Irish History Live

Dublin Lock-Out

The causes of the Dublin Lock-out

To understand the significance and course of the Dublin Lock-out it is necessary to examine, briefly, the conditions which persisted for the Dublin working-class in 1913. The living conditions of the Dublin proletariat (working-class) in the first decade of the twentieth century were extremely poor.  A few examples serve to illustrate this point.

1.      About 80,000 people lived in run-down tenement accommodation with many families living in a single room. 20,000 people lived in ‘third-class housing’; defined as unfit for human habitation.[1]

2.      This problem was greatly exacerbated by the ‘increasingly sharp division between the spacious bourgeois suburbs to the south and the central concentration of slum dwellings, especially on the north side of the River Liffey.’[2]

3.      Thousands of people were employed in unskilled labour, with men earning £1 a week and women receiving as little as 12s. This income was barely sufficient to provide a means of subsistence.[3] 

4.      Moreover, Dublin had the worst adult mortality rate in the British and Irish Isles. This did not decline until the early twentieth century, by which stage it was the fifth highest in the world.[4] 

It was against this backdrop that the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) was to develop a hostile attitude to industry that would cause, and shape, the very events of the Dublin Lock-out.[5]   The man who came to encapsulate this mood was the infamous James Larkin, affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Jim’ by the Dublin poor. Larkin had gained infamy for his use of sympathetic strike action. This action would lead to a situation where workers would take part in a strike, even if the dispute did not affect their situation directly, in order to ensure that the grievances of their fellow workers were rectified. Indeed, this method of strike action caused some within the labour movement to denounce Larkin.

One employer who did not support Larkin’s activities was William Martin Murphy, who by 1913 had become the prominent figure of commercial life in Dublin. He owned the Irish Independent, the Imperial Hotel, Clery’s Department Store and was chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company.[6] He was also a dominant figure in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the instigator in the formation of the Employers’ Federation, organised to provide a united front against what he perceived as the excesses of ‘Larkinism’. Eventually, these two personalities were to clash, resulting in what became known as the Dublin Lock-out of 1913.

The events of the Dublin Lock-out

On 30 August 1913, a dispute arose in Jacob’s factory when a man operating a lift refused to handle flour from Shackelton’s Mill because a strike was in progress at the mill. As a result, a number of men were dismissed. In a mark of solidarity, members of the ITGWU walked out of the factory. When the majority of strikers returned for work on the following Monday, they found a notice, which the authorities in the factory had posted, stating that it was reluctantly compelled to shut down for an unknown period of time. The action was mirrored by other factories. At the tramway works in Inchicore, for example, 250 men were locked out when one worker refused to repair a tram that had been damaged by stone throwing. Another example occurred in Leixlip, when mill workers were dismissed for refusing to disassociate themselves from the ITGWU. The employers were emphatic that they had no problem with a unionised workforce, claiming that it led to a happier and thus more productive environment. What the employers objected to, however, was any of their employees’ joining the ITGWU and subsequent sympathetic strikes, which were so devastating to business.

In protest against the actions of these Dublin employers, Larkin called for a mass meeting to be held on O’Connell Street in the city. On the 28 August, five labour leaders, including Larkin, were arrested for sedition but bailed later that day. When James Connolly eventually arrived in Dublin, on the evening of 29 August, he participated in a meeting at Beresford Square attended by 10,000 people. Connolly was a notorious Socialist who had founded a number of socialist newspapers and political parties in Europe and North America. He was the author of Labour in Irish History which displayed in detail his, now increasingly Marxist, political views.[7] Connolly claimed that though a meeting arranged on O’Connell Street had been banned by the Dublin authorities there was nothing to stop people from taking a stroll through O’Connell Street nonetheless. The authorities were quick to act and Connolly was swiftly arrested, charged and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Rioting was an ever increasing occurrence in Dublin now. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was condemned for heavy-handed tactics, which culminated in the death of James Bryne and James Nolan, fatally injured by policemen who were heavily intoxicated.[8] This became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

At a chamber of commerce meeting, William Martin Murphy informed his fellow employers that this was a ‘fight to the death’ against ‘Larkinism’.[9] Murphy took the initiative by ordering workmen to sign a document stating that they would ‘agree to immediately resign … membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (if a member) and… further undertake … not [to] join or in any way support this union. As a result of this action by Dublin employers, many more workers went on strike, which in turn resulted in more firms locking-out their labourers.Larkin made sure to carefully choose his moment to strike in order to maximise the effect it would have on Dublin. For example, just before 10 a.m. on 26 August, the day of the Dublin Horse Show, when the city streets were thronged with visitors, the tram workers in Dublin city stopped working. The result was chaos in the city. By September, around 25,000 workers had been affected.[10]

The response of the British Trade Union movement to the events in Dublin had a crucial effect on the lock-out. In early September, three Liverpool railwaymen blacked Dublin bound goods. Dismissals led to a snowball of unofficial action involving over 2,000 railwaymen. All this signalled a positive reception for Larkin and his actions in Dublin. However, while a substantial number of grass roots member of British trade unions were willing to show their solidarity, the leadership of these unions were not so keen.British Trade Union Congress (TUC) leaders desperately wanted to make sure that the lock-out would not lead to a growth of radicalism in British labour politics, especially not along ‘Larkinite’ or syndicalist lines.[11] Syndicalism, which Larkin advocated, was a brand of socialism that claimed that when a workers’ revolution took place the new society should be administered along trade union lines rather than simply seizing the bourgeois state and trying to organise change from there. Since 1910, there had been a surge in such thinking, which threatened to challenge the established norms and hierarchies of the trade union movement, something, which not surprisingly, the leadership was concerned about.[12] However, the wave of innate hostility towards Larkin was temporarily washed away by the anger towards the Dublin capitalists. One example of this can be witnessed by the arrival of Kier Hardie, the veteran socialist and founder of the Labour Party, in Dublin on 4 September. The normally mild mannered Hardie told a mass meeting that ‘John Nolan had been butchered in the street in the interests of sweated labour’. Hardie was now willing to put aside his contempt for Larkin in the interest of the working-class.[13]

A peace committee, under the auspices of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, was launched on 5 September in order to try to resolve the escalating crisis. The British TUC gave its full backing to the conference. However, the talks that followed eventually collapsed as an agreement could not be reached on the reinstatement of locked-out transport union men. Eventually Keir Hardie and his colleagues returned to England, now convinced of the fact that it was the employers who were, unequivocally, in the wrong. As a result, the British TUC was determined to give all the indirect support that it could muster to the Dublin strikers. While the Irish workers were thus certain of a lifeline in the form of British aid, no direct action was taken by the TUC.[14]

Both Larkin and Connolly were still incarcerated during the above happenings. Connolly, who had gone on hunger strike, was released on 14 September, while Larkin had been released two days earlier. Both men returned to a united labour movement but this unity was based more on opposition to government and employers’ tactics rather than a support of Larkinism. This was reflected in the debate among the various trade unions within Dublin. For example, the majority of unions were opposed to a general strike which would have aided the ITGWU immensely but most supported the adoption of a motion that ‘no trade unionist should work with anyone who signed the employers’ pledge’.[15]

The lack of support for radical, direct action served only to ensure that the dispute would linger rather than enable the workers to claim a victory. As a result, the dispute was to become protracted and as Murphy rightly knew: ‘the employer …managed to get his three meals a day, but the unfortunate workman and his family had no resources whatever except submission, and that was what occurred in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred.’[16] Indeed, the effects of the Dublin lock-out were having a profound impact on the lives of individual strikers and their families during this period.Unions decided to levy skilled workers 1s per week and unskilled men 6d a week in order to give financial aid to strikers. By the end of September 14,000 men had to be given strike pay from the central lock-out fund.[17]

The general lock-out was a month old before the government announced that a Board of Trade would investigate the dispute. The court of inquiry opened on 29 September with T. M. Healy representing the employers and Harry Gosling of the British National Transport Workers’ Federation representing the labour side. Larkin did most of the cross-examination. The report of the court of inquiry, issued on 6 October, declared that ‘No community could exist if … the “sympathetic” strike became the general policy of Trade Unions’. On the other hand, the report stated that the employers’ demands were ‘contrary to individual liberty’. The court proposed that the reinstatement of workers should begin without workers being required to sign the pledge.It also recommended that the sympathetic strike tactic should be dropped.[18] The report was thus fairly amenable to the transport union but the employers rejected the terms. As a result, public opinion was now resolutely behind the strikers, due to the perceived intransigence of the employers, but no direct action was offered by other trade unions, either in Dublin or Britain.

Larkin had now begun to fully realise the importance of securing more substantial support from British trade unions. Consequently, he embarked on a tour of Britain in a bid to whip up support for the workers in Dublin. However, he also generated opposition, criticising the British trade union leadership for their apparent timid response to the Dublin Lock-out. In one infamous charge levelled at the Labour Party, Larkin claimed that: ‘As for the Labour Party, they could wrap themselves up in cloth tomorrow and they would be just as useful as the mummies in the museum… you have only got to look at them, that’s enough.’[19]

The Liberal government also began to feel the effect of the Dublin Lock-out as public pressure and sympathy for the strikers mounted. Larkin was sentenced to seven months’ hard labour for sedition as a result of his continuing activities. The sentence was perceived as incredibly harsh and the outcry was immediate and widespread. On 1 November a meeting was held at Albert Hall, which no fewer than 40,000 people attended. The majority of those present pledged to attend the meeting of every Liberal minister and heckle incessantly until Larkin was released. Not surprisingly, the issue took up some time in Cabinet meetings and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Attorney General commented on the unfairness of Larkin’s trial.[20] After a week of debate within the cabinet, Larkin was released. The ease of this decision was helped by the conclusion that the Liberal government had made, concerning the ultimate future of the ITGWU; ‘the ravages of starvation… would in time dispose of the Larkinite madness.’[21]

The ITGWU, in desperation, resorted to ever more radical measures. On 12 November a meeting was organised by the Civic League, a rejigged peace committee that had developed a bias for the workers. Captain Jack White, a distinguished fighter during the Boer War, proposed that a drilling scheme should bring discipline ‘into the ranks of Labour’. On the following evening, 13 November, the Civic League held its first public meeting and announced the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, which was more of a vigilante force than an army. Though there was some hope and enthusiasm injected into the struggle, the strikers, now entering their fourth month of unemployment and faced a harsh winter, even by Irish standards.[22]

On the same day, 13 November, Larkin was released from prison and immediately launched further verbal attacks on the trade union leadership in Britain. This served only to cause further tension between the ITGWU and the TUC. Eventually a special session of the TUC was called for 9 September in order to prevent a split. Some 600 delegates representing 250 trade unions were present. At first, Connolly attempted to repair the division. Trade union leaders voiced their opinions of Larkin’s tactics, fuelled by the speeches in which he bitterly denounced them. When Larkin later took the rostrum, he lost all sense of tolerance and cohesion:

Mr Chairman and human beings. I am not concerned whether you allow me to go on or not; I can deal with any of you at any place you like to name and if you are not going to give me the opportunity of replying to those foul lying statements it would only be what I expect from you.[23]

The speech had a disastrous effect on the chances of Dublin strikers securing the assistance that they needed to turn the tide against the employers. It was eventually agreed that the Joint Labour Board seek a meeting with the employers. This signalled a resounding defeat for the Dublin men as it was the employers who ended the last negotiations.

The problems for the strikers worsened with the disastrous ‘Save the Kiddies Campaign’. The campaign was set up to alleviate the suffering of the children of the strikers. This entailed children of Dublin strikers being sent temporarily to British families. Members of the Catholic Church were horrified at the idea that Catholic children could be placed with Protestant families and they subsequently launched a range of protests against the campaign. This reaction vilified the strikers in the eyes of the general public. As a result of the response of the British Trade Unions and the disastrous ‘Save the Kiddies Campaign’ the strikers’ struggle was now effectively lost; men began drifting back to work.[24]

Connolly tried to save face by suggesting that the ITGWU propose a compromise in order to prevent an all-out defeat. On 18 January 1914, the Transport Union adopted Connolly’s plan. It, however, still included the provision of refusing ‘to work with non-union labour where such labour has not formerly been employed’. But the winter was too tough and families were hungry. On 11 February 1914 the Dublin Relief Fund, by which the TUC provided a vital lifeline to the workers, was closed. Connolly summed up the unambiguous nature of the defeat when he wrote, in the 7 February edition of Forward, that: ‘we Irish workers must again go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. Dublin is isolated.’[25]

The end of the Dublin Lock-out and the significance of the dispute

If one looks at the immediate consequences of the Dublin Lock-out on Irish labour, the picture is a stark one. No wages had been increased, working conditions remained poor, the right to unionise was in tatters and the labour movement was devastatingly split. Larkin’s dream of a syndicalist revolution within the trade union movements of both Ireland and Britain was dead. However, it would be erroneous to suggest that the lock-out was a complete failure.

1.Dublin’s workers had, for the first time, asserted their rights in a concentrated and, at times, highly successful manner. Never again would employers dare to treat workers with casual indifference or brutality, fearing the consequences of another lock-out on business in the city.

2.It gave the social issue some prominence in Ireland, which had long been dwarfed by the nationalist issue.

3.It led to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) which was to play a profound part in the Easter Rising.[26]Samuel Levenson remarks that a second Cathleen Ní Houlihan (the maid who symbolises Ireland, as Uncle Sam symbolises the USA) had emerged from the 1913 Lock-out. Sean O’Casey describes her as being: ‘coarsely dressed, hair a little tousled, caught roughly together by a pin, bare-footed, sometimes with a whiff of whiskey off her breath; brave and brawny; at ease in the smell of sweat and the sound of bad language, vital, and asurge with immortality’. During the last week of April 1916 she dwelt in the General Post Office, Dublin.[27]


[1] J. L. Hyland, Life and times: James Connolly (Dundalk, 1997), p. 42.

[2] R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (London, 1988), p. 436.

[3] Hyland, Life and times, p. 42.

[4] Foster, Modern Ireland, p. 437.

[5] Hyland, Life and times, p. 42.

[6] E. O’Connor, A labour history of Ireland, 1824-1960 (Dublin, 1992), p. 84.

[7] S. Levenson, James Connolly: a biographer (London, 1973), pp 228-34.

[8] Ibid, pp 228-9.

[9] D. Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class: the Dublin trade union movement and labour leadership, 1890-1914 (Belfast, 1982), pp 205-6.

[10] Levenson, Life and times, pp 228-9.

[11] O’Connor, A labour history of Ireland, p. 86.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class, p. 209.

[14] Ibid, p. 210.

[15] Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class, p. 211.

[16] Ibid, pp 206-7.

[17] Ibid, p. 207.

[18] Levenson, James Connolly, pp 233-4.

[19] Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class, p. 219.

[20] Levenson, James Connolly, pp 237-8.

[21] Ibid, p. 238.

[22] Ibid, pp 239-43.

[23] Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class, pp 232-3.

[24] O’Connor, A labour history of Ireland, pp 87-8.

[25] Levenson, James Connolly, p. 247.

[26] Ibid, pp 248-9.

[27] Ibid, p. 249.


This entry was written by Cathal McLaughlin. At time of writing, Cathal is a second-year student of History and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include European history and the history of ideas, with a particular interest in the history of Socialism and Marxism.

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