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  • World War I and the Legacy of the Dublin Lockout, 1914–16
  • Mark Phelan (bio)

Although the employerschief William Martin Murphy concluded that militant labor had “met its Waterloo” over the winter of 1913–14,1 subsequent events did not support this analysis. Truthfully, the Lockout was more akin to the indecisive Battle of Borodino—with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) stunned rather than defeated—even if misplaced confidence induced Murphy and other vindictive employers to impose a Carthaginian peace. International events, however, confounded this strategy, for as World War I progressed, labor shortages and other factors gradually propelled the union into an advantageous position. Nevertheless, in the interim between the Lockout and the 1916 Rising, traditional weapons of class warfare such as strikes, sabotage, boycotts, and factory closures rarely featured in Dublin. Conversely, political activity flourished in Liberty Hall, as the syndicalists of yesteryear took a leading role in the separatist campaigning provoked by the Home Rule crisis and the unexpected outbreak of war.

The ITGWU and the Outbreak of World War I

Struggling to cope with the employers’ triumph of 1913–14, James Larkin neglected union work in favor of militant nationalist politics.2 This proved to be an effective tonic, for the fast-moving events that superseded the Lockout provided plentiful distractions. In March 1914 a cabal of senior British army officers (the so-called Curragh Mutineers) declared that they would not inflict Home Rule upon [End Page 55] Ulster. In April the Ulster Volunteer Force landed 30,000 rifles near Larne, Co. Antrim, thereby reinforcing the mutineers’ resolve. In response the Irish Volunteers began to grow apace. Formed in November 1913, this militia did not involve itself in the industrial politics of the Lockout but remained focused on the holy grail of Home Rule. By the summer of 1914, however, Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party had compromised on partition, causing nationalist hard-liners to fulminate against their devolutionist leaders. On 26 July, moreover, the Irish Volunteers landed 900 Mauser rifles at Howth Harbour.3 When a detachment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers made an abortive attempt to disrupt the gunrunning, they invoked the wrath of an ebullient citizenry, with the soldiers opening fire on their tormentors in Dublin city center. Instantly dubbed the “Bachelor’s Walk Massacre,”4 this episode, which also coincided with the collapse of the Buckingham Palace Conference (a last-ditch attempt to devise a solution to the Home Rule crisis), resulted in three deaths and “at least” thirty-eight injuries.5

Meanwhile, Europe slipped slowly into the abyss. At a popular level the fallout from Bachelor’s Walk nevertheless ensured that prior to the actual outbreak of war most Dubliners remained remarkably indifferent to continental developments.6 Certainly, the organ of the Transport Union, the Irish Worker, showed little regard for the impending international catastrophe. Although this paper afterward invested heavily in antiwar propaganda, the indifference of its final peacetime edition underlined the introverted priorities of Irish nationalists [End Page 56] at that time.7 Editorializing on 1 August 1914 (the day that Germany declared war on Russia, thereby starting a chain of events that brought Ireland into the conflict on 4 August), James Larkin, other than castigating the emperor of Austria-Hungary as a “foul hypocrite and blasphemer,” wasted little time on the international situation.8 Revisiting the Lockout and the broader history of state violence against Irish workers, Larkin focused instead on the consistent policy of the “hired assassins of the British capitalist government.” In this context he also asserted that his nemesis William Martin Murphy was culpable in the Bachelor’s Walk tragedy.

Upset by Herbert Asquith’s response to the affair (in advance of an official investigation the prime minister asserted that his sympathies lay with the military),9 Larkin reminded his readership that Bachelor’s Walk was not the first fatal attack directed against Irish workers during the Liberal era. Referring to violent clashes in Belfast (1907), Cork (1908), Wexford (1911), and Sligo and Dublin (1913), Larkin explained that seven of his trade-union supporters had lost their lives in similar confrontations, while hundreds more...


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