September 1913

Resolute Hero

Image © Manfred Wassman, alias BerlinSight

And what, God help us, could they save?

Romantic Ireland`s dead and gone.

It`s with O`Leary in the grave. W.B. Yeats September 1913

Ireland 100 years ago was deep in nationalist ferment drawing Britain towards civil war. The Liberals led by Asquith, reinforced by a substantial Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster. Home Rule was the quid pro quo at the heart of this arrangement, its implementation achievable after the introduction of the Parliament Act 1911. The Loyalists in the North led by the formidable Dublin Barrister, Edward Carson, who on September 28, 1912 was the first to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. Carson was eventually followed by half a million others, many famously signing the petition in their own blood. This bizarre manifestation of loyalty to the Crown was sanctioned by the Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law. The British establishment played the Orange card and the danger of granting unequivocal opposition to Home Rule evident when the UVF began gun running in April 1914. In the South the Volunteers (formed in November 1913) would begin (with less success) to get hold of arms, preparing to defend with physical force the execution of a British government mandate.

At least in rural Ireland there was calm, the agitation around land ended due to the introduction in 1903 of the Wyndham Act, the principle of land purchase extended in 1909. While the Land Question was settled urban problems emerged as Irish poverty and economic distress moved from the countryside into the urban area, most notably Dublin. As RF Foster points out, it was not only the architecture in Dublin 1913 that was Georgian; the poverty also had a distinctively pre-diluvium vibe. Dublin the second city of  Empire housed its people in deplorable conditions as Robert Kee explains, a third of the population lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, on average six people occupying one tenement room, ninety people sharing a single tap and toilet. It is no wonder that the death rate in Dublin was higher than anywhere else in the UK.

There was a preliminary encounter to the 1913 lock-out in the South, in Wexford 1911. As Frances Devine explains this involved the Iron Works Employers, who locked-out the workforce, utilising a set of methods later employed in Dublin to help defeat trade unionism. Devine outlines the pivotal role Connolly played in bringing the Wexford dispute to settlement, highlighting his creative approach and adroitness as a trade union negotiator. The employers adamantly refused to recognise the ITGWU, Connolly simply renamed the organisation, the Irish Foundry Workers Union, and this allowed some leeway for the employers. They accepted the compromise and the dispute ended. Connolly marched the 5,000 workers back with dignity, heads held high, singing a song he composed `Freedom`s Pioneers`.

Dublin 1913 was dominated by slum landlords and deplorable bosses. Men of the calibre of William Martin Murphy, a Nationalist MP whose patriotic sentiment, never it seems extended to any of the workers misfortune enough to be in his employment. This stalwart of Home Rule nationalism and former President of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in 1913 found himself leader of the Dublin Employers Federation. Murphy whose raison d’être was the smashing of organised labour exhibited remarkable chutzpah and hypocrisy and without any sense of irony organised the employers in a united front against trade unionism. Murphy`s weapons of choice – starvation and the lock-out, which he vigorously utilised. At the time local government in Dublin was dominated by nationalist representatives of the same ilk as Murphy. The patriotic rhetoric failed to disguise their agenda, aptly summed up by James Connolly as based on “high rents, slum tenements, rotten staircases, stinking yards, high death rates, low wages, Corporation jobbery, and margarine wrapped in butter-paper.”

1913 is viewed as an opportunity in Ireland, in which the class interest could have surmounted nationalist concerns. After all, class consciousness had for a while cut through the sectarianism in the North, during the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907. This dispute led by the charismatic James Larkin, the ecumenical flavour of the Strike symbolised by Lindsay Crawford’s support of Larkin’s cause. However as Foster points out, “when riots developed in August 1907, they took on the old Orange-and-Green pigmentation”. Any class versus sectarianism analysis requires one to take into consideration the lack of uniformity in economic development on the island of Ireland. While Wexford in 1911 and Dublin in 1913 were similar, they differed remarkably from Belfast. The heated debates between Connolly and William Walker are instructive here, as is the thesis penned by Walker in 1908, The Irish Question.

The Dublin dispute of 1913 was led by Larkin and Connolly two colossal figures.  James Connolly a remarkable individual, a combination of Gramsci and Lenin, a working class intellectual of outstanding prowess, described by Dr James Young as one of the great intellectuals, born into grinding poverty in 1868. He received no formal education, his household devoid of the most basic learning resources. Most unusually given the circumstances, Connolly`s Father was literate. James Connolly`s capacity for learning immense, whilst in the USA he taught himself to speak several languages and on one occasion amazed those close to him by addressing a meeting of Italian immigrants fluently in their Mother tongue, given his myriad of commitments a remarkable achievement. Connolly also produced a gigantic and amazing catalogue of important writing in advance of its time, which still stands academic scrutiny today.

In RF Foster`s view Connolly`s “innovative synthesis of Irish history in Marxian terms attempted to reconcile nationalism and socialism, often with brilliance…” For Connolly the cause of labour was the cause of Ireland and he believed social and economic advances could only be made in Ireland, if the nation state was administered completely outside the control of the British Empire. However, this nationalist outlook argues Foster inevitably eased Connolly away from the precepts of Marxism and propelled him towards the nationalist theories of Lalor and Mitchel. To Professor D`Arcy, Connolly was above all else a Marxist revolutionary, although with a distinctly pragmatic outlook. Dr Bob Purdie has argued that Marxism is an incomplete doctrine and that Connolly had to bring in ideas from other sources to make Marxism address the problems of Ireland.

The Dublin Lockout of 1913 was a war of attrition which finally ended with a phased return to work, January 1914. Larkin would leave for the United States, as the world drifted towards the calamity of the Great War. Connolly remained in Ireland, the Citizen Army formed in November 1913 and for a myriad of reasons for which historians still dispute, he met his death by firing squad, as a leader of the Rising. One of the soldiers who shot Connolly (who was driven by ambulance to his execution then carried by stretcher, unable to stand shot whilst seated) was also a worker with socialist leanings; he later contacted the family asking for forgiveness, a remarkable vignette which for me sums up completely and utterly the tragedy of 1916.


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