The Dublin lock-out was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers, lasting for seven months from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. The dispute began when employers locked their workers out, in a bid to destroy workers’ unions, hiring ‘blackleg’ workers from Britain to replace them. The urban working class were seen to pose a threat to the Irish Parliamentary Party; their living and working conditions were catalysts for growing concerns about social justice that threatened to upset the Redmondites. The vanquishing of working class jobs and unions was indicative of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s ‘obscurantist’ politics that Connolly derides.
In this extract from The Politics of James Connolly, Kieran Allen shows how the isolation of workers during the Dublin lock-out – ‘workers’ also including the Catholic Irish intelligentsia, whose employment prospects were narrowed by Protestant ascendancy, a derivative of the IPP’s collusion with the imperialist British government — demonstrates how class and religion were interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage in twentieth-century Ireland. Moreover, Allen emphasises how these intersections informed Connolly’s intellectual marrying of socialism with Ireland’s dominant national and religious traditions.
‘In Belfast, workers were divided on sectarian lines but, on occasion, would unite to mount a vigorous class war. In 1907, Jim Larkin made his first appearance in Ireland during a massive dock strike and, for a brief period, Devlin’s AOH and the Orange Order lost control. But it was in Dublin that the struggles of the working class caused the greatest danger to the Irish Parliamentary Party. Although a relative social peace had descended on the countryside, the stunted nature of Irish capitalism created great pools of poverty in the capital. Arnold Wright, although hostile to the workers’ movement, had to admit that ‘the degradation of human kind is carried to a point of abjectness beyond that reached in any city of the Western world, save perhaps Naples.’ The huge numbers of unemployed and casual workers made any sort of conventional trade unionism impossible and only the most militant form of class struggle and revolutionary socialism stood any chance of making an impact. Larkinism provided this potent mix and from 1908 until 1913, there were a series of battles that put the Dublin employers on the defensive. Larkin’s paper, the Irish Worker, which had a circulation of 20,000 a week, repeatedly condemned the Home Rule party for not being concerned with the material welfare of Irish workers because the party voted against extending social legislation to Ireland.
In 1913, the titanic battle between Dublin workers and the leaders of native Irish capitalism commenced. It seemed that Home Rule was about to be won and the leaders of corporate Ireland decided to ‘celebrate their maturity in “affairs of state” by declaring war to [the] death on the Irish labour movement’. William Martin Murphy, the owner of the Independent newspapers and the Dublin Tram Company, carefully planned an employers’ lockout to break Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Though they adopted a pose of neutrality in the conflict, the activities of the AOH showed where the Redmondites actually stood. They attacked a scheme to temporarily move the children of strikers to England by claiming it was a plot to undermine Irish Catholicism. The close association of the prominent nationalist MP Tim Healy with the employers’ leader, William Martin Murphy, was further evidence of where the sympathies of the Redmondite party lay. Certainly James Connolly did not mince his words. The Irish Parliamentary Party stood for ‘naked, unashamed reaction stirring up the blackest passions in the lowest depths of human nature – the line of the obscurantist and the bigot’.
The other groups marginalised in Redmond’s project were the lower strata of the intelligentsia. The term ‘intelligentsia’ does not refer solely to a handful of intellectuals but rather to a wider social group who earned their living through mental labour. While the Catholic upper-class professionals made considerable advances within the structures of the Empire, those at the lower rungs experienced greater status frustration. The expansion of the British state led to a greater recruitment of the intelligentsia. The Irish civil service increased tenfold between 1861 and 1911. The numbers of teachers, postal clerks and local authority clerks also grew considerably. Those who left university and joined these occupations often had a distinctly modern outlook. They wanted Ireland to move beyond its agrarian past and believed firmly in the possibility of self-improvement through education. Many thought that the Empire opened up new vistas for progress and prided themselves on being part of its liberal culture. Some even thought that women should have equal opportunities to men.
They found, however, that their avenues for advance were blocked because the Protestant Ascendancy still controlled access to the top positions in the civil service. As one young writer wrote, in an essay entitled ‘A plague of BAs’, many brilliant Catholic graduates had to content themselves with ‘wretched clerkships’.47 Those who became teachers found that there were no set wages in Catholic schools and they were often badly paid. Despite an official ideology of social mobility through education and merit, the reality of discrimination against the ‘natives’ was all too apparent. The result was that many of the intelligentsia became ‘doubly isolated’: their modern outlook alienated them from their rural communities, but their secular ambitions were frustrated by exclusion from power and status. A minority began to interpret this dilemma in terms of the suffering of the nation itself, believing that they, as individuals, and Ireland, as a nation, had been humiliated. A Gaelic revival movement became attractive for this intelligentsia. It was a means both to reconnect with their roots and to wield together a force that would remove their humiliation.
Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League, became a crucial vehicle for this sentiment, combining demands for progress with a revival of the national culture. It supported an industrial revival, temperance, technical education, agricultural cooperation and the teaching of the Irish language in schools and universities. By 1906, it had grown to 75,000 members. An earlier Celtic Revival movement, led by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, was dismissed as one populated by aristocratic romantics, and the new movement took on the task of de-Anglicising Ireland. On its edges, it shaded off into a harder anti-imperialism. The visits of two British monarchs to Dublin –Queen Victoria in 1900 and King Edward VII in 1903 – provided useful markers for the shift from Gaelic revivalism to a growth of republican sentiment. Relatively small numbers had protested against Queen Victoria, but by the time of Edward VII’s visit there were, according to The Times, ‘half as many threats’ as well wishers. The Irish Parliamentary Party had refused to condemn Edward’s visit and so a considerable number of cultural nationalists were drawn towards Arthur Griffith’s National Council movement and later Sinn Féin. They demanded political freedom from the empire rather than within it, but they were still very much a minority movement. Aside from activist minorities within these two marginalised groups, the domination of Redmondism over Irish life in the early twentieth century was all pervasive. The number of committed revolutionaries was tiny and one participant has claimed that the strength of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, even as late as 1914, was only around two hundred. However, underneath the iceberg of conformity, a number of contradictions were growing that would eventually blow apart Redmond’s Ireland. These developed at the heart of the Empire itself.’
Kieran Allen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University College Dublin. His books include Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism (Pluto, 2011) and Max Weber: A Critical Introduction(Pluto, 2004) as well as a number of works on Irish society and politics.
The Politics of James Connolly is available to buy from Pluto here.