Jim Larkin (1876-1947)
Photograph taken by author in Dublin, St Patrick’s Day, 2013.

Today marks the centenary of the start of the Dublin Lockout, the final phase of the Labour Wars that flared up across the British Isles in the years just before the First World War. For the Irish Labour Movement, the Lockout is as singular an event as the Tonypandy Riots and Cambrian Combine Dispute were for South Wales but rarely, if ever, have the two events crossed each other’s path in the history books. That seems, as we shall see, more than a little strange, unfortunate, even, given the strong history of solidarity between the South Walian Labour Movement and its Irish counterpart – more about that in a moment.

The spark, of course, was pay. One hundred years ago, the tramworkers of Dublin asked for their weekly remuneration to be increased from one shilling to two. That is, in decimal currency, from five pence to ten pence: in anyone’s money, it’s not an awful lot. It would have meant better living standards, better food, and yes a few extra pints of porter of a weekend. When you did fifty or sixty hours a week in a hard, manual job, you needed it rather more than the students who drink five or six pints of the stuff (or more) each day of the weekend bemoaning their couple of 2,000 word essays a term and four hours of classes a week.

Early twentieth century Dublin was one of the great cities of the British Empire. Resplendent in its Georgian architecture that betrayed a much wealthier past, the city also had a great undercurrent, barely hidden, of poverty, squalor, and disease. The kind of world known to workers in the East End slums of London or Glasgow, to those in New York, Boston, Montreal, Halifax (Nova Scotia, that is), or Delhi. Empire promised much: it promised a world of riches, of the time and freedom to play five-day cricket with all its stops for lunch and tea, of the prospect of being Greatly British since that was perceived as the pinnacle of civilisation. To be British, apparently, was to know how to change the world and to govern it with decorum and good sense.

A tramworker on a shilling a week saw the world rather differently, as did their leader, the maverick but significant James Larkin. Born in Liverpool on 21 January 1876, Larkin first came to prominence in 1907 when he organised a four-month long strike in Belfast to get employer recognition for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). What began on the docks, however, soon spiralled as workers in other parts of the city joined in in solidarity, notably the transport workers and women from the city’s major tobacco factory. Belfast experienced what was a quasi-general strike and after a mutiny by the Royal Irish Constabulary, only the presence of troops on the streets was capable of restoring ‘the King’s Peace’. The strike ended in November 1907 and Larkin moved south to agitate for union activity in Cork, Waterford, and Dublin.

In 1909, Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), his attempt at the ‘one big union’, a concept that emerged in the United States and was popular amongst trades unionists in the early part of the twentieth century because of its potential to unify all workers in a common cause rather than have to agitate across the sectional interest of several smaller unions. But Larkin never forgot his experiences in Belfast and, to commemorate the powerful reaction of both Catholics and Protestant workers to his agitation, the ITGWU’s logo used the red hand of Ulster as its symbol. Then, if not at all now, it was a symbol of unity for workers across the whole of Ireland, regardless of their cultural background.  It grew to dominate Irish trades unionism.

Events in Dublin in 1913 and early 1914 were not merely played out on the streets familiar to revellers and tourists today: O’Connell Street (then known as Sackville Street), Grafton Street, and so forth. They resonated around the world, in the newspapers of Montreal, New York, Boston, Melbourne, and Auckland. They were particularly important on the other side of the Irish Sea, in South Wales, Liverpool, Manchester, and London, where workers were still recovering from their own battles in the Labour Wars and where the tide of solidarity was high.

In Llanelli, for example, at the major junction that linked the Irish Sea ports in Pembrokeshire with the main railway line to Cardiff and London, railwaymen for the Great Western Railway refused to handle Irish shipping and goods destined for Ireland itself. One engine driver, George James, was sacked on 7 November for his refusal and days later a fellow comrade was also sacked for having struck in solidarity with him. The NUR warned that ‘the men there are the most advanced in our ranks, and some of them would strike on the slightest pretext’.  Just two years earlier, at the denouement of the 1911 National Railway Strike, two men had been killed by the British Army on the streets of Llanelli as they watched a scabbing train being held up by a crowd.

The same month saw Larkin travel to South Wales as part of his grand tour of Britain to drum up support, money, and most significantly food, for the locked out workers and their families in Dublin. He spoke in Cardiff in front of 10,000 people to denounce the largesse of the dukes and duchesses who lounged around in Dublin Castle as the workers enjoyed starvation as the recompense for their daily toil. He spoke, too, in Swansea to thank workers for sending shipments of flour to Dublin to ensure some form of daily bread. And across the coalfield, Larkin’s name became a by-word for the force of Labour (in both senses of the term). The Merthyr Pioneer recorded, for instance, that ‘Larkinism is a sort of thunderbolt in the atmosphere of poverty’.

Larkin’s attachment to one big unionism, to syndicalism, and to the importance of the rank-and-file over union bosses, chimed strongly with one particular group of South Wales Miners: the Unofficial Reform Committee. The URC had caused a storm just a year before when they published The Miners’ Next Step which advocated, amongst other things, the adoption of a syndicalist approach to unionism and the rejection of the leadership style of the existing South Wales Miners’ Federation bosses such as William Abraham. It also demanded the adoption of a unified strike policy, nationalisation, and centralisation of the miners’ lodges; in other words, the reformation of the SWMF into the ‘one big union’ for the coalfield. What Larkin was arguing for in Ireland, the members of the URC were arguing for in South Wales. The trajectories thereafter became remarkably similar, but resulted in significantly different outcomes.

The Miners’ Next Step pamphlet was readily passed around the coalfield by members of the URC and those sympathetic to its values. Research into the activities of the URC in the wake of its publication suggests that of all the advocates for it, it was John E. Morgan, the slight, unassuming lodge secretary from Ynysybwl, who did most to ensure it was given a wide reading. The pamphlet stimulated the Left and gave succour to the battles being fought by men such as Noah Ablett, W. H. Mainwaring, and A. J. Cook: better pay, better conditions, and the ultimate fight for nationalisation. The members of the URC, together with likeminded miners elsewhere in the Rhondda, formed their own political movement in 1911 called the Rhondda Socialist Society. It later changed its name to the South Wales Socialist Society, as more members were drafted in from those parts of the coalfield that were not the Rhondda. In 1920, the South Wales Socialist Society was a founder organisation of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Larkin, who escaped to America after the end of the Dublin Lockout in 1914, also made his way into the Communist Party, founding the Irish Worker League in September 1923. But unlike in South Wales where the Left came to dominate political life and political culture for the rest of the century, Larkin’s life after the tumultuous events of the Labour Wars symbolised the fractious nature of the Irish Left. His bitter feud with William X O’Brien saw Larkin cut off from the ITGWU, lose his seat in the Dail in 1927 because of O’Brien’s prosecutions, and caused a split in the Labour Party, which Larkin rejoined in 1941, with O’Brien denouncing it as infiltrated by Communists. Such was the tragedy of Jim Larkin and the Irish Left in the 1920s and 1930s.

How different it was across the sea. Although South Wales never elected a Communist to Parliament, it provided the most significant and powerful British Communist of all: Arthur Horner. As President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and subsequently General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Horner led the most rebellious and most important trade union in the country.  But more about him another day.