As part of our Conference Showcase Series, guest blogger Ryan Nolan, PhD candidate at University College Dublin, examines the memorialisation of the Dublin 1913 Lock Out.
From a sociological perspective, what societies ‘forget’ is equally as important as to what they remember. History is often in this sense is distorted or edited to suit the needs of the society in the present. To explore this interesting juxtaposition in an Irish context I am exploring a particularly turbulent time of Irish history. The Dublin 1913 Lock-Out. For those un-familiar with the 1913 Lock-Out, it was one of Ireland’s major industrial disputes taking place in the heart of the capital from August 1913 – January 1914. This dispute saw the clash of approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers over acutely unpleasant working and living conditions. At this stage the union organisation was in its infancy, with low wages, tenement slums and impoverished quality of life dominating the lives of workers in this era. The overcrowding, and poor sanitation lead to Dublin at this period having the highest infant mortality rates in Europe.
The Dublin Lock-Out was spearheaded largely by an enigmatic figure called Jim Larkin. Larkin was a docker and union organiser from Liverpool who was disgusted with the lack of protection workers received, decided to create the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) founded in 1909. The ITGWU with Larkin at is head, championed social and economic reform in this era, advocating for a socialist revolution to overthrow capitalism in Ireland in favour of syndicalism, (a type of economic system that is characterised by organising workers, industries and organisations into systemised syndicates). The employers plagued by several strikes and industrial action from 1909 onwards launched a scathing attack on the attempts to unionise and to combat the small concessions workers had achieved thanks to the work of the ITGWU. William Martin Murphy, a prominent capitalist and industrialist in Dublin at this time called for the organisation of employers to stamp out the workers movement which would become the Dublin Employers Federation (DEF). A war between Larkin and Murphy (between ITGWU and DEF) this culminated in the 1913 Lock-Out as Murphy and the DEF instigated the lockout of any union member worker from their employment, in the hopes to deter and destroy the ITGWU. In retaliation tram workers walked out and went on strike on the 26 August 1913. The subsequent lock-out and gathering of workers on O’Connell Street in Dublin city centre eventually led to violence, as police forces (pictured below) used violence to disperse the crowds and demonstrations.
The Lock-Out, demonstrations and subsequent violence and unrest would proceed until January 1914. Ultimately the Lock-Out was ended as workers were forced back into employment due to hunger and poverty. In 1978, Irish sculptor Oisín Kelly was drafted to create and mount a statue of Jim Larkin to be installed on O’Connell Street. The statue is inspired by pictures of Larkin during the Lock-Out and subsequent labour movements in 1923, the most famous of which is situated below. The statue was commissioned to encapsulate the passion and fervour Larkin displayed for workers’ rights. The statue was erected in the hopes of commemorating the socialist traditions of Larkin, the Lock-Out and labour/union movements and to symbolise the centrality of these figures, ideals and institutions at the heart of the Irish nation.
However, one must ask when examining the Irish contemporary social and political climate that why this statue of Larkin is present on O’Connell street at all. The social and political aspirations of Larkin and the ITGWU are no more recognised now, than they were back in 1913. In fact, the dominant political establishment and the neo-liberal lassiez-faire economic system adopted in Ireland, lend much more to Murphy’s political aspirations. In fact, when viewed now, Larkin’s statue seems more like an insult to the man’s legacy. As we can see in the picture below, Larkin’s immortalised struggle is frozen and preserved against the backdrop of late-stage capitalism, overshadowed by fast-food chains, retail consumerism and globalisation.
Although the statue stands silently in the heart of Ireland’s capital city, its message, and symbolism seem lost. The political and social aspirations of Larkin, and many others from this period, were brushed from history, and their legacies hang like fading shadows stuck witnessing the tragedy of their futile struggle. The saliency of Larkin’s message is no longer pertinent, although still applicable to an Irish context, the revolutionary socialist ideals verbalized by Larkin are side-lined by a political system and society which champions consumerism and capitalism. Larkin is doomed to watch over Dublin city as it succumbs to the very ideology he fought to abolish, stood frozen in those moments of passion, as his political message is lost to history. The man is remembered but his legacy is not.
Ryan Nolan is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. His research areas fall within the sociology of nations and nationalism, with express interest in commemorations, remembrance and the construction of nationalism. His PhD thesis is titled Politicising the Past? Political agendas and historical narratives in the Centenary Commemorations of the 1916 Rising. Ryan will be presenting a paper at the Remember Me Conference (4-7 April, 2018). Full details are available on our Events page.