Tag Archives: James Larkin

Whatever you say, say nothing – Lockout 2013

There are dates in every nation’s calendar that demand remembrance. When those dates fall on the centenary of a significant event then that demand for remembrance is greatly magnified. A remembrance ceremony marking the centenary of a significant event then becomes an event in itself and enters the collective memory. There is one opportunity on the centenary of a significant event to get it right, or to get it wrong, to honour the participants in that original event, or to dishonour their deeds and by implication the participants themselves, either by distorting the narrative, the manner of its representation, or by grievous omission.

It is the last of these, omission, that was particularly startling in what was billed as the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on the 31st of August 2013, the centenary of Bloody Sunday on which date the Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked and battered protesting strikers in the main street of Dublin, injuring between 400 and 600 and killing two men, James Nolan and John Byrne.

The National Commemoration was attended by the President, Michael D. Higgins. The President arrived, listened to and watched various performances, laid a wreath at the Larkin statue, led a minute’s silence in memory of those who died and those who suffered during the Lockout, took refreshments in the GPO with other dignitaries, returned to his seat to enjoy other performances, and then departed. Nothing strange about what the President did, but it is what he didn’t do that is strange. The President didn’t speak to the people on the subject of the Lockout during the course of the National Commemoration.

President Higgins has not shown himself in the past to be afraid to address issues that may be contentious. He is a skilled and adept public speaker, well aware of the limitations that his office places on him in terms of straying into the party political arena or on matters of government policy. He has spoken on the Lockout previously. There is no doubt that he has a deep interest in the historical event itself and its use in evaluating the present and projecting into the future. Sharing his analysis and his ideas with the public is, perhaps, what he does best. He is not known to be reticent about using the public platform to stimulate discussion – the opposite is, thankfully, the case, and the public seem to approve of that aspect of his presidency.

And so, the question is why? Why did the President, whose words are listened to and valued by and who enjoys the trust and respect of a significant majority of the people, do the unexpected and remain silent on the subject of the 1913 Lockout on such an auspicious occasion as the National Commemoration of the centenary of that event when the reasonable expectation was, as usual, that he would speak to those present and, via the media, to the nation?

Perhaps there is a simple answer. The President may have been unable to deliver a speech through being indisposed in some relevant way. He may, as one observer suggested, have not wished to take from the community element of performances, but that seems unlikely since there were also professional actors and musical performers taking part at other times in the programme. Perhaps there are other simple answers to the question, but they don’t come to mind easily.

Also present at the commemorations were Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan, Labour Party leader and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his party colleagues Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, the latter under increasing fire for his extraordinary and arbitrary decision to remove history as a compulsory subject in secondary schools, without any public discussion. Could a less simple answer be related to their presence? Could it be that their involvement in the neo-liberal austerity agenda which must have formed part of any serious speech on the subject of the 1913 Lockout and the conditions today of workers, the unemployed, the emigrated, the sick, the homeless and the dispossessed, the under-educated and under-resourced children, and the poor in general, might have consequently led to public embarrassment, and perhaps spontaneous protest against their unrelenting support for failed, deeply damaging government policies?

It is unusual to find four government ministers at an event such as this and to note the absence of even one attempt to take the microphone and to speak on the historical event and the main personalities involved, even if that, as sometimes happens, is no more than empty rhetoric and oily words. Extraordinary, really.

There too were the principal organisers of the event, leading members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and affiliated trade unions. A proper analysis of the Lockout and its relevance to today’s issues, the importance and role of trade unions, and their performance over the intervening century particularly since the inception of Social Partnership in 1987 – the sort of issues that the President could normally be expected to touch on – might have proven uncomfortable too.

Any honest critique of the effects of the social partnership model could hardly avoid addressing in some way issues such as the fall-off in density of union membership in the workforce from 54% in 1987 – the start of social partnership – to 20% in 2007 – the end of the ‘boom’, and the fall-off in membership among young workers, part-timers and the lower skills with a higher concentration today of members in the professional and technical grades – mirroring the change in demographics among Labour Party voters. Trade unions, like the Labour Party, have lost much of their traditional base, to the detriment of vulnerable workers in the case of the unions, and the disenfranchisement of the working class in the case of Labour.

There are those who would also criticise the social partnership model for the political dangers that it can impose. One notorious and similar previous model is that contrived by Benito Mussolini around 1930, which brought trade unions and corporate interests together to work with government – as one of the pillars of Italian Fascism.

It may seem extreme to mention fascism in the context of the Irish trade unions, and that linkage is not the intention, rather the dangers of social partnership in which the driving force may be a government of questionable ethics. While Bertie Ahern enjoyed much popularity particularly during the property bubble, the spectacle of him being applauded to the stage at the ICTU Biennial Conference in Bundoran in 2007 (when there were many indicators that the economy was tanking), where he delivered his infamous remark that he did not know how people who moaned about the economy did not ‘commit suicide’. He was then applauded back down from the stage and out of the conference centre. Some could think that that was a ‘Berlusconi moment’. It was certainly unfortunate.

James Connolly would have ‘got’ that moment, just as he would have ‘got’ social partnership. What did he write in the Irish Worker, two months into the Lockout? “It is war, war to the end, against all the unholy crew who, with the cant of democracy on their lying lips, are forever crucifying the Christ of labour between the two thieves of Land and Capital”.

It is no longer ‘war, war’ between the two rightfully antagonistic forces of labour and capital, but ‘jaw,jaw’, or at least since the disintegration of social partnership, no sign of a return to ‘war, war’ – the strategy that many living in straitened conditions might prefer the trade unions to opt for, and who have often vocally expressed their wish for that change. Where, for instance, is the ‘war, war’ on Zero Hours Contracts, criticised by Minister of State Alex White of the Labour Party thus – “We have a new “precariat” in some sectors of the labour force, with people working on zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, or for free on unpaid internships. These trends can undermine rights earned by past workers, and the relevant statutory protections may require strengthening, or at least review. Zero-hours contracts shape a life of uncertainty for people where their ability to budget for the future or manage a stable family life is particularly difficult.”?

Again, we might have expected that a dynamic trade union leadership might have nominated their best and most inspiring speaker to seize on the opportunities that the centenary of the Lockout offered to advance the cause of labour. But no, an opportunity rejected, it seems. Why?

‘Tis passing strange’ too, as the man himself might put it, how James Connolly got ne’er a proper mention at the National Commemoration other than in the rendition of the Ballad of James Larkin sung by Jimmy Kelly. Hardly likely that the President would have made that omission, had he spoken, which omission is of itself an insult to Connolly whose role in the Lockout was immense. It is, of course, correct to highlight James Larkin’s enormous role in the Lockout, but extremely churlish to downplay Connolly’s powers and sacrifices in that endeavour. It was not a one-man show. That churlishness brings to mind the Irish Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to properly celebrate the role that Connolly played in founding that party on its centenary in 2012, or to champion his eloquent and visionary social philosophy which is the envy of others around the world other than in brief references that had a distinctly weasely feel to them.

Like that other National Commemoration forced on a recalcitrant State, the annual 1916 commemoration, this one too seemed smothered by the dead hand of State, or of other agencies or a combination of both, and  starved of the oxygen of honest appraisal and discussion. Perhaps that was the plan, perhaps not.

One lesson learned by those who understand the importance of these centenaries to the nation and to the future is that the state has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to trust the public to own its own great history. By its inept and insulting control of the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout, including the barricading of the citizens, the employment of a private security company of bad repute – G4S – to interfere with public access at the event, the searching even of women’s handbags and men’s eye-glass cases, the state has shown itself to be unfit for the job of commemorating the 1916 revolution. In 1966, a far larger event than this one was, not a barricade was to be seen, the police presence was discreet, citizens were free to approach the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, if they wished, or any other attendee among the ‘elite’. What has changed, other than obsessive control-freakery?

And so the Fine Gael minister and three Labour ministers remained stoically silent on the day. The trade union leadership offered a bland statement via Sallyann Kinihan. So be it. Perhaps it was the safer option.

But can we have an answer, simple or complex, to this question? Why did the President not speak at the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout?


Know the revolutionaries to understand the revolution

I never had personal contact with my paternal grandfather, since by the time I was born he was eight years dead, but in my earliest memories as a young boy he was already becoming to me  a man of mythic stature, a heroic figure in our family, a presence. What I knew of him as I grew was gleaned from snippets of information, often just overheard, sometimes the result of answers to my expressed curiosity about this absent man. It was obvious to me even from my earliest days that he was loved and missed by my father and his siblings, and that they were always proud of him and what he had done in his life. I had no image of him either until much later when I was shown a yellowing newspaper clipping that reported on the circumstances of his death with an accompanying postage-stamp sized photo, too small and too faded to give any real sense of the man.

John Stokes - D Company 3rd Battalion - Boland's Mills Garrison

John Stokes – D Company 3rd Battalion – Boland’s Mills Garrison

That newspaper clipping confirmed what I by then knew, that my grandfather, John Stokes, had died in attempting to rescue a young woman from drowning at the Shelley Banks near Poolbeg on the southern side of Dublin Bay. Other clippings, discovered later, gave greater detail to the story – that the young woman had been cut off on a sand island when the tide started to rise, that John had gone to her assistance and that when she couldn’t swim to shore he went back for assistance but disappeared underwater having suffered cramp. The young woman, Nellie Macken of Parliament Street, was rescued by a boatman. At the inquest into his death John was commended for his bravery. He was 63 years-of-age when he died. That one act of selfless bravery, particularly at a relatively advanced age, would have been enough to establish his heroism, but there was more to him than that one act.

Born in County Wexford, in Bunclody, his people were farmers. But they were, according to family lore, also perpetually rebellious, with an involvement stretching back to the United Irish rebellion of 1798, and the short-lived Wexford Republic of that year. As a young man, John had to flee Wexford to avoid a trial at the Wexford Assizes on a charge of holding off at gunpoint a bailiff who had caught him poaching game on a squire’s land. He made his way to Dublin where he eventually met and married my grandmother, Catherine Finnegan of Slane, County Meath.

By 1913 John was employed as a ‘motorman’ – a driver – with the Dublin United Tramways Company. When he and his co-workers walked off the job because of the company’s refusal to allow them membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin and James Connolly, that strike allowed the Employers’ Federation, led by Ireland’s leading industrialist William Martin Murphy, to declare a general lockout of unionised workers, leading to a sustained and highly organised attempt by the employers to starve the workers and their families into submission, a cynical programme that lasted over four months bringing death and sickness to the poorest of Dublin’s poor.

Although records of who was involved in and around Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, are virtually non-existent, it is highly likely that John and Catherine were active there. In our family, James Connolly – a central figure in the Lockout and in Liberty Hall – was revered above other leaders, as was Liam Mellows, a disciple of Connolly’s. And, right up to the time of her death in 1956, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had worked for the welfare of the locked-out workers and their families in Liberty Hall and had been appointed by Connolly as  Chief Medical Officer to the Irish Citizen Army that Connolly led, and later as second-in-command of the City Hall garrison during the 1916 revolution, was a frequent visitor to Catherine at her home in Rathmines, as a friend.

John made the journey from striking tram-worker in 1913 to revolution in 1916 in which he fought in the Boland’s Mills garrison as a member of  D Company 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers, under the command of Eamon de Valera. On April 24th, Easter Monday, he turned up for duty with his Howth rifle and was put in charge of four Volunteers to take over the Gas Works and went from there to the Old Distillery (where the flag of the Republic was flown to divert British Army attention) until Wednesday when they were withdrawn back to Boland’s Mills. On Thursday he was ordered home by de Valera due to a back injury he had carried into the fight. Two days after the surrender he was arrested and taken to Richmond Barracks with the other revolutionaries, and then to Frongoch Prison Camp in North Wales via Wakefield Prison in England. He was released in August 1916. While in Frongoch his commanding officer was Terence MacSwiney. During the War of Independence John provided ‘assistance’ to D Company and to the Active Service Unit, and during the Civil War provided a safe house for guns and men to Anti-Treaty republicans with the active participation of my grandmother Catherine.

The Lockout exacted a high price on both John and Catherine. As a black-listed worker due to his union activity, and as a man of principle who would not work for certain employers on his own blacklist, he often found himself struggling to provide for his wife and young family. This evidently led to occasional difficulties between these two strong-willed characters, she who had children to feed and he who had principles to live up to.  On Fianna Fail’s accession to power in government in 1932 Catherine wrote to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera asking if there was any work available for John to which de Valera replied that if John came to the Dáil on a certain date there would be a job as a porter. John’s response was that he hadn’t fought in 1916 to get a job for himself and refused the offer. He continued to find what work he could, mainly around the motor trade and occasionally as a hackney driver.

There is no doubt that John and Catherine made a solid contribution to achieving independence for Ireland from British domination, but they made another lasting contribution. In being active citizens in their everyday lives they passed on a set of worthwhile values and beliefs that they held dear to their children, who passed them on to their own children, and the ripple effect goes on.

They were not unique in this, and that is the impetus behind telling their story for the first time.

On the 24th of April 1916, ‘ordinary’ men and women, estimated to number between 900 and 1200, assembled at Liberty Hall and at various outposts to create a revolution against the mightiest empire in the world at that time. But very little is known about these heroic, generous people who would take extraordinary risks to benefit future generations with little prospect of gain for themselves and a high possibility of death, injury or long-term imprisonment as a result of their actions.

These people, these revolutionaries, do not figure in history books, other than as statistics. In writing them out of the story as individual people, each with a personal story to tell of before, during and after the revolution, we consistently fail the test of understanding what the revolution was really about and how important it was for them to achieve the Irish Republic that was the objective of the revolution.

There is no doubt that it suited what was, and continues to be, the political class in this non-republic, to narrow the focus of understanding the revolution by concentrating on its leaders and on its opponents, including the failed constitutional politicians and those who faltered and fell away from the revolutionary movement at the last minute.

Far easier to present the revolution as a ‘Rising’, or an ‘Insurrection’, or a ‘Rebellion’ if the motivations and the objectives of the rank-and-file men and women do not form part of the evidence of genuine revolution. Far easier to underplay the fundamental importance to the revolution of the 1913 Lockout and trade unionism, of the centrality of socialism to the Proclamation, of the most advanced form of feminism in the world which was revealed at the barricades and in the Proclamation, if the revolution could be sold as a ‘poets’ rebellion’ or some-such nonsense. Far easier to allow the Catholic church to successfully sell the spurious notion that it was behind the ‘rebellion’ and therefore a party to the gaining of independence when the direct opposite was the case. And so, far easier to create a permanent counter-revolution the aim of which was to destroy the Irish Republic so as to preserve a privileged class, to avoid redistribution of wealth, to introduce rigid controls on society and social behaviour, to embed capitalism and its local offshoot, gombeenism, as the hegemonic ideology.

Even at this late stage, when those generations with a direct connection with the rank-and-file revolutionaries are dying off, it is still possible to salvage these stories involving the ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries and their families, but further delay in doing so cannot be entertained. A concerted effort needs to be made to reach out to the remaining families of 1916 rank-and-file revolutionaries to gather the stories and where possible photographs, so that we can better know who they were and what were their personal circumstances, why they did what was extraordinary, and how it impacted their lives thereafter.

There is work to be done, first in finding the descendants, then in gathering the stories, collating the information and analysing it, and publishing the stories and the analysis. Once again that work involves, in a very fundamental way, ordinary people. But, given its potential scale, it will also need to involve local and national organisations and societies, sociocultural historians and researchers, archivists and museums.

After almost 100 years of obscurity we need to think of ways to acknowledge and honour these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries. Apart from publishing their stories, one other way would be to ensure that included in the commemorations on April 24th 2016, Republic Day, will be a contingent of citizens, each individual – preferably a family-member – representing an identified revolutionary of Easter Week 1916, and assembled according to the garrison that the revolutionary was part of, to take part in the march-past at the GPO in Dublin.

It is time to give these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries mythic stature, to understand the extent of their heroism, and to make their presence felt once again as we continue the task of completing their revolution by constructing the Irish Republic that they gave so much to bring to life. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the future generations.


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