Waiting for Larko?
Waiting for Larko?

Ninety five years ago, Ernie O’Malley escaped from Kilmainham Gaol, together with several colleagues. The scene, depicted by O’Malley in his iconic memoir On Another Man’s Wound, is frenzied and fraught with danger. It formed the basis of a similar scene in Ken Loach’s film of the Irish Civil War, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (itself heavily based on O’Malley’s memoir). Readers will recall that Damian and his friends are helped out of gaol by a Scottish soldier who sympathises with their cause. In real life, however, O’Malley and his compatriots were freed not by Scots but by two privates from the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment: Ernest Roper and J. Holland. By the time of his deployment in Ireland, Roper had served seven years in the army, and it was he who attracted the principal blame for leaving the door to O’Malley’s cell unlocked. Holland, a Belfast Protestant, was an easy target too. Both, it was claimed, had been heavily bribed, but this did not save either from a court martial and eight years of penal servitude for their actions. O’Malley had escaped and would go on to be one of the most important commanders in the Irish Civil War – he fought, like his filmic alter ego, Damian, on the anti-Treaty side and had the honour of being the last republican commander released from Free State gaols in 1924.

Nearly a decade before this, on the Whitsun bank holiday, 1913, two hurling teams met for a game in Finchley, North London. The visitors were a team from the South Wales coalfield, representatives of the four leading GAA hurling clubs in the region – Bargoed, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd. Their opponents, representing the London Irish, featured the writer and Fenian organiser Patrick Sarsfield O’Hegarty and a young Post Office worker by the name of Michael Collins. Yes, that one. The South Wales team, on that occasion, were successful taking home the honours 2 goals, 1 point to the Londoners’ single point. Within weeks, this friendly game of hurling between two sets of diaspora Irish, would be forgotten amidst turmoil, the appeal for labour rights, and a deadly colliery explosion. I refer, of course, to the Dublin Lockout and to the Senghennydd disaster of 1913. Trades unionists, particularly members of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, who had so recently fought their own formative battle against the coal owners and the Liberal government, looked aghast at events in Dublin. Some, like the miners of the Lady Windsor Lodge in Ynysybwl, spoke out calling for radical action to force the hand of the employers. In fact, they passed a resolution calling in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call an indefinite general strike. Theirs were not voices alone in the wilderness.

Although the TUC did not respond to the demands of the Ynysybwl miners, they did extend humanitarian assistance to the locked out Dublin workers. The most fervent support came from the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, whose annual conference at Scarborough in October 1913 voted not only to contribute their share of the TUC’s grant of £10,000 (equivalent to £2,500) but an additional £1,000 a week ‘to assist those people in Dublin’. The MFGB’s action was moved by James Winstone, the South Wales Miners’ Federation delegate and miners’ agent for the Pontypool district. Winstone’s prominence was not happenstance, he was not the ready volunteer who could just as easily have been someone else, but a signal to the rest of the British trade union movement that the South Wales miners would take the lead. Indeed, at the SWMF’s own conference held just a few days before, the executive had discussed their response to the Dublin crisis in some detail (aware, of course, of the pressure from below for radical action). Winstone clearly felt he was acting in accordance with his union’s wider instincts.

And so it proved. Resolutions were passed by South Walian branches of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), by miners’ lodges, and by co-operative societies, both calling for something to be done and voting small sums of money to the humanitarian fund. Aberdare Trades Council sent £2 directly to the Dublin Trades Council; the Lady Windsor Lodge raised £5; and the Cwmbach Co-operative Society raised £10. Aberdare ILP members of the local council even tried to halt construction of the town’s new police station but failed to get a resolution passed in committee to do so. And, perhaps most famously, a food shipment sailed from Swansea to Dublin. That was in addition to any Welsh contributions to the TUC’s food shipment that sailed from Manchester. We may be absolutely certain that had the Senghennydd disaster not occurred, more money would have flowed from the South Wales coalfield to aid the lockout workers of Dublin and their families.

Indeed, symptomatic of this wider sympathy was the occurrence, in early November 1913, of a railway strike. It all began in Llanelli, scene two years earlier of riots and a deadly showdown between the townspeople and soldiers, when two railwaymen lost their jobs after refusing to shunt tainted Irish goods. News of the sackings quickly spread, and several more railwaymen in Llanelli, including the local NUR branch secretary, came out in solidarity with them. GWR officials, and the national union leadership, including Jimmy Thomas, looked on with horror as they failed to contain a series of wildcat sympathy strikes that broke out in Neath, Port Talbot, Swansea, Llantrisant, Cardiff, and the Rhondda. By early December railway traffic in the South Wales area had been so disrupted that a number of collieries had either stopped working or were operating on reduced production levels, and several thousand miners were idle as a consequence. One NUR official admitted that ‘there are thousands of railwaymen eagerly awaiting a chance for showing their sympathy with the Dublin workers’. It was a situation waiting to boil over.

In the middle of it all, the man at the centre of the Dublin Lockout, Jim Larkin, arrived in Cardiff to deliver a speech to local trade unionists, members of the Irish diaspora, and fellow travellers. Facing a crowd of as many as 10,000 people, who had all squeezed into the skating rink on Westgate Street more famous for boxing matches, Larkin spoke of the war between capital and labour, and of his belief that the men in Dublin would ‘stay in the trenches so long as the women and children were fed and clothed’. It’s remarkable language given that within a year the men really would be fighting a war from the trenches. ‘Home Rule’ Larkin thundered, ‘would be as ashes in the mouth so far as relieving poverty was concerned … to Redmond and Carson “a curse on both your houses!”’ He warned those gathered at the meeting that ‘when you scratch one, you scratch both, for they both stand for capitalism’. Larkin was in Cardiff at the personal invitation of the local branch of the drapers’ assistants union who were in the midst of their own struggle against the live-in system operating in the city’s department stores. It was a terrific speech, which added further fuel to the growing syndicalist fire. The radicals of the Unofficial Reform Committee contended, as Larkin did, that the leadership of the unions had sold out, that they had become respectable, respected, and toothless:

Because they have the men – the real power – in the hollow of their hands. They, the leaders, have become ‘gentlemen’; they become MPs, and have considerable social prestige because of this power. Now when any man or men assume power of this description, we have a right to ask them to be infallible. That is the penalty, a just one too, of autocracy.

They spoke the same kind of language because they moved about in the same circles, connected by the sinews of syndicalist activity across the British Isles. In November 1910, when the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) was founded in Manchester, the most high profile Welsh representative present was Noah Ablett. The most prominent Irish figure there was Jim Larkin. Ablett, of course, was the principal author of the Miners’ Next Step, wherein the above quote can be found. And the Secretary of the Lady Windsor Lodge, who had the responsibility of communicating to the TUC the resolution calling for a General Strike, was John E. Morgan, one of the most active distributors of the pamphlet in the coalfield. A coincidence? Nothing in history ever is.

The intertwining of the Irish causes – for nationalism was only one of them – and the South Walian labour movement took place rapidly over the course of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In broad outline, this was a period of about a generation, concurrent with the radicalisation of the same generation in Ireland, in which Liberal sympathies became Labour ones, just as home rule nationalist sympathies became republican ones. It has been argued by the small number of historians who pay attention to these things that these shifts marked the ‘ethnic fade’ of the Irish as their individual concerns – such as the Irish Question – became subsumed into more general issues of wage labour and the everyday experiences of living as workers. There is, certainly, something to be said for this, but it ought not to be taken too far. Along Tyndall Street, the central thoroughfare of Cardiff’s ‘Little Ireland’ (Newtown), there once stood St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church. It opened in 1893. Attached was the local Catholic school. The district’s geographical boundaries were marked by a number of pubs: the Cork and Waterford Inn, the Maid of Eirn, the Hibernian Arms, the Green Fields of Erin, and the Lakes of Killarney Inn. Within the district there was the Irish Club (founded in the aftermath of the Treaty when self-determination organisation folded), a Catholic silver band, the Catholic Young Men’s Society, branches of the Gaelic League, the United Irishmen League, the Irish Self-Determination League, and the GAA. These organisations, replicated across the region in diasporic centres like Neath, Maesteg, Bargoed, Merthyr, and Pontypridd, enabled personal self-awareness of Irishness to collect into a community self-aware of being diasporic Irish too. And they certainly enabled second and third generation Irish to participate in that community.

Take the GAA, for example, about which I have written elsewhere, that was undoubtedly a mechanism by which young Irish men expressed a form of Irishness not shared by earlier waves of migrants, irrespective of their involvement in Gaelic revival or not. Three of the four South Wales GAA clubs in existence between 1914 were named for Irish nationalist figures: the Merthyr Sarsfields, the Pontypridd Wolfe Tones, and the Cardiff Emmets; only the Bargoed team, which took the moniker ‘Shamrocks’, was named for something more innocuous. As Mike Cronin has written, these kind of team names, stressed ‘their links as sportsmen to the nationalist mission, the embrace of things Irish and the rejection of West Britonism’. It was important, also, that these early South Wales GAA sides had nothing to do with the Catholic Church or other aspects of the Gaelic revival.  These were clubs by and for the players themselves. The Catholic press, and the Catholic Church, instead lavished attention on baseball – a sport that, even today, has that association in Welsh circles.

The counterpoint to these cultural activities, I’ve always felt (and have argued elsewhere), is not ethnic fade by growing dominance of labour matters, but actually of Irish voices becoming more prominent within labour and socialist circles. This process began at the end of the nineteenth century as the first Irish trade union leaders and socialist activists made their presence felt in the South Walian labour movement: men such as Frank Allen Fox, a Lib-Lab councillor in Cardiff and secretary of the city’s boilermaker’s union, or Samuel G. Hobson and Dr Parr, both of whom were prominent members of the Cardiff Fabian Society. It was the same path trodden by Joseph Keating, novelist and brother of the Redmondite MP for South Kilkenny, Matthew Keating, who sat on Mountain Ash Urban District Council (UDC) as a Labour member; and by Myra O’Brien, born in South Africa to Irish parents, and the headmistress of the Catholic school in Treforest, who served variously as chair of the Labour Women’s League, the Pontypridd Trades and Labour Council, the Pontypridd Divisional Labour Party, the Women’s Cooperative Guild, and was elected the first woman on Pontypridd UDC and from a Pontypridd ward for Glamorgan County Council. Her prominence in the National Union of Teachers in Wales and for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, told of her wider interests too. These individuals characterise very well the trajectory. Whereas Fox kept his nationalist activities away from his labour campaigns, Keating and O’Brien fused Irish nationalism and labour together seeking balance between the ‘red’ and the ‘green’ and encouraging formal engagement of the two.

This was also the approach of James Winstone, now known most commonly for his failed parliamentary election campaign of 1915, when he lost to Charles Stanton in the Merthyr Boroughs by-election prompted by Keir Hardie’s death. But that episode is no marker of a much more significant career. Ten years earlier, against the position of his trade union, Winstone stood as the ILP candidate for the Monmouth Boroughs energising the independent Labour movement in Monmouthshire. His platform covered housing, employment rights, industrial relations. The sorts of things that every self-aware ILP candidate campaigned on, and then there were his views on Home Rule for Ireland. For twenty years, he told those who would listen, including the substantial diaspora community in Newport, he had been an avid home ruler, a keen promoter of that solution to the Irish Question. Each campaign he fought offered the same response, even those after the 1916 rising, namely ‘Home Rule for Ireland, a natural sequence to autonomy for Wales and Scotland’. Whatever the realities of a shifting politics in Ireland in the years after 1916, Winstone’s platform – and his personal politics – were extremely attractive to diaspora voters. When Winstone stood again in Merthyr in 1918, he carried, according to one estimate, 98 percent of the Irish vote in the constituency.

This reminds us, as Paul O’Leary’s work on the subject illustrates also, that the Home Rule solution to the Irish Question remained the most accepted one amongst the diaspora in Wales right up until the Irish Civil War. Far too much is made by historians prone to doing so about the Frongoch Camp and the involvement of a small number of individuals in post-1916 Irish republican activity, when these were in fact relatively minor episodes in the longer story (as part two makes clear). That longer story is one of a transformation of the labour movement into a multicultural force. First, let me deal with the Frongoch question. Around 1,800 Irish prisoners were held in Frongoch in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and is often known as the ‘university of revolution’. But how afraid were the authorities, really? If we consider that inmates were given the freedom (by the camp commander) to participate in a number of cultural activities including Irish-language classes, folk dancing, and sport, and the fact that the camp quickly became home to several hurling and Gaelic football teams, there probably was not a great deal of concern. There was wider concern about the political activities of the GAA, though, as the Royal Commission on the ‘Irish Rebellion’ insisted, but little suspicion of what was going on in Frongoch itself.

More troublesome for the authorities was the use of Ireland as a means of escaping conscription. And it is in this context that we must inevitably deal with Arthur Horner. Like many of his contemporaries living in and around the Rhondda, Horner first came to understand the Irish position because of James Connolly. In 1911, at the very end of the nearly year-long disruption in the coalfield cause first by the Cambrian Combine and Powell Duffryn disputes and later by the National Railwaymen’s Strike, James Connolly arrived in South Wales to give a number of speeches on socialism and the nation. Seventeen-year old Horner caught one of these and, by his own admission, was galvanised by Connolly’s politics. The two men eventually became friends. It was very likely Horner, as a consequence of this friendship, who arranged for Captain Jack White to travel to South Wales to agitate for a strike in opposition to the death sentence handed down to the severely injured Connolly in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. White arrived in South Wales in May and was provided with a list of contacts with whom he could discuss the fermenting of dissent in the coalfield. One of the names, D. Tyssul Davies, a builder and contractor from Trecynon near Aberdare, was a dud. Davies was a police informant and on his information White was arrested at his hotel in Swansea.

Hauled before magistrates in Aberdare, White was charged with ‘unlawfully spreading reports and making statements likely to cause disaffection’. In his possession were ‘seditious documents’, copies of the Merthyr Pioneer, and correspondence. The day White was arrested – 12 May 1916 – was the very day that James Connolly was executed in Kilmainham Gaol. White himself ended up in Pentonville, arriving there the night before Roger Casement was executed. His bed in the prison hospital, White later recalled, ‘was fifty yards from the hanging shed’.

White’s failure has often been shown as symptomatic of British enmity to the Irish cause, because even the ‘so-called’ radical South Wales miners did not come out in support. This is a false reading: White’s efforts at spreading dissent simply did not have time enough to develop before his arrest on 12 May. And with the Military Service Act causing disruption of its own in the South Wales coalfield, matters were not always that straightforward. Indeed, it was to avoid the Military Service Act, and conscription into the army, that Horner went to Ireland in March 1918. The circumstances of Horner’s flight are well known and have been much discussed and delineated, so they need not concern us here. More important is to place Horner’s actions into much more significant and long-lasting context, showing his actions not as unique but as part of an increasing well-organised movement. That movement, in essence a revived and revitalised form of the Unofficial Reform Committee, came into being as a result of the 1915 miners’ strike in the coalfield.

The victory of the South Wales miners in the July 1915 strike galvanised the anti-war left. Its mouthpiece, the Merthyr Pioneer, set about organising Pioneer Leagues ostensibly to bolster readership but in practice to provide an avenue for debate and discussion on the war and socialist ideas. There was an enormous crossover between the URC circles and the Pioneer Leagues, although the latter were broader in scope. In the Rhondda, the Pioneer Leagues brought together URC members like Noah Ablett, A. J. Cook, and W. H. Mainwaring, and new faces like William Phippen and Arthur Horner. The name Phippen is important, and keen observers of the Horner story will recognise that name. William Phippen was a leading member of the Rhondda Socialist Society during the war years and secretary of the Rhondda Valleys’ Anti-Conscription Committee. His two sons, Frank and George, both went to Ireland to avoid going to fight – Horner would eventually meet up with the Phippen brothers in Holyhead where they were all arrested by the authorities.

URC circles, by this time, extended right across the coalfield with a particularly prominent circle in and around Abertillery. As one of the few places to have seen active anarchist cells in the years before the war, Abertillery was fertile territory for the advanced ideas of the unofficial reformers, but it was also the centre for organised anti-conscription escapes to Ireland in South Wales. At its heart was a man called William Hewlett. Hewlett was a protégé of Ted Gill, erstwhile fellow traveller of Noah Ablett turned pro-war miners’ agent (during the intial URC agitation he had been an active promulgator of the committee’s ideas), but by the time of the war was more heavily involved in the development of independent working-class education. Together with Syd Jones, a checkweigher in Blackwood, he established the Workers’ Democratic Education League in July 1916, and worked with Jones on the local branch of the URC. When one of their number, Chris Smith, was arrested by the authorities in March 1916 following a raid which saw a number of anarchist pamphlets seized by police, Jones and Hewlett covertly established a network of contacts that they could call on to help individuals escape to Ireland and avoid conscription. It was by this method that the Phippen brothers travelled, together with their friends Jack Jones and Tom Jenkins, as did Arthur Horner. To illustrate how close all these circles were, Horner hid out in Abertillery with Harry Gale, father of Tom Gale, who also fled to Ireland (more on him below).

What Horner did in Ireland, indeed what any of these individuals who escaped through the Abertillery cell did there, is not easily extracted from the record. About Horner we can say the most. When he arrived in Dublin, he was given a false identity inventing an entire backstory of time spent in the US to mask his obvious un-Longfordian accent. By day he worked non-descript jobs, but in the evenings he apparently involved himself in Citizens’ Army activities. His daughter Vol held, however, that Horner was involved in something far more mundane – ‘I think he distributed leaflets and that he was a very minor member of the IRA’, she explained to Hywel Francis decades later. Vol believed that Horner’s involvement with the Citizens’ Army was to show that he was not a coward, but that he held justifiable reasons for not wishing to fight in the Great War. It was not, his actions were intended to show, the right war. The Phippen brothers, similarly, were recalled as members of the Citizens’ Army by several of those interviewed for the South Wales Coalfield History Project in the 1970s. Whether or not this was true, their sister recalled that the brothers’ ‘going on the run’ placed enormous pressure on their parents. ‘Probably’, she said, ‘worse than those who had their children go to the army’.

The most intriguing individual to leave through the Abertillery cell, and whose memories of the Citizens’ Army are clearest, was Tom Gale. Gale was arrested for not responding to his call up papers. He attended the local military tribunal and claimed non-combatant status on the basis of his beliefs – anarcho-communist, he called them. It will be of no surprise that Gale was a close associate of Will Hewlett and it was through Hewlett that Gale began to explore radical politics. Gale’s status as a conscientious objector was eventually confirmed when he released onto the Home Office scheme in the autumn of 1916. Together with a number of prominent South Wales COs, including Emrys Hughes and Bethuel William Morgan (the brother of John E. Morgan of Ynysybwl), Gale was to work at the logging camp at Weston-Super-Mare. At some point, Gale escaped his military escorts, took a boat from Bristol to Ireland, and sought a new identity with which he could then escape to America. Whilst in Ireland, Gale recalled training with the Citizens’ Army in the Wicklow Hills (presumably at night). Those Britons who were there with him, were mostly ‘old ILPers and members of the Fabians’. From Ireland, he did eventually go to America where he rested in a commune in New Jersey. ‘There’, he remembered, ‘I met Jim Larkin’. Gale came back to Wales in 1919.

Now why does this cell matter, apart from the obvious interest in a group of Welsh COs involving themselves directly in the Citizens’ Army in its post-1916 phase? They matter because of what happened to Irish and Welsh politics after the Great War. But that is a story for another blog – this one is already far too long! Let me, for now, bring these disparate themes together. Over the course of a generation, from about 1890 to 1920, politics in Wales and Ireland underwent a profound shift: from much the same starting point, Liberal-Nationalism, they diverged. Ireland towards nationalist-republicanism, Wales towards socialism. The point is made when we consider who emerged as the dominant political party in each place: Fianna Fail in Ireland, the Labour Party in Wales. And it is through the development of the latter, the Labour Party, that we can most easily understand why the Welsh interested themselves so often in Irish affairs. It was the parallel events of the Great Unrest, from Tonypandy in 1910 to Llanelli in 1911 to Dublin in 1913, that serve as the turning point, rather than the Easter Rising. And it was through advancing the cause of Labour – not insisting it wait – that Wales diverged from Ireland.