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Column: 'We must look beyond 1913 and learn the lessons from the Lockout'

The anniversary of the 1913 Lockout has ended, but it offers us an opportunity to re-examine this history.

Conor Mulvagh

Last month, SIPTU took down the colourful banners which had adorned Liberty Hall for the past three months. Created and designed by artists, workers, and community groups, the banners constituted a highly visual and vibrant addition to the cityscape.

Their collaborative focus represented a positive, people-driven commemoration. It was exciting, colourful, and brought history alive.

But perhaps SIPTU have rolled up their banners too early. As we leave the Lockout behind, we are in danger of forgetting the resilience of one group, the women workers of Jacobs’ Biscuit Factory, the last workers to hold out in the Lockout.

Women in the Lockout

These resilient women, who had been led out by Rosie Hackett (she of the bridge), outlasted all their male counterparts. In mid-March 1914, James Connolly published a withering denunciation of the humiliating re-entry requirements – including physical inspections – imposed by Jacobs.

This article in the Irish Worker, appears to have been one factor in pressuring Jacobs to relent. During March, some, but not all, of the women workers were allowed back to work. This was long after their counterparts in other factories and workplaces had accepted their own undignified defeat.

Over the Christmas of 1913, the cold and hunger of a four-month-old industrial dispute began to take its toll, primarily on dependents: women and children who had not chosen to involve themselves in this ordeal.

James Larkin

The return to work was humiliating and gradual. On 29 December, 200 workers in a fertiliser plant in Alexandra basin had returned to work without securing any improvement to pay or conditions. By mid-January 1914, James Larkin reluctantly yielded to pressure from within his own union and advocated a return to work on whatever terms possible.

Quite apart from remembering some of these forgotten aspects of the Lockout, the centenary presents us with an opportunity to re-examine this history and it should not be wasted as we move on to commemorate other events. In both Ireland and Britain, the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will make it difficult for other commemorations to find space.

Despite great advances in 2013, the Lockout very much remains an area where myth dominates over history. We can appreciate this when we examine the simplicity of how it is portrayed in popular understanding: a dualistic battle between Larkin and Murphy – workers and employers – a theatrical set piece with formative struggles, re-told tragedies, and stylised street battles. In short, it has been appropriated by a generation who are geographically connected but empathetically distant from its realities.

Social issues

Dublin’s Lockout underlined much of what was wrong with Irish society in 1913. The three central social issues – class, gender, and religion – all witnessed major developments and clashes in the decade between 1913 and 1923.

Whenever one of this triad surfaced, the other two issues invariably followed. One of the most difficult aspects of the Lockout is how women, then militating for their own enfranchisement, were involved either directly or by association in the ordeals endured by so many of Dublin’s citizenry during the winter or 1913-14.

If the role and rights or women was one of the more complex aspects of the Lockout, then religion was a major part in its undoing. Clerical fears over the transportation of children to Britain and a vehement opposition to the entire principle of Larkin’s syndicalism were central to breaking the unity and momentum of the workers.

In this way, creed and gender unintentionally became barriers rather than buttresses in the fight for union rights. Such is the complicating nature of historical analysis. Not until we can move out of the formulaic and into the nuanced can we evolve in our emotional engagement with the Lockout.

Internationalise

One way to evolve our understanding of the dispute is to internationalise it. Much as its protagonist, Larkin, took his place in the history of industrial relations from Belfast to Liverpool to New York, so too was the Lockout itself an Irish manifestation of a zeitgeist that stretched from Panama to St Petersburg.

The co-incidence of an intense period of production with a moment of rising aspirations among workers led to tension and frequent clashes between labour and capital across the developed world in the years preceding the First World War.

Linking the Irish experiences in the wider historical moment, we must look beyond 1913 to understand the outcome of the Lockout. Both before and after independence, Ireland settled into its role as a peripheral economy, focussing on agriculture.

Continuity of administration and business interests either side of 1922 meant that Ireland continued to service an industrially buoyant British core which had no desire or need for competing Irish industrial products. This model became the accepted norm of the new government’s economic policy after 1922. It was based on an acceptance of Ireland’s place in a free market system and consequently abandoned any interest in (protected) indigenous industry as both Arthur Griffith and Charles Stewart Parnell had once envisioned.

Independent Ireland

Whatever its merits or demerits, the timid path of balanced budgets, agricultural exports, and industrial under-development adopted by Ireland’s new statesmen meant that independent Ireland became a land of diminishing opportunities for urban workers. If Ireland’s land question was settled in favour of tenant farmers in the late nineteenth century, then Ireland’s urban social revolution was resolved by the Lockout. However, this time the victors were undoubtedly the employers.

In independent Ireland, urban workers found they were better represented in emigration statistics than in parliamentary politics. 2013 can now be left behind as we move on with our centenaries. However, commemoration is not simply a sightseeing nostalgia-ride. We must take things with us into 2014.

The events we now commemorate are not a potted series of moral tales but a densely woven fabric which cannot fully be understood in isolation. If the Lockout can be taken as the first in an incremental series of related events, then we can begin to renew and revaluate the transformations that brought Ireland and the
wider world out of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

Dr Conor Mulvagh is a Lecturer in Irish History at UCD working on commemoration and the Irish revolutionary decade (1912-23)

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Conor Mulvagh

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