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1913/2013 – Activism not nostalgia

Niall Crowley

Minister Jimmy Deenihan, speaking recently in the Seanad, identified the opportunities in the coming decade of multiple commemorations. These included the possibly contradictory potentials “to dedicate ourselves to an enhanced understanding of modern history” and to “play a major role in bringing all on this island closer together”. Inevitably though somewhat jadingly, he suggested that “the commemorative programme will also have a special appeal to the Irish diaspora”. Why miss a good business opportunity?

2013 is the year of the The Gathering, whose website states that it offers an opportunity for “communities throughout Ireland [to] showcase and share the very best of Irish culture, tradition, business, sport, fighting spirit and the uniquely Irish sense of fun”.

We like to celebrate the stereotype fighting Irish, ideally in failure. Any prospect of success would make this stereotype much more threatening. We have statues to Jim Larkin and James Connolly but none to William Martin Murphy, the businessman who embraced the task of dismantling the ITGWU and so unleashed the Dublin lockout in 1913. Our politics of national identity prizes the heroic underdog – more particularly, the unsuccessful heroic underdog.

Dublin in 1913 was a place of extreme poverty, chronic unemployment, overcrowded housing and rampant malnutrition. Local authorities did not even provide minimal social services to relieve the hardship. Trade unionism had emerged as a new form of struggle for social change. Jim Larkin and the ITGWU had been successful in securing significant wage increases for the dockers in Belfast and Dublin. William Martin Murphy and the Dublin Employers Federation decided to stop the growth of this new movement. Murphy was chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company and owner of both Clery’s department store and the Imperial Hotel. He also controlled the Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers. Murphy was also a prominent nationalist and a former Home Rule MP in Westminster. He was known as a kind and charitable man in his private life. He was regarded as a good employer and his workers received fair wages but he was against trade unionism in general and Jim Larkin in particular.

Larkin promoted an aggressive trade unionism that sought to combine unskilled and general workers in one large union and to make use of sympathetic strikes. This approach offered hope to working class people that a fairer and more equal distribution of wealth was possible. So 1913 was more than a dispute over wages and union recognition; it was also a dispute about living conditions, inequality and the ownership of wealth.

Over 20,000 people were off work from mid October 1913 until January 1914. The industrial dispute was the most significant and most severe in Irish history. Families across Dublin endured the most severe hardship. Gradually the workers were forced back to work over December and January.  Many found themselves blacklisted and without hope of work.

Union leaders called the battle a draw. It left, however, a legacy of bitterness and a sense of betrayal among union leaders. Employers were clear that they had secured the avoidance of a social revolution. The battle about the ownership of wealth then ceded place to the battle for Irish independence.

1913 commemorations must rise above celebrating stereotypes of the fighting Irish. We need to commemorate 1913 in these current times of crisis but in ways that enable the past to be a challenge to do better in our pursuit of social change in today’s Ireland.

The 1913 committee established by SIPTU – the descendant of the ITGWU – is a valuable initiative. The Committee aims to recall and reaffirm the values that inspired Larkin and Connolly. It identifies a broad spectrum of civil society organisations that must work together to affirm these values.

1913 challenges civil society to find the strategies and tactics to make its legacy relevant in today’s Ireland. 1913 was the high point in what was an evolving new form of struggle for social change and equality.

Today civil society is fragmented into a diversity of specific interests. It has been transformed by a partnership with the state that has become debilitating. It has lost its capacity to mobilise. Commemorations must stimulate the emergence of a focused and effective civil society that demands an equal, environmentally sustainable and participative Ireland.