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John Newsinger

Jim Larkin, Syndicalism
and the 1913 Dublin Lockout

(Autumn 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 25, Autumn 1984, pp. 3–36.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The apathy of the workers seemed to stultify all our efforts; it seemed that with the advance of education a spirit of selfishness had been imparted and self-sacrifice had died out. The gospel of the materialistic school seemed to have captured the great mass of the working class. Men replied to your appeal for fellowship and brotherly love in the words of Cain: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ... And then suddenly when things seem blackest, and dark night enshrouds abroad, lo! the Sun, and lo! thereunder rises wrath and hope and wonder, and the worker goes marching on.’ [1]

The Dublin Lockout of 1913 is without any doubt the most important industrial struggle in Irish history. It was fought to determine who should be the dominant force in Home Rule Ireland: the trade unions led by Jim Larkin or the employers. The struggle put all the various organisations, movements, currents and tendencies in Irish society to the test: it posed the simple question, where do you stand? And, by and large, the test was failed and the Dublin workers were left to be batoned and starved into defeat. The breaking of the Larkinite offensive was a crucial moment in Irish history. It left the way clear for the republican movement to capture the leadership in the national struggle and to establish its hegemony over the left, with the working class accepting a subordinate role in the struggle rather than striving to make Irish society in its own image.

At the same time, the Lockout was one of the most important industrial struggles in British history: it was an integral part of the great labour unrest that swept over the British Isles in the years 1910 to 1914 and had tremendous repercussions in Britain as well as Ireland. A victory for the Dublin workers would have shaken the resolve of employers throughout Britain, while the defeat of the Dublin workers only gave them encouragement. The fight for solidarity with the embattled ITGWU was carried into the heart of the British labour movement and served to lay bare the nature of trade union officialdom that was prepared to watch the Dublin workers defeated in isolation. The British union leaders were more concerned to defeat the Larkinite challenge to their own position than they were to rally to the side of the ITGWU in its battle with the Dublin employers. The weakness of the syndicalist left in Britain was brutally demonstrated by its failure to wrest the initiative from the officials, a failure that was to doom the Dublin workers to inevitable defeat. Clearly, the experience of the Dublin Lockout and its ramifications in Britain are of crucial interest for revolutionary socialists. What is remarkable is how little detailed attention has actually been devoted to the dispute. There is no single substantial account of this dramatic turning point in Irish history, rather it has been displaced by the 1915 Easter Rising which occupies the foreground even in the historical understanding of much of the left. James Connolly’s participation in this republican insurrection has worked to distort our understanding of its importance, to exaggerate its significance for the working class. This article will hopefully help to counter this tendency. It is an attempt to resituate the Lockout, to re-establish it as the central event in our understanding of the development of modern Irish society. It is also long overdue for socialists to begin the recovery of something of the remarkable working class phenomenon that was Larkinism.

Jim Larkin

James Larkin was born in Liverpool on 21 January 1876, the son of poverty-stricken Irish parents. He left school when he was eleven years old and held a number of jobs before becoming a docker in the late 1890s. By this time he was already a staunch socialist, having joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1892–93. Outside of work, his life was dominated by his efforts on behalf of the ILP and he became well-known as a public speaker, advocating the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of the socialist commonwealth. His condemnation of the capitalist system was uncompromising and his vision of socialism involved its total overthrow, but as far as getting from the one system to the other was concerned, his thinking showed all the woolly naivete characteristic of the ILP in this period. Like many of his contemporaries in the socialist movement, Larkin had little time for trade unions which he regarded as the accomplices of capitalism and considered strikes to be counter-productive, hurting the working class more than the employers. The only way forward for the working class was not by engaging in diversionary trade union agitation, but by electing socialists into office, both locally and nationally, through the ballot box. Only in 1901 did he join the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), influenced, according to Eric Taplin, by Keir Hardie who was urging that the unions be won over to ILP socialism. He was not an activist within the union, however. Indeed, by 1903 he had actually been promoted to foreman with the firm of T&J Harrison. [2]

Larkin was transformed from a cardholding member into a militant activist in 1905 when the union attempted to impose the closed shop on seven of Harrison’s thirty-five foremen who had either refused to join the union or had allowed their membership to lapse. In June 800 men walked out and Larkin went with them. He was elected on to the strike committee and soon became the driving force behind its conduct of the dispute. The Shipping Federation provided the firm with some 500 scabs and after thirteen weeks the union went down to a crushing defeat. The company withdrew union recognition altogether, let alone imposing the closed shop on its foremen. It took back only those it wanted. Larkin was not among them.

During the dispute, Larkin had emerged as the most effective of the strike leaders and had made a name for himself as an organiser and an agitator. The dispute taught him the need for working class organisation and solidarity and the consequences when it was found wanting. It transformed him from a woolly ballot box socialist into an aggressive trade union organiser who was to preach the virtues of industrial militancy and class solidarity with tremendous effort.

In the aftermath of the defeat, Larkin was taken on by the NUDL as a full-time organiser, working in the ports of Scotland and Ireland. His militant methods were soon to bring him into conflict with the union leadership. It was in Belfast in 1907 that he was to achieve his most famous success, uniting Protestant and Catholic workers in struggle against the employers. At the end of May some 160 cross-channel dockers struck work to impose the closed shop on the Belfast Steamship Company. Larkin quickly brought out the rest of the cross-channel dockers by pressing demands for a general wage increase. His instinct was always to escalate disputes, to step up the pressure. When the carters refused to cross picket lines, some 1,000 of them were locked out and soon after the coal companies locked out a thousand of their men. The struggle put such a strain on the police that at the end of July they too went on strike. There was fierce rioting in which troops fired on the crowds and killed two workers. Despite efforts to whip up sectarian animosities, the workers remained united with both the breakaway Independent Orange Order and the Catholic Home Rule Ancient Order of Hibernians supporting the union. Eventually, the negotiations were taken out of Larkin’s hands by the NUDL’s secretary, James Sexton. The coal companies had already backed down and at the end of August Sexton negotiated a return to work for the carters winning a pay increase and union recognition. This left the dockers isolated and early in September they began to return to work without achieving their objectives.

Larkin had successfully established the NUDL in Belfast, but this first great trial of strength had proved inconclusive. Emmet Larkin, in his classic biography of Larkin, provides the best assessment of the dispute:

The myth that has grown up around James Larkin claims Belfast as one of his greatest achievements. What happened in Belfast can, of course, be conceived in the most grandiose terms. It could include the destruction of political and religious bigotry, organising the workers for the revolutionary act, and contributing to the dignity and integrity of the working classes. The rub is that Larkin did achieve all these things, but only to a limited extent. He did blend, for example, Orange and Green on a Labour canvass, but the pigment proved soluble in the religious wash. He did explain that he was a socialist, but his winning better wages and conditions cannot be offered as a laying of the foundations for a change in the social order. He did appeal to what was best in the Belfast workers, but how much their store of dignity and integrity were increased by him is certainly impossible to say. Still is the attempt to count for nothing? No! – only beware of confusing it with the achievement. In the long run Larkin achieved little of a tangible nature in Belfast, not because he was something less than what he should have been, but because his enemies were too powerful and circumstances too adverse. In the short run he shook Belfast to its roots. There had not been such an upheaval in a hundred years, and there has not been one since. [3]

While the struggle was still underway in Belfast, Larkin was at work establishing the NUDL in Dublin. By the end of September, he had recruited some 2,000 dockers and carters into the union and the following year was to lead them in three different disputes, all of which ended in victory. As Emmet Larkin writes:

Coming so soon after the upheaval in Belfast, Larkin’s early achievements in Dublin have practically gone unnoticed. Conducting and winning three disputes during 1908 was no mean achievement. When it is understood they were won in the face of a severe economic depression, a serious unemployment situation, and a hostile union executive in the person of Sexton, the achievement was remarkable ... The deeper significance of these early disputes, though no one realised it at the time, was that they were the beginnings of a truly revolutionary working class movement in Ireland. [4]

Larkin’s successes in no way improved his standing with the NUDL leadership which was completely opposed to his militant methods, preferring instead the path of moderation, conciliation and collaboration. By the end of 1908 Larkin had established successful branches of the union in every major port in Ireland, but his reward was suspension from office. On 20 November he was informed that the NUDL Executive had given Sexton the power to summarily suspend him if he continued to ignore official instructions. In reply, Larkin urged a general campaign to organise all the unskilled workers in Ireland and threatened to launch a breakaway Irish-based union to accomplish the task. When he was duly suspended on 8 December, this is what he proceeded to do.

The ITGWU and the great labour unrest

The decision to establish the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was taken at a meeting in Dublin on 28 December 1908. There were delegates present from all the major ports, and with the exception of Belfast, the great majority of the NUDL’s Irish membership followed Larkin without too many problems. The NUDL Executive had made absolutely clear that it was not prepared to give support to its Irish members in dispute so that a split was probably inevitable. In Belfast, however, the new union encountered serious opposition because many Protestant workers were not prepared to support a Dublin-based union and remained loyal to the NUDL. In essence, the ITGWU was established as a rank and file revolt against the NUDL leadership. This aspect was more important at least to begin with, than its nationalism. Larkin’s great strength as a union leader was to be the way in which he maintained a rapport with the rank and file, relating to them directly. He was more of a rank and file leader than he was a union official. Incredibly, however, the new union only admitted men to membership and it was not until September 1911 that a sister organisation, the Irish Women Workers’ Union was founded by Larkin’s unjustly neglected sister, Delia.

Determined efforts were made to strangle the new union at birth. Hardly had the organisation been established than it was plunged into a bitter dispute in Cork that was to end with James Fearon, the Cork organiser receiving six months in prison and the union suffering a humiliating defeat. Soon after in August 1909, Larkin was arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud, a charge got up by the Cork Employers Federation, aided and abetted by the NUDL Executive. In November and December of 1908 Larkin had transferred monies from the Cork branch of the NUDL to help support the Dublin carters who were in dispute. He was now charged with having defrauded the Cork membership, first of all because the NUDL had not officially recognised the Cork branch and secondly because the money had been used for purposes for which it was not intended. Sexton appeared as a key prosecution witness and played a crucial part in securing Larkin’s conviction. On 17 June 1910 Larkin was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, an astonishingly harsh sentence for what was in effect a technical offence. The sentence was clearly designed to destroy, if at all possible, both Larkin and his union, but it seriously backfired. Protest was such that the authorities felt obliged to back down and Larkin was eventually released after only three months. On 1 October 1910 a huge torchlight procession marched through the streets of Dublin in his honour. The ITGWU had survived the attempt to strangle it at birth and now the great task of organising the unskilled workers of Ireland really got underway.

The ITGWU’s drive to organise Ireland’s unskilled workers has to be seen as part and parcel of the great labour unrest or labour revolt that swept over Britain from 1910 to 1914. [5] In many ways, Larkin’s efforts in Belfast in 1907 and in Dublin in 1908 presaged the great explosion of militancy that was to come throughout Britain. The first signs of the coming upturn appeared, it seems, in Ireland. Certainly, Larkin was well aware, by the end of 1908, that there were possibilities for extending union organisation through all the categories of general labour. All that was required was the proper method and this, as we shall see, he believed he had found.

In Britain the labour unrest was characterised by its militancy and by its accompanying violence, by its contemptuous disregard for procedures and agreements. It was as much a revolt against the dead hand of trade union officialdom as it was against the employers. The strike wave was fuelled by great anger and bitterness, but it is important to avoid the notion that it was somehow an irrational response to suffering and injustice. [6] This just will not do. The fact is that the often violent methods used in the conduct of disputes in both Britain and Ireland in this period were completely rational. They were absolutely necessary if victory was to be achieved. The only way that the employers’ determined resistance to union organisation could be broken down was by militant aggressive action, accompanied, if and when necessary, by demonstrative violence. What has to be realised is that the fact that unskilled workers were by and large unorganised was not some sort of natural phenomenon or the result of the immaturity of the trade union movement. On the contrary, it was due to the way that the employers had in the past systematically defeated earlier attempts at organisation by mass strikebreaking and wholesale victimisation. Larkin was one of the many who had personal experience of this. The methods of respectability and moderation championed by the official union leaderships had failed and they were swept aside. In their place was put unbridled militancy: the employers had to be battered to the ground and this could not be done politely or according to the rule book.

1911 was the year that the ITGWU securely established itself, growing from a mere 5,000 members at the beginning of the year to some 18,000 at the end. The union played the major part in organising the wave of unrest that swept over Ireland that year, but it certainly cannot claim to have conjured it up. As Emmet Larkin quite correctly insists:

It would be a mistake to think that all these strikes and lockouts were confined to Dublin or those towns where Larkin and the Transport Union were in the ascendancy. The labour unrest was general throughout Ireland, and Larkin was again only a convenient focus for what was a national picture. Beginning in August 1911 the workers from one end of Ireland to the other made demands on their employers. From Jacob’s biscuit factory in Dublin to the bacon factories in Limerick,from the dock labourers in Belfast to the Urban Council employees in Cork, spontaneous demands were made and quickly conceded. Newsboys, clothing workers, golf caddies, tanners, maltsters, dairy workers and tramwaymen all clamoured for an increase in wages. The Freeman’s Journal had to open a special column for Irish Labour Troubles in August to chronicle the sudden outburst of financial unrest. The Transport Union had more than enough to do in these busy months. Larkin and Partridge were in Dublin, Daly was in Wexford, McKeown was in Dundalk and Connolly was in Belfast. The general wave of strikes did not subside in Ireland until February of the following year. [7]

During 1912 the ITGWU consolidated its position in Dublin and other towns but made no further dramatic advances. 1913, however, saw Ireland once again in the grip of a strike wave that was to sweep irresistibly over the whole country. Before the year was over agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, bill posters, biscuit workers, bottle makers, box makers, brass finishers, bricklayers, building labourers, cabinet makers, canal loaders, carpenters, carters, coach makers, confectioners, dockers, electricians, engineers, gas workers, glaziers, hairdressers, iron founders, linen workers, market gardeners, match workers, millers, news boys, painters, paviors, planterers, plumbers, poplin workers, seamen and firemen, sewage workers, soap makers, stevedores, stone cutters, tobacco workers, tramway workers, van drivers, wood machinists – even schoolchildren were all to be involved in industrial action. From A to Z were to be involved in often violent confrontation with their employers and the state.

Between January and August 1913 there were over thirty strikes in Dublin alone. The first blow was struck by the ITGWU when over 100 dockers employed by the Dublin Steampacket Company walked out to impose the closed shop on their foremen. The union extended the dispute to other shipping companies, calling more dockers out over wages and hours, and eventually after three months won a decisive victory. Larkin in the words of his biographer, was ‘master of the port’. [8] While this dispute was still underway the union became involved in a bitter conflict in Sligo where the employers imported blacklegs from Liverpool. There was bitter fighting with the police in which one picket was killed before the union emerged triumphant at the end of March.

Joseph O’Brien describes the situation in Dublin after the victorious dockers’ strike:

Between the dockers’ strike and the momentous events of August, several unrelated minor disputes took place that illustrate widespread grievance and militancy in the skilled and unskilled trades during that fateful year. The bottlemakers fought unavailingly for three weeks against the introduction of machines; 350 biscuit workers struck for one day for the reinstatement of a suspended worker; 500 coachbuilders were out for six weeks before they won a minimum wage; over 100 sawyers won a 50 hour week, as did 50 billposters of David Allen and Company: hairdressers struck to protest the abolition of the tipping system and their strike was honoured by the glaziers and carters of Brooks, Thomas and Company, who refused to install a pane of glass in a hairdressing establishment in sympathy with the strikers ... [9]

At the same time, Larkin was also busy organising the agricultural workers of County Dublin. A large enough membership had been built up by August for the union to threaten strike action and thereby secure an unprecedented 20 per cent pay rise for this most downtrodden section of the working class.

By the summer of 1913 the ITGWU had achieved a membership of over 30,000 and Larkin was claiming that Dublin was the best organised city in the world. This, modestly comments the ITGWU’s official history, ‘was possibly true’. The union seemed firmly in control of events and the working class was confident and full of hope. [10] Only the Guinness Brewery and the Dublin United Tramway Company remained steadfast against the union.

Larkinism and revolution

What was the nature of the labour unrest in Ireland? According to Dermot Keogh in his recent study of the rise of the Irish trade unions all that was at stake from 1910 to 1914 was the principle of trade union organisation. The great struggles of these years were for the limited objective of the right to organise and demonstrated only trade union consciousness on the part of the workers. There were only a handful of revolutionary socialists in Ireland and while they might actually lead massive struggles, they never won any significant number of workers over to their politics. In effect, what Keogh argues is that the struggles that shook Dublin and other towns were fought merely to establish the sort of moderate responsible trade unionism that he regards as acceptable: this was all the working class wanted and it was only employer intransigence that made them turn to the likes of Larkin for leadership. [11] Increasingly this view seems to be emerging as the new orthodoxy, retrospectively making even the years of the labour unrest safe. Even Desmond Greaves, the official historian of the ITGWU, seems to move in this direction (although somewhat shamefacedly). How valid is this attempt to hamstring the historical experience of the Irish working class?

First of all, we must make quite clear that there was not a revolutionary socialist working class in Ireland struggling for state power: Dublin in 1913 was not Petrograd in 1917, the Citizen Army was not the Red Army and James Connolly was not Vladimir Lenin. To pretend otherwise only gives credence to the arguments of the likes of Keogh. What there was, however, was very different from anything that he is prepared to recognise. The struggles from 1910 to 1914 were indeed for the right to organise, were to build strong union organisation, but to the workers who fought the police on the streets, who withstood months of hunger and want, who defied clerical condemnation and press abuse, trade union organisation meant something much more potent than Keogh is prepared to concede. The fight was to make the union the dominant force in the land, to break the employers’ power and to make them dance to the union’s tune: it was what Bob Holton has described as ‘proto-syndicalism’. [12] This was a powerful element in the unrest in Britain, but there it failed to overcome the entrenched resistance of the trade union leaderships. In Ireland it was much more successful: having seen off Sexton and the NUDL, the Larkinites had much more of a clear field.

Of course, we can criticise this project and point out its political weaknesses and limitations, but nevertheless it represented a desire to hammer the employers and to establish a union ascendancy rather than any desire for the sort of accommodatory trade unionism that prevails today. Having said this we have at the same time to recognise that there were different conflicting currents within the labour unrest and that at different times different aspects of the movement came to the fore (Larkin himself sometimes reflected this shifting within the movement), but in Ireland it was the militants who were to prevail, at least into the early months of the 1914–18 war.

Anyone who cares to look in the pages of the union newspaper that was edited by Larkin, the Irish Worker and People’s Advocate will see that Keogh has completely misread the situation:

Nothing like it has ever been seen since it was suppressed by the British Government in the early months of the First World War. This novel production was and remains unique in the history of working class journalism. It was less a newspaper than the spirit of four glorious years. To read the Irish Worker of these years is to feel the quickening pulse of Dublin. Week after week, while working and waiting for the millennium, Larkin attacked, with a monumental perseverance, the sweating, exploiting employers and the corrupt, cynical politicians who in his eyes were responsible for the reprehensible social conditions of Dublin. He gave no quarter and expected none as he vilified any and all, high or low, who had the misfortune to come under the notice of his pen. [13]

At the height of the 1911 upsurge, Larkin claimed sales nearing 100,000 copies, but much more likely is an average weekly sale throughout the paper’s life of around 20,000. [14]

In his 1911 A Call to Arms Larkin informed his readers that during the recent skirmish between

Labour and Capitalism in Ireland you got a foretaste of how your bowelless masters regard you. Their kept press spewed foul lies, innuendoes, and gave space to the knaves of our own class for the purpose of garotting our glorious movement. At present you spend your lives in sordid labour and have your abode in filthy slums; your children hunger, and your masters say your slavery must endure for ever. If you would come out of bondage yourself must forge the weapons and fight the grim battle.

The written word is the most potent force in our modern world. The Irish Worker will be a lamp to guide your feet in the dark hours of the impending struggle; a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives, and a weekly banquet from which you will rise strengthened in purpose to emulate the deeds of your forefathers, who died in dungeon and on scaffold in the hopes of a glorious resurrection for our beloved country. [15]

This was to be the paper’s weekly purpose: to serve as a weapon in the working class’s struggle to liberate itself and free Ireland.

From the very first issue of 27 May 1911, Larkin made clear that the paper was a nationalist paper, that ‘we owe no allegiance to any other nation nor King, governors, or representatives of any other nation. That all such persons are interlopers and trespassers upon this our land.’ But, he emphasised, the working class was ‘determined to accomplish not only National Freedom ... from military and political slavery such as we suffer under at present, but also from a more degraded slavery economic or wage slavery.’ For this ‘we must have our own party!” [16] The paper combined its forceful advocacy of the One Big Union with its advocacy of an Irish Labour Party and of Irish Nationalism. [17]

Clearly as a movement Larkinism involved a combination of very diverse elements: syndicalism, industrial unionism, labourism, socialism, nationalism and Catholicism. Holding them all together in some sort of unit was the principle of working class solidarity. This was the central ethic of the ITGWU, the core around which everything else revolved. Any section of workers in dispute could rely on the active support of the rest of the union. Picket lines were scrupulously respected and ‘tainted’ goods were never touched. The sympathy strike was a crucial instrument for breaking employer resistance so that no group of workers was ever allowed to be defeated in isolation. Every section of the working class had to be enrolled in the One Big Union so that there were no gaps for the employers to exploit, so that everywhere they turned they confronted a united working class stood shoulder to shoulder. There was no place at all for the non-unionist or the scab. This was the core of Larkinism, and by the summer of 1913 it had given the union a veritable stranglehold over the city of Dublin with only a few gaps still to close.

What of Jim Larkin himself? Bob Holton provides a good summing up of the man:

The ideas and activities of Larkin ... are not easy to categorise. In spite of his commitment to direct action and consistent hostility to conciliatory trade unionism, he still retained an interest in parliamentary and municipal politics throughout the years of labour unrest. At times, his pronouncements against strikes and in favour of compulsory arbitration seemed highly atypical of a syndicalist militant. Whatever he actually said on the platform, however, Larkin’s practical activities often contradicted these statements. He certainly wielded the strike weapon with considerable effect, asserting rank and file power against both employers and union leaders. This divorce between theory and practice is symptomatic of the unsystematic character of Larkin’s approach. At the same time it is extremely misleading to picture the man simply as an impulsive industrial militant. Though his flair for mass strike organisation cannot be doubted, he had an even more central concern than simple industrial agitation. Above all else Larkin was striving to articulate and promote an ethic of working class brotherhood and unity. He saw this as an essential prerequisite for attempts to overthrow capitalism and to lay the groundwork for an alternative social order.’ [18]

This is, by and large, a fair assessment, but it does not relate Larkin closely enough to the circumstances that produced him. Larkin, after all, did not spring fully-formed from a Greek God’s forehead, but was rather the product of working class experience and practice. He had been formed within the working class. There were many militants who shared his attitudes and outlook, but his exceptional abilities and forceful personality had pushed him to the fore. His weaknesses and inconsistencies were those of the movement, of the most advanced section of the working class that constituted Larkinism. He made as much plain himself when he told a meeting:

Don’t bother about cheering Larkin – he is but one of yourselves. It is you that want the cheers, and it is you that deserve them. It is you and the class from which I come – the downtrodden class – that should get the cheers ... I don’t recognise myself- a mean soul like myself in a mean body – as being the movement. You are the movement and for time being I have been elected as your spokesman. [19]

This is an important point. Larkin’s great strength was his ability to articulate, indeed shout out his members’ bitterness and anger, their hopes and longings. It seemed to Constance Markievicz, when she heard him speak in public, that ‘his personality caught up, assimilated and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified.’ [20] To R.M. Fox, he ‘was a crater through which volcanic rumblings emerged from the great upheaving force which was responsible for social tremors throughout the world.’ [21] He was a great agitator, ‘always weak as a theorist ... (but) a master of smashing technique when it came to Labour struggle.’ [22]

Let us consider Larkin’s weaknesses more closely. Personally, he was a great egoist and often quite self-consciously gloried in his role as the embodiment of the militant labour movement. This inevitably made him difficult to work with, but his great strengths always outweighed any disadvantages deriving from this. He was certainly not the psychotic that Desmond Greaves makes him out to be. [23] More important are his political limitations.

Larkin’s politics can be seen as resolving themselves into two different strategies for achieving socialism that existed side by side. On the one hand he was an advocate of trade union struggle and of the One Big Union, of workers building up their union strength until such a time as industry was already effectively in their hands. Even within this strand of his thinking there were contradictory elements, for example, his occasional advocacy of the virtues of arbitration. Nevertheless, this was a strategy of class war. On the other hand, however, he advocated the establishment of an Irish Labour Party, a reformist party to be controlled by the Irish TUC, which would contest elections and in the fullness of time take power by constitutional parliamentary means. The employing class was the enemy that had to be defeated in struggle, while the state was a neutral agency that could be captured through the ballot box.

Today the weaknesses of this sort of politics are clear. First, Larkin’s belief that the union was the weapon that could defeat the capitalist class can be seen as not recognising the unevenness of working class consciousness and the consequent need for the most advanced sections of the class to be organised as a political leadership, as a revolutionary party. Second, he did not recognise that the state had to be smashed rather than captured, that this required an armed insurrection rather than an electoral victory or even a general strike. The result was that Larkin, with all the advantages that his enormous following among the working class gave him, did not set about building the revolutionary party that could have provided the leadership necessary to accomplish the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, Larkinism remained a movement that could extract concessions from the employers, that could put them on the defensive, but because of the limitations of even the most militant trade unionism, it was not able to achieve the socialist reorganisation of society, and let us be quite clear, this was what Larkin intended and loudly advocated. For him the union was the instrument that the working class would use to emancipate itself and establish the socialist commonwealth. However, while strikes could bring individual employers to heel, any attempt at overthrowing capitalism would inevitably confront the state and this, Larkin, along with the rest of the left in both Britain and Ireland, was not prepared for. The state would be captured through the ballot box as far as they were concerned.

Even Jim Connolly advocated politics that were essentially similar, indeed he was more of an explicit syndicalist than even Larkin. Interestingly, Connolly had played a leading part in attempts to build revolutionary parties in Britain and Ireland and had for a time been a member of Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party in America. His politics in the late 1890s and early 1900s were De Leonist, emphasising the importance of building industrial unions, but under the control of the party. Connolly was to eventually break with De Leon’s conception of the revolutionary party, but he did not develop any alternative of his own. Instead as far as he was concerned the One Big Union became the chosen instrument for the overthrow of capitalism. He did not become a ‘pure’ syndicalist, however. In America, he joined the Socialist Party of America, a reformist organisation that nevertheless included revolutionaries among its members and back in Ireland he was to support Larkin’s campaign for an Irish Labour Party (he proposed the successful resolution establishing it at the 1912 ITUC) and he was a leading member of the propagandist Socialist Party of Ireland. Connolly’s politics were not, therefore, all that far removed from Larkin’s, although they had a much sharper theoretical expression. Arguably much of his writing at this time was a Marxist theorisation of Larkinism. [24] What places both men in the revolutionary camp is that despite the inadequacies of their politics, they both saw the ITGWU as a weapon in the class struggle, as a club with which to beat the capitalist class into submission and to prepare the way for socialism. Only after the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Comintern was this confused form of revolutionary socialism to be superceded. By then Connolly had been executed by a British firing squad, while Larkin was to be a founder member of the American Communist Party.

One last point is worth making about Connolly. Almost every account of the years from 1910 to 1916 written from whatever sort of leftwing perspective exaggerates his role at the expense of Larkin’s. Even so careful an historian as Raymond Challinor refers to the Irish Worker in 1911 as being ‘Connolly’s Irish Worker’. [25] In fact, the paper was edited by Larkin with only brief interruptions from its first issue in May 1911 until he left Ireland for America in October 1914. While one must always beware of substituting individuals for mass movements, nevertheless it has to be insisted that it was Larkin who was the spokesman, representative and acknowledged leader of the mass movement of working class revolt in this period and that Connolly was only one of his lieutenants, even if the most able. As far as the ITGWU membership was concerned Larkin personified their movement. Any discussion of Connolly has to start from a recognition of this fact. The only way that his politics can be adequately comprehended is if his articles and pamphlets are seen not as the work of some sort of socialist guru, but as the efforts of someone who was both a theoretician and an activist, to relate to that mass movement, to give theoretical expression and political direction to it. Understanding ‘Larkinism’ is a prerequisite for understanding Connolly.

The great lockout, 1913

The ITGWU’s hold over Dublin was such that few employers cared to challenge it, indeed the early months of 1913 saw many employers adopting conciliatory stances. But there was one important exception: Catholic Ireland’s most powerful capitalist, William Murphy, an important figure in the Home Rule movement and the owner of the Irish Independent newspaper and of the Dublin United Tramway Company. He was determined not just to exclude the union from his own concerns, but to destroy it throughout the whole city. Interestingly, Murphy had difficulty convincing his fellow employers that the time was ripe to crush Larkinism. Few had his resources and Larkin had made blacking and picketing such powerful weapons that even the use of scab labour was no longer effective: it spread disputes rather than ended them. Working class solidarity had defeated the methods that had been successfully used to destroy the unskilled unions since the 1890s. Unable to convince the Dublin Employers Federation that confrontation would be more effective than conciliation, Murphy had to prove by example that Larkinism could be smashed. Crucial was his success in getting the Liberal government in London (which had the wholehearted support of the British Labour Party) to endorse any measures necessary to clear the union off the streets. For Murphy to be able to convince other employers that the ITGWU could be broken, the state had to make clear that it would guarantee the safety of scab labour, and once he was able to demonstrate that this was indeed the case, the other employers accepted his leadership.

By the same token, Larkin was determined to organise the trams and, moreover, had no reason to expect that this would put the union’s very existence at risk. If it came to a strike, then picketing, blacking and boycotting would inevitably bring the tram system to a halt, and, sooner or later, Murphy would have to concede union recognition.

Murphy struck first. On 19 August he sacked all the union members working in the despatch department of the Irish Independent and on the 21 August sacked about 100 men working in the parcels department of the tram company. Before he could conduct a similar purge of the drivers and conductors, Larkin called them out on strike. At 10 a.m. on 26 August, the second day of the Dublin Horse Show, the same 700 union men stopped work, abandoning their trams and passengers where they stood. The response was disappointing with many men continuing to work, but Larkin was confident that victory was in his grasp, that solidarity action would soon close down Murphy’s concerns and bring him to heel. Dublin Castle moved quickly to demonstrate its full support for Murphy and on 28 August, Larkin and the rest of the ITGWU leadership were all arrested and charged with seditious libel, seditious conspiracy and unlawful assembly. A union demonstration on O’Connell Street, called for Sunday 31 August was banned. Larkin was no sooner released on bail that he made clear his intention to defy the ban and went into hiding to escape re-arrest.

Already there had been clashes in different parts of the city between pickets and police with police being badly injured. The police had clearly had instructions to drive the union off the streets and were carrying out their orders without restraint. Moreover, the conflict was spreading as other more determined employers joined in. A flour mill dismissed all union members in its employ and when Jacobs’ biscuit factory received a delivery from the firm over 2,000 men and women walked out. At this point elements within the ITGWU leadership, led by William O’Brien began looking for a way out of the fight. They resolved to comply with the ban on the demonstration in O’Connell Street and to hold a rally elsewhere. Larkin repudiated them from hiding. [26]

Police violence reached a peak over the weekend of 30 and 31 August with a general attack on the working class taking place. The workers were to be taught a lesson they would not forget and the state was to make clear its full support for the employers. On Saturday evening there was serious fighting in a number of areas of the city as people defended themselves against police attack. On Burgh Quay and Eden Quay the police brutally beat all and sundry, clubbing two union members to death. In Foley Street, they invaded the tenements, smashing furniture and beating men, women and children in their own homes. By morning there were two dead and over 200 badly injured.

On the Sunday, Larkin was smuggled into the Imperial Hotel in O’Connell Street and appeared on a balcony to address the crowds. This was taken as a signal by the police to clear the street which they did with great brutality, clubbing people indiscriminately to the ground. A liberal MP, Handel Booth, in Dublin for the Horse Show, subsequently described the police as:

The most brutal constabulary ever let loose on a peaceful assembly. Up and down the road, backwards and forwards, the police rushed like men possessed. Some drove the crowd into the streets to meet other batches of the government’s minions wildly striking with truncheons at every one within reach. In escaping many ran the gauntlet until the third or fourth blow knocked them senseless ... kicking the victims when prostrate was a settled part of the police programme. [27]

Fighting continued throughout the rest of the day and into the first days of September as the police imposed the rule of the truncheon in working class districts. Another 300-odd people were badly injured before the conflict subsided.

With Larkin once again in prison and the workers driven off the streets, the employers now felt confident enough to follow Murphy’s lead and to move against the union. Firm after firm attempted to impose an undertaking not to belong to the ITGWU on their workers, and, when it was refused, locked them out. The building trade took the opportunity to move against the United Labourers Union, locking out some 1,000 men, while in the county, the Farmers’ Association locked out their agricultural workers. By the end of September, Dublin was in the grip of a general lockout that involved some 400 employers and 25,000 workers. The ITGWU was fighting for its life.

The isolation of Dublin

Most accounts of the Dublin Lockout consider it primarily as an event in Irish history, as an incident in the fateful years of struggle that were to culminate in the Easter Rising of 1916 and in the War of Independence and Civil War that were to follow. Accordingly, they fail to adequately locate it within the context of the great labour revolt that had engulfed the whole of Britain as well. While the ITGWU was staunchly nationalist, it also regarded itself as part of the great movement of working class insurgency that was challenging employers, union officials and government in both countries. Larkin identified himself completely with the syndicalists and socialists in Britain, especially those grouped around the Daily Herald and around the British Socialist Party, who were trying to reshape the unions as instruments of class war rather than class compromise. Once the lockout was general in Dublin, he quickly realised that the only way the union could escape being ground down in a protracted unequal war of attrition was if the dispute could be spread to Britain. This required British workers taking industrial action in support of their Dublin brothers and sisters and refusing to handle blacked goods. The ITGWU had always extended such assistance to British workers and now that it was fighting for its life it demanded that this action be reciprocated.

To whom should appeals for solidarity have been addressed? To the union bureaucracies or to the rank and file? Larkin had no doubts. His own experience with the NUDL had educated him in what was to be expected from the union bureaucracy. Why should officials who betrayed their own members behave any better when it came to supporting the members of another union, and an Irish union at that? From the very beginning Larkin appealed directly to the rank and file, and his call was to meet with a tremendous response that was almost to overwhelm the opposition of the trade union bureaucracy. On 16 September railwaymen in Liverpool began to black all Dublin traffic and soon some 13–14,000 men were locked out or on strike as far afield as Birmingham, Sheffield, Crewe and Derby. The action was completely unofficial, organised by local rank and file committees who tried to move towards a national stoppage in support of the Dublin workers. There was a very real possibility of linking the railwaymen’s own outstanding grievances with the growing demands for solidarity with the ITGWU, but the union leadership, in particular J.H. Thomas, resolutely opposed any such attempt. The officials were able to outmanoeuvre the militants, to isolate them and prevent the revolt spreading and in this way secured a return to work. This incident highlights both the great strengths of the labour revolt and its great weaknesses: on the one hand there was tremendous militancy and a great willingness to take solidarity action, but on the other hand the movement was too loose, too uncoordinated, too unorganised to overcome the opposition of Thomas and Co. To head off demands for action in support of Dublin, the unions instead offered financial support, although even this was to be used in attempts to undermine Larkin and to settle the dispute over his head. [28]

The Lockout soon involved the thousands of victimised workers and their families, altogether more than a third of Dublin’s population, in great hardship. In an attempt to alleviate the suffering, towards the end of October a scheme was put underway to send some 350 children to stay for a holiday with the families of sympathisers in Britain. This was not an idea conjured out of thin air but was a tactic that had been used in protracted disputes both on the continent and in America. On 21 October, Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, a staunch supporter of the Home Rule movement, published a letter in the press condemning the scheme, asking the mothers if they had ‘abandoned their faith’ and accusing them of sending ‘away their children to be cared for in a strange land without security of any kind that those to whom the poor children are to be handed over are Catholics, or indeed, are persons of any faith at all.’ [29] Many children had already left, but on 23 October large crowds led by a number of priests prevented the departure of another party and assaulted the organisers. For a number of days attempts to take the children out of the country were confronted by threatening crowds until the police intervened, with the same admirable impartiality that they displayed throughout the dispute, and arrested Dora Montefiori, Delia Larkin and others who had helped organise the holidays, for kidnapping. They were only released when they undertook to abandon the scheme.

This clear intervention by the Church against the ITGWU was widely welcomed. The London Times gloated that the priests ‘have reasserted their authority over the women of the working classes, and it is no longer certain that Mr Larkin enjoys the unquestioning obedience of the men.’ Arnold Wright, a paid apologist for the employers, in his account of the Lockout, described these events as ‘one of the most remarkable and significant uprisings of Catholics that Dublin had witnessed for many a long day.’ While Augustine Birrell, the Liberal Chief Secretary for Ireland optimistically concluded that ‘it has broken the strike.’ [30] But while the union was momentarily shaken by this manifestation of clerical hostility, the rank and file remained solid and united in their determination to win.

Larkin met the clerical challenge with indignant outrage: ‘l am not frightened by the Archbishop or the priests. No one ever heard me say a word against them, but I say the priest who says I would allow a child to be proselytised is a liar in his heart.’ [31] His involvement was temporarily ended, however, when on 28 October, a hand-picked jury found him guilty of sedition and he was sentenced to seven months imprisonment. Connolly assumed control of the union and neatly turned the tables on the Archbishop by suspending relief operations at Liberty Hall and sending the children to their priests for food. After a week had demonstrated the complete failure of the Church to sustain its congregation, the union resumed relief operations, and an uneasy truce was obtained between the Church and the ITGWU.

Interestingly, while the Church’s hostility to the union gave rise to sometimes bitter attacks on clerical interference in matters that were none of their business, there is no evidence to show that it undermined the devout Catholicism of the great majority of the locked-out men and women. Larkin himself remained a staunch Catholic and on one occasion was actually to refuse to share the platform with a divorcee at a solidarity meeting organised by the British Socialist Party in Grimbsy. The young Harry Pollitt replaced him. [32] Even Connolly took great care to avoid upsetting the religious susceptibilities of the rank and file (he condemned divorce as a product of capitalism!) and actually confessed on one occasion that although not a believer, he nevertheless posed as one. [33] He believed that as the union got stronger so the Church would inevitably be forced to come to terms with it; just as the Church had initially condemned the Land League in 1879, but had then rallied behind it, so it would be with the ITGWU. The Church, he argued, would never put all of its eggs in the capitalist basket. [34]

Far from weakening the workers, the imprisonment of Larkin, together with the death on hunger strike of James Byrne, the imprisoned chairman of Dun Laoghaire Trades Council, had the effect of increasing their determination and of once again rallying British workers in their support. Connolly appealed to British workers to vote against the Liberal candidates in three pending by-elections in Reading, Keighley and Linlithgow even if it meant voting Tory. In all three by-elections, socialists campaigned against the Liberals and for the release of Larkin. The Liberals lost all three seats.

At the same time, the Shipping Federation began to import scabs from Britain into Dublin. There were fierce clashes between mass pickets and the police, but the union failed to win control of the streets. In retaliation, on 12 November, Connolly repudiated the union’s agreement with the Dublin shipping companies and closed the port of Dublin. This was a dramatic escalation of the dispute because the union was now effectively hurting even those firms not involved in the Lockout in order to try to and force the Dublin employers to terms. Scabs were poured into the port to try and keep it open, with the Shipping Federation being actively assisted by Havelock Wilson’s National Sailors and Firemen’s Union. The ITGWU’S failure to drive out the scabs, many of whom carried licensed firearms, and who were protected by both police and troops, forced the union to appeal once again for solidarity action in Britain. The only way to beat the Shipping Federation’s strikebreaking was to close down the ports in Britain.

The renewed clashes between pickets and police in the first weeks of November determined the ITGWU leadership to organise its own self-defence force, the Citizen Army. There were already informal groups of union members conducting a guerrilla war against the scabs and the police, but Connolly now proposed to establish a formal disciplined force that would be capable of defending itself against police attack. The formation of the force was announced at a meeting on 13 November called to celebrate Larkin’s release from prison after only seventeen days of his sentence had been served. The Liberal government had bowed down before the growing wave of protest that was threatening to carry the Dublin dispute across the water into Britain. While the Citizen Army, armed with metal-shod clubs, was never strong enough to put a stop to the importation of scabs, it was effective in deterring the police from repeating their exploits of the end of August.

According to Greaves, by this stage of the dispute, ‘the republicans, the Irish-Irelanders and the Liberal intelligentsia’ had all rallied to the side of the union. [35] Certainly some had, but that is not the whole story by any means, and what Greaves leaves out is in many ways more important than what he includes. The harsh fact is that while individual republicans sympathised with the union, the largest and by far the most important republican organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood absolutely refused to take sides. Greaves, for reasons best known to himself, completely ignores this not unimportant detail.

Sean O’Casey, at the time a staunch Irish-Irelander and an active member of the IRB, was also a locked out ITGWU member. He had long argued within the union that the workers had no need of socialist politics but should rally to the republican movement for their salvation. Now he took himself at his own word and when the Lockout began urged that the IRB should declare itself for the workers, should side, as he saw it, with ‘the men of no property.’ He was told instead that the IRB could not involve itself in a sectional dispute but that individual members could give the union their support if they wished. For the time being, he accepted this and continued to be active both in the IRB and in the ITGWU where he was joint secretary of the Relief Fund Committee. Then on 25 November, the IRB was instrumental in establishing an Irish National Volunteer force in Dublin which O’Casey saw as competing for recruits directly with the Citizen Army. Worse, however, was the fact that while a number of Home Rule organisations were invited to participate in founding the Volunteers, the ITGWU was not. Having refused to ally itself with the locked out workers, the IRB now proceeded to associate itself with the representatives of the employers. The Volunteer movement was established in alliance with ‘men who had done all they could to snatch from the workers the right to join the Trades Union of their choice’, who ‘had locked out their employees because they had ventured to assert the first principles of Trades Unionism.’ [36]

The reason for this was simple: in the conditions of class war prevailing in Dublin, the IRB had a choice of allying itself with either the ITGWU or the Home Rulers, but not both. They believed in building a republican movement across the classes and rejected the ITGWU as representing a sectional interest and for insisting on putting its own petty concerns before the interests of the nation. The Home Rulers were much more amenable.

This did not go unchallenged, however. When the Volunteer movement was launched at a rally at the Rotunda Rink on 25 November, the meeting was invaded by ITGWU members. The moment Laurence Kettle, the joint secretary of the Volunteer committee who was well-known for his hostility to Larkinism, stood up to speak, his voice was drowned out. There was scuffles, and it was only after some time that stewards armed with hurley sticks were able to clear the union members from the hall. [37] O’Casey himself made one last effort to challenge the way the IRB was going, but was shouted down at a meeting of the Dublin circles of the organisation with the chairman waving a revolver. He gave up his involvement with the republican movement and threw himself wholeheartedly into the fight against the Dublin employers. [38]

Once he was released from prison, Larkin launched a campaign for solidarity action in Britain, his ‘fiery cross’ crusade. He spoke at huge meetings across the country, explaining the plight of the Dublin workers, castigating the leaders of the Labour Party and of the unions and appealing for action in support of his members. In response to his call a second wave of unofficial industrial action spread across the country. In South Wales two ASLEF drivers were sacked for refusing to carry Dublin traffic and some 30,000 railwaymen struck in support of them. Once again Thomas was instrumental in smashing the strike, getting his members back to work and actually ordering them to replace the two victimised ASLEF members whom he described as ‘a disgrace’ to trade unionism. There was considerable support for the ITGWU on the docks and officials reported great difficulty in keeping their members at work in London and Liverpool. Without any doubt the great obstacle to solidarity action with the Dublin workers was not any lack of sympathy among key groups of workers, but the opposition of the trade union bureaucracy. The militants, many of them active socialists and syndicalists, were just not organised enough to wrest control from the hands of the officials. The pressure from below was such, however, that on 18 November the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC took the unprecedented step of calling a special conference of the TUC for 9 December to consider the Dublin situation. This was the first special conference in the TUC’s history and gives a good indication of how the pressure was building up. To keep control, the bureaucracy gave ground, hoping that the solidarity movement would run out of steam in the interim. On 22 November the Daily Herald published a manifesto, drawn up by Larkin, that appealed directly to the rank and file to bring their officials to heel.

The British union leaders seem to think, speak and act as though trade unionism was meant to be used as a salve for the sore of poverty ... They seem to think that round-table conferences, nice language, beautiful phrases that fall trippingly from the tongue, Conciliation Boards and agreements are the be-all and end-all of life ... We say trade unionism is a root remedy and by industrial action we can accomplish great things. We are not willing to say that trade unionism shall be used either by industrial commissioners, Conciliation Boards or by Cabinets to chloroform the workers, to persuade them to remain as dumb, driven dogs.

Instead, Larkin urged, that the rank and file had to:

Tell your leaders now and every day until December 9, and raise your voice upon that day to tell them that for the future they must stand for Trade Unionism, that they are not there as apologists for the shortcomings of the Capitalist system, that they are not there to assist the employers in helping to defeat any section of workers striving to be free, nor to act as a brake upon the wheel of progress. [39]

The manoeuvre had worked, however. Attempts to launch unofficial action were let drop, while all eyes turned to the TUC. Even Larkin saw the priority as putting rank and file pressure on the TUC to take action, rather than launching it independently, confident in the knowledge that the TUC would be dragged in its wake. Instead the momentum was lost and the initiative was allowed to slip away. To some extent Larkin was putting his faith in the left officials such as Robert Smillie of the miners and Ben Tillett of the dockers, who had shared platforms with him during his ‘fiery cross’ crusade. Tillett, in particular, had called for the most extreme measures. On 16 November from the same platform as Larkin in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in front of 4,000 people with 20,000 locked outside, Tillett called on British workers to arm, promised to lead them in battle against the police and to personally make an end of McKenna, the Liberal Home Secretary. At the same time, however, he was busy stamping out attempts at unofficial action in support of the Dublin workers. [40]

When the TUC special conference assembled on 9 December, Larkin found himself confronting not a conference of rank and file delegates, but a conference dominated by full-time officials. As R.M. Fox remarks, while the conference was ostensibly ‘to decide what was to be done about Dublin ... (in reality) it was to decide what was to be done about Larkin.’ [41] The conference was packed against him: according to Bill Moran there was not one delegate who had been formally elected or mandated for the occasion, instead they were all either appointed by their executives or chosen from the delegation to the annual TUC. [42] What did take Larkin by surprise, however, was the ownership of the hand that wielded the knife that struck the fatal blow: Ben Tillett! He proposed the first motion to be put, condemning Larkin’s attacks on the leaders of the trade union movement and opening the floodgates for a score of attacks on the ITGWU leader. Larkin replied in kind, but Tillett’s Judas’ resolution was carried almost unanimously (only six delegates voted against). Then the conference moved to discuss the question of sympathetic action and voted against it by 2,280,000 votes to 203,000. The movement for unofficial action was decisively crushed and Dublin was isolated. In Connolly’s words:

We asked ... that the working class of Britain should help us to prevent the Dublin capitalists carrying on their business without us. We asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin, and for answer the leaders of the British labour movement proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin ... And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. [43]


After the British TUC’s betrayal, defeat was inevitable and by mid-January 1914 the workers were beginning to return to work on whatever terms were on offer. There was still an almost daily catalogue of clashes between strikers and armed scabs and police in which many union members were injured and arrested. On 18 December an armed scab shot a sixteen year old girl on picket duty: she died on 2 January. Her killer was freed on bail and charges were eventually dismissed. Two weeks later a scab carrying a revolver was beaten to death by a group of union men and another drowned after being thrown into the Liffey. [44] The main issue was no longer in doubt, however.

The union made an effort to rally its forces in the Dublin municipal elections that January. The Dublin Labour Party was completely dominated by the ITGWU. Although the Labour vote held up the result was a disaster with only two of the thirteen Labour candidates securing election. According to one historian, this defeat ‘was crucial’ in finally convincing the union leadership that they were beaten. [45] By the middle of February there were still some 5,000 workers locked out and the last to accept defeat were the women of Jacob’s biscuits who did not go back until mid-March.

What is the significance of the defeat? According to Greaves in his biography of Connolly it was not a defeat at all! Rather it was ‘a draw’. There were no sackings, he claims, and the pledge to leave the ITGWU was ‘reduced to a scrap of paper’. [46] When we turn to his later history of the ITGWU he acknowledges the victimisations that took place, the bankruptcy of the union and its catastrophic loss of membership, but now the dispute was not ‘lost, won or drawn? It was all three.’ He is pretty well sure to be at least partly right! [47] In fact the dispute ended in a crushing defeat and it is idle to pretend otherwise. The ITGWU which had appeared to have Dublin securely in its grasp in the early summer of 1913 had been broken by the employers and the state, assisted by the TUC. The union had survived as an organisation, but the movement of working class revolt had been smashed. The apparently irresistible tide of Larkinism had been turned back.

The struggle had been of massive proportions with the ITGWU taking on employers, police, courts, press, clergy and imported scabs. Four workers were dead and over 400 had been imprisoned. Hundreds had been injured in fights with the police. And in the end all the sacrifice was turned to dust by the TUC. It was the refusal of the TUC to endorse sympathetic action that finally ensured that the ITGWU would go down in defeat. This, of course, will be no great surprise to readers of this journal: if the Tolpuddle Martyrs had relied on the TUC they would still be languishing in Australia. What is important, however, is to understand why it was that the powerful movement of support for Dublin among the British rank and file was unable to overcome the opposition of the trade union bureaucracy. There were tens of thousands of men and women throughout Britain who rallied behind Larkin on his ‘fiery cross’ crusade, but their militancy, their anger was not organised and given a political direction. Many of them were members of the Independent Labour Party or of the British Socialist Party and neither organisation intervened in industrial struggles: for both parties, politics meant propaganda and elections.

There was no revolutionary party that was organised to intervene politically in the trade unions and in industrial disputes. The tiny Socialist Labour Party of which Connolly had been a founder was barred from playing such a role by its sectarianism. By the time such a party was formed in the summer of 1920, the great labour revolt was coming to an end and the new Communist Party had to cope with a period of retreat. The absence of a revolutionary party meant that while pressure from below might push the trade union bureaucracy reluctantly into action, they were always able to maintain their strategic position within the unions and once the pressure had eased could regain the initiative and re-establish control. Only independent rank and file organisation with the political leadership that a revolutionary party could have provided would have been able to prevent this.

The road to Easter week

In a recent article, Donny Gluckstein briefly discusses the development of Connolly’s ideas in the period after the defeat of the ITGWU and the outbreak of the World War. He argues that Connolly’s search for an alternative to the politics of the Second International proved, in the end, fruitless, because when his syndicalism was shown to be inadequate, he turned instead to ‘militarism’ which became a substitute for mass action. [48] There is an important kernel of truth here, but because Gluckstein discusses Connolly solely in terms of an ‘internationalist’ perspective, he misses the crucial ways in which the peculiarities of the Irish context shaped and determined his development. The situation was considerably more complex than he allows. Connolly’s politics were inextricably bound up with the fate of Larkinism, of the working class revolt that had been broken in the lockout and it is essential to return him to that context.

Despite its industrial and electoral defeats, throughout 1914 the ITGWU continued its efforts to establish itself as apolitical force in Dublin. The political issue that dominated the country once the lockout had ended was the question of partition and whether or not the Home Rulers would fight it. Larkin was quite clear that partition had to be opposed, not because it violated Irish national integrity but because it would cripple the Irish working class. By separating off Protestant workers in the north from their brothers and sisters in the south, partition would consolidate and strengthen sectarian divisions. In a Home Rule Ireland with Catholic and Protestant workers united, the working class would be a force to be reckoned with, but in a partitioned Ireland southern workers would be danger of being overwhelmed by rural conservatism. Partition had be fought even at the risk of civil war. [49]

The Volunteer movement was the arena in which the union decided to intervene – by May 1914 the Irish Volunteers had some 70,000 members and was still recruiting. Not only was it far from certain that this force would oppose partition, but the union was also worried about its potential as a strike-breaking force. To meet this situation, in March 1914 the union reorganised the by now virtually defunct Citizen Army with the intention of challenging the Home Rulers for the leadership of the volunteering movement. It is worth noting, in view of the usual opinion that Connolly initiated everything in this period, that he was not present at the meeting at which this was decided and was not even included on the Citizen Army executive: the initiative was the work of Larkin, O’Casey and others.

In the months that followed, the Irish Worker ferociously and consistently attacked the Home Rulers and the Volunteers for their betrayal over partition and for the anti-union opinions of their leaders. As far as Larkin was concerned, the Volunteer movement was ‘bogus’, ‘a Castle-controlled organisation’, ‘a movement to excuse the political betrayal of the country ... organised to save the politicians from moral and political obloquy’. It was intended ‘to sidetrack any real movement.’ Moreover, its leaders had made clear that they were prepared to ‘if given the opportunity, attack, baton, shoot and massacre the organised working class.’ [50] The IRB members on the Volunteer executive came in for their share of abuse because not only had they failed to break with the Home Rulers, they had actually allowed John Redmond, the Home Rule leader to impose his own nominees on them. ‘On Your Knees! Provisional Committee; You Half-Baked Rebels’, editorialised Larkin, pointing out that one of the republicans who had voted in favour of accepting Redmond’s diktat was to deliver the oration at Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown that Sunday – ‘Poor Tone – it is enough to make him turn in his grave.’ [51] O’Casey warned a week later that the Volunteers ‘may be used to break up democratic progress even as some of the Volunteers of ’82 hunted down the followers of Wolfe Tone in glorious ’98 ... This talk of a union of all classes is impossible.’ [52]

In fact there was a difference of opinion developing within the Citizen Army as to how it should relate to the Volunteers. O’Casey, in particular, was for unremitting hostility, but others including Connolly hoped to be able to pull the republicans in their direction. As some elements within the IRB, under pressure from the Citizen Army, moved towards a break with the Home Rulers, Larkin came round to their point of view. O’Casey resigned as secretary of the Citizen Army in protest.

The outbreak of war on 4 August presented the ITGWU with its next challenge. From the very beginning the union opposed the war, condemned it in its paper and organised marches and rallies to protest against it. As it was clearly too weak to launch industrial action against the war, the union leadership looked to the Volunteers and made a determined effort to capture that movement from the Home Rulers. When Redmond announced his support for Britain and called on his followers to enlist, Larkin asked the reader of the Irish Worker, ‘Is there no man to provide a rope and a tree for this twentieth century Judas?’ [53] Redmond Eats His Own Vomit, he entitled one editorial castigating the Home Rule leader for his betrayal. [54] And indeed, for a time it seemed as if the Volunteers might actually be wrenched from Redmond’s hands and the Home Rule Party smashed. When the IRB led a breakaway from the Home Rule dominated Volunteers and established a separate force opposed to the war, Connolly welcomed this step as a ‘Napoleon-like stroke’ that had ‘saved the situation for the country at large.’ The split had ‘sent a thrill of joy through the heart of every true man and woman in the country’ and had dealt ‘a staggering blow’ to the Home Rulers. [55] A week later, he wrote urging a forward policy on the Volunteers urging them to take the offensive against Redmond. They must pledge themselves ‘to remain in armed service in Ireland for Ireland’ and ‘to enforce the repeal of all clauses in the Home Rule Act denying to Ireland powers of self-government now enjoyed by South Africa, Australia or Canada.’ A declared intention to extract independence from the British by threat of rebellion would, he argued, enable the breakaway Volunteers to rally support and isolate the Home Rulers. They had to recognise ‘that against the shamelessly vile methods of the politician there is but one effective weapon – the daring appeal of the Revolutionist.’ [56] Connolly was convinced that the opportunity was there to create a mass volunteer force that under working class leadership would be capable of winning independence by the threat of rebellion, or, if that failed, by rebellion itself. This belief informs much of his writing in the early months of the war.

Meanwhile, Larkin left Ireland at the end of October for what was intended to be a short fund-raising visit to America. He was not to return for over eight years. During his supposedly temporary absence, Connolly was appointed acting-general secretary of the union (he was not Larkin’s candidate), taking over editorship of the Irish Worker and command of the Citizen Army as well.

Despite all the efforts of Larkin, Connolly and their supporters, the opposition to the war was overwhelmed by a great surge of pro-British sentiment. Far from Redmond being isolated, it was the Citizen Army and the breakaway Irish Volunteers who suffered that fate. The writing was on the wall as soon as war broke out: the Citizen Army Notes that appeared in the Irish Worker on 8 August lamented the fact that ‘several of our best comrades are leaving the North Wall to fight for the glory of England.’ The writer looked forward to the day when the North Wall was crowded with armed men ready ‘to fight for the glory of Ireland’ but observed that

after witnessing the street scenes in Dublin during the past week, it seems almost hopeless to expect that such a day will ever dawn. Here we have a war in which Ireland has no interest ... yet we venture to assert that no English city is displaying more enthusiasm than Dublin, in sending its bravest and best to murder men with whom they have no quarrel. [57]

With the collapse of hopes for a mass opposition to the war, Connolly’s politics began to undergo a transformation that was to eventually end with him as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Whereas he had once considered the emancipation of the working class and the freedom of Ireland as inextricably linked, now the two began to come apart, with the emancipation of the working class I being postponed, while the striking of a blow for Ireland loomed ever more imminent. He made this clear in a crucial article where he argued that our programme ‘in time of peace was to gather into Irish hands in Irish trade unions the control of all the forces of production and distribution in Ireland’ but ‘in times of war we should act as in war … While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom ... The time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE.’ [58]

Gluckstein argues that Connolly had in effect jettisoned mass action in favour of militarism, which is correct as far as it goes, but is nowhere near specific enough. As the war in Europe dragged on month after bloody month, Connolly became increasingly gripped by the fear that Irish national consciousness, that Ireland’s distinct national identity was being altogether eradicated. Keeping alive ‘the soul of Ireland’ came to preoccupy him more than opposition to the war itself did. He wrote

For twelve months, twelve very long dreary agonising months we have seen war in Ireland, war upon the soul of the Irish people ... Never has a nation suffered such an onslaught. Belgium in its agonies under the heel of the invaders, nor Poland in its awful travail, cannot claim to have suffered as Ireland has suffered since war was declared ... The fighting in Belgium and Poland was for the material possession of towns and cities, the fight in Ireland has been for the soul of the race. [59]

Marxist analysis was increasingly replaced by republican rhetoric. Eventually he was to conclude that even the working class had betrayed Ireland:

It is with shame and sorrow we say it, but the evil influence upon large sections of the Irish Working Class of the bribes and promises of the enemy cannot be denied ... For the sake of a few paltry shillings per week thousands of Irish workers have sold their country in the hour of their country’s greatest need and hope. For the sake of a few paltry shillings Separation Allowance thousands of Irish women have made life miserable for their husbands with entreaties to join the British Army ... Deep in the heart of Ireland has sank the sense of degradation wrought upon its people – our lost brothers and sisters – so deep and humiliating that no agency less potent that the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect, or re-establish its national dignity in the face of a world horrified and scandalised by what must seem to them our national apostacy. Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility and awe we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: ‘Without the shedding of Blood, there is no Redemption.’ [60]

Connolly had embraced the messianic conception of revolution as redemption advocated by Padraic Pearse and which informed the plans of the IRB’s Military Council. [61] It was on this basis that he allied the tiny Citizen Army (less than 200 strong) with the forces under the command of the Military Council. He was co-opted onto the Council and was to be the Dublin commander of the combined forces of the Irish Republic during Easter Week.

The Easter Rising was a deliberate blood sacrifice whereby that participants hoped to save the soul of Ireland by laying down their lives. The 700 Volunteers and 120 Citizen Army members who seized control of the centre of Dublin on 23 April 1916 never had any hope of success whatsoever. There was no popular support for the rebels indeed once they had been defeated grateful crowds assembled in the streets to cheer the British troops and shout abuse at the prisoners. It was in every sense of the word a putsch, and, moreover, a putsch where the organisers did not even believe success to be possible. [62] Connolly was among those executed afterwards.

He was driven to participate in the Easter Rising by desperation. The Lockout, the British TUC’s betrayal, partition, the failure of opposition to the war, the enlistment of thousands of Irish workers in the British Army, all combined to drive him into the hands of the, republicans. After a lifetime of socialist activity, he despaired of the working class and took up the doctrine of the blood sacrifice. The tragedy was, as Lenin pointed out, that the Irish rose ‘prematurely before the European revolt of the proletariat had time to mature.’ Indeed, they rose before war weariness had seriously gripped significant sections of the Irish population. The evidence suggests that even without the repression that followed the Rising, Irish public opinion would have turned against the war, especially when the British tried to introduce conscription in 1918. Then would have been the time to strike, with the British Army drained of all reserves and: popular support rallying behind the rebels. [63] Whereas in 1916 the; ITGWU had only 5,000 members, by 1918 the figure was over 40,000 and the Irish TUC was to call a token but nevertheless successful one day general strike against conscription. By then, however, Connolly was dead and Larkin was still in America and the union had passed into the hands of men who fully accepted that the working class should have a subordinate place in society. In the struggle for Independence, the ITGWU was to confine itself politically to supporting Sinn Fein and the IRA and was never to attempt to transform the national struggle into a struggle for socialism. For all their great achievements Larkin and Connolly had not created anything that could contest control of the union with the likes of William O’Brien and the entrenched bureaucracy that developed around him. [64] The great working class revolt in Ireland had produced no revolutionary party, instead the workers put their faith in their union and in the end this failed them.


1. Irish Worker, 12 August 1911.

2. For the best account of Larkin’s early career as a political and trade union activist see Eric Taplin, James Larkin, Liverpool and the National Union of Dock Labourers: The Apprenticeship of a Revolutionary, Saothar 4 (1977).

3. Emmet Larkin, James Larkin (London 1968) p35. This book provides the best account of the Belfast dispute, but also of interest are John McHugh, The Belfast Labour Dispute and the Riots of 1907, International Review of Social History XXII, 1 (1977) and Henry Patterson, James Larkin and the Belfast Dockers’ and Carters’ Strike of 1907, Saothar 4 (1977).

4. Larkin, ibid., pp. 53–54. Even an historian as hostile to Larkin and Larkinism as Dermot Keogh nevertheless pays tribute to his efforts in Dublin in 1908: ‘Larkin’s achievement was really quite remarkable when it is considered that he carried on a protracted strike, punctured by truces, without any support from the NUDL. He had to rely almost entirely on local money to fill his war chest. Neither did he make any effort to control the dispute or prevent new members signing on who had just come out on strike. At its height there were 3000 men relying on him for support. He did not provide very well for them, but they were prepared to endure the hardship of a lockout for a principle.’ From Dermot Keogh, The Rise of the Irish Working Class (Belfast 1982), p. 133.

5. For the great Labour Unrest see in particular Bob Holton, British Syndicalism 1900–1914 (London 1976), and also Joe White, 1910–1914 Reconsidered, from James E. Cronin and Jonathan Schneer, Social Conflict and the Political Order in Modern Britain (London 1982), and, of course, Mike Haynes The British Working Class in Revolt 1910–1914, International Socialism 22 (Winter 1984).

6. Albert Sorel in his Reflections on Violence (New York 1969) propagated this view which also informs George Dangerfield’s celebrated The Strange Death of Liberal England (London 1966).

7. Larkin, op. cit., p. 83.

8. Ibid., p. 103.

9. Joseph V. O’Brien, Dear, Dirty Dublin (Los Angeles 1982), p. 223.

10. C. Desmond Greaves, The Irish Transport and General Workers Union: The Formative Years (Dublin 1982), p. 91. Interestingly the other side of working class optimism was upper class despondency. O’Brien notes the gloom that afflicted the rich and well-to-do. (O’Brien, op. cit., p. 223)

11. Keogh, op. cit., pp. 3–4. Keogh reveals his own political loyalties when he remarks that Pope Leo XIII’s papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, provides enough guidance for any trade union activist (ibid, pp. 49–51).

12. Holton, op. cit., pp. 207–208.

13. Larkin, op. cit., p. 69. Robert Lowery writes of Larkin as a writer and editor: ‘As a writer, he authored nearly 400 articles over a forty-one month period. Every week he wrote one or more editorials which were fresh and lively and, as often as not explosive. Readers could always expect something which would move them one way or the other. One week it might be a stirring tribute to Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone or St Patrick. The next week might feature a blistering attack on a sweatshop employer or a scathing denunciation of a local politician who had been caught padding his payroll with his relatives. The number of articles written by Larkin is staggering when one realises that he was also in charge of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, president of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, a frequent candidate for political office, and often the main speaker at workers’ rallies in all parts of Ireland ... As an editor Larkin must be judged a success.’ This is from his excellent article, Sean O’Casey and the Irish Worker, Robert G. Lowery, O’Casey Annual, No. 1 (London 1984), pp. 42–43.

14. Greaves, op. cit., p. 58. He notes that ‘Assuming that Dublin contained about 50,000 “adult males”, something like a third of these must have bought the paper, which one can therefore safely assume was read or discussed by the entire working class of the city. This was something unprecedented in any city in the world.’ While the point is well made it is somewhat strange to see ‘adult males’ and the working class taken as synonymous.

15. R.M. Fox, Jim Larkin: The Rise of the Underman (London 1957), p. 73.

16. Irish Worker, 27 May 1911.

17. I discuss in more detail the ideology of the Irish Worker in my “A Lamp to Light your Feet”: Jim Larkin, the Irish Worker and People’s Advocate and the Dublin working class (forthcoming).

18. Holton, op. cit., pp. 187–188.

19. Irish Worker, 29 July 1911.

20. Larkin, op. cit., p. 145.

21. R.M. Fox, Smoky Crusade (London 1938), p. 167.

22. Fox, Larkin, op. cit., p. 74.

23. Greaves history of the ITGWU has as one of its themes a careful but sustained attempt at character assassination, at trying to diminish Larkin’s role and to suggest mental in balance. See in particular Greaves, ITGWU, op. cit., p. 131.

24. The best account of Connolly’s politics is still C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London 1972), despite its attempts to fit Connolly into a Stalinist stages theory of the struggle for socialism.

25. Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (London 1977), p. 66.

26. Keogh, op. cit., pp. 193–199, argues that the strike was collapsing when police brutality gave it a new lease of life and that O’Brien’s decision to abide by the O’Connell Street ban demonstrates the essential moderation of the ITGWU leadership, excepting, of course, Larkin whom he blames for things getting out of hand. He completely misunderstands the situation. The actions of the police were a considered and calculated effort to drive the union off the streets and thereby prevent it picketing Murphy’s concerns which would have inevitably closed them down. While there were elements within the ITGWU itself and or the Dublin Trades Council who would have tried to avoid a fight and reach an accommodation, they were rendered impotent by the fact that the employers had decided on the destruction of the union and by the fact that the rank and file were determined to fight and win, and looked to Larkin for leadership. Keogh, like many ‘moderates’, just cannot comprehend situations where moderation in swept away by the rising tide of the struggle.

27. Ibid., p. 202.

28. See Bill Moran, 1913, Jim Larkin and the British Labour Movement, Saothar 4 (1978), p. 41.

29. Larkin, op. cit., p. 124. Incredibly Greaves, ITGWU, op. cit., p. 107 writes that: ‘the proposers of the scheme were guilty of misjudgement. Republicans and socialists in Ireland knew that despite all appearances to the contrary, there were people in England who wished the Irish nation well. But the mass of the people could not be expected to believe it until it came within their own experience ... In a word they treated the English Socialists as “soupers”. It was most unfair, but it was very understandable.’

30. The Times, 24 October 1913; Arnold Wright, Disturbed Dublin (London 1914), p. 3; Leon Ó Broin, The Chief Secretary (London 1969), p. 77.

31. Larkin, op. cit., p. 125.

32. Greaves, Connolly, op. cit., p. 331; John Mahon, Harry Pollitt (London 1976), pp. 41–42.

33. On divorce see Connolly’s Labour Nationality and Religion, which is reprinted in Owen Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom, James Connolly: Selected Political Writings (London 1973), pp. 100–103. He combines this position with a strong attack on the Church’s attitude towards women. See also Samuel Levenson, James Connolly (London 1973), p. 113.

34. Irish Worker, 6 July 1912; The Harp, September 1908. This raises some important problems because it is clear that for socialists to have attacked Catholicism as such in Ireland at this time would inevitably have isolated them from the working class and moreover from a working class that was engaged in massive struggles in defiance of clerical condemnation. Connolly’s position seems decidedly opportunist but a militantly atheist position seems totally inappropriate.

35. Greaves, ITGWU, op. cit., p. 110.

36. P. Ó Cathasaigh, The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin 1919), p. 9.

37. F.X. Martin, The Irish Volunteers (Dublin 1963), pp. 105–110).

38. For an account of O’Casey’s politics in these years see my “In the Hunger-Cry of the Nation’s Poor is Heard The Voice of Ireland”: Sean O’Casey and Politics 1908–1916, Journal of Contemporary History (forthcoming).

39. Moran, op. cit., p. 43; Holton, op. cit., pp. 192–194; Larkin, op. cit., p. 131.

40. Jonathan Schneer, Ben Tillett (London 1982), p. 168. This is a superb account of a left official at work.

41. Fox, Smokey Crusade, op. cit., p. 172.

42. Moran, op. cit., p. 44.

43. Forward, 9 February 1914.

44. O’Brien, op. cit., p. 236; The Times, 19 January 1914.

45. Arthur Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, 1890–1930 (Dublin 1974), p. 54. See also Peter Murray, Electoral Politics and the Dublin Working Class before the First World War, Saothar 6 (1980).

46. Greaves, Connolly, op. cit., p. 338.

47. Greaves, ITGWU, op. cit., p. 121.

48. Donny Gluckstein The Missing Party International Socialism 22 (Winter 1984), p. 17.

49. Larkin, op. cit., p. 160.

50. Irish Worker, 30 May 1914.

51. Irish Worker, 20 June 1914.

52. Irish Worker, 27 June 1914.

53. Irish Worker, 27 September 1914.

54. Irish Worker, 17 October 1914.

55. Irish Worker, 17 October 1914.

56. Irish Worker, 10 October 1914.

57. Irish Worker, 20 June 1914.

58. Workers’ Republic, 23 January 1916.

59. Workers’ Republic, 7 August 1915.

60. Workers’ Republic, 5 February 1916.

61. For a more detailed discussion of this see my James Connolly and the Easter Rising, Science and Society, XLVII, 2 (Summer 1983).

62. For a discussion of Lenin’s different assessment of 1916 see my The Easter Rising: Success or Failure?, Monthly Review 34, 7 (December 1982).

63. This has been argued most strongly by Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Embers of Easter 1916–1966, from Owen Dudley Edwards and Fergus Pyle, 1916: The Easter Rising (London 1968). The young radical Cruise O’Brien must have done something particularly wicked to be reincarnated in his present monstrous reactionary form.

64. For O’Brien’s career see Arthur Mitchell, William O’Brien and the Irish Labour Movement 1881–1968, Studies 60, 239 (Winter 1971) and D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, The Rake’s Progress of a Syndicalist: The Political Career of William O’Brien, Irish Labour Leader, Saothar 9 (1983). Highly recommended also is Emmet O’Connor’s stimulating study of the disastrous consequences of O’Brien’s policies in one particular area, Agrarian Unrest and the Labour Movement in County Waterford 1917–1923, Saothar 6 (1980).

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