Derry’s links to the 1913 Lockout

Irish trade unionist 'Big' Jim Larkin (1923)
Irish trade unionist 'Big' Jim Larkin (1923)

One hundred years ago this week Dublin was gripped by the largest industrial dispute in Irish history, the 1913 Lockout, and a Derry woman, the late Mary Ellen O’Doherty, was personally acquainted with the main protagonists.

20,000 workers clashed with almost 300 Dublin employers over the right to unionise, leading to the workers being locked out of their jobs from August 26, 1913 to January 18, 1914.

The employers were led by William Martin Murphy, a press baron and industrialist who was concerned at the growth of trade unions in Dublin.

The workers were led by trade unionist Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and radical socialist, James Connolly.

Dublin was one of the poorest cities in Europe at the time with thousands of unskilled workers competing for jobs, which were allocated on a daily basis. Diseases such as tuberculosis were rife in the overcrowded tenements and the unions fought to improve conditions.

Murphy was one of Dublin’s leading businessmen and was chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company.

He also owned Clery’s department store and the Imperial Hotel.

He was able to exert most influence, however, as the owner of the Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers. He had also served as a Home Rule MP.

He was strongly opposed to trade unions and regarded Larkin as a dangerous revolutionary and threat to his business empire.

Between 1911 and 1913, membership of the IGTWU grew from 4,000 to 10,000, further alarming Murphy.

In July 1913 he called a meeting of 300 employers, who decided to attempt to limit the growth of trade unionism by sacking ITGWU

On August 15 Murphy dismissed forty workers he suspected of ITGWU membership and a further 300 the following week.

Employers across Dublin, with the exception of Guinness, followed his example and locked workers out and employed strikebreakers, mostly from England and rural areas.

Workers staged mass pickets which often led to clashes as the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged strikers, killing two and injuring hundreds at one rally on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street).

The Lockout continued for several months before the workers, many on the brink of starvation, were forced to return to work and sign pledges not to join a trade union.

Although it was ostensibly a huge defeat for the trade union movement, it established a tradition of unionisation and striking in Ireland.

The late Mary Ellen O’Doherty from Derry, mother of civil rights veteran, Fionnbarra O Dochartaigh, had a unique connection to the tumultuous events of the 1913 Lockout as she had known both William Martin Murphy and the Connolly family.

Mrs O’Doherty worked as a nursemaid for the Murphy family and lived in the family home in Dublin for a number of years, caring for the children of the industrialist.

Mr O Dochartaigh said his mother, a well-known advocate of civil rights and republicanism, spoke highly of the Murphy family.

“My mother worked for William Martin Murphy and was nursemaid in his house, looking after his youngest children,” he said.

“She was a fully trained children’s nurse and was with the family for a number of years when she was young.

“This would have been after the lockout and after William Martin Murphy had left politics.”

The civil rights veteran said his mother was able to distinguish between Murphy’s public persona and his family life.

“My mother was not very political in those days but she would not have shared his politics,” he explained.

“She always said he was a nice man as a person and that he and his wife were a very nice couple and good to work for.

“She always spoke very highly of the Murphys as people and said they treated her very well.”

Mr O Dochartaigh also said his mother was personally acquainted with labour leaders who remembered the Lockout.

“The interesting thing about my mother working for William Martin Murphy was that she had connections to both sides of the 1913 Lockout.

“Obviously she knew William Martin Murphy, who was the main figure on the employers side and led the charge as it were, but she also, later in her life, knew those involved on the labour side.

“Roddy Connolly, son of James Connolly, was a friend of my mother’s and came to visit us in 1968.

“His sister, Nora Connolly O’Brien, was also a friend of my mother’s and came to visit us in 1977 to open Connolly House.

“My mother was born in 1908 outside Strabane and lived to be 99 years-old.

“During that long life she met a lot of the most prominent figures in the history of 20th century Ireland.

“Growing up I had read about all of these people in books but she actually knew them and I was lucky enough to get to meet many of them when they visited her and my father.

“She became politically aware when she came to Derry. She was involved in a lot of Irish activities and that brought her into contact with the likes of Sean Dolan and the McAteers, and, of course, my father, who was in A-Company of the Irish Volunteers in Derry and had fought in the War of Independence,” he said.

President Michael D. Higgins will lead a state ceremony in Dublin tomorrow to formally mark the centenary of the 1913 Lockout at the Larkin statue on O’Connell Street.