‘The Irish Labor Movement’ by Thomas J. O’Flaherty from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1 No. 5. June, 1921.

Labor’s returned prisoners from the 1916 Rebellion in front of damaged Liberty Hall. Youth in front in I.C.A. uniform.

Written at the height of Ireland’s War of Independence for an I.W.W. audience in the United States, Irish-born Tomás Ó Flaithearta surveys the history of Ireland’s labor movement from the founding of the Irish Trades Union Congress in 1894, through the formation of the The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908 and the leadership of Larkin and Connolly, to 1913’s Dublin Lockout and the Irish Citizens Army, the 1916 Rising and the actions of radical labor during the revolution, including the “Knockalong Soviet Creamery.”

‘The Irish Labor Movement’ by Thomas J. O’Flaherty from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1 No. 5. June, 1921.
Tomás Ó Flaithearta.

[Editor’s Note: Thomas J. O’Flaherty, the author of the above article, is editor of “The Irish People,’’ the official weekly organ of the Irish American Labor League, with headquarters at 262 West 23rd St., New York City. “The Irish People” is the only publication in the United States upholding the cause of freedom for Ireland from the point of view of the revolutionary working class. It stands not only for freeing Ireland from British military and industrial domination but also for the abolition of capitalism the world over. “The Irish People” ought to be read by all true working class rebels in America.]

James Connolly, his wife, Lillie, daughters Mona, and Nora, c. 1895.

WHEN the Irish Trades Union Congress was established in 1894, the entire membership of the Irish unions did not exceed 11,000. Today there are 300,000 workers enrolled in the Irish Trades Union Congress. Organized labor in Ireland has not only increased numerically; in point of organization and goal it holds a commanding position in the ranks of the revolutionary working class of Europe. As far back as 1895 a resolution was introduced at the Cork Congress declaring for the nationalization of land and all the instruments of production, distribution, and exchange and that the co-operative Commonwealth is the only solution to the labor problem. This resolution was defeated by the reformers, but it received 25 votes at the convention. In the following year James Connolly, then twenty-six years old, started on his revolutionary campaign for an Irish Socialist Republic, which he continued to carry on in Ireland, Scotland and America until his death at the hands of a British firing squad on May 12, 1916.

Connolly’s agitation did not have any immediate effect on the labor movement in Ireland. As elsewhere the workers were steeped in the superstitions of the past, and the thought that the present system of society was only a passing phase in world evolution appeared to them like a dream. They looked for relief to the Irish Parliamentary Party who were begging for concessions in Westminster. Under Home Rule everything would be fine and poverty would trouble them no more. They never thought that under Home Rule the Irish capitalists would have the pleasure of exploiting them under the cloak of patriotism while now they were somewhat handicapped by laws passed in favor of their English competitors. The Irish labor leaders acted in much the same manner as the leaders of the American Federation of Labor do today. They had their friends in Parliament who would every once in a while introduce a bill to improve the conditions of the workers and just as often get defeated.

Until 1907, there was no real labor movement in Ireland. Most of the unions had their head offices in England, and when they struck against the boss the labor fakirs on the other side of the channel paid very little attention to them. Jim Larkin came to Belfast in 1907. From then on the Irish labor movement took on a militant aspect. Jim talked and agitated. He did not advocate peace with the bosses. Larkin was an organizer for the National Union of Dock Laborers, with headquarters in Liverpool.

In 1908 there was a strike in the city of Cork a t which considerable dissatisfaction was expressed with the policy of the executive committee of the union in Liverpool. Scabs were shipped to Cork and paid thirty shillings per week while the Cork workers had to get Along on 22 shillings and sixpence. Larkin went down there, settled the strike and formed the first branch of The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. At the same time the Dublin coal workers were locked out, and the Dockers Union executive ignoring them, Larkin raised money in Cork and sent it to the Dublin workers. For this he was hailed into court and convicted for misappropriation of funds. It was claimed that the money belonged to the Dockers’ Union and that Larkin should not have given it to aid the Dublin strikers. During Larkin’s trial in New York in April, 1920, Alexander I. Rorke secured a report of this conviction from Dublin Castle which aided him in securing a conviction from the jury. Larkin was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for standing by the Dublin Workers but labor secured his release in three months. His power among the workers was increased and from that moment The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union became the leading labor organization in Ireland.

Belfast Dockers and Carters’ Strike committee , Jim Larkin center. 1907.

The old and corrupt labor leaders detested Larkin, but the young men took kindly to him. His methods were new in Irish labor disputes. The struggle of any group of workers against the bosses was considered the business of the Transport Workers. He introduced the “sympathetic strike” into Ireland and by the guerilla tactics adopted, the Transport Workers demoralized the capitalist organizations until they at last determined to make a decided stand against any further advances by this fighting union.

James Connolly returned to Ireland from America in 1910 and was at once appointed an organizer for The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. He was put in charge of the Belfast office. Religious intolerance was always an obstacle in the way of organizing the Belfast workers, and so Connolly set himself the task of clearing away the differences that kept the workers apart. He succeeded in securing the same rate of pay for workers on the Belfast docks as were paid on the British Channel. Direct action was the method used in bringing the bosses to their knees. There were no long drawn-out parleys, but without a moment’s notice the workers “downed tools” and pretty soon the bosses had to give in. It was this movement that the bosses set out to smash in 1913, when the employers of Dublin issued an order that all workers carrying the red badge of The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union should be refused employment.

Police charge workers during the 1913 Lockout in Dublin.

William Martin Murphy, boss, of the industrial life of Dublin and publisher of many newspapers, one day called into his presence the dispatch staff of the Independent and told them that if they wanted to continue in his employ they must tear up their cards in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. They refused, and were fired. Next the news agency employees refused to handle the Independent, and his tramway employees, sore over the dismissal of their comrades, struck during Horse Show Week. Society people were shocked that the “lower classes” should thus interfere with their pleasures. However, the workers stood solidly by their dismissed comrades, and the battle was on. Police batoned the strikers who held meetings in the streets, and the workers retaliated by forming The Irish Citizen Army, and met force with force. From then on, the bullets were flying both ways.

Women of the Irish Citizens Army train to defend working class Dublin in the aftermath of the 1913 Lockout.

An incident of the struggle worth noting was the attempt on the part of a charitable lady to take the children of the workers to England and have them fed and clothed during the strike. This aroused the clergy of Dublin to a high pitch of fury, as they pretended to see in this move an effort to proselyte the children. Archbishop Walsh was more candid. He said that taking away the children to comfortable quarters would make them dissatisfied afterwards with their poor homes in Dublin. Thus the clergy, while deeply concerned over the spiritual welfare of the poor starving children, had no consideration for their starving bodies. As usual they lined up with the employers against the workers who formed the bulk of their congregations.

Executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress, 1914. From left): James Connolly, William O’Brien, MJ Egan, Thomas Cassidy, WE Hill, Richard O’Carroll. Seated: Thomas MacPartlin, DR Campbell, PT Daly, James Larkin, MJ O’Lehane. Connolly and O’Carroll would die in Easter Week in 1916.

The struggle lasted eight months and ended indecisively. Some of the unions gave up the fight. The One Big Union, as the Transport and General Workers’ Union was known, held out to the end. Larkin dwelt on the necessity of having all the workers in Ireland, regardless of industry, in one union. Today there are 150,000 members in The Transport Workers, and recently another organization was formed in the engineering trades with which the Transport Workers have reached an agreement for common action. The Transport Workers’ Union is mainly composed of unskilled labor and until recently the skilled workers refused to join the unskilled. Failing to induce the engineers to join the Transport Workers, the latter organized the engineers into The Irish Engineering Union, and by a flank move accomplished their purpose. This adds sixty thousands more to the Transport Workers’ Union, making the total membership now over 200,000.

Dublin workers raise hands at the September 7, 1913 funeral for John Byrne, killed by police the previous week.

After Larkin’s departure for America in 1914, James Connolly was left in charge of the Union. The 1913 battle left many scars; the treasury, was almost exhausted. Nothing daunted, Connolly and William O’Brien proceeded to systematically knit the scattered forces together. It was uphill work. The war in Europe was on and all the agencies of capitalism and imperialism were at work seducing the workers from their allegiance to their class and dragooning them into the trenches of Flanders. A sign was hung over the Headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union which read “We serve neither King nor Kaiser.”

Members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union on the steps of Liberty Hall. Delia Larkin, center. 1914.

The Citizen Army, the armed wing of Irish labor, prepared for action, and in 1915 entered into an agreement with the Irish Volunteers to fight for an Irish Republic. In 1916 the die was cast. The declaration of Irish Independence was drafted and Connolly was made Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Republican Army. The outcome of that venture is too well known to need the relating of it here, but the consequences of Connolly’s sacrifice are worth recording.

Irish Citizens Army.

The membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was only about 8,000 in 1916. Connolly’s death sanctified the movement and the rank and file of the Irish workers, hitherto hostile to Connolly and the Transport Workers’ Union, were convinced by his death that he was made of heroic mould, and were ready to make the greatest sacrifice for the faith that was in him. Not alone did they flock to the standard of the One Big Union in large numbers but they brought with them the fighting spirit which has enabled the Union to lay the foundation for the future industrial commonwealth— the Republic of Labor.

A few instances of the manner in which the Irish O.B.U. fights the bosses may be of interest to members of the I.W.W., which is organized on practically the same lines as The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. In 1918 the farm laborers of the County Meath had a dispute with the employers. The latter refused their demands. When the farmers proceeded to send their cattle to the English market, the railwaymen refused to handle them. The farmers then called in the drovers to take them on foot to the port of Dublin. The drovers, who are also members of the O.B.U., declined. The farmers themselves, in desperation, drove the cattle to Belfast, hoping that the Protestant workers would scab on the workers from the south. They were again mistaken. No Belfast workers could be induced to put the cattle on board ship. They brought the cattle back again to the plains of Meath. The result was the unconditional surrender of the farmers.

Another instance. In the little town of Knockalong, near Limerick, is located a creamery where butter and cheese are manufactured. The bosses refused the demands of the union for increased pay and shorter hours. The secretary of the union, who was an employee of the firm, was fired. The O.B.U. seized the factory, placed the union secretary in charge as manager, drove out the bosses, and flew the red flag and the flag of the Irish Republic over the factory, took down the sign of Cleeves Brothers, and in its place hung out in large red letters the name “The Knockalong Soviet Creamery.” They paid the workers the scale of wages refused by Cleeves Bros, and shipped the butter and cheese to Belfast and other market cities with the name Knockalong Soviet Creamery boldly displayed on the boxes. In a short time the bosses came back and asked for terms. They were allowed to take possession on condition that the union wages be paid, and it was made quite clear to them that the workers returned the factory only for the time being, the moment not yet being opportune for the final taking over of all Irish Industry. Irish labor has consistently refused to handle shipments of ammunition, troops, or armed police, and it had the British military in such a dilemma that the latter were obliged to organize a transport system of their own. The English unions have to a great extent failed to cooperate with the Irish workers, and while they talk of solidarity they continue to ship arms and ammunition with which to shoot down their fellow workers across the channel.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union has sent a delegate to Moscow to attend the first Congress of the Bed Trade Union International. Thus it can be seen that while the Irish workers in America are still steeped in the mire of craft unionism and are following the Gompersian parade, their comrades at home are occupying a forward position in the ranks of the revolutionary workers of Europe. The Irish Trades Union Congress is controlled by the One Big Union. The President of the Congress, Thomas Foran, is also President of the I.T. & G.W.U. The secretary of the Congress, William O’Brien (who voted for affiliation with the Third International at the last meeting of the Congress in Cork) is also treasurer of the Transport Workers, and the treasurer of the Congress, Thomas Johnston, is Secretary of the Transport Workers. Realizing that it takes a very long time to teach Marxian economics to all the workers the revolutionary leaders of the Irish labor movement face conditions as they find them, and have built the organization accordingly. In some Irish communities all workers, from schoolteacher to blacksmith, are in the O.B.U. Political action is used when considered necessary, and the military arm is not lost sight of. At the present time the political struggle in Ireland takes the centre of the stage, but the working class is only waiting for the solution of the national struggle to put its plans into operation. The revolutionary workers of England have recently declared their readiness to render assistance to the Irish workers in their struggle for independence, and this in our opinion marks the beginning of a closer relationship between the revolutionists of Great Britain and Ireland for the overthrow of the common enemy in both countries and the establishment of a Workers’ Republic.

Irish Labor in a general strike against conscription, 1918.

The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/industrial-pioneer/Industrial%20Pioneer%20(June%201921)_0.pdf

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