Reflecting on the Lock-Out
By Sharon Ní Chonchúir, Contributor
Over a hundred years ago, The Lock-Out caused great turmoil in Dublin. It marked the beginnings of an organized labor movement in Ireland, and had a huge influence on the emerging Irish state.
The dispute, the most severe in Ireland’s industrial history, lasted from August 26, 1913, to January, 18, 1914, and involved some 20,000 workers and 300 employers.
In 1911, Dublin was reported to have the worst housing conditions in the United Kingdom, with 26,000 families living in inner-city tenements and 20,000 of these families living in just one room. Disease was rampant, particularly tuberculosis (TB), which caused many deaths.
The overcrowding of the tenements followed the Great Starvation of 1845-50, when hundreds of thousands moved from rural areas to Dublin, and by the early 1900s many of these unskilled workers lived in poverty in tenement slums.
These unskilled workers had to endure precarious working conditions, too. They were ruthlessly exploited by employers who paid them low wages and gave them little, if any, job security. Few were guaranteed work every day. Instead, laborers were expected to queue for work every morning in the hope that they would be hired for that day.
Into this mix came James Larkin. A Liverpudlian of Irish descent, he founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in 1909, with the aim of improving working conditions for un-skilled workers.
Thousands joined the union. But the employers, under the leadership of William Martin Murphy, the owner of the Irish Independent and controller of the Dublin Tramways Company, tried to smother the growing movement before it took root.
Murphy, who ironically was known as a fair employer, was vehemently opposed to trade unions, and to Larkin in particular. He regarded the Union leader as a dangerous revolutionary.
On August 15, 1913, Murphy dismissed forty workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week.
Other employers in Murphy’s group followed suit, replacing the workers with scab labor from Britain and other parts of Ireland.
Guinness was one of the few companies not to lock out its workforce. It trod a fine line between both groups. Four hundred of its staff were ITGWU members, and it had a working relationship with the union. It did not join Murphy’s group but did donate £500 to the employers’ fund.
It was not an easy time for the workers and their families, to put it mildly. They had to rely on food parcels and strike pay donated by union members in the UK. Ships would set sail from ports in Britain, full of food destined to be handed out to strikers when they docked in the Liffey.
On Sunday August 31, 1913, the police attacked a crowd that had gathered to hear Larkin speak on O’Connell Street. The meeting had been banned but the workers had defied the ban. Scores were injured and three were killed on the day.
With little or no income, the workers had to pawn most of their belongings, and at one point there was a plan to send their children to England, where they would be looked after by union members instead of suffering near starvation and ill health as a result of the strike in Dublin.
The Catholic Church, which opposed Larkin on the grounds that he was a socialist revolutionary, intervened because they feared what would happen to the children in “godless England.” On the day the children were to board ship, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians lined the streets and physically prevented them from leaving the country.
By January 1914, much of the strikers’ momentum was gone. Larkin’s call for a sympathetic strike in Britain was turned down. The weather was cold and after months of suffering, some workers started to drift back to work and signed pledges not to join the union. To an extent, the employers had proved victorious.
But while the dispute did not achieve its immediate aims, it did mark a watershed in Irish social history. The principle of workers’ solidarity was born and Ireland’s trade unions grew from these beginnings.
One hundred years later, August 2013, the Lock-Out was being commemorated in various ways.
A tenement house on Dublin’s Henrietta Street was refurbished to look as it would have at the time. A theatrical group staged re-enactments of life as it would have been lived there when 835 people lived in the 15 houses on the street. A food ship once again sailed up the Liffey. There was even an official state commemoration complete with re-enactments of riots.
The Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) organized a permanent commemoration of its own. It commissioned a tapestry work that was created by two of Ireland’s leading artists with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
Pádraig Yeates of SIPTU spearheaded the project. “I thought it would be an ideal way of marking the anniversary,” he says. “An artistic commemoration that included people from all sectors of society seemed appropriate to mark an event that had such an influence on the whole of society.”
Yeates brought the National College of Art and Design on board and two of Ireland’s best-known artists, Cathy Henderson and Robert Ballagh, were asked to collaborate on the project.
Together, they decided to create a tapestry in the style of an adult graphic novel – “a political comic strip,” as Henderson describes it.
What to depict in these strips was difficult. “It was a challenge,” says Ballagh. “Pádraig Yeates had 100 key moments but that was far too many for any kind of visual representation.”
These were reduced to 40 and then Cathy and Robert set to work on the narrative, deciding on the words first and then the images. To create the panels, they enlisted the help of people experienced in sewing and embroidery – the Irish Embroidery Guild and the Irish Patchwork Society.
More and more people got involved as word spread about the project. There were students from four Dublin schools, members of the Finglas Art Squad community arts project, inmates from Limerick and Mountjoy Prisons, and individuals from right across society.
“It was a totally inclusive project,” says Yeates. “And what I liked was that many of these people had been making this sort of work for years, but it had never been seen outside their homes. Their sewing and embroidery was hidden in a drawer. It was great to give them a chance to showcase their skills.”
Henderson liked how a special attempt was made to involve men in the project. “We didn’t want this historical event, which mostly concerned men, to be commemorated mostly by women,” she says.
Ballagh was impressed by the project’s sheer collaborative range. “There were more than 300 volunteers involved by the time we finished,” he says. “This was an extraordinary range of people, which was only fitting as the Lock-Out was a struggle of ordinary people coming together to fight for their rights.”
Together, they created 30 panels, each measuring two-and-a-half-feet by two-feet and depicting key moments from the seven months of the Lock-Out. There are riot scenes showing police attacking strikers, and panels that show hot food being served to hungry strikers and their families in Liberty Hall, and ships full of food docking in the Liffey. There’s even one panel that shows the Ancient Order of Hibernians preventing the children from leaving Dublin for England.
“I hope [the tapestry] draws people’s attention to that period in Irish history,” says Ballagh. “So many aspects are still relevant today. Social justice is still important in our modern lives, what with recession and cutbacks.”
Henderson shares her hopes for the future of the work. “I want it to interest more young people in the history of Irish workers,” she says. “Working conditions are so much more advanced now, but the things we take for granted now didn’t come from nowhere. People went through an awful lot to achieve what we have today.”
The tapestry is currently on display in Collins Barracks in the National Museum of Ireland and will be in the care of the National College of Art and Design after that. The hope is that it will tour the country, inspiring future generations with its representation of Ireland’s often fraught and fractious, but always inspiring, past.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of Irish America.