out workers, but their failure to call a ‘sympathetic strike’ in England was decisive in its end. The Lockout was the great turning-point in the history of the working class in Ireland, helping to give the workers of Ireland their place in the front ranks of the world army of militant and insurgent labour. HI

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

Further reading
P. Yeates, Lockout: Dublin 1913 (Dublin, 2000).

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