From LSHG Newsletter, # 50 (Autumn 2013)
A starting point is with the Chartists who were active three-quarters of a century before the Lock-Out. Those who are active socialists and trade unionists will know that organisation and solidarity take a long time to build and are not easily disrupted once they have been. When Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon ran two of the UK’s largest unions in the 1970s, the transport workers and engineers respectively, it was the end result of work they and others had been engaged in since the 1930s.
A central feature and issue of the Dublin lock-out was the links between those involved and trade unionists and radicals on the UK mainland. Solidarity and how it was provided was both central and essential.
The solidarity of 1913 had a considerable background to it then. The links between British radicals and Irish nationalists went back to the early years of the nineteenth century, although they were disrupted when O’Connell lent towards backing Whig administrations in the 1830s. Chartism did not get a significant foothold in Ireland but that doesn’t mean there weren’t links.
As we know, not least from Engels’ less than happy comments, there was a significant Irish population in the UK in the 1840s and indeed afterwards. Some, no doubt, were being exploited as cheap labour. Others were leading the fight for better conditions for workers — for example the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, who had earlier sat as an Irish MP, or James Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the Poor Man’s Guardian whose, followers sat on the First International with Marx.
The links between Irish radicals and Chartists were particularly strong the summer of 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe. Revolution was attempted in Ireland and in August 1848 in London too. Indeed the last attempt at an armed rising on English soil took place just five minutes from Red Lion Square on 16th August 1848 at Seven Dials. In the 1850s the Murphy Riots, essentially anti-Irish, reflected a current of reaction and racism in the working class. However the general pattern for the fifty years before 1913 was of political and trade union support for Fenianism and pressure for Irish Home Rule. The Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 13th November 1887 had as one of its foci Ireland, and the repression of Irish radicals. It was organised by the SDF and the Irish National League. A little later James Connolly was a member of the successor BSP.
Just before the Lock-Out, during the Great Unrest in July and November 1911, Tom Mann had visited Ireland, met Larkin and Connolly and underlined the significance of the formation of the Irish TGWU. It’s worth remembering that this tradition of links and solidarity exists, but of course that is just a starting point. It is a period of anniversaries in Ireland, focusing perhaps particularly on 1916, and some while back the Financial Times reported that the Irish and British Governments had set up a special committee of historians to keep an eye on commemorations and, one takes it, make sure that nothing too awkward that required or provoked action in the here and now comes up. It is not too clear what this committee is doing, but one possible outcrop appeared recently in the Guardian.
Colm Tóibín wrote a column complaining of plans by the Irish Government to remove history as a compulsory subject in the Irish school curriculum. Quite rightly this is causing protest and it is a reminder that whatever we think about Gove’s tinkering with the British history syllabus at least he does think it is worth amending and teaching. So far so good. However Tóibín goes on to argue, in respect of things like the 1913 anniversary, that we really don’t need historical grand narratives [or bigpictures] anymore and that people are fed up with bad politicians and historians using heavily partial versions of history to score points in the current day.
Here Tóibín has half a point. He is right that while history should be used to provide context to current events and to make sure questions are asked it is not something which should guide practical political agendas. History properly researched has too many nuances and ‘what if’ type points to lend itself to such a strictly practical application.
Toibin is not right about grand narratives. We do need history to try and make at least some general sense of the past, otherwise it can appear as a series of unconnected and sometimes disputed ‘facts’ that tells us nothing at all. What does this mean when it comes to remembering 1913?
It probably means that simply sloganizing that the TUC sold out Irish workers, or that James Connolly or Jim Larkin was right or wrong about this or that point, while it may have a political purpose, is not really useful history.
The more interesting historical points and agendas revolve around how solidarity was organised and by whom, what the politics and the political balance of TUC decisions on this subject were, the possibility of organising low skilled workers with little previous union tradition, the impact of state repression and violence and the longer term legacy of 1913 on labour movements both in Ireland and elsewhere in the world, perhaps particularly the US more than the UK.
1913 is to some extent a world we have if not lost, then have half-forgotten in labour history and labour movement terms. A peak of British imperial power just before the First World War, a reflection of the great unrest from 1910/11, when questions of union organisation and political representation were not settled, and strategies remained to be tested in practice. The 100th anniversary of the Dublin Lock-Out is a good time to remember it.