The Dublin lock-out was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers which took place in Ireland's capital city of Dublin. The dispute lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914, and is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history. Central to the dispute was the workers' right to unionise.
Irish workers lived in terrible conditions in tenements. For example, an astonishing 835 people lived in 15 houses in Henrietta Street's Georgian tenements. At number 10, Henrietta Street, the Irish Sisters of Charity ran a laundry inhabited by more than 50 single women. An estimated four million pledges were taken in pawnbrokers every year. The infant mortality rate among the poor was 142 per 1,000 births, extraordinarily high for a European city. The situation was made considerably worse by the high rate of disease in the slums, which was the result of a lack of health care and cramped living conditions, among other things. The most prevalent disease in the Dublin slums at this time was tuberculosis (TB), which spread through tenements very quickly and caused many deaths amongst the poor. A report, published in 1912, found that TB-related deaths in Ireland were 50% higher than in England or Scotland. The vast majority of TB-related deaths in Ireland occurred among the poorer classes. This updated a 1903 study by Dr John Lumsden.
Poverty was perpetuated in Dublin by the lack of work for unskilled workers, who lacked any form of representation before trade unions were founded. These unskilled workers often had to compete with one another for work every day, the job generally going to whoever agreed to work for the lowest wages.
James Larkin, the main protagonist on the side of the workers in the dispute, was a docker in Liverpool and a union organiser. In 1907, he was sent to Belfast as local organiser of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). While in Belfast, Larkin organised a strike of dock and transport workers. It was also in Belfast that Larkin began to use the tactic of the sympathetic strike, in which workers, who were not directly involved in an industrial dispute with employers, would go on strike in support of other workers who were. The Belfast strike was moderately successful and boosted Larkin's standing among Irish workers. However, his tactics were highly controversial and, as a result, Larkin was transferred to Dublin.
Unskilled workers in Dublin were very much at the mercy of their employers. Employers who suspected workers of trying to organise themselves, could blacklist them, destroying any chance of future employment. Larkin set about organising the unskilled workers of Dublin: this was a cause of concern for the NUDL, who were reluctant to engage in a full-scale industrial dispute with the powerful Dublin employers. They suspended Larkin from the NUDL in 1908. Larkin then left the NUDL and set up an Irish union, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU).
The ITGWU was the first Irish trade union to cater for both skilled and unskilled workers. In its first few months, it quickly gained popularity, and soon spread to other Irish cities. The ITGWU was used as a vehicle for Larkin's syndicalist views. He believed in bringing about a socialist revolution by the establishment of trade unions and calling general strikes.
It initially lost several strikes between 1908 and 1910, but, after 1911, the union won strikes involving carters and railway workers, for example, the 1913 Sligo dock strike. Between 1911 and 1913, membership of the ITGWU rose from 4,000 to 10,000, to the alarm of employers.
Another important figure in the rise of an organised workers' movement in Ireland at this time, was James Connolly, an Edinburgh-born Marxist of Irish parentage. Connolly was a talented orator and a fine writer. He became known for his speeches on the streets of Dublin in support of socialism and Irish nationalism. In 1896, Connolly established the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and the newspaper The Workers' Republic. In 1911, Connolly was appointed the ITGWU's Belfast organiser. In 1912, Connolly and Larkin formed the Irish Labour Party to represent workers in the imminent Home Rule Bill debate in Parliament. Home Rule, although passed in the House of Commons, was postponed, due to the start of World War I and the collapse of HH Asquith's Liberal government due to the disaster of Churchill's invasion of Gallipoli in 1915. The Home Rule plan was then suspended for one year, then indefinitely, after the rise of militant nationalism following the 1916 Rising.
Furthermore, in Ireland among employers opposed to trade unions such as Larkin's ITGWU, was William Martin Murphy, Ireland's most prominent capitalist, born in Castletownbere Co Cork. In 1913, Murphy was chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company and owned Clery's department store and the Imperial Hotel. He controlled the Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers and was a major shareholder in the B&I Line. Murphy was also a prominent nationalist and a former Home Rule MP in Westminster.
Even today, his defenders insist he was a charitable man and a good employer, and that his workers received fair wages. Yet conditions in his many enterprises were often poor or worse, with employees given only one day off in 10 while being forced to labour up to 17 hours a day. Dublin tramway workers were paid substantially less than their counterparts in Belfast and Liverpool, and were subjected to a regime of punitive fines, probationary periods extending for as long as six years, and a culture of company surveillance, involving widespread use of informers.
Murphy was not opposed in principle to trade unions, particularly craft unions, but he was vehemently opposed to the ITGWU, seeing its leader, Larkin, as a dangerous revolutionary. In July 1913, Murphy presided over a meeting of 300 employers, during which a collective response to the rise of trade unionism was agreed. Murphy and the employers were determined not to allow the ITGWU to unionise the Dublin workforce. On 15 August, Murphy dismissed 40 workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week.
The resulting industrial dispute was the most severe in Ireland's history. Employers in Dublin locked out their workers, and employed blackleg labour from Britain and elsewhere in Ireland. Dublin's workers, amongst the poorest in the United Kingdom of the time, applied for help and were sent £150,000 by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other sources in Ireland, doled out dutifully by the ITGWU.
The "Kiddies' Scheme", for the starving children of Irish strikers to be temporarily looked after by British trade unionists, was blocked by the Roman Catholic Church and especially the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who claimed that Catholic children would be subject to Protestant or atheist influences when in Britain. The Church supported the employers during the dispute, condemning Larkin as a socialist revolutionary.
Notably, Guinness, the largest employer and biggest exporter in Dublin, refused to lock out its workforce. While it refused to join Murphy's group, it nevertheless sent £500 to the employers' fund. It had a policy against sympathetic strikes, and expected its workers – whose conditions were far better than the norm in Ireland – not to strike in sympathy; six who did were dismissed. 400 of its staff were already ITGWU members, so it had a working relationship with the union. Larkin appealed to have the six reinstated, but without success.
Strikers used mass pickets and intimidation against strike-breakers, who were also violent towards strikers. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged worker's rallies. On 31 August 1913, the DMP attacked a meeting on O'Connell Street (then called Sackville Street) that had been publicly banned. It caused the deaths of two workers, James Nolan and John Byrne. Over 300 more were injured.
This baton charge was a response to the appearance of James Larkin, who had been banned from holding a meeting, to speak for the workers; he was smuggled into William Martin Murphy's Imperial Hotel by Nellie Gifford, sister-in-law of Thomas MacDonagh, and spoke from a balcony. The event is remembered as Bloody Sunday, a term used for two subsequent days in 20th century Ireland, and for the murderous charge of police in the Liverpool general strike. Another worker, Alice Brady, was later shot dead by a strike-breaker as she brought home a food parcel from the union office. Michael Byrne, an ITGWU official from Kingstown, died after being tortured in a police cell.
For seven months, the lock-out affected tens of thousands of Dublin families. Murphy's three main newspapers, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, and the Evening Herald portrayed Larkin as the villain. Influential figures such as Patrick Pearse, Countess Markievicz and William Butler Yeats supported the workers in the media.
The lock-out eventually concluded in early 1914, when the TUC in Britain rejected Larkin and Connolly's request for a sympathetic strike. Most workers, many of whom were on the brink of starvation, went back to work and signed pledges not to join the ITGWU. The ITGWU was badly damaged by its defeat in the Lockout, and was further hit by the departure of Larkin to the United States in 1914 and the execution of Connolly, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916.
Although the actions of the ITGWU and the smaller UBLU had been unsuccessful in achieving substantially better pay and conditions for workers, they marked a watershed in Irish labour history. The principle of union action and workers' solidarity had been firmly established. No future employer would ever try to "break" a union in the way that Murphy attempted to with the ITGWU. The lock-out had damaged commercial businesses in Dublin, with many forced to declare bankruptcy.
September 1913, one of the most famous of W. B. Yeats' poems, was published in The Irish Times during the lock-out. Although the occasion of the poem was the decision of Dublin Corporation not to build a gallery to house the Hugh Lane collection of paintings (William Martin Murphy being one of the most vocal opponents of the plan), it has sometimes been viewed by scholars as a commentary on the lock-out. In the poem, Yeats wrote mockingly of commerciants who "fumble in a greasy till, and add the halfpence to the pence", and asked:
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.