Donal Fallon looks at how some plan to commemorate an event which pitted the forces of labour and capital against each other in an unprecedented and dramatic fashion.
When the next issue of rabble returns from the printers, we will be well into 2013. While the country may be plastered with billboards encouraging you to bring your ‘Uncle Sam’ home for The Gathering next year, to many of us 2013 is first and foremost about the centenary of the Dublin Lockout .
A very real Class War erupted on the streets of Dublin, one which left some workers dead and a movement ultimately defeated, yet which highlighted the power of solidarity and community.
Marking 2013 is no easy task for the left and community groups. Moving beyond the personalities like Jim Larkin and James Connolly, the stark fact that about 45% of the capitals working population were living in tenement homes, in a city which boasted some of the worst slum housing in the developed world, is something which must be central to the narrative. Charles Cameron, the Chief Health and Medical Officer for the city at the time, noted in 1913 that there was a “wonderful kindness which the poor show to those who are still poorer and more helpless than themselves.”
Attempts to whitewash the memory of the Lockout are nothing new, and for decades it has been spoken of as some sort of rehearsal for the Easter Rising which came three years later. Yet while both events share some leading protagonists, they are very different events at heart. Attempting to place the Lockout only in the nationalist narrative, as something which happened in the ‘bad old days of occupation’, is disingenuous. William Martin Murphy, the leading employer of the day who clashed with James Larkin, was himself a one-time Irish nationalist politician. Many of the demands of the workers movement in 1913 remain demands of the workers movement of 2013. The right to organise, and to union recognition in the workplace, is a right still denied to many thousands of workers in Ireland. Indeed one of the awkward truths of the period is that post independence, the conditions many workers found themselves in Dublin did not see any real improvement.
One form of solidarity in 1913 which remains an inspirational act to this day is the international solidarity which was shown, in particular by British workers at the time. Without the backing of rank and file trade unionists in Britain the labour movement in Ireland would have been largely incapable of mounting a fight on the scale it did, and the willingness of British working families to take Irish children into their homes should also be commemorated. The opposition of the Catholic Church, outraged at these children being sent to the homes of ‘Atheists and Socialists’, prevented children from leaving the city and this should not be forgotten either.
A wide variety of organisations and groups are planning to mark 2013 in their own unique ways. Ranging from local history groups to community media, there have already been discussions held between a number of different groups on the best and most inclusive ways to mark the upcoming centenary. The North Inner City Folklore Project continue to promote the forgotten history of the north inner-city, and the recent ‘Digging The Monto’ exhibition in The Lab on Foley Street gave some insight into the incredible material within that groups archives. Focusing on images of the Dublin tenements, and availing of audio recordings of oral history interviews with those who lived within those cramped houses, the exhibition was a powerful look into the total misery of life in the inner-city in the first half of the twentieth century. The Project will be mounting similar photographic exhibitions in 2013, and also plans to unveil a plaque relating to the labour dispute. One of the most tragic events of the dispute occurred in the heart of the north inner-city, when the Dublin Metropolitan Police raided the Corporation Buildings, injuring a number of children in the process.
Dublin Community Television have been recording footage which can be used as part of their tapestry project. This project is very much tied-in with the plan of the union movement to see a tapestry depicting the main events of the year produced by a variety of community groups. Dublin Community Television are hoping to produce short videos on the dispute which can be aired from August, covering a wide variety of content ranging from the production of the 2013 physical tapestry to song and also brief historical features.
The East Wall History Group, like the North Inner-City Folklore Project, are attempting to tell the local story of the Lockout in 2013, as Dublin’s dockside communities on each side of the river were to the forefront of the union movement at the time. They are currently looking to hear from anyone who recalls their own families involvement in the dispute, and like others they have already begun to mark the period, hosting lectures such as Conor McCabe’s recent talk on the often forgotten Railway strike of 1911.
It will be difficult for community groups and activists to be heard over the mainstream narrative in 2013, and indeed the so-called ‘decade of commemoration’ has proven to be a very top-down affair to date, and has almost grown into an industry in itself! 2013 will create a real challenge for us all, but it is important we remember that while those in power wish to see historical events as being just that and that alone, our job is to find the lessons at the heart of history and to apply them to the present.