A witness to the truth

Noel McDermott reviewed the memoirs of socialist stalwart Matt Merrigan in Issue 61 (September 2015).

Matt Merrigan, Eggs and Rashers: Irish socialist memories, edited and introduced by D R O’Connor Lysaght (Umiskin Press/Unite)

Matt Merrigan headed the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union south of the border between 1960 and 1986. Before, during and after that period, he was a constant presence on the Irish left, standing up for socialism in numerous ways, usually swimming against the political stream. Now we have his memoirs, an often fascinating look back on his life and struggles.

Early pages recount Merrigan’s childhood in Dolphin’s Barn, then still “the last urban frontier in south-west Dublin”. Eschewing tired nostalgia for the days when the canals actually divided city from county, he gives a very full account of a vibrant industrial district, peppered with the names of factories long forgotten. His father was an active trade unionist, but died when Matt junior was only seven. His own introduction to trade unionism and socialism came a decade later, when taking part in a strike that won reinstatement for a shop steward and recognition for the union.

By then Merrigan was working in Rowntree’s in Kilmainham, and he goes on to chart the later decline of Dublin’s confectionery industry, sacrificed to EU membership. His recollections of factory life are far from painting a picture of dark satanic mills, infused instead with “a camaraderie that is, in my view, unique to persons who work with their hands as part of a production unit that requires co-operation and adaptability”. Neither does he see manual labour as uniquely degrading: “The mobility of the street sweeper, largely un­supervised, may in fact be more job-satisfying that the better-paid computer operator.”

One strike he recalls was nicknamed “the dirty bib dispute”, demanding an apology from a supervisor who had offensively reprimanded a woman, the condition of whose overall failed to meet his standards. Such fights asserted the essential dignity of the worker in a way which went beyond mere pay rates. Women who married went to the back of the queue, losing wages and conditions and becoming first in line for redundancy, but Merrigan insists that “it was the single women who were the most intransigent in upholding this discrimination”. Such contradictions defy simplistic analyses of the extra oppressions foisted on women workers. The author repeatedly acknowledges his wife Rose, without whose support he would have been unable to play such a role in the movement as he did. While the recognition of women’s assistance to male activists is valuable, it does little to address the obstacles faced by women who want to take a hand in the movement themselves.

Merrigan spent the mid-1940s in a Trotskyist group, while all the time unsure of their independent existence, preferring to work inside a Labour Party that still had some life in it than to dwell in “the left-sectarian ghetto”. Launching a party with twenty members, their “dogmatic and apocalyptic concept of the inevitable embrace of socialism by Irish workers” kept them working away with little to show for it. There may well be hindsight at work here, and involve­ment with Trotskyists decades later only increased his contempt for “the shining halos of the self-appointed vanguards of the working class… Too many socialist Popes and no laity!” While a very healthy antipathy to Stalinism remained with him throughout his life, Trotskyist politics as such seems to have held as many repulsions for him as it did attractions, and formed only one strand in his political formation.

In light of that, it is disproportionate of the editor to intrude on the main text with lengthy explanations of the ins and outs of 1940s Trotskyism, particularly as he allows himself to ‘correct’ Merrigan’s appraisals. His footnotes and name index are full of necessary infor­mation to comprehend persons, parties and events mentioned by Merrigan. However, it is often unclear which notes are the author’s and which the editor’s, with one or two being a confusing mixture of both—and the fact that the notes were composed at various dates over the space of two decades doesn’t help.

Labour provided a political home for Merrigan for long stretches of his life, but he was more of a disgruntled and ill-tolerated lodger passing through than a warmly-welcomed permanent resident, and he was twice served with eviction notices. The party was led by “tail-wind clientelist politicians who never ever put their seats at risk for the policies and principles espoused on holiday occasions with tongue in cheek”. When a member, his intention was of course to fight against their like, but this turned out to be as sterile a ghetto as any Trotskyist sect. He frankly admits that his ten years on the party executive were “the most disillusioning and frustrating period of my life”.

His political involvement within and without Labour often brought him into contact with Noel Browne, still a left-wing icon to many, but as Merrigan puts it, “Those who loved him did so from afar.” Browne flitted from Clann na Poblachta to Fianna Fáil to National Progressive Democrats to Socialist Labour with intervals as an independent, but the constant in what the author calls “Browne’s political perambulations” is that he himself always knew best, and nothing as encumbrous as an organisation could ever expect him to play on their team. One of his many shortcomings was a failure to oppose the oppression of nationalists in the north, and Merrigan pithily sums up those blinded here by antipathy to religious back­ground: “They cannot see the anti-imperialist wood for the church steeples”.

He never saw the working class as angels incapable of doing wrong. He is scathing, for instance, of the way people swallowed the short-term promises of EU membership: “Workers who voted to join the EEC in such numbers bequeathed the dole queue to their sons and daughters.” Merrigan spent most of his working life as a union official, and his memoirs are full of those experiences, but he wasn’t blind to “the propensity of trade union bureaucrats to seek an accommodation with other bureaucrats in business and government”. This propensity reached its height in the era of social partnership, a concept he opposed, not just for its poor results, but on principle, based on

the basic social opposition of those who own property, wealth and wealth creation to those who sell their labour to the owning class… Economic and social consensus is not possible in a society driven by class differences.

Such an outlook qualifies you for the label ‘maverick’, an outsider refusing to accept the ‘realities’ of modern economic life. Added to this in Merrigan’s case was a refusal to waste too much time in organisations whose claims to espouse the workers’ cause rang hollow:

Many members of parties who purport to redress injustice, poverty and illiberal practices, in the face of the betrayal of these values by their leaders, live in the continuing hope of some apocalyptic reform of these leaders that would allow one to continue in the belief of honesty and integrity in the struggle for the stated objectives. I must confess that my tolerance for such religio-masochistic experiences is very tight, and consequently I found myself throughout my life on the margins of acceptability and, as perceived by some, eccentricity.

Here was no Noel Browne refusing to give and take in collective effort alongside others, and the book goes over his many efforts to work within existing political organisations and create new ones. But none of those organisations were able to allow someone like him make his contribution to the socialist cause, as they either accommodated to capitalism or failed to effectively draw workers into battle against it. “I don’t regret my non-conformity”, he writes, “as I did what I did as a conscientious witness to the truth as I saw it.”

This book bears valuable witness to the truths Matt Merrigan stood for, and the untruths he stood against. “I am still an old-fashioned, unreconstructed socialist”, he concludes, and looks back with some anger at the Ireland he faced in his latter days:

Where is the vision, idealism and compassion of the pioneers of the labour and socialist movement? Where is the great delirium of those brave men and women who risked prison and death in pursuit of liberty, freedom and equality for the downtrodden and dispossessed?

This is a lyrical evocation of socialist principle, all the more melancholy for his conclusion that such values are gone. But he shows no signs of regret for his years of effort in that cause, instead looking to the future with cautious optimism: “Hopefully a more enlightened generation will rededicate itself to salvaging and reinvigorating the values of socialism”. He tells us that his first strike as a teenager “kindled a spark that lit up my life”. The story of that life shouldn’t kindle a wistful remembrance of times past, but should help hand on the torch to those who can fight again and fight better.

Lockout tales

In March 2014 (Issue 55) Noel McDermott reviewed a collection of essays on Dublin 1913 and its legacy.

One Hundred Years Later: The Legacy of the Lockout, Edited by Mary Muldowney with Ida Milne (Seven Towers)

Where this book differs from much of what has appeared around the centenary of 1913 is in its focus on oral history. A group of volunteers, motivated by an interest in working-class history and a desire to preserve it, have spoken to a range of people about the Dublin lockout, and presented the results in a series of essays around various themes and personalities. The result makes for more interest­ing reading than most of the more ‘official’ commemorative offerings.

This approach yields a fascinating, if disturbing, conclusion to the story of James Nolan, killed by the blow of a police baton the night before Bloody Sunday. Alan MacSimóin relates the story up to the mass funeral where thousands of trade unionists came to pay their respects to a martyred comrade. But his interview with a great grand-daughter of Nolan’s widow tells us that she struggled to provide for their three children before her own death in 1915. The two sons ended up in Artane industrial school, which one of them took particularly hard, leading to bed wetting. The Christian Brothers punished this with all the ferocity they are notorious for, and we can only hope the abuse went no further than that. A photograph of Nolan’s grave shows that a headstone was only erected decades later. It all adds up to a shocking story of the Irish labour movement singularly failing to remember and stand by those who suffered in its cause.

Not all the essays have as much to add, however. The Citizen Army’s chief of staff Michael Mallin has gone in recent years from being one of the lesser known figures of our history to one of the better known, with a biography and a television documentary telling his story. Unfortunately, Des Dalton’s essay on him is something of a step backwards. Mallin wasn’t “discharged from the [British] army when he got malaria”, but served his full term and more. When he took over the running of the ITGWU hall in Inchicore, he didn’t become “secretary of the union branch there”. The omission of any reference to Mallin’s less than comradely conduct at his court martial in 1916 is strange too. Mallin’s eldest son wrote articles about his father but, while their publication in book form is mentioned in passing, no detail is given here, nor any sign of them being drawn upon. (Mícheál Ó Mealláin by Séamas Ó Mealláin was published by Coiscéim in 2012, and reviewed in Red Banner 50.)

A century on, no direct oral history of the lockout can be collected, of course, and so what we have here is something the editor’s introduction calls “Post-memory”, traditional narratives of events as heard by later generations rather than the straight testimony of protagonists. This can still add very valuable insights, but works best when supplemented by contemporary records—and those authors who do so here succeed best.

Dublin has thankfully now progressed far enough along the scale of civilisation to name bridges after women, but hopefully Rosie Hackett will become more than that. We learn a good bit more about Hackett from her god-daughter (interviewed here by Mary Muldowney), including that she combined her mould-breaking union activism with very traditional Catholicism—quite a common blend at the time. On the other hand, we could gladly have done without a great grandson of William Martin Murphy telling Ida Milne how much of “a true patriot” he was. More nauseating was the same man’s appearance in a recent RTÉ documentary trying to rehabilitate Murphy as “a man who created so much employment”. Depriving people of a living will always remain his biggest claim to fame.

As for Murphy’s sworn enemy, this book shows that the last word on Larkin has still not been said. One anecdote tells of Larkin’s anger at seeing a butcher’s messenger boy struggling with an overloaded bike, vowing to visit every butcher in Dublin to put a stop to it. Séamus Fitzpatrick puts his finger on the fact that “Jim Larkin never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself”, suffering every step of the way with those who followed him. This was why “he was like a radical ghost” even in death, a lingering political presence for Seán Oliver’s father and people like him. At the same time the opinion of Seán Nolan recalled here rings true: “he was impossible to do anything with and impossible to do anything without”.

But it was Larkin’s words and deeds that made the difference. Fergus Whelan’s claim “that Larkin’s influence and Connolly’s influence on the labour movement was probably more profound from the songs that resulted rather than anything they wrote themselves” is well wide of the mark. There have always been trade unionists who liked a sing-song, but union songs never gripped the popular imagination in the way that republican songs, for instance, once did.

The essays here show some diligent research and promising exposition, and it is understandable if some are marred by easily avoidable errors. John Gibbons’s account of the 1911-12 Wexford lockout outlines the central role of union organiser P T Daly, but gets his first name wrong. Sarah Lundberg and Joe Mooney speculate that the 1901 Taff Vale judgement—which made unions liable for employers’ losses from strikes—may have hindered solidarity action in 1913, but that judgement had been famously repealed in 1906. Alex Klemm notes a reference to Máire and Sighle Maher running a shop in the Tara Street area which was often raided by the police in 1913 because of their sympathy with the strikers, but finds “No trace of either woman” in the 1911 census. However, once you remember that many people filled in their census forms in Irish, you can see Máire Ní Mheachair, “ceannuidhe nuaidheachta” (newsagent) at 9 Tara Street, and her sister Sighle around the corner at 3 George’s Quay with the rest of the family.

Lundberg and Mooney’s essay, the longest in the book, is a fascinating look at the ties of solidarity among Dublin dockers and the threats to them. They recognise that there were plenty of local scabs in 1913 before the employers started importing them. Late that year, a dock company evicted strikers from company houses on Merchants’ Road. The authors examine the local school register for the following year for the origins of those who took over their homes. This study—which deserves far more than a footnote—shows that two thirds of them were from outside the area, but many of those were from other parts of Dublin, even neighbouring parishes.

The close-knit nature of dock communities around the world is legendary. Working alongside neighbours and relatives meant “there was a strength because they were familiar to each other, they grew up with each other”, as John ‘Miley’ Walsh puts it. The cut-throat nature of non-unionised dock work necessitated tight bonds, but that tightness could also become exclusive. What Paddy Daly diplomatic­ally calls “The North/South thing” made enemies of people who had only the width of the Liffey between them, while demarcations of skill were jealously guarded against other workers. Like British mining communities, another iconic arena of the movement, the cohesion bordering on clannishness characteristic of dockers is far from typical, as most industries have always drawn workers from diverse areas and backgrounds. This is even truer today, and there is a recognition here of the need for new approaches to meet new challenges.

The ‘post-memory’ of the lockout is uneven. Some of those involved never mentioned it to their families. Mick O’Reilly thinks “there was more of a knowledge and an interest in the fiftieth anniversary”, which probably reflected the optimism of an expanding movement in the 1960s. Eimear Ging interviews fellow union activists in the Dublin health service, and finds an almost alarming gap in awareness of what happened in 1913. But those same activists have grasped the essential lesson, perhaps better than more accomplished historians have. Eileen Byrne points out that workers then “had no food in their bellies, but they had fire in their bellies”. Jackie Brown realises the need to reclaim that spirit: “I think people have to face adversity and, you know, hold it and just say ‘I have to get out there and show my force’”.

Drawing on our history

Noel McDermott reviewed a book on Irish Worker cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh in Issue 49 (September 2012).

James Curry, Artist of the Revolution: The cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh (1884-1916) (Mercier)

The rise of Irish labour that took place a century ago cannot be understood without its cultural aspect. As Seán O’Casey famously put it, the point was not just to put a loaf on the table but a flower in the vase, to win a life that would be beautiful as well as tolerable. The young Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union fostered the arts as well as improving working conditions, never seeing any contra­diction between the two. When its phenomenal paper The Irish Worker gave expression to the strivings of workers for emancipation, it did so in pictures as well as words. Most of its cartoons came from the pen of Ernest Kavanagh, who finally gets his historical due in James Curry’s evocative book.

A mass of biographical fact is unfortunately crammed into one footnote, and it might have been helpful to remark that the Dublin street where Kavanagh was born is now called Hogan Place. He was born there in 1884, the son of an 1860s Fenian. The 1901 census shows him as an “Artist (Unemployed)” living off the South Circular Road (neither the first or last). The Christian Brothers who educated him would hardly have approved, but they would have been happy to know that he was a clerk for a carrier’s firm come the next census. When the ITGWU began to operate the new National Insurance system in 1912, he started to work for them. Someone in Liberty Hall soon discovered his flair for drawing (possibly Delia Larkin, it seems), and he started contributing cartoons to The Irish Worker that year.

That wasn’t his only outlet, however. A cartoon from Irish Freedom in 1912 shows that his father’s Fenianism had left its mark. Some of his best work was for The Irish Citizen, a paper demanding the right to vote for women. The often noted coming together of labour, national and women’s movements in the period is echoed in the spread of Kavanagh’s cartoons.

One suffragette cartoon excoriates nationalist leader John Redmond, who wanted an Irish parliament but wouldn’t let Irish­women vote for it. It caused outrage in the Redmondite press and was reprinted as a postcard. A 1913 cartoon of William Martin Murphy as a vulture looking down on a workers’ corpse was cited by Murphy’s lawyer at an official inquiry as evidence of The Irish Worker’s persecution of him.

Curry emphasises that “Kavanagh’s work was character­ised by an anger and indignation which set him apart from his fellow artists” (p 49). His was no good-natured ribbing, all in jest, good clean fun capable of being laughed off by its targets, but a hot hatred of the powers that be and the in­justices they presided over. It is made clear here that his vitriolic portrayals of the police predate 1913, and so weren’t just a reaction to their brutality in the lockout. He shared the contempt of the movement in general for its enemies. In a letter to The Irish Worker he wrote that “the man who would ‘assist the police’ in Ireland would be capable of any crime in the calendar” (p 120).

But is it art? Are the cartoons any good as cartoons? The truth is they’re not bad at all. The caricatures of public figures do actually resemble them, and recognising the object of ridicule is arguably the most important point in a satirical cartoon. But the standard does vary, and never reaches the real heights of artistic ability. This may well have something to do with the compulsion to be creative to a deadline, reacting immediately to events or editorial demands. He did drawings that weren’t political too, but we can’t compare them because they were seized in an army raid on the family home in 1916.

The author apologises just a little too much for Kavanagh’s ability, with a strange argument (p 28, 50-1):

the lack of technical sophistication in ‘E.K.’s cartoons should not be viewed negatively. If Kavanagh had produced more carefully drawn and ‘sophisticated’ cartoons they would have looked out of place in The Irish Worker, which essentially specialised in convey­ing messages of blunt immediacy.… While it is true his work possesses more historical importance than artistic merit, his talent is unquestionable. Kavanagh may not have been as technically accomplished or politically incisive as other more celebrated cartoonists from his era, yet his illustrations could nearly always be relied upon to serve their purpose and provoke a reaction.

However, Larkinism rightly held that nothing was too good for the working class, and would never have placed artistic and political value in opposition to each other. Better drawn cartoons would have made their point stronger, then and now.

Comparisons with contemporary left cartooning make the argument clearer still. It is acknowledged here, as it was at the time, that Will Dyson’s Daily Herald cartoons were better both artistically and politically. The same goes internationally, if you look at the cartoons of Der wahre Jacob in Germany or The Masses in the US during the same period. This book reproduces a cartoon from a non-political magazine whose take on police brutality in the Dublin lockout is both better drawn and more starkly expressed than Kavanagh’s. In fact one of Kavanagh’s best pieces—a pair of degenerate specimens of manhood saying women are too inferior to have the vote—works because subtlety trumps immediacy, the slight delay in getting the joke making its point more effectively.

The case of his sister Maeve Cavanagh, whose poetry often appeared in The Irish Worker, sometimes accompanying his cartoons, is similar. Friendly critics quoted here make no literary claims for her doggerel, stressing instead its ability to stir readers to action. We will have to take their word for it, because the examples of her work given here are hardly worth a second glance. Her biggest claim to fame is James Connolly’s admiration, but the poetic faculty was never one of his numerous talents. Even from a utilitarian point of view, the verses of Andrew P Wilson worked better with Kavanagh’s cartoons, as in these lines beneath an asinine judge: “If the rich rob the poor, / It’s quite (L)awful, I’m sure, / But it’s Ass Law as pure / As can be” (p 64).

A mystery surrounds two cartoons here (p 98-101) which first appeared in a posthumous collection. In them Kavanagh portrays Bulmer Hobson, prominent in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, as a tinpot rebel within the law, holding back those who want to take the fight to the British empire. Curry estimates that one “was most likely drawn at some stage during the opening months of 1916”, and the other one is so similar that it must be of the same provenance.

However, Hobson is shown with a copy of Irish Freedom, a paper suppressed in December 1914, with Hobson forced out of it earlier that year. The ridicule of Hobson would complement the attacks Connolly was making on the conservative wing of the Volunteer leadership in late 1915 until he discovered and joined the militant IRB faction preparing a rebellion in spite of them. That would suggest that the cartoons were done for The Workers’ Republic. That paper didn’t go in for cartoons, however: perhaps its printing press wasn’t suitable, or perhaps Connolly just didn’t think as much of Ernest’s cartoons as he did of Maeve’s poems. (The evidence for Connolly calling him “the artist of the revolution” (p 51) is unconvincing.)

Kavanagh never joined the Citizen Army or the Volunteers. An article after his death put this down to an “inherent antipathy to discipline” (p 31), but that’s artists for you. However, he must have felt the call of duty on the second day of the Easter rising and went to Liberty Hall to offer his services. There were no rebels there by then, but a British sniper shot him dead on the steps of the building. Not satisfied with that, the authorities covered up the killing and even tried to hint that republican forces had been responsible.

A friend remembered him in terms which give an idea of the humanity that spurred him on (p 29):

Poor E.K., an artist of promise whose art was ever at the service of his class and country without thought of reward… The poverty and wretchedness of the Dublin workers weighed heavily upon his heart, enshrouding him in pessimism when it did not half madden him. I have seen the blood surge in a crimson wave over his usually pale face at the sight of a shivering half-starved child whilst his hand went to his pocket for his last few coppers.

It seems curious, even disturbing, that little trace of his work lived after him, even a photograph by the looks of it. But a poem of his sister’s (from 1919, by which time her poetry was showing some promise) addresses the point well (p 122-3):

Each cause you served to victory surges onward,
What if their annals keep no niche for you,
Will e’er your soul from its great quest look backward,
Wistful that men withheld your little due?

Nay, you would smile your quiet smile, as ever,
Thinking of names the world remembered not;
They who had borne the torch where light was never—
With those, ’twere more than fame to be forgot.

In the same year’s ‘James Connolly’ she made a similar point: “contemptuous of fame / His very name he left the world to ask.” Those who freely contribute their talents to the cause are of course far more worthy of memory than those forever trying to pre-book a plot for themselves in posterity. Artist of the Revolution does a fine job of remembering the life and work of a man we should know of. He pictured the injustices our class faced and their struggles against them, and that gallery has still too many blank walls.

History lessons

Noel McDermott reviewed a set of essays on labour history in Issue 27 (March 2007).

Politics and the Irish Working Class, 1830-1945, edited by Fintan Lane and Dónal Ó Drisceoil (Palgrave)

This is a solid collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, and there can be few with an interest in labour history who wouldn’t profit from reading it. The shame is that its scandalously prohibitive price-tag will keep it away from too many bookshelves. Many of the fourteen authors perform the basic but necessary task of recounting a neglected chapter in our history. Dónal Ó Drisceoil, for instance, penetrates official censorship to tell the remarkable story of militant union struggles during the second world war.

It isn’t just an academic interest that the research presented here can fuel. Catherine Hirst’s ‘Politics, Sectarianism and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Belfast’ documents how deeply rooted unionism was in the Protestant workers of Ireland’s first industrial city, as was the nationalist reaction to it in Catholic workers. Reading it underlines that it will take more than a few strikes to dispel such division, that it will have to be tackled head on by socialists. It also shows that expressions of social frustration among Protestant workers that fail to break through the limits of loyalist communitar­ianism are far from a recent phenomenon.

Henry Patterson tries his best to rehabilitate William Walker, the unionist Labour politician best known for crossing swords with Connolly in 1911. Walker opposed Irish independence because it would create a conservative agrarian-dominated political system: “not a bad prediction of the history of the independent Irish state!” according to Patterson. But this is trying to have it both ways. Unionism cuts the industrial, mainly Protestant north off from the not-so-industrial, not-so-Protestant south—and then condemns the south for being predominatly agricultural and Catholic! Patterson’s discussion of the 1905 Belfast by-election, where Walker pledged to support anti-Catholic discrimination, neglects to mention his notorious claim that “true Protestantism is synonymous with Labour”. Far from being “his one serious compromise with Protes­tant sectarianism”, this outright sectarianism was only the nadir of a long career spent trying to harness labour politics to unionism.

Conor Kostick’s essay recapitulates the arguments of his Revolution in Ireland on the war of independence period: “it is not always appreciated that Ireland had over a hundred ‘soviets’ in those five years, that is, workplace takeovers, usually in pursuit of economic grievances, but nonetheless raised to a higher level of significance by the workers’ self-conscious emulation of their Russian counterparts”. Certainly such struggles of the working class get only a walk-on part in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, where the railworkers’ boycott of British munitions serves primarily as a mechanism for the hero to join the IRA. Portraying workers’ struggles in their own right could have shown that, not alone did the odd IRA volunteer hold socialist ideas, but that many workers were putting such ideas into practice.

Kostick’s insistence on their importance is timely, therefore, but he insists on counterposing them to the military struggle against British rule. There were only 3,000 in the IRA, he writes, with limited arms, and “In so far as the core administration of the colony was rocked, it was by the intervention of the working class.” But the two aspects of the struggle complemented each other. Keeping soldiers off the trains could keep whole regions of the country out of their grasp, but only if their barracks were burnt down and their motor patrols ambushed. A viewpoint more suited to later phases of republican campaigning is being superimposed here on a period where it just doesn’t fit.

(The editors have unfortunately allowed two lazy footnotes by Kostick to slip through what is otherwise a scrupulously docu­mented collection. As a source for some interesting quotations, he gives only “In William O’Brien Papers”. Those papers are so copious that this is like quoting a needle and referencing a haystack.)

Helga Woggon examines the intriguing subject of how Connolly was interpreted in the years immediately following his execution. Much nonsense was written about him then (and since, says you…), but Woggon always starts from what was wrong in these interpre­tations rather than what was right. Many writers honestly tried to understand Connolly’s work and were prepared to question prevailing orthodoxies with it. The fact that they often mixed his socialism together with Catholicism and bald nationalism is actually testimony to how his socialism had entered popular consciousness. Contemporary socialists were more right to try and engage with this muddle than Woggon is in condemning it. She describes right-wing Irish Americans refusing to touch Connolly, but not the left-wing Irish Americans they were reacting to. She mentions “the mind-confusing euphoria” of the times, but her account is all mind-confusion and no euphoria. (Her failure to deal with Lambert McKenna’s 1920 pamphlet The Social Teachings of James Connolly—since reprinted—is a glaring omission.)

The unavailability of Connolly’s writings, then and now, is rightly held up as a barrier to interpretation. But it should be pointed out that valiant efforts were made in those years, with pamphlets being published and individual articles appearing in labour papers—a tradition Red Banner has continued to its credit. (As time goes by, SIPTU’s Connolly collected works project seems more and more like God: many believe in its eventual coming, even though there is no material evidence for its existence.)

The editors’ introduction strikes a dull note in claiming that attempts in the 1930s to link the struggles of workers and small farmers “were doomed from the outset”, and a couple of the essays start out from the same position. If this were true, it would mean that the socialism of that period is null and void: there is no way the small working class of Ireland’s cities could have got anywhere without bringing the rural poor on side. The evidence presented could as easily support the conclusion that the attempt was made in a mistaken way, with socialists failing to properly differentiate them­selves from republicanism (or even Fianna Fáil) and the urban labour movement refusing to make the effort.

Fearghal McGarry’s ‘Radical Politics in Interwar Ireland’, for example, writes history from a ‘Woe to the vanquished’ standpoint. Because the workers’ republic didn’t arise and Fianna Fáil did, the failure of one is explained by the success of the other. On this reading, labour history is a waste of time because, so far, we don’t have any absolute victories to our name. Instead we have fights that sometimes achieved partial victories and sometimes left us in a better position to move on, and a lot of heroic defeats.

But those socialists in the Irish working class who have tried to fight can only be truly understood, even in their failures, when we have a fundamental sympathy with their visions and dilemmas. As Connolly wrote of their like in Labour in Irish History, “the very qualities which endeared the Irish worker to the earnest rebel against capitalist iniquity estranged him from the affection of those whose social position enabled them to become the historians of his movements”. In this way our past can point to our future. In the words of a Belfast socialist in 1830, quoted here by Vincent Geoghegan, “not only does the thirst of knowledge increase with its acquisition, but men are incited to improve their condition by it”.

Army dreamers

Noel McDermott reviewed two books on the Irish Citizen Army in Issue 59 (March 2015).

Ann Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army (Mercier)
Leo Keohane, Captain Jack White: Imperialism, anarchism & the Irish Citizen Army (Merrion Press)

The Irish Citizen Army deserves all the attention it gets in labour historiography, and probably more. After all, it’s not every day of the week that a workers’ militia comes along to defend strikers against police brutality and then play a central role in an anti-imperialist insurrection. Who exactly it was, what it did and how, are questions we should all want fuller answers to.

But that’s not to say we have none of the answers at the moment. Ann Matthews makes much of papers left by Citizen Army man John Hanratty, asserting that, only for her use of them, “the story of the ICA would still languish in much speculation and hearsay” (p 9). This is both incredibly dismissive of all previous histories of the army, and makes an unsustainable claim for her own. R M Fox’s History of the Irish Citizen Army (1943) drew heavily on contemporary documents as well as the close collaboration of ICA veterans, not least Hanratty. Even Seán O’Casey’s Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919) has a fairly solid documentary basis to complement recollections of its author’s close involvement in the army’s first year.

Matthews is far too concerned with announcing original discoveries ignored by everyone else, scoops which owe more to the publicist than the historian. She tells us that the army’s first drill sergeant had been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for fighting in the British army in the Boer war (p 23-4): “In all of the literature relating to the founding of the Citizen Army this information is generally omitted. This blind spot… would have been a sensitive point.” Well, Fox not only mentions Jack White’s military decoration from South Africa, but adds his attendance at Sandhurst for good measure. O’Casey introduces White as an “aristocrat and gentleman”, later appending DSO to his name.

She is entitled to an exclusive on her contention that Tom Clarke rather than Pádraic Pearse read the proclamation on Easter Monday 1916, a claim which migrates from being “probable” on page 86 to definite fact on page 171. But it rests on dismissing the entire mountain of evidence for Pearse being the proclaimer, and sub­stituting a single newspaper report, factually dubious and hostile to the rebels, which describes “a small man in plain clothes” reading the proclamation at 1.30. Dragging a positive identification of Clarke from this hazy account is a considerable leap of faith, but even if it were wholly true, all it shows is that, about an hour after Pearse read the proclamation, someone else came out of the GPO to read it again. Even so, Tom Clarke is an unlikely candidate, unaccustomed as he was to public speaking (and ironically, the man who had first recognised the value to the republican cause of Pearse’s oratorical skills).

A far more interesting claim is that Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grennan, quite prominent women in the events of Easter week, were members of the Citizen Army (p 86, 213), something never claimed by the women themselves or anyone else in the army. No evidence for it is cited here, nor is much made of it beyond the passing reference. The assertion remains unproven, at best, most likely a mistaken extrapolation from their membership of Inghinidhe na hÉireann which had drawn close to the ICA. A clear case of a Citizen Army woman playing an outright military role is Margaret Skinnider, wounded near-fatally in an attack during the Easter rising, but Matthews refuses to credit this. Without quoting Skinnider’s own book on the rising, she says her involvement is “unclear”, based on the fact that Skinnider’s name is absent from one other participant’s account (p 102)

The rush for novelty leads Matthews to omit elements of the story which have been told before but remain absolutely necessary to a rounded telling of it. She doesn’t mention Larkin’s speech on the first night of the 1913 tram strike, saying that Dublin workers should arm like Carson’s unionists were. She has nothing on the Civic League’s role in making that happen by formally proposing the drilling of locked-out Dubliners. Even the account of the Citizen Army’s occupation of Stephen’s Green is scanty, especially after the evac­uation to the College of Surgeons.

Similarly, official British sources are often used in preference to rebel accounts. Such sources have been little utilised, but there are sometimes good reasons for that. The way a handful of ICA men used Davy’s pub in Portobello to hold back British soldiers from the nearby barracks before withdrawing is a masterly illustration of good guerrilla warfare, and has been described well in Frank Robbins’s Under the Starry Plough (1978). But Matthews prefers the official version where, naturally, brave Tommy’s triumph over the mutinous natives is never in doubt: “after a short and sharp fight the public house was captured by the military” (p 107).

Quite a number of factual errors appear in the book. Larkin didn’t appeal his jailing in 1913 (p 22), but was released by official order. The Irish Worker was not printed in Yarnhall Street (p 49) but in Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street). Michael Mallin’s service in the British army took him to India, not “throughout the British colonies” (p 50). The 1934 convention of the IRA is one of the best documented events in republican history, but this must be the first time anyone has imagined the chief of staff Moss Twomey supporting Michael Price’s resolution for a workers’ republic, still less Seán Russell (p 178).

Matthews’s insistence that, for the most part, women in the Citizen Army played an auxiliary rather than a military role is a useful corrective to occasional rose-tinted portrayals of perfect gender equality in its ranks. But her statement that in August 1914 “membership was still open only to men” (p 45) is contradicted by the presence of Constance Markievicz on its army council for the preceding five months. Matthews’s other works give the impression that she has a dartboard up somewhere with Markievicz’s face on it, and her bête noire comes in for more of the same treatment here.

Markievicz’s battlefield promotion to second-in-command of the Stephen’s Green garrison isn’t mentioned here until the surrender, when it features only as a personal claim on her part (p 132). There is room for legitimate historical debate on this subject, but you won’t find any of that here. The fact that Markievicz acted in that capacity, and was recognised as such by her comrades then and subsequently, should be enough to countersign her appointment. The lowest blow is Matthews’s decision to swallow without question a hoary misogynistic slander that Markievicz broke down at her court martial and pleaded for mercy (p 143). If this happened, it is extremely strange that such a plea for mitigation wouldn’t be entered in the official record of the court martial. Its absence confirms that the tale is fictional, which is presumably why Matthews makes the unusual choice of ignoring that record altogether. Clearly, what she sees as “the myth of the aristocrat giving up her life of leisure and luxury for Ireland” (p 149) grates with her, but the myths she wants to put in its place have far less foundation.

Jack White is someone who could do with a little mythbusting, and Leo Keohane’s book goes some of the way. When White under­took to train a citizen army in the middle of the Dublin lockout, he was far from advocating that the working class free itself by force of arms. As a newspaper quoted him, “it was not quite true to say that he was on the side of the men” as he hadn’t studied the situation fully (p 118). From the platform of a workers’ meeting, he dissociated himself from condemnation of the DMP (p 128): “The police had a perfect right to carry out their instructions, and they were not, one and all, the brutes they were stated to be.” He saw a citizen army as a way of disciplining the workers, who were incapable of finding the right way without the leadership of their betters. Besides that, by his own account, “I just enjoyed the fun and excitement of the whole thing” (p 122).

But he knew his onions from the military point of view, and his involvement must have helped convey the impression that the Citizen Army was a serious force. Photographs here show him drilling women members of the ICA—further proof, if it were needed, that they were welcome to join—and if anything, his military sense trumped the shortcomings of his political sense. Keohane perceptibly notes that Connolly would have regarded White “as a fortuitous arrival in the strikers’ camp” (p 101), and Connolly had a talent for bringing sympathetic forces to the workers’ side.

After his previous career in the British army, White had led “what can only be described as a sybaritic existence” (p 38). The chapters of his biography Misfit (1930) dealing with those years are strangely dull, describing the empty moral and philosophical dilemmas of a man with too much time and money on his hands. He candidly admits beating his wife—something which inexplicably gets no more than a passing footnote reference here (p 262). His opposition to unionist attempts to prevent home rule gave him a political cause to fight for, and the Dublin lockout deepened that, giving him some insight into social injustice.

But his involvement with the ICA lasted less than six months before he decamped to the Irish Volunteers. At the outbreak of the world war he seriously proposed that the Volunteers should become a home guard trained by the British, a suggestion rejected from both sides, and then led a British ambulance corps in Belgium. After the Easter rising he went to Wales in an attempt to bring miners out on strike against the threatened execution of Connolly. He was sentenced to three months in jail for his pains, but how he thought his influence would bring off such a strike is a mystery.

Keohane’s subtitle mentions three areas of White’s life, but in truth, all are as ships that passed in the night through his conscious­ness, short-lived fascinations that went as soon as they came. It is to his credit that he rejected imperialism at the height of his fame in its service. Anarchism in an active sense—as opposed to a vague unease at received authority—only featured for a couple of years in the 1930s under the influence of the Spanish revolution (where he was involved as a medical volunteer). His support for the idea of workers’ councils during Ireland’s war of independence was strong but transient. His habit of prefixing his various political affiliations with the word “Christian” points to a tedious belief that religion was both the problem and the solution in Ireland, a belief which renders it far too much.

The same could be said for his biographer’s habit of wrapping White’s musings in academic terminology. Many times in his life White was politically confused, but baptising that confusion “post­structuralist questioning of constructs” or “avoidance of intran­sigence” (p 99, 171) only mystifies it further. A White article makes the point that power rests in part on social acceptance of its rules, and Keohane writes (p 138): “I would suggest it is as perceptive as anything Gramsci, the Italian radical philosopher, wrote about the concept of hegemony.” But that suggests, to say the least of it, that he sees an awful lot in White which isn’t there and misses an awful lot in Gramsci which is.

White could never be accused of modesty. If things had been just a little different, “I believe I could have brought off a revolution on the Russian model almost on my own”, he wrote in his auto­biography, or at least with a goodly troop: “give me twenty thousand men and I will remodel Ireland”. His biographer concedes that White’s head was swelling here, but maintains nevertheless that “this was not an unrealistic assessment… he was probably close to having a radical influence on events” (p 136-7). He bases this to a large extent on White’s frequent appearances in press reports, but that arose more from his prominence as a second-generation war hero than from the intrinsic merit of what he was saying and doing. White seems not to have stayed in the one spot long enough to leave lasting achievements, always on the hunt for another Troy to burn before he had got the fire going under the last one.

All the same, even if it needed much guidance by others, his was one of the hands that brought the Citizen Army into being. The path it followed from there on remains a high point in the history of our class, a necessary reference point as we examine our past and try to influence our future.

Who got Larkin out?

In Issue 52 (June 2013) Noel McDermott examined how solidarity won an important victory in the Dublin lockout a century earlier.

A hundred years on, the most iconic image of the Dublin lockout remains Joseph Cashman’s photograph of Bloody Sunday. Before the internet had been dreamed of or television was more than an idea, this picture went around the world and showed the brutality of the state forces employed in support of Dublin’s capitalists as they attempted to crush fighting trade unionism. However often seen, it always repays another look, which will bring home a fresh image that hadn’t registered before: another baton raised in search of a skull, another person fleeing from the palpable danger. Although reproduced again and again, it avoids becoming a cliché purely because it gives such a true illustration of what was happening.

And what was happening on 31 August 1913 was that a meeting in support of the locked-out workers was due to take place on O’Connell Street, only to be banned by Ernest Swifte, a magistrate who earnestly and swiftly evicted and imprisoned many a striker in 1913 (and who just happened to be a shareholder in William Martin Murphy’s tramway company). Having publicly burned the banning order two days before, Jim Larkin put on a false beard and a big coat —a disguise which somehow managed to beat the finest minds of the Dublin Metropolitan Police—and made his way to a balcony of his arch-enemy’s Imperial Hotel. When he began to speak in defiance of the ban, he was arrested. The police, primed with alcohol and class hatred, cut loose on the crowd in O’Connell Street and its environs, many of them no more than curious onlookers on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Larkin was remanded in custody, but after twelve days inside was allowed out on bail. His trial was fixed for 27 October, where he was sentenced to seven months in prison. The sentence caused wide­spread outrage: the state was putting him away for seven months for using seditious language, while Edward Carson was running a union­ist army in the north pledged to resist the will of the government, receiving no punishment and much encouragement from the British establishment. The blatant injustice of it underlined who exactly had right on their side in the Dublin labour war. “Release Larkin” naturally became part of the escalating struggle and of the movement in solidarity with it.

By the morning of 13 November, however, Larkin was free. This was clearly a big deal. The hope was that, with the charismatic leader of the ITGWU out of harm’s way for a stretch, the balance of forces might tilt in the employers’ direction and more ‘moderate’ counsels prevail on the workers’ side. Instead the gates of Mountjoy flew open after just seventeen days.

This release is usually attributed to the results of three parlia­mentary by-elections the week before. The Dublin strikers called on people in Linlithgowshire, Reading and Keighley to vote against the Liberal government’s candidates as a protest against Larkin’s im­prisonment. James Connolly spoke loudly in support of the idea, ITGWU organiser William Partridge went over to help out the Labour candidate in Reading, and fireworks were set off from the roof of Liberty Hall to celebrate Liberal reverses in the elections. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George cited Larkin’s imprison­ment as the main factor behind the results.

So Larkin was released because by-election results went against the government, leaving it no choice but to yield to the electoral pressure and set Larkin free. It is a common interpretation featuring in many works—good as well as bad—on Larkin, Connolly, and the lockout:

Ministers stood firm while they were being told in peremptory language by their press organs that “Larkin must be released”… But directly the Larkinite influence appeared to their dis­comfiture, apparent or real, at by-elections, their stoic resolution broke down.1

working British voters had turned not merely restive but wrathful, and a couple of electoral knocks for the government led to the hasty opening of the prison doors on the 13th of November.2

Irish workers cheered the two Governmental election defeats which quashed Larkin’s seven months’ sentence.3

…the effective plan of campaign that was to bring about Larkin’s eventual release… that everyone work and vote against the Liberal Government until Larkin was free.… In referring to the by-election reverses at the National Liberal Club in London, Lloyd George admitted that “there are explanations, the most prom­inent of which is, probably, Jim Larkin.”4

Following government defeats in the three by-elections, Lloyd George said: “There are explanations, the most prominent of which is, probably, Jim Larkin.” On 13 November he was released.5

The government lost seats in by-elections, and this resulted in their deciding unanimously that the sentence was “grossly excessive” and should be reduced. Lloyd George had already stated that the “most prominent explanation” for the Liberals’ setback was probably Larkin.6

Following poor by-election results, government intervention secured his release on 13 November.7

Nevertheless, the claim doesn’t stand up too well if we take the unprecedented step of actually looking at those by-election results them­selves. Failure to do so has fed the argument that those results freed Larkin. Even historians who haven’t gone along with it, or even argued against it, have got their facts wrong:

organised Labour worked hard to effect the Government defeat in two by-elections.8

The news of the government defeats in Linlithgow and Reading caused great jubilation in Dublin.… On November 12 the Liberals were defeated at Keighley also.9

When on 10 November the news came that the Liberals had been defeated at both Reading and Linlithgow, rockets were fired from the roof of Liberty Hall. The third contest was at Keighley, where there was a spectacular increase in the Labour vote.10

The Liberals suffered ignominious defeats in the bye-elections.11

Liberal candidates were defeated in two by-elections in England and Scotland on 10 November, and Labour’s vote increased substantially in Keighley, Yorkshire.12

But what actually happened in the by-elections?

Linlithgowshire in Scotland (now West Lothian) went to the polls on 7 November 1913. In the last general election in 1910 the Liberal Alexander Ure held the seat (as he had since 1895) with 5,835 votes to the Conservative James Kidd’s 3,765. Following Ure’s appoint­ment to the judiciary, his successor won the by-election with 5,615 votes to Kidd’s 5,094.13 So the opposition increased its vote well, but didn’t eat into the government vote much, and the Liberals held the seat.

Reading voted the next day. Again a judicial appointment led to the Liberal incumbent vacating the seat, which he had only held at the general election by 5,094 votes to 4,995. The same Tory, Leslie Orme Wilson, stood in the by-election, with the Liberals parachuting in a new candidate. Wilson got his vote up to 5,144, while the new Liberal managed 4,013. A first-time candidate from the British Socialist Party won 1,063 votes.14 So the government lost a marginal seat which had been hanging by a 1 per cent thread. It couldn’t be claimed that the BSP had split the anti-Tory vote: even their vote added to the Liberals wouldn’t have beaten Wilson.

The by-election in Keighley, Yorkshire, took place on 11 Nov­ember. Its Liberal MP, who gloried in the name of Stanley Owen Buckmaster, had won the seat in a by-election himself two years earlier, winning 4,667 votes to the Conservatives’ 3,842 and Labour’s 3,452. He now had to put himself forward again after being appointed Solicitor-General. In 1913 he got 4,730, while the Conservative got 3,852 and Labour got 3,646.15 So everyone’s vote increased slightly, making little difference to the relative proportions, the government share being down about one third of 1 per cent.

So, despite what many books tell us, the Liberals didn’t lose most or all of the by-elections, nor was there any spectacular increase in the opposition vote. Overall, the government held two of the seats—one with a much reduced vote share,16 another with a drop that wouldn’t register on the swingometer—and lost a very marginal seat. It is a set of mid-term by-election results that any government would be very happy with. The last of the three contests, the one which is supposed to have dealt the final blow that won Larkin’s freedom, went extreme­ly well for the government. Their majority in parliament, with the support of the Home Rulers, remained. These were nothing like the sort of catastrophic reverses they are assumed to have been, nor the kind of results to force a government into releasing a political prisoner.

This is not to say that the attempt to use the by-elections to the Dublin workers’ advantage was a mistake. Every opportunity to press their case had to be grasped, and these elections provided a chance to push it further up the British political agenda. All three constituencies would have contained a big enough Irish population, whose natural sympathies were there to be won.17 And spinning the Reading result into a major victory was harmless enough when Dublin workers needed every morale boost they could get.

The link between the results and Larkin’s incarceration originated with Lloyd George, as we have seen. If ever there was a politician whose statements needed questioning sceptically, it is him, whose legendary craftiness would tie the Irish delegation in knots at the 1921 treaty negotiations. His comments following the Reading defeat had more to do with internal Liberal Party politics. Undermining Augustine Birrell, the minister responsible for ruling Ireland, did no harm to his own ambitions. It is strange, however, that his partisan election analysis has found so much favour with historians of Irish labour.

What did win Larkin’s release, then? Answering that question requires a shift away from the historical consensus which has down­played if not dismissed an important factor in the Dublin lockout: solidarity action by workers in Britain. The spread of sympathy among British public opinion in general is well documented, as is the money and food sent by British unions, but industrial action in support remains an under-researched topic. What we know from standard histories is impressive, though: railworkers in various parts of Britain refused to transport goods for firms in Dublin involved in the lockout, and when they were victimised by their employers, thousands of their colleagues walked out. They weren’t just backing Dublin as an end in itself, but also hoping to settle grievances with their own bosses, and defending their right to boycott scab cargo as a basic union principle.

While Larkin was in jail, the employers escalated their fight, shipping in scabs from England. Connolly responded in kind, calling out every trade unionist in the docks and shutting them down altogether. He has been roundly criticised ever since for a move which brought into the dispute shipping firms which had taken no part in it but were sticking to their contract with the ITGWU. However, alien­ating a strand of ‘public opinion’ was better than platonically bemoan­ing the influx of scab labour. Putting the port of Dublin out of action showed that the union could also take extraordinary measures in extraordinary circumstances, could “carry the war into every section of the enemy’s camp”, as Connolly put it.18

The move also involved a direct appeal to the rank and file of British labour. In a ‘Manifesto to the British Working Class’ on 12 November Connolly called for all traffic from companies locking out workers to be stopped. In Holyhead and Liverpool, from Newcastle to Derby, the call was heeded, with workers setting up ‘vigilance committees’ to oversee their boycott and protect against victimisation. The solidarity of workers in Britain with strikers in Dublin was reaching a new height, and organising independently. This, together with the closure of Dublin port, was enough to tilt the balance. Larkin being in prison made it difficult for the government and bosses to head off the new threat. The British cabinet had decided that day that he should be released early, but left it up to Birrell to decide exactly when. Although he had opposed that decision, he set Larkin free the next day. “Not Liberal justice but solidarity—class solidarity is the reason why I am free”, he insisted.19

Himself and Connolly immediately appealed for British workers “to go ahead and strike while the iron of revolt is hot in our souls”,20 and followed up with a series of meetings over the water. It was clear now that only action in Britain could cut the Dublin employers off from their profits and bring them to heel. The fact that such action didn’t materialise was at the bottom of the defeat the workers finally suffered.

It is commonly held that Larkin blew any chance of it by his reck­less attacks on British union leaders. He did indeed fly off the handle at times, but what he said was no worse than the insults they hurled at him. If Larkin’s words really hurt them more than the sight of sticks and stones breaking the bones of workers in Dublin, they deserved every epithet. His denunciation of rail union leader J H Thomas as “a double-dyed traitor to his class”21 sounds harsh until you consider that Thomas actually helped employers to sack railworkers who refused to handle Dublin goods. (When you look at his subsequent career—joining Ramsay Macdonald’s national government in the 1930s, and then caught selling budget secrets to stockbrokers—it proves to be a prophetic statement of cold fact.)

It is too often forgotten that Britain’s union movement in 1913 was experiencing an acute expression of the ever-present divide between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. Dublin brought it to a head: ordinary trade unionists acted on the instinct to engage in solidarity action off their own bat, while their officials acted on the instinct to dampen down such action and reassert their own position as intermediaries between capital and labour.

The impressive scale of official support from Britain’s TUC—the equivalent of €10 million today, as well as calling the first special conference in its history to discuss the dispute—was a response to pressure from below. The first TUC donation came as 2,000 Liver­pool dockers and railworkers were out, and a continuing blacking of Dublin goods there and in South Wales was the backdrop to the conference being called. Attacks on Larkin were only one flank of the union leaders’ strategy: the other was to offer generous assistance as an alternative to effective solidarity action.

In these circumstances, fighting for Dublin’s cause in Britain had to involve disconcerting the union leaders, in fact encouraging revolt against them. Larkin and Connolly were in contact with the British left for years, of course, and that network formed the backbone of the solidarity movement. The decision to campaign in the Reading by-election incidentally helped the British Socialist Party, a radical organ­isation very critical of official labour, to a very decent poll. No paper had championed the Dublin strikers more than the Daily Herald, the paper of the British left, whose editor told them that their victory would not only put a stop to Murphy but “will have stimulated… the great working class warfare in Great Britain”.22 While on bail Larkin had told an audience in London to “tell their leaders to get in front or get out”, and following his release he issued a manifesto calling on British trade unionists to force their leaders to support trade union struggle instead of being “apologists for the shortcomings of the Capitalist system”.23 Appealing over the heads of the leadership like this had won solidarity thus far, and intensifying the appeal to the rank and file was the only way to intensify the solidarity.

If anything, the ITGWU could be accused of not going far enough in distinguishing leaders from rank and file. From early in the lockout Ben Tillett, head of the National Transport Workers’ Federation in Britain, spoke loudly and radically in support of the Dublin workers. This left-wing union leader shared platforms with Larkin and Connolly and got a good few column inches in The Irish Worker. But when push came to shoving a knife in their back, it was Tillett who turned to lead the TUC’s condemnation of Larkin and abandonment of Dublin: the strikers’ Waterloo, as Connolly re­marked. Of course, plenty of others on the left were caught off guard by Tillett’s betrayal, the prelude to his vociferous support for the war a year later.

The left wing of British labour was not a little disorientated by these events, and unofficial solidarity with Dublin would face an uphill fight against what was now a solid front of union bureaucracy as well as the inevitable retaliation from employers. 30,000 rail­workers were out in South Wales for another week or so, but were forced back by national officials without winning reinstatement of two colleagues sacked for refusing to handle Dublin goods. It is hardly surprising that such support petered out, and once the pressure from below eased off, financial support from the official movement dried up too. The Dublin workers were now staring defeat in the face.

The story of how Larkin was imprisoned and released throws up issues that were central to the struggle in 1913. Electoral campaigning was only an adjunct to the real fight. Not liberal justice but class solidarity, across national borders, was the key to success. The rank and file had to organise its own activity independently of union leaders, left or right, to ensure success. Whenever the spirit of 1913 takes flight again in Dublin and the rest of Ireland, such lessons will be invaluable.


  1. Arnold Wright, Disturbed Dublin (London 1914) p 233. This book was, of course, the employers’ bought-and-paid-for account of the dispute.
  2. W P Ryan, The Irish Labour Movement (Dublin 1919), p 231.
  3. Desmond Ryan, James Connolly (Dublin/London 1924), p 70.
  4. Emmet Larkin, James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader (London 1965), p 141-2.
  5. Ruth Dudley Edwards, James Connolly (Dublin 1981), p 108.
  6. Dónal Nevin, James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (Dublin 1998), p 199.
  7. Emmet O’Connor, James Larkin (Cork 2002), p 46.
  8. R M Fox, Jim Larkin: The Rise of the Underman (London 1957), p 104.
  9. C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London 1961), p 261.
  10. C Desmond Greaves, The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years (Dublin 1982), p 109.
  11. Kieran Allen, The Politics of James Connolly (London 1990), p 117.
  12. Francis Devine, Organising History (Dublin 2009), p 60.
  13. Debrett’s House of Commons (London 1916), p 240.
  14. Ibid, p 258.
  15. Ibid, p 287.
  16. Pádraig Yeates, Lockout (Dublin 2000) is very careful with the facts and doesn’t accept the by-elections as a crucial factor in Larkin’s release, but even here it is claimed that the Liberals “only retained Linlithgow by the barest majority” (p 385). There are majorities far barer than 5 per cent.
  17. Campaigning in Keighley yielded a dividend in the form of a £20 donation to the lockout fund from the local trades council: The Irish Worker, December 13 1913.
  18. Quoted in Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, p 263. It has since come to light that other shipping firms were on the point of joining the lockout anyway: see Yeates, p 400.
  19. ‘Justice, Moryah’, editorial, The Irish Worker, November 15 1913.
  20. Quoted in Larkin, p 144, footnote.
  21. Quoted in ibid, p 146.
  22. Charles Lapworth, ‘The Lesson of Dublin’, The Irish Worker, November 1 1913.
  23. Quoted in Larkin, p 138, 146.

SIPTU: The view from the bridge

Noel McDermott reviewed an official cententary history of Ireland’s biggest union in Issue 40 (June 2011).

Francis Devine, Organising History: A Centenary of SIPTU (Gill & Macmillan)

The first thing that strikes you about this book is the sheer daunting bulk of its 1220 pages. A work of this size, length and weight will sadly put off all too many potential readers, or cause them to leave it as an ornament on the shelf. SIPTU’s arrangement with Gill & Macmillan has seen the publication of a few hefty tomes in recent years, some with no evidence of any editing process. Marx once wrote of the dogs who judge the value of books by their cubic volume, but intelligent readers know that size isn’t as important as what you do with it.

It is often difficult to see the wood for the trees here, as the author gets bogged down in the facts instead of utilising them to present a coherent narrative. On pages 28-9, for instance, we read:

In 1912 R.J.P. Mortished contributed statistical articles to the Irish Worker as “justification for the agitator”. Larkin secured the distribution of bread to Enniscorthy during a bakery strike to feed the people. In Dublin, cinema and theatre workers struck.

Three sentences fire out three unrelated facts, neither of which is developed or located within the general sequence of events, and neither of which are probably important enough to include out of a hundred years of activity. Page 109, with its disparate retailing of distinct topics under distinct sub-headings, looks for all the world like the parish notes of a provincial newspaper.

It should be pleaded in Francis Devine’s defence that he had a fiercely difficult task, boiling down a complex century into a single book. And all the while, he had his nose to the grindstone as a tutor for SIPTU, something he none too subtly emphasises in his preface. While it is not uncommon for an author’s preface to mention other work that held a book up, it is rare to give comprehensive references to it in footnotes!

He could have done us a few favours, all the same. Hardly a committee gets mentioned without a full-dress roll call of its members in the footnotes. It is interesting to learn that the ITGWU organised a boxing tournament “to raise funds and morale” in the wake of the 1913 lockout (p 66), but did we really need a footnote telling us who fought who in each bout? The 122 pages of footnotes should have been severely reduced by excising such minutiae, and employing some abbreviations. An attempt was clearly made to amalgamate footnotes, but often confusingly, so that the connection between text and reference is hard to decipher (and in Chapter 33 goes askew altogether). Some chapters conclude by wasting a few pages on reproducing frankly unremarkable documents in full.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was founded in 1909, a radical new union under the lead of Jim Larkin. It is tempting to contrast the revolutionary drive of the early ITGWU with the staid conservatism of today’s SIPTU—to entitle the story ‘When Good Unions Turn Bad’—but way too simple. Unions exist above all to win workers better terms for the sale of their ability to work, and that means encompassing as many of them as possible, from the socialist to the anti-socialist and all points in between. By a certain stage this process evolves some kind of administrative apparatus, and a layer of officials whose interests no longer coincide entirely with those they represent. As early as 1914 ITGWU officials were salting strike pay into a mortgage on the union head office, unbeknown to Larkin. A young trade unionist enthusiastic about bringing his workmates into the union in 1919 had his admiration for Larkin dampened by the president: “What is wonderful about him?… Today we settle everything by negotiations” (p 942).

But one of the ITGWU’s guiding principles was “a Socialist philosophy… an agenda that stretched well beyond wages and conditions to question the validity of capitalism itself” (p 17, 26). It is hard to imagine SIPTU president Jack O’Connor proposing “abolition of the capitalist system” at an ICTU conference as his predecessors did in 1912 (p 32). In fact the initial ITGWU rules, demanding nationalisation of land and transport, far outstrip anything SIPTU calls for today. Its lack of regard for the rules of the capitalist game gave the union an energy that saw it spread like wildfire after the first world war as part of a general enthusiasm for radical social change. Was the union’s leadership to blame for the squandering of that enthusiasm? It’s “debatable”, writes Devine, but he has no intention of debating it, beyond wondering whether the union was “the victim of a broader submission of labour to National­ist politics” (p 14). Given how central the ITGWU’s voice was in the movement’s counsels, this is implausible. The problem was expect­ing union leaders to do a job that properly lays on the shoulders of organised socialists.

But the author’s refusal to get off the fence on this and other controversies is not just irritating: it robs the book of a unifying standpoint that would have allowed the material to be filtered better. And there was an admirable precedent that could have been followed. C Desmond Greaves’s The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years 1909-1923 (1982) is magisterial in locating the incidents of the union’s activity within a wider political context. Far too frequently Organising History is just annual reports writ large, enumerating the unions’ own versions of their activities—quite literally going through the motions.

The union split in 1923, with the Workers’ Union of Ireland established the following year. Larkin had always stood for instinct­ive radicalism and chaotically primitive organisation. During his nine years in the US, the ITGWU under William O’Brien had organised more effectively but lost much of its soul. Someone like James Connolly could have united efficiency and militancy, as he did during his remarkable year and a half in charge, but the tragedy of 1923 was the way those two elements were cast as antagonists rather than complements.

This history lays the split primarily at the door of Larkin and O’Brien personally, with a touch of plague on both their houses. But while their mutual hatred undoubtedly poisoned the well further, the split was political at its core. There is no way that 15,000 of the capital’s best trade unionists just blindly followed Larkin out as if he was the Pied Piper of Dublin. The wisest course was that shown by a committee of rank and file ITGWU members who investigated the affair: they tried to do everything humanly possible to prevent the split, but once it was irrevocable most of them joined the WUI (p 153). The WUI was a better union to work in, more militant and—despite Larkin’s one-man showmanship—more democratic. The ITGWU effectively allied with employers and the state against it.

The difference between the two was clear when the government imposed wage freezes during the second world war. While both unions were officially opposed, the WUI was wholeheartedly in­volved in the protest movement whereas the ITGWU chose to work the system. Devine does take sides here: “While others shouted at street corners about Standstill Orders, the ITGWU got on with the business” (p 300)—quite a contemptuous dismissal of one of the century’s most significant movements of Irish labour.

WUI branches had more autonomy within the union, even financially, giving the rank and file a greater voice than in the ITGWU. In the 1950s the latter union proclaimed unofficial action to be “the complete antithesis of trade unionism”, its president decree­ing that “unofficial strikes are outlawed and ended so far as this Union is concerned”, and backed up the threat by slashing strike pay from 52 per cent of total income in 1952 to 4 per cent the following year. The WUI leadership also opposed unofficial action—after all, that’s what union leaderships do—but the union’s culture wouldn’t allow it such vicious opposition, and its strike pay actually doubled in the same period (p 409, 412, 498). While all unions succumbed to the religious fervour of that decade, the WUI didn’t prostrate itself quite so humbly before papal and episcopal authority.

From the 1960s on the unions converged, however, and the author plausibly suggests that they would have merged sooner only for the passing of leaders on both sides committed to greater co-operation. He says that “The WUI’s growth was less impressive” in the sixties, but his figures reveal a membership 21.2 per cent that of the ITGWU at the start of the decade and still 20.6 per cent at its end (p 585). Its expansion beyond Dublin and into new sectors—especially its amalgamation with the Federation of Rural Workers to form the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland in 1979—meant that it had caught up a good bit on a more slowly increasing ITGWU by the time the two formed the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union in 1990.

The convergence is clear in the similar reaction of ITGWU and FWUI leaders to the tax marches of the late 1970s and early 1980s: supportive of the campaign’s purpose, but fearful of a rank and file movement growing beyond their control. While arguing convincing­ly that workers were paying an unfair tax burden, they baulked at the idea of backing up the demand with their industrial muscle. A slight majority of ITGWU members voted for strikes on the issue, but the ballot was organised in such a way that votes for stoppages of different durations were counted separately (p 1123). Devine locates the ultimate failure of the movement elsewhere, in “the fact that tens of thousands marched in protest against Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael actions but then voted for them in successive elections” (p 717). This becomes a constant refrain: union leaders let down by the political ignorance of their members, donkeys led by lions. But if tens of thousands of workers on the streets are told to go home quietly and wait for an election, where’s the surprise if passivity sets in? And Labour’s super-adhesive attachment to coalition meant that voting for them came to the same thing as voting for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. If the unions had summoned the imagination to create some kind of independent political alternative for workers, things may have been different.

Unions outside of SIPTU and its predecessors get short shrift. Thousands of Irish workers are members of unions that organise in Britain also, but Devine has no time for them. He applies sarcastic quotation marks to their self-designation as “‘Amalgamated’ unions”, before bluntly characterising them himself as downright “British unions” pure and simple. A familiar attempt at a neutral description is then corrected by him within brackets: “‘cross-channel’ (British) unions” (p 306-7, 309). The biggest such union, the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers, is regularly jibed at, with the insults of ITGWU leaders uncritically repeated—including one perverse condemnation of it for pursuing a distinct policy for Irish members (p 414)! Cases of workers transferring to the ATGWU are incredulously and haughtily dismissed. The heavy blow of Aer Lingus cabin crew defecting to IMPACT in 2000 is acknowledged only by a general remark about SIPTU’s efforts at Dublin airport being “not fully appreciated by members” (p 861).

This is very much an in-house history, as emphasised by a foreword jointly signed by SIPTU’s ruling triumvirate. They even refer to the author as “Francy” (p viii), and the familiarity is mutual in his profiles of union leaders. Mostly these are very useful summaries of careers, but sometimes they stray into the realm of public relations. A line like “his persuasive, personable style hides a shrewd and, if need be, tough administrator” (p 992) would be more appropriate to a Joe O’Flynn fan club newsletter. A competition to see who “has shown personal courage and integrity on many issues and is not afraid to champion unpopular causes” (p 988) would throw up an awful lot of names before anyone guessed Éamon Gilmore!

For all its imposing girth, this book leaves much of the story untold, as its author acknowledges (p 881, 886):

the overwhelming amount of union activity remains hidden, unrecorded in annual or Conference reports, Executive minutes or journals.… Leaders, naturally, make headlines and are record­ed in any history. Conversely, thousands of ‘unsung heroes’ escape any record.

But not all of them escaped the record, if you’re prepared to look for them. Devine’s belief that “arguably the most historic Conference in the union’s 100-year history” was one that adopted changes to SIPTU’s structure (p 842) betrays an unmistakeable bias towards the bureaucracy as against workers’ activities on the ground.

Repeatedly, rank and file members organised to point a different direction to that of their leaders, but only the merest hint of it surfaces in this history. The fullest account, but all too short, is of an ITGWU branch in the Donegal Gaeltacht which spoke a different language to Liberty Hall in more ways than one. The radicalism of its paper An tOibrí irked the leadership who—for all their boasts of leading an Irish union—demanded “a literal translation in advance” of the next issue. The editor carried on regardless, but they got their own back by suspending him for supporting successful unofficial action (p 641). New Liberty was a significant ITGWU rank and file group in the 1970s, but only merits tangential references. All we are told of Dockers’ Voice, produced by Belfast rank-and-filers in the same decade, is the leadership’s predictable view that it was “led by ‘outside influences’” (p 600). The groundbreaking 42 per cent vote for factory worker Carolann Duggan in the 1997 SIPTU presidential election is presented merely as “ruffling feathers” (p 805) with never a word about her campaign or others like it.

One of the factors behind that vote was dissatisfaction at leaders paying themselves salaries closer to those of employers than those of their members. The author mentions SIPTU and the ITGWU before it “often being characterised as non-militant, undemocratic and bureaucratic. The data does not support such allegations” (p 882-3). But if we use staff costs as an indicator of the strength of officials in relation to members—something Devine does (p 286-7)—then the data does support them. Staff salaries more than doubled as a proportion of ITGWU expenditure between 1974 and 1978, from 25 per cent to 52 per cent, and SIPTU has kept the figure steady around 60 per cent (p 1013, 835-6). On the other hand, the percentage spent on strike pay was held to single figures throughout the ITGWU’s last decade, and SIPTU’s average has been only 1.2 per cent, with a barely credible figure of 0.1 per cent for 2005 (p 1011, 1021).

The author is honest enough to recognise the consequences for union membership. Recruiting workforces through sweetheart deals with employers who then collect subs on the union’s behalf, along with corporate agreements at state level, led to (p 685-6, 737)

the invisible distancing of the membership.… The ‘service model’ unconsciously placed members outside their union as consumers of its services, rather than embracing these members as integral, participating components of its organisation. …‘slot machine’ trade unionism: you pay your money and expect a product, but saw no participative role for yourself.

The remedy was for the new SIPTU to ensure that “the individual member was placed at its heart” (p 695). It would be more accurate to say ‘the isolated, atomised individual member’, who was allowed a vote for top officials every couple of years but structurally denied scope to combine with his or her fellow members and collectively influence or challenge the union’s workings from below. When union density declined in the 1990s, “SIPTU’s response was to trans­form itself from ‘service’ to ‘organising union’, a return to Larkin and Connolly’s instinctive organising model” (p 881). This will come as news to many of its members. Whereas those two pioneers believed in their hearts that an injury to one is an injury to all, SIPTU only believes this to be the case provided said injury has been processed through correct procedures and officially sanctioned at executive level in accordance with rule.

One of Organising History’s merits is that it integrates the experience of women members into the story—although union leaders weren’t always so keen. In the 1930s the ITGWU called for and welcomed legislation to restrict the employment of women (p 235-6). But there was some internal opposition to this, and thankfully there is more than a tale of sexist male trade unionists to tell. The example of Tralee ITGWU is a good one. They proposed a motion at the 1964 conference against the displacement of male workers by women, but the following year came back to demand equal pay for women, the same delegate having seen the light. By 1972 the branch was proposing industrial action to enforce equality (p 514-15, 594).

A WUI delegate is quoted from 1960: “The conference ‘should not argue against women replacing men’ but ‘see that the women get the same wages as the men’” (p 556). No such clarity characterised SIPTU’s official response to workers from other countries forty years on, with nods and winks about displacement by foreigners giving dangerous hostages to fortune. This is lost here amid self-congratulatory description of multicultural initiatives signed up to. In 1971 the ITGWU leadership opposed a motion against employing foreigners as “unfair” (p 623), but SIPTU’s successful attempt to exclude Romanian and Bulgarian workers in 2005 is swept under the carpet.

The modern era of social partnership has had its tragic aspects, but when discussing it the book becomes unintentionally comic. In 1987, the year of the first deal, “Another 30,000 people abandoned ship through emigration; but at least now there was some receptacle for union policies other than wastepaper bins” (p 732)! Also with an apparently straight face, Devine informs us that “In 1993 SIPTU expressed concerns that ‘findings of the judiciary were inconsistent with the assurances given’ by the then Minister for Labour, Bertie Ahern, when the Industrial Relations Act (1990) passed” (p 822-3). When making claims for rises in workers’ pay under partnership (p 852-3), he is careful not to quote any figures for the far greater rises in corporate profits.

But the course of the social partners’ true love didn’t always run smooth. The author is mightily impressed with Jack O’Connor heroically staying away from partnership talks for a whole month in 2004, because he tells us about it three times in seven pages (p 853, 858, 860). A predecessor, Jimmy Somers, insisted in 1997 that he wouldn’t be party to any agreement “unless there was ‘substantial and significant’ progress on recognition and no ‘fudging, dodging or parking the issue somewhere for another ten years’” (p 824)—but the very next sentence supplies the deadpan punchline: “There was little advance on recognition in 1997.” After another thirteen years, bosses still have no legal obligation to negotiate with unions. But fear not, for the leaders’ foreword says: “we must ensure that workers do not have to wait another 100 years to secure the basic civil right to organise and bargain with their employers” (p viii). Union recog­nition some time before the year 2109: now there’s ambition for you!

Many readers will have their own memories of the more recent disputes covered here, and many of those memories will be at odds with what they read. Pat the Baker, Nolan’s Transport, Ryanair are all acknowledged as failures, but there is no notion that SIPTU bears any of the blame for losing them. The Irish Ferries dispute showed undoubted fighting spirit and solidarity, but this book tries to claim some of that for the union leaders who negotiated the surrender. Worst of all, perhaps, is the Gama strike, where the union’s years of pocketing subs from workers they left languishing on an illegal pittance is shrouded in a self-serving account that draws exclusively on the SIPTU annual report.

Francis Devine does deserve our gratitude for assembling a vast array of facts about our biggest union and its forerunners. For all the criticisms that can be made of how he handles them, it is good to have a book which tells that story, where almost every reader can light upon a mention of their own workplace or town or industry. Without a doubt, you can see an awful lot from the top floor of Liberty Hall—but looking outwards will reveal a lot more.

Jim Larkin: A man on a mission

Noel McDermott contributed this review to Issue 20 (November 2004).

Joseph Deasy. Fiery Cross: The Story of Jim Larkin. (Irish Labour History Society)

The Labour History Society certainly moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. A relatively minor pamphlet from forty years ago, a secondary account rather than a primary narrative, seems a strange document to reprint. Why reproduce a potted biography of Larkin when a couple of full-scale biographies are readily available? Not for the first time, the workings of the ILHS engender much furrowing of the brow and scratching of the head.

Having said that, Joe Deasy’s pamphlet on Larkin is an interesting read. When it came out in 1963, there was no satisfactory biography of Larkin on the shelves. Although only a short pamphlet, the author did put the work in, researching the papers of Larkin’s time (not without difficulty, as the appendices to this edition testify) rather than relying on second-hand sources. What’s more, Deasy had a nice way of putting things: he describes Larkin’s funeral as the occasion when he “dislocated for the last time industrial life in Dublin city”! Working-class activists buying the pamphlet back then would have been well rewarded for their shilling and threepence.

Larkin’s basic attitude is aptly summed up as one of “complete working-class solidarity”, with no ifs, ands or buts. He didn’t unionise Dublin port by sitting down to negotiate no-strike sweetheart deals, but by preventing any ship from entering the port until its crew had full union conditions. He was “unselfishly and incorruptibly dedicated to the cause of the working class”.

Larkin never minced his words but served them up in big raw chunks, “calling ugly things by their names”, as Deasy says. He relates an anecdote from Larkin’s time in a US prison. One Patrick’s Day, the authorities thought it would be harmless enough to let him address his fellow inmates on the saint’s mission. But when he claimed that the snakes driven from Ireland “came to America to become politicians, policemen and prison guards”, there ended the lesson. (Not that Ireland’s own boys in blue came off much better. A poem quoted from Larkin’s Irish Worker describes a policeman as “six feet of colossal ignorance”, a line that seems just as appropriate for today’s Templemore alumni.)

Larkin’s message involved far more than bating his enemies, though. During a strike he pointed out the utter uselessness of these parasites:

Why do not the capitalist class carry on the distribution of goods? They are not on strike. Why are the ships lying idle, trams at a standstill, factories closed and commodities rotting? You can take your kings, lords and capitalists, tie them in a bunch, send them out to the Bailey lighthouse and dump them. The world would move on all serene… Labour, producing all wealth, should own and control all wealth.

In the first issue of The Irish Worker Larkin said the paper would be “a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives”. There was an almost spiritual dimension to what he himself called his mission to make people discontented. Again and again, he tried to get working people to realise their own dignity and worth as human beings. They were entitled to a full and free life in the society that rested on their shoulders.

The introduction to this edition opines that Deasy’s claim that Larkin was a Marxist is the most controversial section of the pamphlet. But the claim seems fair enough: “While some of his conceptions were not strictly in accordance with Marxist tenets his general political position was certainly Marxist.” Of course, all kinds of everything can be found in Larkin: syndicalism, nationalism, Christianity and more besides, the traces of varied influences on his thought. But for the most part, Larkin at his best took a stand that approximates to what a Marxist would do. His syndicalism didn’t stop him from fighting on issues outside the traditional realm of trade unionism. His nationalism didn’t stop him reacting against the sub­ordination of working-class claims to the middle class’s idea of a fight for national independence. His Christianity didn’t stop him giving the priests hell when he wanted to. His Marxism was an instinctual gut Marxism, of the heart more than the head, but that’s not the worst thing a person can be accused of.

The worst part of Deasy’s account is instead his depiction of Sinn Féin. The enmity towards Larkin in 1913, he writes, “extended to some elements in the Sinn Féin movement… right-wing elements of Sinn Féin, typified by Griffith and MacNeill”, whereas other republicans were on his side. But the republicans in question—Pearse, Clarke, McDermott—were never in Sinn Féin, which at that time wasn’t republican at all. Arthur Griffith’s hostility to Larkin was perfectly in keeping with Sinn Féin’s intention that Ireland take her place amongst the capitalist economies of the earth. Deasy’s excuses are in keeping with the attempt of too many Irish socialists over the years to extract some kind of progressive potential from nationalist advocates of capitalism.

American socialist Eugene Debs is quoted here calling Larkin “the incarnation of the revolution”. There is an awful lot of truth in that—which is not a good thing. At the end of the day, it was a symptom of the weakness of the young Irish working class that they needed to embody their fighting spirit in one man. Successful revolutionary movements of the working class throw up modest leaders, and then only for a short time.

Worst of all, Larkin sometimes believed the hype himself. Identifying himself with the workers’ cause sometimes went too far, to the point of identifying the workers’ cause with himself. Deasy doesn’t shy away from the consequences, and his comments only confirm the testimony of Connolly and other contemporaries:

even his warmest admirers had often occasion to refer to him as “an impossible man.” He was a law unto himself and was incapable of submitting to the discipline necessary in any organisation. …he was extremely individualistic, unpredictable and unamenable to the discip­line of any organisation, political or industrial.

This side of Larkin is nothing to be proud of.

Emmet O’Connor’s fine biography recently pulled no punches on this issue, even going so far as to blame Larkin’s recklessness for the split in the ITGWU following his return from the US in 1923. Deasy’s reading makes more sense, however. He is very critical of Larkin’s tactics in the dispute: “very badly conceived… ill-chosen… Instead of trying to change policies by working democratically within the Union, he made a frontal assault.” But he does recognise the very real question at the bottom of it all, albeit “an undeclared one… Larkin still stood for militancy, the executive for moderation at almost all costs.” The fierce workplace struggles of those years, and the ITGWU’s failure to back them, were more than a foundation for the new union Larkin helped set up: thousands of workers don’t change union just to flatter the vanity of one individual.

Larkin on one side and those opponents on the other drew the battle lines that divided the Irish labour movement for decades. Though the organisational wounds are well healed, the political chasm still gapes wide. Deasy tells us that the assets of the ITGWU “consisted of a couple of chairs, a table, two empty bottles and a candle” when it was established, but it was far richer in solidarity than the bureaucracy it was to become. In 1913 Larkin was imprisoned, and later evicted for being unable to afford his rent: can you imagine one of today’s Liberty Hall mandarins gracing the inside of Stubb’s Gazette, never mind a prison cell? If Deasy could write forty years ago that Larkin’s militancy “may now be irksome to some of the sophisticated in the contemporary Labour movement”, what could we say now, when they have ensured that almost the only time you see a strike on RTÉ is in the archive footage of Reeling In The Years?

Deasy pays tribute to the great power of Larkin’s writings and speeches, and this is born out by those he quotes in the pamphlet. So how come no one has ever thought to publish a selection of them? There’s a worthwhile job for the Labour History Society, or for someone who is willing to put the work in and given to thankless tasks. In Ireland we prefer to erect statues to our fighters and thinkers rather than publish and read their work.

Solving the Mallin mystery

Noel McDermott reviewed the biography of a Citizen Army leader in Issue 48 (June 2012).

Brian Hughes, Michael Mallin, (O’Brien Press)

Michael Mallin was executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter rising, leading the Citizen Army forces in the Stephen’s Green area. If he never did anything else, this should assure him a permanent place in the history of modern Ireland and its labour movement. In reality he has remained something of a mystery man, with little known of him beyond isolated incidents and his appearances in the stories of others. But now he has an excellent biography which finally tells us in full how Mallin lived and how he died, part of a series which bids fair to lift the lid on a few others executed in 1916 and little known since.

The mystery arises from the very beginning, with Mallin’s birth. He himself appears to have believed he was born in 1876. He gave his age as 34 in the 1911 census, and was registered as a forty-year-old on his death certificate. The fact that his birth wasn’t officially registered has fuelled various birthdates in accounts of his life, one as late as 1880.1 But the truth has been on the record since 1966 when Séamus Ó Mealláin wrote a remarkable series of articles on his father’s life, ignored purely because they are in Irish. Brian Hughes has drawn extensively on them, however.2 Mallin was born on 1 December 1874 at 1 Ward’s Hill in Dublin’s Liberties, and baptised in St Nicholas’s church six days later.3

The author writes that “The family lived in a number of locations around the Liberties over the years” (p 20), but quotes no evidence. Baptismal records of John and Sarah Mallin’s children (five died in infancy and six survived) allow us to trace their movements beyond the addresses noted here. By 1877 they had moved up the street to 5 Ward’s Hill (home of Sarah’s parents, judging by her address in the marriage register), and were still there the following year. But they had left the Liberties for the northside by 1883, living at 6 Findlater Place until 1886 at least. The statement that “by 1901 they had moved to a residence in Cuffe Street where they would remain for at least the next decade” (p 20) misses the fact that they moved between three addresses in that street—around the corner from where their eldest son would fight in 1916.

Michael Mallin joined the British army in 1889, but the tradition­al motive of escaping poverty seems not to have been behind it. With his father a carpenter and his mother a silk winder, the Mallins wouldn’t have been the worst off. Although his mother didn’t share in it, there was a tradition of military service in her family. It seems an aunt brought Michael to see a military band at the Curragh in 1889, where an uncle worked as a pay sergeant. Much to the indignation of his nationalist father, the pomp and circumstance seduced the teen­ager into joining up with the Royal Scots Fusiliers on 21 October.4 The author doesn’t go into the anomalies of his recruitment form: Mallin’s birthplace is given as the neighbouring St Catherine’s parish, and his age as 14 years and no months. He may well have believed he was lying to barely claim the minimum age. At any rate, the form only asked for “Age physically equivalent to”: in other words, what the army could get away with.

His earliest years in the army seem uneventful enough in various parts of Britain and Ireland, where he became an accomplished bandsman and a good shot. But in 1896 his battalion was sent to India to subdue a rebellion in the Tirah region. They were successful, if only for the time being, and were decorated accordingly.5 But this period saw Mallin develop from an impressionable drummer boy to a man filled with righteous hatred of the empire he was serving. Hughes performs a real service in quoting from letters Mallin wrote home to his girlfriend Agnes Hickey, where his new outlook is clear (p 36-8):

the British army is a Hell on earth I wish I were well out of it…
we aught to leave the poor people alone… if I were not a soldier I would be out fighting for them.
while we are fighting for England’s Queen and Government they were letting our poor people starve…
if I had my way I would take all our members of parliament out into the Bay put a rope round their necks with a stone at the end of it and throw them in…
a day will come when we will be able to pay England back with Interest all she has done to us and I hope I am alive and in Ireland I will help to pay it.

Mallin was happy to shake the dust of the British army off his feet on returning to Dublin in 1902. He became a silk weaver, evidently using his mother’s connection with the trade to bypass the usual apprenticeship period. But silk weaving alone proved insufficient to feed a family that would eventually grow to five children following his marriage. Mallin became a shopkeeper at various points in the city. Judging by the repeated moves from shop to shop, he may not have been a very effective one, but one of them failed due to the 1913 lock­out: many of his customers had no money, and policemen took their custom elsewhere after he expressed vocal support for the strikers they were batoning. Other business ventures, from a cinema in the city centre to a poultry farm in Finglas, came to nothing too.6 But he did derive a little profit as well as much pleasure from his talents as a musician.

This book does a fine job in unearthing the details of Mallin’s activity as a trade unionist. He became secretary of the Dublin silk weavers’ union by 1908, and led a strike in his own factory in 1913. One of many such disputes overshadowed by the great lockout that would soon follow, this strike saw a hundred weavers out for four months before winning some improvement in their conditions. Mallin’s statements during the strike breathe a defiance which isn’t found often enough in today’s movement, naming names of scabs and insisting on solidarity.

But within a year, the union removed Mallin from his position and went to court to force him to hand over its books. There is no evidence at all that he was on the fiddle, but perhaps he wasn’t the most efficient keeper of accounts. Hughes speculates that it could have been “the result of his growing radicalism” (p 81). At the end of the day, the weavers’ union was a 200-year-old craft society, as concerned with indenturing apprentices to the trade as with wages and hours, and Mallin may have been adopting a Larkinite attitude that militant spirit meant more than organisation, that throwing everything into the fight was more important than keeping the official ledgers up to date.

The left in Dublin enjoyed a revival around 1909, leading to the establishment of the Socialist Party of Ireland that year. Mallin attended a unity conference and was elected to the committee it established. The author claims that “this appointment to the socialist unity committee places Mallin firmly among the leading Dublin socialists at the time” (p 53). But that goes too far: this would remain the highpoint of his involvement with them, and he was never active in the new party.

Soon after the Irish Citizen Army emerged in 1913 Mallin became instructor to its Fintan Lalor Pipe Band. But the ICA’s musical wing was no cushy number: if they understood the importance of a band in boosting the morale of their troops and supporters, so did the police. They made repeated efforts to put the band’s instruments verifiably beyond use, and it was a point of honour for the Citizen Army to defend them. Mallin was subsequent­ly put in charge of the ITGWU’s hall in Inchicore. He used it as a drilling centre, and his background helped in cajoling soldiers from the local barracks to part with the odd rifle. Before long James Connolly appointed him chief of staff.

A story is mentioned here as “a revealing picture of their relation­ship” (p 92). Mallin contracted malaria in India, and once suffered a relapse in Connolly’s presence, causing him to slur his speech and appear delirious. Connolly rebuked him for being drunk on duty. The anecdote has been cited as “an indication of the well-authenticated insensitivity of Connolly in his dealings with colleagues”,7 but this is an unfair reproach, either in general or in this particular case. Instead of telling Connolly of his condition, Mallin replied: “I gave you a promise when joining the Citizen Army that I was finished with all that.”8 This would suggest that, although an active teetotaller, Mallin may well have had an occasional fondness for the drop after all. This is only human, of course, but so is Connolly’s reaction to the facts as he knew them.

While Connolly’s military writings are quite well known by now, the same cannot be said for Mallin’s contributions to the same series in The Workers’ Republic in 1915. Drawing directly on his personal experiences in India, they hold up the methods used against Britain then as a model for the Citizen Army in the warfare that lay ahead:

In such fighting the lanes and alleys are a great source of danger to regular troops; they lead to nowhere but to the street fighters, organised in squads of eight or sixteen… Led by resourceful leaders such bodies do incalculable damage… the real dangerous demoralising fighting is done by small irregular bodies, hastily dividing, using anything capable of killing or wounding that lies ready to hand.9

Hughes tells the story of an ICA unit coming second to an Irish Volunteer company in a shooting competition, only to discover that Mallin was the judge who marked them down. But he misses an article where Mallin explained his decision, insisting that, instead of “wild firing” for “the spectacular effect”, every bullet should be made count: “Two hits in five is so much better than ten in fifty.”10

But the author is right to point out that “what is most striking about Mallin’s writing in the Workers’ Republic is how little resem­blance the tactics of the Indian tribes bear to the events of Easter Week, in Mallin’s garrison or elsewhere in the city” (p 104). He ended up with the hopeless task of occupying Stephen’s Green, a park wide open to the tall buildings surrounding it on four sides. There were no narrow streets in here for the Citizen Army to split up into small fighting units, and they only avoided the fate of sitting ducks by retreating to the College of Surgeons. As a consequence Mallin has often come under criticism since, and a chapter is devoted here to assessing this.

The motivation behind occupying Stephen’s Green cannot be definitively explained, as no plan for the rising has come down to us. And the confusion in which the rising was put off and on again that Easter weekend means that what took place was far less than what was intended. As a result, we are forced to rely on more or less well informed speculation.

It bears emphasising that the plan for the rising was not Mallin’s or Connolly’s or the Citizen Army’s. It was the work of Joseph Plunkett in the main. Although Connolly led the rebel forces from the GPO, he had been brought on board only three months earlier, by which stage he could have done no more than add some details to the plan. While the theory and practice of the ICA had some influence on the Volunteers, its military approach was not the keynote of the rising as planned. Much of it consisted of taking and holding prominent positions in Dublin. This is not wrong in itself, of course. While the GPO had little value militarily, as one of the capital’s most prominent landmarks, no one could reasonably rise in Dublin without occupying it: after all, an insurrection is armed propaganda too. Possibly Stephen’s Green was seen as a similarly significant position to be taken. Mallin was anything but happy when he was shown the plans, anyway, seeing the whole approach as far too inflexible.

An intriguing possibility mentioned here11 is that the Citizen Army was originally intended to occupy Jacob’s biscuit factory as well, Mallin and a comrade doing reconnaissance of the factory shortly before Easter. Now, Stephen’s Green starts to make sense if it is seen as a major outpost of Jacob’s rather than a position of its own. Jacob’s was situated in a maze of narrow streets, many of whose occupants would have been sympathetic to the Citizen Army, and could have been a solid base for guerrilla operations such as Mallin had envisaged.

In the event, Jacob’s was placed under the command of Thomas MacDonagh, who held the factory and did little else, to the frustration of some of the Volunteers there who were left with little to do in Easter week. MacDonagh was brought into the leadership of the rising only weeks before: was Jacob’s transferred at the last minute from Mallin to him, so as to give the last member of the provisional government a major command post? The Citizen Army in Jacob’s is an idea to conjure with. They would probably have made better use of it, and could conceivably have linked up with republican forces a mile away in Marrowbone Lane. But Jacob’s was also despised by the labour movement for the way it humiliated women who returned to work there after the lockout.12 This would have been an occupation by a workers’ militia of an enemy factory, the combination of industrial and military revolution that an ICA man spoke of during the rising.13 Perhaps the concern that such an action would give too left-wing a flavour to the rising may have influenced the decision to change the plans late in the day?

Whatever lay behind the change, it left exponents of urban warfare fighting in the most rural part of Dublin city (with the exception of the Phoenix Park). They did remarkably well, consider­ing, and managed to put into practice some of the tactics they had learned.14 It is unlikely that anyone else could have done a much better job than Mallin did. Hughes’s overall conclusion is sound: the position was indeed poor, but Mallin cannot be blamed for the tough hand he was dealt, and acted as well as could be expected in the circumstances.

A well-known photograph is reproduced in the book, supposedly showing Mallin and Constance Markievicz after their surrender. But it has been claimed that the man in the picture is not Mallin at all,15 and it certainly bears little resemblance to other pictures of him, with the impressive moustache he sported in civilian life noticeably absent. What Mallin would say about Markievicz at his court martial, how­ever, constitutes the one big stain on his character.

He claimed there that he was only a simple silk weaver who taught the Citizen Army band and, having no involvement in their rebel activities, got caught up in a rising he knew nothing of. It could be argued that no one is obliged to tell the truth to a military kangaroo court, and that any lie necessary to escape its clutches could be justified. But Mallin went further, telling them that Markievicz was in command in Stephen’s Green and had appointed him as deputy. This was the exact opposite of the truth, and threatened to place her in front of a firing squad. He may have believed—rightly, as it turned out—that the British wouldn’t go so far as executing a woman, but he had no way of knowing that, and putting a comrade’s life on the line to save his own neck was indeed “particularly dishonourable” (p 169), not to mention ultimately futile.

The predicament that led him to this desperate attempt to avoid a death sentence was the fact that his execution caused greater personal tragedy than anyone else’s. Others left families who were reared, or young families that were well provided for. Mallin’s widow was left with four young children and another on the way, and next to nothing to live on. Even in the frantic build-up to the rising, Mallin was weaving a square of poplin in the hope that Agnes could get a few pounds for it. Much was raised after the rising to help, but scandal­ously, the relief was distributed to dependents of executed men “in a manner that reflected their social standing prior to the Rising” (p 212). Different classes were kept in the manner they had become accustomed to, with the widow and two children of a university lecturer allocated five times as much as the Mallins.

The pain of the separation is laid bare in a letter Mallin wrote to his wife after hearing of his sentence. Hughes calls it “the most striking piece to emerge from the writing of those facing the firing squad” (p 177), and reproduces it in full for the first time. Poured on to the page “as a near stream of consciousness, with little or no punctuation” (p 178), it bursts with the thoughts of a man deter­mined to get some important things said while he still has the chance.

The author protests against the way extracts from the letter have been used over the years to emphasise its author’s Catholicism, but he seems concerned to go the other way. The letter can leave no one in doubt that Mallin was a very devout Catholic. It is replete with references to God’s will, help, blessing and protection. There is no upping the republic—not to mention the workers’ republic—but the belief that “Ireland will come out greater and grander but she must not forget she is Catholic she must keep her Faith” (p 232). He asks his wife never to love another man, to make a priest of one son and a nun of their daughter. Unsurprisingly, these instructions were followed, and only one of the Mallins briefly followed their father into political activism, fighting on the republican side in the civil war. While Mallin comes across as more pious than most, a coincidence of religious belief and labour activism was not uncommon in the Ireland at the time.

It would be nice to hope that his faith provided Mallin with some consolation on the misfortune that was staring him in the face. While his last letter dwells less than others did on the cause he was to die for, it is argued here that (p 185)

Mallin shows a far more developed sense of the loss and sadness that his execution would cause for others… Here is a portrait of a man who had two priorities in life, and for whom one tragically cost him the other.

This seems a little unfair, as the letters of others executed in 1916 show no shortage of love and concern for wives, children, friends and comrades. Every one of them had to reconcile their duty to the cause with their duty to their loved ones. The fact that Mallin expressed his anguish in such a raw manner is not so much evidence that he cared more, but that he hadn’t managed to resolve those conflicting priorities as well as others had.

The empire Mallin had served for thirteen unlucky years, and battled for six brave days, stood him in front of its rifles on the morning of 8 May 1916 and put an end to his life. Whatever criticisms are due, that life is one we should know and admire, not least because the dilemmas and injustices Michael Mallin tackled are anything but a matter of history.


  1. In 1948 Dublin’s Fighting Story described him as “about thirty-six years of age when executed” (Mercier 2009 edition, p 202).
  2. They appeared from 23 September to 28 October 1966 in the weekly Inniu. Unfortunately, they are all wrongly dated in this book’s footnotes.
  3. Hughes is a day out on the baptism (although Séamus Ó Mealláin gives the correct date). He also dates the marriage of Mallin’s parents no more precisely than “around 1874” (p 17), while records of the same parish show Sarah Dowling marrying John Mallin on 1 February 1874.
  4. Strictly speaking, he didn’t join up in Birr (as stated on p 21) but in Dublin, being formally attached to the Fusiliers in Crinkill Barracks on 24 October. Mallin’s attestation form, WO 97/5453/27, National Archives (Britain).
  5. It should be pointed out, however, that Mallin’s medals (as listed on p 25) were awarded to the entire battalion rather than to himself personally.
  6. Shortly before his execution Mallin asked forgiveness for his failings “in the management of my father’s business” (p 234) which suggests that his father may have lost money in one of his enterprises.
  7. Dónal Nevin, James Connolly: ‘A Full Life’ (Gill & Macmillan 2005), p 627-8.
  8. Frank Robbins, Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Academy Press 1975), p 70.
  9. Michael Mallin, ‘Guerilla Warfare in India’, The Workers’ Republic, August 7 1915.
  10. One of the Judges, ‘Impressions of a Judge at St. Enda’s’, The Workers’ Republic, September 11 1915.
  11. And many years ago in R M Fox, The History of the Irish Citizen Army (James Duffy 1943), p 130-1.
  12. See the sheer hatred that comes through in James Connolly, ‘The Outrages at Jacob’s’, The Irish Worker, 14 March 1914 (reprinted in Red Banner 5).
  13. See Max Caulfield, The Easter Rebellion (Four Square 1964), p 127.
  14. One such was breaking through the nearby Turkish baths in an attempt to take the battle to the enemy in the northern buildings of the Green. But the reference to Lincoln Place (p 143-4) is mistaken: Millar & Jury’s baths there had closed down in 1900, and it was their baths at 127 Stephen’s Green that were tunnelled through.
  15. Joe McGowan (ed.), Constance Markievicz: The People’s Countess (Aeolus 2003) identifies him as John Ginnell.

The one that got away: Labour and the 1918 election

In December 2008, ninety years after a historic election, Noel McDermott discussed in Issue 34 of Red Banner how and why Labour stepped aside.

As a rule, Irish history hasn’t moved according to the parliamentary timetables beloved of political scientists, but December 1918 was different. Although it essentially registered political shifts that had taken place well outside the political arena, that election did represent a historical watershed. Long-standing loyalty to an old political party crumbled as popular support shifted behind the new force of Sinn Féin. The specific voice of the working class was conspicuous by its absence from the campaign, however, and ninety years on it is worth asking how and why.

In the preceding year or two Sinn Féin had developed a successful electoral strategy and won a couple of by-elections. They intended to win a wider victory in the general election, electing enough candidates to establish an independent Irish assembly, having refused to attend the Westminster parliament. Sinn Féin’s programme was to win international recognition for an Irish republic, after which “the Irish people may by referendum freely choose their own form of Government”.

The labour movement also had its eye on the election. Trade union membership had entered on a steep upward curve, and a one-day general strike in April had been a significant factor in the national campaign that prevented the British government intro­ducing conscription in Ireland. The movement’s self-confidence was evident that August in the decision of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (as it was called from then on) to take the practical steps necessary to field candidates.

The Congress executive issued its election manifesto in late September, stating a clear socialist aim:

To recover for the Nation complete possession of all the natural physical sources of wealth of this country.
To win for the workers of Ireland, collectively, the ownership and control of the whole produce of their labour.
To secure the democratic management and control of all industries and services by the whole body of workers…

It was no less clear on the central issue of the election, Irish indepen­dence. Labour believed that Ireland should have “the right to choose its own form of Government, to choose its own sovereignty, to determine its own destinies without limitations”. If successful at the polls, “the members of the Irish Labour Party shall not attend the House of Commons”, said the manifesto—but a get-out clause followed: “It is conceivable that altered circumstances and the inter­ests of the workers and democracy may however warrant a change of policy which shall be determined by a special National Congress.”

Initially and in some quarters, the radical overall tone of the manifesto overshadowed that clause. The republican newspaper New Ireland hailed “The decision of the Labour Party to abstain from Westminster”. But New Ireland was sympathetic to the left, and The Irishman, speaking for the Arthur Griffith right wing of Sinn Féin, was not so charitable:

When we first read of the nomination of labour candidates we regretted that Irish labour—in its preponderating majority so nationally sound and strong—should have chosen the approach­ing Election for its first appeal as a distinct party to the voters of the country. …we could not help wishing that official labour had refrained from entering as a party… Sinn Fein regards absten­tion from Westminster as an essential principle of the Nationalist creed—a principle that is as immovable as truth and as eternal as God. In its manifesto the National Executive fails to recognise the vital character of this principle.

New Ireland was singing the same tune a week later.

If the question of abstention from Westminster was the problem, some of Labour’s most prominent candidates went out of their way to state that they had no intention of going near the place. William O’Brien, Cathal O’Shannon and Thomas Farren were heckled at an election meeting in Dublin but, as The Voice of Labour pointed out, they “made it quite clear and definite that they stand for a free and democratic Republic… that they will not be satisfied with a lower status than sovereign nationhood; that they maintain the right of the Irish people to full, absolute and untrammelled self-determination… that if Congress should at any time reverse Labour’s present policy of abstaining from Westminster they will immediately resign their seats”.

Meanwhile Labour’s election director Thomas Johnson wrote to New Ireland maintaining that, if anything, his party was more republican than Sinn Féin, who would be happy with any system of government for an independent Ireland:

It is well known that several of the most influential and active of the Sinn Fein leaders are avowed monarchists, and given the right to self-determination, would advocate for Ireland a monarchy. The Labour party on the other hand claim for Ireland the right to self-determination in the most absolute sense, and in addition declares for the abolition of all the political and social privileges on which monarchy and aristocracy is based. Where is the weakness?

As for Westminster, he claimed that Labour would only set foot there if the workers of Britain were at the point of overthrowing the system that oppressed them, and needed the votes of Irish workers to help.

Behind the scenes, contacts were taking place between Sinn Féin and Labour representatives. The upshot was that Sinn Féin was prepared to stand aside in a handful of constituencies in favour of Labour candidates publicly pledged never to attend the British parliament. This would mean Labour entering the electoral fray more with a whimper than a bang, but it could count on getting some candidates elected to the new rebel Dáil. On the other hand, what would northern unionist supporters of the labour movement make of an electoral pact with Sinn Féin? Added to that was pressure from trade unionists in the rest of the country for Labour to stand aside altogether: the pro-Sinn Féin tide was evident in Labour’s own ranks too.

So when a special conference of the ILPTUC met on 1 November, it was on the horns of a dilemma. Johnson proposed, on behalf of the executive, that they withdraw from the election, leaving a straight fight over the issue of national independence. Irish workers, he said, “would willingly sacrifice for a brief period their aspirations towards political power, if thereby the fortunes of the nation can be enhanced”. There was opposition to the proposal, including two of the declared candidates, O’Shannon and Farren, but it was approved by 96 votes to 23.

It is difficult to see the logic of the resolution in Johnson’s terms. If Labour was all in favour of self-determination for the Irish people —indeed, less ambiguous about it than some Sinn Féiners, as he had pointed out—their presence in the election campaign would have boosted that cause rather than weakening it. Every vote cast for the Labour manifesto would have been a vote for national indepen­dence. Like his notion of Irish socialists making up a revolutionary majority in a hung British parliament (as if revolutions are shepherded into voting lobbies by parliamentary whips) Johnson was hastily spinning a justification for a bad compromise.

One conference delegate, Thomas MacPartlin, provided a syndicalist justification: “It was far more effective for them to have the industrial workers organised to fight the Capitalist class, than to grip political power.” But there is no contradiction between the two, and both are more effective when combined. There could have been an argument, in different circumstances, for building up other aspects of the movement than its electoral strength, but this was never Labour’s position. Putting forward such a claim after can­didates had been proposed is like the teenager who gets knocked back by a girl and then claims he never fancied her to begin with.

Could Labour have done a deal with Sinn Féin instead? Any candidates elected under such an arrangement would be few, but they would also be weak. They would only be returned with the grace and favour of Sinn Féin, much as ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs had sat in Westminster by agreement with the Liberal party. Their ability to speak and act independently of others would have been hampered from the start. Instead of holding positions won by the workers’ own efforts, they would have represented a Labour tail to be wagged by the Sinn Féin dog. Openly lining up behind Sinn Féin would probably have split the movement in two, with northern unionist workers breaking away.

But whether Sinn Féin would have done a deal with Labour anyway is far from certain. While elements in Sinn Féin were open to a partnership, many were opposed to Labour standing at all, as The Irishman’s editorial comments testify. The Irish Republican Brother­hood under Michael Collins were busily trying to get their own men selected as candidates, and were unhappy at the prospect of cuckoos in their nest. Collins’s lieutenant Harry Boland was strictest of all in holding up hoops that any potential candidates would have to jump through.

In contrast, when it came to cutting a deal with the Home Rule party in Ulster, the principle of abstention was no longer essential, immovable or “as eternal as God”. Sinn Féin agreed to stand aside in favour of candidates who were wholeheartedly committed to attending Westminster and to accepting a lot less than full sover­eignty. For all the political differences between Home Rulers and Sinn Féiners, there was little between them on social issues. Plenty of senior Sinn Féin figures were far more alarmed at the socialism they heard from Labour than the compromising parliamentarianism that the Home Rule party still stood for.

The other option, of course, was for Labour to stick to its guns, to carry on with its election campaign regardless of who opposed them. This would have meant few victories, possibly none at all. Sinn Féin was clearly in the van of the fight for independence, and even those who could otherwise be depended on to back Labour would have voted Sinn Féin anyway. But Labour could well have taken a seat or two in Dublin. The city’s St Patrick’s constituency was so left-wing that, after Labour’s withdrawal, Sinn Féin stood Connolly’s comrade-in-arms, the self-proclaimed workers’ repub­lican Constance Markievicz. Just a single genuine workers’ TD in the first Dáil could have had a real impact, and even an unsuccessful campaign could have won over more workers and helped build a base of support to work from.

A Labour campaign for national independence would have alienated unionist workers in the north—but perhaps not so much if it was run independently of Sinn Féin. Labour candidates ran in Belfast separately from the ILPTUC and, even though they supported Irish independence (albeit in a watered-down form), won over 20 per cent of the vote. The ILPTUC ended up with the worst of both worlds, coming across to unionist workers as too nationalist and to nationalist workers as not nationalist enough. Taking an unambiguous stand of its own for full independence in the election would have been more honest, and may have won it more respect.

The undemocratic British electoral system has to bear some of the blame here. The single-round first-past-the-post system inev­itably squeezes out smaller parties, and makes it difficult to express preferences within a range of opinion. The pressure to step down and not split the vote is hard to bear. In the 1920 local elections, proportional representation allowed workers to vote Labour and transfer to Sinn Féin, and half of the ILPTUC’s 650 candidates were elected. The following year’s general election was another first-past-the-post affair, however, and Labour waited once again. Labour’s loss of nerve in 1918 has been portrayed as an original sin that still haunts the Labour Party’s actions today. It was a chronic failure of political courage, and a bad direction to face when the winds of change were blowing through Irish politics. But that mistake is sometimes twisted into an excuse for coalitionism: because Labour marginalised itself then, it has inevitably stayed on the sidelines ever since, with no alternative but to hold up the skirts of Fine Gael (or more recently Fianna Fáil). Two wrongs don’t make a right, however. A real party of labour would have the guts to break that mould rather than continually recast it. The mistakes of ninety years ago should serve us as a cautionary tale in the task of establishing an independent voice for the working class in politics—a task just as difficult today, but just as necessary.