James Connolly


Sweatshops Behind the Orange Flag


From Forward, March 11, 1911.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

“For nearly a century the question of Home Government has barred with triple steel every door of progress. It has paralysed the energies of the country, and diverted the currents of national activity into the unfruitful charmers of incessant political struggle. But, indeed, it could not fail to be otherwise. For a hundred years the vast body of the Irish people had neither sympathy with, nor confidence in, the executive and administrative government of Ireland. That Government has no natural root in the soil of Ireland. Bureaucratic government cannot soar on ampler wings. Forty-two Boards, without corelation or connection, and almost without responsibility, control the destinies of Ireland.”

The above extract from the manifesto of Ulster Liberal Protestants, issued on 5th December, 1910, will serve as a text for my article this week. I would especially direct the attention of the thoughtful reader to the opening phrase in the quotation. “For nearly a century the question of Home Government has barred with triple steel every door of progress.” How true this is every one acquainted with the inner life of Ireland – its civic and social life as distinguished from its political partisanship – can testify. Ireland is a land of contradictions. Just as it is true that the perfervid orators of the United Irish League, who screech most vehemently for national freedom are in domestic affairs in Ireland the allies and champions of social reaction, and the enemies of intellectual freedom, so also it is true that true blue loyalist leaders, who on every platform assert their unquenchable enthusiasm for the cause of Protestant liberty, are the slimiest enemies of the social advancement of the Protestant working class. It may be news to some of your readers, but it is an undoubted fact that the Catholic labourers in the Catholic districts of Ulster reap the advantage of the Acts empowering Boards of Guardians to erect labourers’ cottages to a degree far in excess of any advantage given to the Protestant agricultural labourers in the Protestant districts. The enemies of Home Rule and Popery are, it appears, also enemies of low rents and sanitary cottages for their labourers. Where his mind is not obsessed with the fear of compromising the national demand, the Irish Catholic labourer seems to be enough of a democrat to insist upon his social rights as against his Catholic employer or representative; but his Protestant fellow-worker in the north seemingly allows a blatant parade of loyalty to “our Protestant institutions” to compensate for all manner of treachery to the cause of labour.

I have pointed out before that the harmless Act to empower a public provision for the feeding of necessitous school children was kept out of Ireland with the connivance – if not directly at the desire – of the Home Rule Party. Let me add that the Ulster beaters of the Orange drum were equally guilty in that respect. Public meetings to demand the application of this Act to Ireland have already been held in Dublin and Cork. The Dublin Trades’ Council has acted, a general committee composed of representatives from the Socialist Party of Ireland, the Daughters of Erin, and the Trades Council have held a public meeting in the Mansion House in furtherance of this object, and induced the Lord Mayor of the city to preside in person; and the Dublin Corporation have unanimously passed a resolution calling for this Act for Ireland. But Belfast and ’Derry have not moved, the Orange orators are too busy dancing imaginary war dances on the banks of the Boyne to trouble about the starving children of Belfast, or of the city by the Foyle.

The Corporation of Catholic Cork granted me the use of their City Hall for a public meeting for this purpose, as have also the Urban District Council at Queenstown. But the cries of the starving children of Ulster cannot pierce the loyal ears attuned to the after-dinner oratorical efforts of Mr. McMordie, or the poisonous, religious, rancorous ravings of Sir Edward Carson.

But perhaps it will be argued that the prosperity of Belfast is so great that such an Act would be quite unnecessary, and did not Mr. McMordie rise in his place in the House of Commons and work in a free advertisement for workers in the linen trade of that city, by telling of the great demand for workers there, and of its great and abundant prosperity. I extract from the Belfast Newsletter, a rabidly loyalist paper, of September 8, 1910, the following short report of a speech delivered in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, by Miss Mary Galway, Secretary of the Millworkers, on the conditions of sweated outworkers in the linen industry in Belfast. It shows how the Godly Protestant employers of Belfast sweat and rob the Godly Protestant workers, and how zeal for the Empire is made a cloak to trick out a mad desire to amass wealth by grinding the faces of the poor:

“Miss Galway then displayed samples of the work done in the home, and gave figures regarding the rate of pay. She said for clipping cotton pocket handkerchiefs with 120 clips on each a sum of 1d. per dozen was paid, and it took an expert worker five hours to clip twelve dozen. For threaddrawing pure linen handkerchiefs supplied by one of the best and oldest firms in the city, 1d. per dozen was paid, and six dozen could be drawn in one hard day’s work. A widow with seven children could earn at most 4/- per week at hand-spoke work, the rate of payment being 1/3 per dozen handkerchiefs. For clipping the threads on an elaborately embroidered bedspread, 88 ins. by 100 ins., 3/4d. was paid, and it took fully an hour to do that work. Another woman was engaged three long days embroidering a linen teacloth, 45 ins. by 43 ins., for which she was paid 8d. Thread-drawing of pillow-cases was paid at the rate of 4d. per dozen, and four could be done in an hour. On a cotton handkerchief there were 112 dots, and the worker was paid 6d. per dozen handerchiefs, while at shirtmaking an expert worker could earn about 1/3 in fourteen hours. She could quote other instances showing the long hours and wretched pay of these workers, and yet they were asked was there any sweating?”

Since then, in answer to his unctuous self-congratulations in Parliament, Miss Galway has challenged Mr. M’Mordie, M.P., to take a walk with her to houses within fifteen minutes of the Belfast City Hall, and she would show him still more outrageous cases of sweating; but no acceptance is yet forthcoming.

But when election time rolls around, the smug representative of orangeism will beat the big drum of “saving the union” before the working class voters, and with that discord in their ears they will be deaf to the cry of the helpless victims of capitalist oppression.

Oh, words of burning truth! “For nearly a century the question of Home Government has barred with triple steel every door of progress!”

The question of Home Government, the professional advocacy of it, and the professional opposition to it, is the greatest asset in the hands of reaction in Ireland, the never-failing decoy to lure the workers into the bogs of religious hatreds and social stagnation.

The Protestant workers of Belfast are essentially democratic in their instincts, but not a single Belfast loyalist M.P. voted for the Old Age Pensions’ Act. The loyalist M.P.s knew that the beating of the orange drum would drown every protest within their constituencies.

The development of democracy in Ireland has been smothered by the Union. Remove that barrier, throw the Irish people back upon their own resources, make them realise that the causes of poverty, of lack of progress, of arrested civic and national development, are then to be sought for within and not without, are in their power to remove or perpetuate, and ere long that spirit of democratic progress will invade and permeate all our social and civic institutions.

Believing that that day is approaching, the Socialist Party of Ireland seeks to prepare for it by laying now the foundations of that socialist movement, whose duty it will be to guide and direct the efforts of labour in Ireland, to find and fashion a proper channel of expression and instrument of emancipation.

That labour movement of the future, as well as the socialist movement of today must, indeed, draw inspiration from the successes of our comrades abroad, but must also shape its course to suit the conditions within our own shores.

The Socialist Party of Ireland recognises and most enthusiastically endorses the principle of internationalism, but it realises that that principle must be sought through the medium of universal brotherhood rather than by self-extinction of distinct nations within the political maw of over-grown Empires.

When once all the socialists in Ireland recognise this principle, and unite with us, they will have cause to wonder at the readiness with which the workers of Ireland will respond to the socialist appeal.

If all the socialists in Ireland who waste their time in cursing the unprogressiveness of the Irish workers, had only sufficient moral courage to declare themselves, they would be astonished at the multitude of their numbers, and would then realise that they were strong enough to ensure respect and toleration.

Until they do, we will be compelled to see Irish Tory employers hiding their sweatshops behind orange flags, and Irish home rule landlords using the green sunburst of Erin to cloak their rackrenting in the festering slums of our Irish towns.


Last updated on 12.8.2003