A Prelude to the Easter Rising?

Dublin Lockout 1913


For obvious reasons Irish labour was slow to become organised; throughout the 19th century the country had little industry outside the north-east. Those trade unions which did form were dominated by skilled workers who belonged to organisations with headquarters in Britain. Nationalist movements focussed mainly on political change and on the land issue, so neglecting the conditions of the working class. In Dublin particularly these were deplorable. In 1911, three-quarters of its work-force were unskilled and virtually unorganised, one-fifth were unemployed as labour was in surplus, and average wage levels were barely half London rates. One-third of the city’s families occupied one room accommodation in decaying tenements; disease and high death rates were endemic.
The first indication of change came with the arrival of James Connolly in 1896. He had been invited by the Dublin Socialist Society as paid organiser, but by 1903 had left for the United States, frustrated by his lack of progress. Five years later, James Larkin took up the challenge. In 1906 he had been elected general organiser of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers and it sent him to Dublin to recruit dock labour there in 1908. That year after a breach with his employers, he established his own union the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Its purpose was to mobilise the city’s unskilled labour. By 1913 it had 10,000 members; it had rapidly become Ireland’s biggest and most militant union, with its own distinct blend of trade unionism, republicanism and socialism – ‘Larkinism’. Larkin himself was hero-worshipped by the Dublin working class.

In 1913, when labour problems were convulsing Britain and Larkin was at the height of his power, he determined to break the anti-union stance of the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC). It was owned by William Martin Murphy – a conservative nationalist and ex-MP, who was also proprietor of the city’s biggest newspaper, largest department store and hotel, and had founded the Dublin Employers’ Federation in 1912.

Ireland’s most bitter labour dispute began when Murphy demanded that all DUTC employees forswear membership of the ITGWU or be dismissed. Larkin immediately struck back by calling the tramway-men in his union out on 26 August 1913. The company responded by locking them out, at which point Larkin orchestrated a wave of ‘sympathetic strikes’, affecting other parts of Murphy’s empire as well as those businesses supporting him. After discussion, the employer’s federation then agreed to support the DUTC by locking out all employees who belonged to Larkin’s union and attempting to replace them with strike-breakers.

By late September, the dispute involved 20,000 employees across the city along with their 80,000 dependants. Violent clashes between workers and the police were frequent – especially at picket lines and where blackleg labour was being employed. The worst incident occurred on 31st August; Larkin was addressing a meeting in O’Connell Street, when the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged the crowd and arrested him. Prolonged rioting ensued during which two people were killed and 200 constables injured as well as numerous civilians.


By January 1914, it was evident that the workers had lost the dispute. Mostly unskilled and lacking the resources for a prolonged campaign, they had begun to drift back to work on the employers’ terms. By then the vital support they had received from British trade unions had reduced to a trickle and Larkin himself conceded, “We are beaten. We make no bones about it”. But he had succeeded in mobilising the power of the Dublin labour force for the first time and employers thereafter dared not treat their employees with the same casual brutality and indifference as in the past. During the Rising, the tenement dwellers wreaked revenge on those businesses which had given Murphy support.

In October 1914 Larkin, worn out and frustrated, left Ireland for the United States. James Connolly ably filled the vacuum. Because of the dispute, he inherited a new weapon – the Irish Citizen Army, launched in November 1913. It had been formed to enable the locked out men to defend themselves in clashes with the police and to combat the demoralising impact of unemployment. Connolly stated that they should “drill and train as they were doing in Ulster”. Its founding principle was that ‘the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested by right in the people of Ireland’.

Political Radicalism & State Violence

Irish Citizen Army vs. Army & Strike Breakers

In addition the employers could call on the resources of the state. Military escorts supplemented those of police during the dispute. No fewer than 400 members of the ITGWU appeared before the courts on charges arising out of the dispute; many were subsequently imprisoned. In contrast, although strike breakers were involved in several shooting incidents leading to death or serious injury only one was convicted, and he was given a suspended sentence. Like the Black and Tans later, strike breakers were castigated as the sweepings of English prisons and slums. The evidence suggests, however, that at least a third were Irish. Their intervention spurred the ITGWU to establish the Irish Citizen Army. Larkin also decided to contest every prosecution of union members in the courts.

The blatant use of British troops and the police against the strikers also made many advanced nationalists reconsider their allegiances. They had already seen the Irish Party rely on the British government to coerce Ulster into home rule and now it appeared to be endorsing the same methods by employers on the streets of Dublin.

The most famous convert from constitutional nationalism to separatism in this period was Patrick Pearse, whose ‘Letters from a Hermitage’ in Irish Freedom increasingly identified with the workers.

Pearse raged that, ‘Before God I believe the root of the matter lies in foreign domination. A free Ireland would not, could not, have hunger in her fertile vales and squalor in her cities.’ Like Connolly, he would come to regard the workers and rural poor as the truest patriots. ‘There are no real Nationalists in Ireland outside of the Irish Labour Movement’, Connolly wrote in the aftermath of the lockout. ‘All others merely reject one part or other of the British Conquest—the Labour Movement alone rejects it in its entirety and sets itself to the re-conquest of Ireland.’

Much has been written about the influence of Connolly on Pearse’s thought, but any close study of their writings and speeches in 1913-1914 would suggest that Pearse exercised at least as strong an influence on the labour leader’s thinking about the national question. The lockout played an important role in blending the social and political agendas of separatists of varying hues.

Municipal elections

But it had little immediate impact on the local political scene. In the January 1914 municipal elections Larkinite candidates in Dublin put forward the most advanced social and national programme so far seen in Ireland. But only one of ten candidates was elected and, although they came close to winning in several other constituencies, the result was all the more devastating because of the high hopes with which they entered the contest.

Isolated by the TUC in Britain, rejected by the electorate in Dublin and facing starvation because the food ships had stopped, Dublin workers had to accept the inevitable and return to work. Despite various efforts by church leaders, British trade unionists and government agencies, Murphy refused to compromise. Attempts by a minority of employers to find a peace formula were equally robustly rejected. By February 1914 Murphy had achieved total victory, or so he thought. What none of the protagonists had foreseen was the advent of the First World War just six months later. Consequent severe labour shortages allowed the ITGWU, and the trade union movement generally, to recover from defeat. By 1920 the ITGWU was Ireland’s largest union with 120,000 members, compared with its pre-war peak of 24,135 at the start of January 1913.


In retrospect the lockout represents the coming of age of the Irish trade union movement. Perversely, the aid from Britain and the well meaning but ineffectual interventions of the TUC in the dispute made the younger generation of Irish trade union leaders all the more determined to assert their independence. During the lockout people ranging from female suffrage campaigners to Catholic curates began to question in fundamental ways what sort of society home rule Ireland would be. Issues as relevant today as then, such as children’s rights and the effects of the internationalisation of capital (globalisation) were hotly debated. The lockout was the first major urban conflict to impinge itself on the national consciousness. Ironically the next great urban event was the Easter Rising and the lockout was relegated to the role of curtain raiser to the national struggle.

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.


English Blood, Irish Heart ErikWeissengruber