James Connolly


The Re-Conquest of Ireland


Chapter V
Belfast and Its Problems

From a municipal point of view Belfast is a distinct improvement upon Dublin. Municipally, it can compare favourably with any similar city in Great Britain, and its industrial conditions are the product of modern industrial slavery and can be paralleled wherever capitalism flourishes. The things in which Belfast is peculiar are the skilful use by the master class of religious rallying cries which, long since forgotten elsewhere, are still potent to limit and weaken Labour here, and the pharisaical spirit of self-righteousness which enables unscrupulous sweaters of the poor, with one hand in the pocket of their workers, to raise the other hand to heaven and thank God that they are not as other men.

When, therefore, we say that Belfast is an improvement on Dublin from a municipal point of view we mean just exactly what we say, and nothing more, and would protest against more being read into our statement. The homes of the poor are better, house rent is lower, and the city is cleaner and healthier than Dublin.

Reasons for this comparatively favourable state of matters are many. Belfast, as the price of its surrender of its national soul, as the price of its hatred of national freedom, obtained every kind of legislative sanction it desired for its municipal activities; Dublin has been as consistently denied such facilities. Belfast has been enabled to spread as far beyond its original boundaries as it desired, and to include its wealthiest districts within its taxable area; Dublin is still (1913) confined to a district not much larger than it covered before the Union, and its wealthiest traders have had the aid of the law in keeping their residential districts outside of the city limits. Rathmines and Rathgar, for instance, are scandalous examples of areas inhabited by the wealthiest traders and merchants who enjoy all the facilities offered by the City of Dublin and bear none of its burdens. But the reader unfamiliar with the City of Dublin will appreciate this gross injustice better when we say that a penny tram fare will bring a traveller from Nelson’s Pillar in the heart of the city into the portions of the suburbs of Dublin occupied by the gentry of Dublin, but outside of the City limits. A penny tram ride in Belfast is much longer than a penny tram ride in Dublin, but whereas the penny tram ride in Dublin will take you out of the taxable area of the city, a two-penny tram ride in Belfast will still leave you within the city boundaries; this necessarily makes Belfast, apart altogether from its greater manufactures, a wealthier city than Dublin and leaves a much larger sum available for municipal activities and progress generally. Its taxation is more justly spread.

One other contributing cause is to be found in the circumstance that the greater part of the buildings in the heart of Belfast were built upon land originally acquired at nominal rents upon very long leases, whereas Dublin in its centre is occupied by old houses originally occupied as town mansions by the rack-renting aristocracy, and when these gentry moved to London they, in pursuance of their rack-renting instincts, let the houses at the highest rents they could squeeze out of them. Such houses have been let and re-let with an increase of rent accompanying each fresh letting, until Dublin is now confronted with the curious fact that although the tenant who hires the rooms is horribly rack-rented, yet the landlord from whom he hires may have but a small margin to live upon between the rent he receives and the rent he pays to the landlord from whom he had hired, and so ad infinitum.

One of the first things a Labour Party in Dublin Corporation should do, is to demand the publication of the names of the several owners of house property in the city. Only by such publication, and the investigation necessarily preceding it, would the tangle of house-ownership in Dublin be cleared up and the way cleared up for drastic enforcement of sanitary laws.

Our readers will see that the difference between the municipality of Dublin and that of Belfast is the difference between an old city, inheriting accumulations of abuses and obstructed at every turn by a hostile legislature, and a new city aided by a friendly legislature and unexpectedly spreading over agricultural land lightly valued and cheaply rented by its owners.

But Belfast has its own problems to deal with. In some respects these problems are more difficult than any Dublin knows; in some respects the horrors of Belfast life are such as Dublin may pray to be saved from.

With Belfast, as with Dublin, there is little need to go beyond official returns for any statements of facts. Dr. Baillie, Medical Officer of Health for Belfast, has on many occasions in his Annual Report set down in his dry official way some statistics as to the pressure of the Capitalist system upon the Belfast workers, and these statistics, well considered, might well produce a crop of revolutionists in the Northern City.

In his official report for 1909, referring to the extraordinary number of premature births, Dr. Baillie remarks:–

The premature births were found to be most prevalent among women who worked in mills and factories, engaged in such work as the following – spinning, weaving, machining, tobacco-spinning and laundry work. Many of the women appear to be utterly unable for such work owing to the want of sufficient nourishment and suitable clothing, and being through stress of circumstances compelled to work up to the date of confinement, this would be accountable for many young and delicate children found by the Health Visitors.

Dealing with consumption and the efforts at its cure, he gives the following figures illustrating again how it is the poor who are the principal sufferers from this, as from all the other scourges of life in Ireland:–

As in the previous year, the class of persons most attacked were housewives (280), the next in order being labourers (179), mill-workers (162), children (117), warehouse workers (107), factory workers (59), and clerks (34).

Dr. Baillie further drives home the lesson of the cause of consumption when he says:–

The districts suffering most severely from this disease are Nos.3, 4 and 12, in which 136, 117 and 112 cases occurred respectively, and it is to be noted that in these districts textile industries are largely carried on.

Of the total number of cases (1,317) coming under the observation of this Department, 708 were females and 609 males, showing the number of females to be 99 in excess of that of males. This is somewhat different to that which is found in most other cities, and may be partially due to the nature of the work in which the female population is engaged.

As in previous years, it was found that consumption was most prevalent amongst the poor, owing largely to the unfavourable conditions under which necessity compels them to live – such as dark, ill-ventilated houses and insanitary habits, together with insufficient food and clothing.

This is confirmatory of the previous saying of Dr. Koch, of Berlin, that the chief cause of consumption was to be found in the unsanitary houses and workshops of the poor. The Socialist contention that most diseases could be eliminated by the establishment of a juster social order, and that the capitalist system is mainly responsible for sickness and the poverty that follows from sickness, as well as the sickness that follows from poverty, is thus strikingly verified from impartial sources.

Of Typhus Fever Dr. Baillie says, and the admission is remarkable, that:–

This disease is extremely proved to be associated with conditions of privation, poverty, and over-crowding, bad feeding and intemperance.

The disease in question does not claim many victims in Belfast, but it is interesting to notice that this medical gentleman places the responsibility for the disease upon the proper shoulders, those responsible for bad social conditions – a fact to be commended to the notice of those good souls who, when they see their children, parents, sisters or brothers murdered by disease, blasphemously attribute their deaths to the ‘Will of God’. It is not to the Will of God, but to the greed of man that most such deaths are due.

To those who are acquainted, even on hear-say, with the conditions in the mills of Belfast, it will be no surprise to learn that the poor are the chief sufferers from consumption and especially the poor mill-workers. Imagine a spinning-room so hot with a moist heat that all girls and women must work in bare feet, with dress open at breast and arms bare, hair tied up tight to prevent it irritating the skin rendered irritable and tender by sweat and heat; imagine the stifling, suffocating atmosphere that in a few months banishes the colour from the cheeks of the rosiest half-timer and reduces all to one common deadly pallor; imagine all the windows closed in such a place, or only opened for a few minutes when the advent of the Lady (Factory) Inspector is announced, and closed immediately she retires; imagine all the machinery driven at ever increasing speed in such an inferno, and imagine these poor slaves at meal hours catching up their shawls and rushing out, perhaps amid rain or frost, to snatch up a few badly-cooked mouthfuls of badly nourishing food and be back in their places inside of 45 minutes! Is it any wonder that such people, working amid such conditions, are subject to consumption? The medical authorities issue long and minute instructions to the people as to how consumption may be avoided, but the instructions are as a rule utterly valueless to the class most subject to the scourge. Of what use is it to teach people about the evil of overcrowding when their wages will not permit them to secure decent house room? Of what avail a paper telling how to cook and prepare food when they have only 45 minutes to come from the mill, cook a meal, eat it, and return to the mill – the mother being one of the bread-winners or wage-earners of the family? Of what avail instilling into the worker the necessity of choosing proper food to counteract the tendency to consumption, and so increase the resisting power of the individual, when the wages are so small that only the poorest, easiest cooked, and generally least nutritious foods can be bought?

We do not deny the benevolent motives of the good ladies and gentlemen at present crusading against consumption in Ireland, but we consider that the agitator who aroused the people to revolt against the conditions of toil and life for the workers is doing more to end the scourge than all the anti-tuberculosis societies ever dreamed of. Consider, for instance, the life of the sweated home-workers of Belfast, and imagine what poor resisting power their bodily frames must offer to the inroads of the White Plague. We quote again from Dr. Baillie:–

In the last week in December, for instance, a woman was observed embroidering small dots on cushion covers, there were 308 dots on each cushion, and for sewing these by hand she received the sum of one penny. She said that for a day's work of that kind she would have difficulty in making sixpence. Nor is this an exceptional case. Quite recently our inspector was shown handkerchiefs which were to be ornamented by a design in dots; these dots were counted and it was found that the worker had to sew 384 dots for one penny. Comment is needless; other classes of work are as badly paid. The finishing of shirts, which consists of making buttonholes, sewing on buttons and making small gussets at the wrists and sides of the shirts, may be instanced. In each, six or seven buttonholes have to be cut or hand-sewn, eight buttons have to be sewn on, and four gussets made. This work is paid at the rate of sixpence for one dozen shirts. Nor is this a cheap class of goods, permitting scamped work. The sewing has to be neat and well-finished, and the buttonholes evenly sewn, the shirts being of a fine quality for which the buying public has to give a good price.

The making-up trades in general pay very poorly, among the various kinds of badly paid work noticed may be mentioned children’s pinafores, flounced and braided at 4½d. per dozen, women’s chemises at 7½ d. per dozen, women’s aprons at 2½d. per dozen, men’s drawers at 10d. per dozen, men's shirts at 10d. per dozen, blouses at 9d. per dozen, and babies’ overalls at 9d. per dozen. From these very low rates of pay must be deducted the time spent in visiting the warerooms for work, the necessary upkeep of the worker’s sewing machine, and the price of thread used in sewing, which is almost invariably provided by the worker.

One penny per hour is the ordinary rate of pay, and in many instances it falls below this.

In these industrial parts of the North of Ireland the yoke of capitalism lies heavy upon the lives of the people. The squalor and listless wretchedness of some other parts is, indeed, absent, but in its stead there exists grinding toil for old and young – toil to which the child is given up whilst its limbs and brains are still immature and undeveloped, and toil continued until, a broken and enfeebled wreck, the toiler sinks into a too early grave. In this part of Ireland the child is old before it knows what it is to be young. We have heard of a savage chief who was brought from his savage home to see and be impressed with the works of civilisation. He was taken around the big centres of modern capitalism, shown steam engines, battleships, guns, railway trains, big factories and churches, and all the mammoth achievements of our day, and then taken home to his people. Arrived there he was asked by his escort what he conceived to be the most wonderful thing he had seen, what had impressed him most, and he answered:–

“Little Children Working”.

This thing which seemed so strange to the savage, who amid his savage surroundings, handicapped by lack of knowledge, and all its industrial possibilities, yet had never thought of making children work, this thing is the great outstanding feature of life in Belfast and the industrial parts of Ireland. In their wisdom our lords and masters often leave full-grown men unemployed, but they can always find a use for the bodies and limbs of our children. A strange comment upon the absurdities of the capitalist system, illustrating its idiotic wastefulness of human possibilities; that the intellect and strength of men should be left to rot for want of work, whilst children are by premature work deprived of the possibilities of developing fully their minds or bodies.

Nor is this the only manner in which the life of the working class is sacrificed to the greed of dividends. Our shipyards offer up a daily sacrifice of life and limb on the altar of capitalism. The clang of the ambulance bell is one of the most familiar daily sounds on the streets between our shipyards and our hospitals.

It has been computed that some seventeen lives were lost on the Titanic before she left the Lagan; a list of the maimed and hurt and of those suffering from minor injuries, as a result of the accidents at any one of those big ships would read like a roster of the wounded after a battle upon the Indian frontier. The public reads and passes on, but fails to comprehend the totality of suffering involved. But it all means lives ruined, fair prospects blighted, homes devastated, crippled wrecks of manhood upon the streets, or widows and orphans to eat the bread of poverty and pauperism.

Add to this an army of insurance doctors paid, to belittle the injury, and declare the injured to be well and hearty, a host of lawyers whose practice depends upon their success in confusing honest workers when endeavouring, amid unfamiliar surroundings, to tell the truth about the mangling or killing of their workmates, and, finally, a hostile judge treating every applicant for just compensation as if they were known and habitual criminals, and you have a faint idea of one side of industrial life (and death) in the North of Ireland.

It is not so easy with accidents as it is with diseases to make the public realise that they are mostly preventable, yet that this is the case is susceptible of proof to the unbiassed mind. Even many workers will pooh-pooh the idea, accustomed as they have been to seeing accidents almost every day of their working lives, yet a little calm reflection will convince all but the most obdurate that an alteration of working conditions could be made which would go far to minimise the dangers of even the most perilous of our occupations.

Competent investigators, for instance, have found that the greatest number of accidents occur at two specific periods of the working day – viz., in the early morning and just before stopping work at evening. In the early morning when the worker is still drowsy from being aroused too early from his slumbers, and has not had time to settle down properly to his routine of watchfulness and alertness, or, as the homely saying has it, “whilst the sleep is still in his bones”, the toll of accidents is always a heavy one.

After 9 a.m. they become less frequent and continue so until an hour after dinner. Then they commence again and go on increasing in frequency as the workers get tired and exhausted, until they rise to the highest number in the hour or half-hour immediately before ceasing work. How often do we hear the exclamation apropos of some accident involving the death of a worker: “He had only just started”, or “he had only ten minutes to go before stopping for the day”? And yet the significance of the fact is lost on most.

Were these industries owned in common by the community and conducted for the benefit of all instead of for the private profit of a few capitalists, care would be taken that the working hours were not at any time so prolonged as to weary the worker and thus destroy his vigour and alertness; and, when an accident did occur, the persons in charge would be placed upon trial and compelled to prove their innocence of responsibility, instead of, as at present, when the friends of the victim are compelled to establish the responsibility of the employer, and can only establish it by the evidence of workers whose daily bread is at the mercy of the employer in question. But pending that desirable outcome of the Labour Movement, the efforts of the workers upon the industrial and political field should seek amongst other things:–

The majority of the poor slaves who work under such conditions and for such pay, as also the majority of the mill and factory workers amongst whom consumption claims its most numerous victims are, in Belfast, descendants of the men who “fought for civil and religious liberty at Derry, Aughrim and the Boyne”.

If those poor sweated descendants of Protestant rebels against a king had to-day one-hundredth part of the spirit of their ancestors in question, the re-conquest of Ireland by the working class would be a much easier task than it is likely to prove.

But into the minds of the wisest of both sections there is gradually percolating the great truth that our common sufferings provide a common basis of action – an amalgam to fuse us all together, and that, as we suffer together we should fight together, that we may be free together. Thus out of our toil and moil there arises a new Party – the Party of Labour – to

Tell of the cause of the poor who shrink
Crushed grapes in the wine press,
While rich men drink
And barter the trodden wine,
And pray.


Last updated on 15.8.2003