James Byrne—‘a martyr to the sacred cause of liberty’

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—I recently purchased the special issue of History Ireland, which featured some very interesting articles on the 1913 Lockout. I thought your readers might be interested in the story of James Byrne, a somewhat forgotten figure from Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown), who died as a result of a hunger strike he embarked upon while in custody in Mountjoy Jail during the Lockout.

In 1913, James Byrne, then 38 years old, became secretary of the Bray and Kingstown branch of the ITGWU. On Wednesday 27 August 1913, the second day of the Lockout, the Kingstown tram was stopped, and James Byrne was involved in a confrontation with a tramways inspector, John Fellows. A few days later he was arrested and accused of intimidation, but owing to lack of evidence was released eight days later.

On 20 October James Byrne was once again arrested on a second intimidation charge and was remanded to Mountjoy Jail, where he went on a hunger and thirst strike. While in prison, he caught pneumonia and was released to Monkstown County Hospital, where he died on 1 November 1913. His funeral, two days later, became a mass demonstration for the ITGWU. Over 3,000 people attended, with 25 mourning coaches and two trade union bands. James Connolly gave the oration from the roof of one of the funeral cabs, where he described James Byrne as ‘a martyr to the sacred cause of liberty’.

On 1 November 2003, the 90th anniversary of James Byrne’s death, a joint SIPTU/IMPACT committee unveiled a memorial headstone on his grave at Deansgrange cemetery. James Byrne has since been commemorated in song by this writer in a newly composed traditional-style ballad, ‘The Martyr James Byrne’.—Yours etc.,

PAT BURKE

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