By Sean Matgamna (Reposted from Workers’ Liberty).
In the years before the First World War, the great Jim Larkin organised the savagely oppressed workers of Ireland’s capital city and made them a power in Ireland.
Organisation, labour solidarity, the sympathetic strike by workers not directly in dispute—these were their weapons. These weapons began to mark them out as no longer a driven rabble but a class, women and men increasingly conscious of a common interest, a common identity and common goals.
The bosses organised a ‘union’ too and fought back.
Their leader was WM Murphy, one of Ireland’s biggest capitalists, and a prominent Home Rule nationalist politician. In August1913, they locked out their employees, intent on using starvation to get them to submit and foreswear “Larkinism”. The British state in Ireland backed them, sending hordes of police to attack strikers, some of whom were beaten to death. It turned into a war of attrition.
Here, fighting impoverished workers with no reserves, all the advantages were with the employers. The workers’ chance of victory depended on two things: on an adequate supply of food or money from sympathisers, and on an industrial solidarity that would tie up the whole trade of Dublin. It was to the British labour movement that Dublin’s workers had to look for help.
Magnificent help came. Ships full of food for the strikers came up the Liffey, and all over Britain the labour movement rallied, collecting money and food. But industrial action did not come, and that was decisive: money and food would keep Dublin’s workers in the fight, but only industrial action in Britain —by the NUR and the Seamen’s Union, for example—would allow them to win.
In Britain, militants argued for industrial action, even for a general strike, in support of Dublin. But the trade union leaders—who held a special conference in December 1913 on Dublin—would not agree to take action.
The strike dragged on 8 months, and then, beaten but not crushed, the union, whose destruction had been the bosses’ prime aim still intact, the last workers went back to work, or accepted that they had been sacked.
What follows is the story of an episode in this struggle, the attempt to move starving Dublin children to homes in Britain where they would be fed. It is told as much as possible in the words of Dora B Montefiore, who—62 years-old and in frail health—organised it.
In mid October 19l3, two months into the strike, Dora Montefiore spoke in the Memorial Hall, London—one of many enormous meetings being held all over Britain to build support for the Transport Workers’ Union. As she sat on the platform listening to Larkin talk of Dublin, Montefiore remembered what had been done to save the children of strikers during bitter battles in Belgium and in the USA.
When Larkin sat down she passed a note along the table suggesting that the starving children of working-class Dublin should be evacuated from the labour-war zone, to be looked after by the British labour movement for the duration of the strike. Would he, she asked, back such a scheme?
Larkin passed a reply back along the table: yes, he would. He thought it was a fine idea.
Montefiore then passed a note to another of the speakers, the Countess of Warwick — an unlikely but genuine socialist — asking if she would be the Treasurer. Warwick replied: Yes. So a committee was set up.
Next day, Dora Montefiore explained her plan in the Daily Herald. Soon they had offers of 350 places for children, and more were coming all the time. Labour movement bodies, trade union branches and trades councils offered to take the responsibility for one or more children. So did sections of the militant suffragettes, the WSPU. It was not as critics said and the Stalinist historian Desmond Greaves repeats in the official history of the ITGWU, an irresponsible stunt by busy-bodies, but a properly organised part of the effort of British labour to help Dublin. Dora Montefiore reported to the readers of the Daily Herald on 14 October:
“From Glasgow, Liverpool, London and a dozen other places, come the welcome offers, and I know that if the Dublin mothers could read some of the letters, it would do their hearts good to know the sort of mothers and fathers who are planning these temporary homes for their little ones.
“Several Roman Catholics have written and one friend offers ‘travelling, lodging and board expenses for two Dublin children while the strike lasts’, and suggests ‘boarding them for a time in a convent in Liverpool or London”‘.
And on 17 October she wrote:
“…Plymouth friends offered to house 40 children and 5 mothers, and they wired later that they were in communication with the Catholic parish priest and Catholic medical officer re the care of the ‘kiddies”‘.
On 17 October, Dora Montefiore, Lucille Rand and Grace Neal, a TU organiser who acted as secretary, went to Dublin to organise the migration of the children.
They were given a room at Liberty Hall, the Transport Union HQ and a meeting of wives of strikers was called. These mothers of hungry children eagerly grasped at this offer of help.
“Meetings of wives of the locked-out workers were then called, and we three delegates from the English and Scottish workers gave our message and laid the scheme before them. As a result Grace Neal was kept busy Tuesday and Wednesday registering the names of mothers who were anxious to take advantage of our offer. The passage leading to our room was blocked ’til evening with women and children. We tried to let them in only one at a time, but each time the door opened the crush was so great that often two or three mothers forced their way in….
“When the work of registration was over, 50 children were selected to meet Lucille Rand at the Baths, where a trained woman had been engaged to clean their heads and bodies [of lice, which were endemic]… Grace Neal presided over a batch of volunteer workers at our room in Liberty Hall, who were sewing on to the children’s new clothing labels bearing their names and addresses, and small rosettes of green and red ribbon.”
But if the strikers saw Montefiore’s plan as the rescue it was, so too did the bosses and their friends. They resented this attempt to deprive them of one of their traditional weapons—the power to weaken and break the spirit of strikers and their wives by forcing them to watch while their children starved and wasted. More: they saw the chance to whip up a political and sectarian scandal as a weapon to undermine “Larkin” by lining up Catholic lreland against him.
Catholic charitable organisations such as the Saint Vincent De Paul Society had already refused help to strikers and their families. Now the Church discovered that the strikers’ children faced danger worse than starvation. This plan to deport children was, they said, a plot to convert “Catholic children” into Protestants! They set up a great hue and cry against Montefiore and her friends.
The campaign was led by fanatic young priests and by the then very strong Catholic Orange Order, the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” (or “Hibs”, or “Molly Maguires”).
Publicly they campaigned on religious grounds. Underground, they spread the whisper that Montefiore and her friends were really “Agents of the White Slave Trade” — recruiters of prostitutes — who would sell their children to foreign brothels.
They whispered too that it was a plot to wreck the morals of the women of working class Dublin: take away from them the daily responsibility for their children and they would inevitably become adulterous and promiscuous.
These are the stories that were reported to Montefiore. People threw stones and mud at ‘the white slavers’ in the street.
Dr Walsh, the Archbishop of Dublin, issued a public proclamation condemning the “deportation” of the children, adding his full weight to the frantic agitation of the ‘Hibs’.
It was not long before sectarian violence erupted. Dora Montefiore describes it:
While the children were at the public bath-house “l was out in the town selecting enough clothing to make up what was required for the 50 children, taking the [train and boat] tickets, arranging for reserve carriages on the other side and buying food for the kiddies on the journey. It was when I returned to [Liberty] Hall that I heard the first news of trouble being made by the priests, who were taking away the children from the Tara Street Baths.
“I at once drove down and found Mrs Rand being personally annoyed and technically assaulted by the priests who were shouting and ordering the children about in the passageway leading to the girls’ baths.
“The scene of confusion was indescribable. Some of the women were ‘answering back’ to the priests, and reminding them how they had been refused bread by the representatives of the Church, and how, now that they had a chance of getting their children properly cared for, the priests were preventing the children from going.
“Other women, worked upon by violent speeches of the priests, were wailing and calling on the saints to forgive them.
“They could not prevail against the priests and their mob.”
“When we found we could, in consequence of the action of the priests, do nothing more for the children we had promised to befriend, we drove back to Liberty Hall, through a crowd that threw mud at us as we got into the cab, and raised cries of, ‘throw them in the Liffey!”‘
What else should they do with white slavers and those who came to steal the souls of Irish children? These, many believed, were “soupers” — like the legendary Protestants offering food during the Great Famine to Catholics who converted.
Back at Liberty Hall, “kindly hands were stretched out to us on all sides and ‘God bless you’ followed us as we went up to the rooms where the rest of the children were being dressed for their journey.”
When the “little batch” of children was ready, Larkin spoke from a window of Liberty Hall to the crowd gathered down below. He “asked the men to see to it that the children reached the railway station… The whole party of women and children left the Hall under the escort of the men, while Mrs Rand and I drove with a little chap of 5 to the station.”
But the priests and the “Hibernian” mob got there first.
“We found at first every door shut against us and we were pulled back and forth and separated from the men and the mothers and children who were crowding the entrance to the station. At last one door was opened”, and Montefiore counted through the women and children who were to accompany Rand. Having given out the tickets she found that she had a large block left, bought for those who had “been snatched away by the priests”.
She made her way to the carriage where Lucille Rand sat with her group of women and children. “As I approached the carriage door, a priest threw me rudely aside and held me back by the shoulder. I told him he was assaulting me by laying his hand on me, and when he saw I was calm but very much in earnest in the matter he let me go.” Montefiore of course dressed and spoke like the upper-class Englishwoman she was. The ragged Catholics of Dublin’s slums were another matter. They could be pushed about with impunity.
“I again approached the door to speak to Mrs Rand, when another priest flung the door back against me, hurting me considerably and making me feel very faint. I then got into the next carriage to Mrs Rand, determined to go down to the quay, and help her get the children on board. In the carriage were four of our boys wearing our jerseys and the green and red badges. The train was already late, but the officials, at the command of the priests, delayed it further; and just as the train started, two priests who had no tickets pushed two women into the carriage where I was, and got in themselves.
“The journey down to Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] takes about 20 minutes. During that time the women were kneeling in hysterics on the floor of the carriage, calling on the saints to forgive them, while the priests started a systematic bullying of the four boys, telling them they would deal with their fathers and mothers for having let them go. They pulled off the labels and the rosettes we had put on the boys’ jerseys, and told me, as I sat passive and contemptuous in the corner, that they did not want any of our English charity for their children.”
They, and their charitable organisations had been letting the children starve rather than give indirect help to the red anti-Christ Larkin.
“The same gross scenes of intimidation of the children that we had seen at the station were repeated at the quay… More children were snatched away from Mrs Rand… She, feeling her responsibility towards all the children who were in her care, and who, she was told by passengers would be removed by priests at Holyhead [on the British side of the Channel] left the steamer with her charges at the last moment.”
When she got off the boat, she was arrested and taken to the police station, to be charged with “kidnapping a child under 14 years of age, and feloniously removing it from the care of its father”!
Dora Montefiore herself, when she got back to her hotel, was visited by detectives and taken to the police station. She too was charged with kidnapping. Constance Mankiewicz, and others, came down to the police station and got her released on bail. Lucille Rand too was bailed out. The charges were later dropped. By this time, the Dublin press was in full cry against them, and their release was greeted with the headline: “English kidnappers bailed out by Dublin Jews”! The “kidnappers” you will recall, were really white slavers.
Throughout the conflict over the children, the Dublin boss-class press stoked up the sectarians. For example, the Evening Herald on 23 October headlined: “Priests’ unavailing protest—fifty more to be sent tonight. Priests to attend: hope that all city Catholics will support them” etc.
Larkin’s response to these events was to announce from the window of Liberty Hall that 15 children would start for Liverpool on the boat that same night. He appealed to the men listening to him to see that they got through. The men would go with Grace Neal, to see that the children were not snatched by priests or “Hibs”.
That evening, a small procession left Liberty Hall for the railway station, each of the 15 children perched on the shoulders of a docker.
They were met once again by a horde of priests and “Hibs”, and by police who were on the side of the sectarian roughnecks. This time, the union men forced a way through, and the 15 children got on the train, and later the boat. Counting them, Grace Neal found that she had 18, not 15: 3 extra children had been smuggled on to the boat by their parents at the last moment…
Grace Neal and her helpers stayed awake all night, on guard for the children. Cattle drovers travelling with their cows on the boat, milked the cows and brought the children fresh milk in the morning. At Liverpool, the fortunate 18 were met by friends and taken to their temporary homes, where they stayed for some months.
The public “Manifesto” by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin was the authority on which priests and Hibs claimed to act. So Montefiore wrote him a letter explaining that she and her friends were in Dublin as representatives of the British labour movement, and that children were, contrary to all the rumours, going to working class homes in Britain. She assured him that each child would be put in contact with local Catholic priests. In most cases, it would be possible for them to go to Catholic schools. She offered to call on him to explain further, or give additional information.
He replied on 22 October. They had, he said, a fund in Dublin, organised by the Lady Mayoress. Then, against the background of mob violence roused by the tales of “white slavery” and soul-stealing Protestants and Jews, the Archbishop wrote this. The letter was not intended to remain “private”.
“If the motive which has inspired the scheme is a purely philanthropic one—and I dare say you have been made aware of some sinister rumours to the contrary that are afoot in Dublin—let whatever means are available be diverted to the fund to which I have referred. If that be done, I can answer for it the children of Dublin will not suffer want.
“Believe me to be, dear madam, your faithful servant, William J Walsh.”
Dora Montefiore commented: “there were, according to Larkin, 21 thousand slum ‘homes’ of one room, in which families herd and breed, feed and sleep! And his grace, Archbishop Walsh, who should be the shepherd of his flock, has the insolence to suggest to 3 women delegates from the workers of Great Britain, that he is not certain whether the ‘sinister rumours’ in connection with their visit to Dublin have not a substratum of truth!”
Montefiore could see for herself what confidence to place in the Archbishop’s assurances. She reported in the Daily Herald .on 21 October:
“In the gutter in front of our hotel in the main street of Dublin there stood 3 garbage tins. Each tin was being searched furtively but rapidly by ragged kiddies, aged from 4 or 5, who threw the ashes into their bags and wolfed the pieces of broken bread and meat they found among the garbage…” That was normal, lock-out or no lock-out.
Now a new chapter opened. Delia Larkin, Jim Larlkin’s sister, a union organiser too, suggested that the way to answer the charge that the children were being taken to English homes to make Protestants of them, was to send them out of Dublin to Irish Catholic homes in Belfast. This was agreed.
Arguably, it was a self-poisoning act of political and ideological submission to the priests and the Hibs. There were left-wing and labour movement Protestants, as well as labour movement Catholics, in Belfast. (Denounced as “rotten Prods” by the Orange first cousins of the Hiibs, they would be driven out of the shipyards along with the Catholics in the Orange Riots of 1920, which were triggered by the war waged for independence against Britain in the south).
But this was what was decided—to Catholic homes in Belfast. Once more, Grace Neal met with mobs of Hibs and priests out to stop her! But now the nakedly political — “Smash Larkin!”—motive of the priests and Hibs could not be disguised.
Dora Montefiore went with Delia Larkin to the station.
“At one end of the platform, in front of the compartment into which the parents were attempting to get their children, there was a compact, shouting, gesticulating crowd of Hibs. In the centre of the crowd was the little party of children and parents, and among them were the priests, who were talking, uttering threats against the parents, and forbidding them to send their children to Protestant homes. Some of the women were upbraiding the priests for allowing the children to starve in Dublin; and according to an American paper, whose correspondent was on the platform, ‘one woman slapped the face of a priest who was attempting to interfere’.
“As a climax to this disgraceful scene, as the priests and Hibs found it impossible to prevent the parents from placing their children in the train under the charge of Miss Neal, they telegraphed for more police. I watched the reinforcements of 20 spike-helmeted destroyers of law and order march on to the platform, make a ring around the little group of parents and children. And then, when they had successfully played the priests’ game and prevented the children from leaving for Belfast, the train was whistled and left the station, leaving the now infuriated parents to go back to the slum homes which capitalist conditions in Dublin provided for the workers and their children.”
British force and Irish Catholic religious fraud had succeeded in blocking this avenue of help to the Dublin labour movement. The union had to abandon the attempt to get the children out.
Jim Larkin—who was a Catholic— commented bitterly: “Until the present labour crisis, the priests never acknowledged that there were such things as slums in Dublin. The religion that could not afford to send children away for a fortnight [for fear they would ‘lose their faith’] had not much to boast of’. Some of the priests, he said, had shares in Murphy’s companies.
The union was now forced to play hideous politics with hungry children. Archbishop Walsh had promised publicly that the church would “deal with all cases of distress”. The union tested the promise by suspending free dinners at Liberty Hall. The women and children were sent to the Church to ask for their dinners. They were turned away—there was “nothing for them”, nothing for Larkin’s crew.
As winter drew in, the Union resumed its attempt to feed the children, who would queue up, their feet bare or wrapped in rags.
One of the motives of the Catholic Church in this affair, was explained by George Russell, the Dublin journalist, speaking at one of the meetings to support the workers, at the Albert Hall London in November 1913:
“You see, if these children were, even for a little, out of the slums they would get discontented with their poor homes. Once getting full meals, they might be so inconsiderate to ask for them all their lives. They might destroy the interesting experiment carried on in Dublin for generations to find out how closely human beings can be packed together, on how little a human being can live, and what is the minimum wage an employer need pay him. James Larkin interrupted these interesting experiments towards the evolution of the underman, and he is in jail.”
It is one of the great strange things of history that a large part of Catholic working class Ireland did not turn violently against the Church as town workers in Catholic France and Belgium had done. In fact, very few ever did. The sound of that Dublin working-class woman’s slap in the face of a hooligan priest—something shocking and almost unimaginable in Catholic Ireland then —should have echoed and re-echoed through Irish political life, announcing a new start. But it did not.
One reason may be that the leaders, Larkin, Connolly and others, themselves remained Catholics, or, Connolly, then, made a point of not publicly breaking with Catholicism. Larkin — who had for a while in 1907 united Belfast’s Protestant and Catholic workers — could say this about the priests and the AOH:
“I have tried to kill sectarianism, whether Catholic or Protestant. I am against bigotry or intolerance on either side. Those who would divide the workers have resorted to the foulest methods” But he, like Connolly, argued with the priests from inside Catholicism.
In the years after 1916, the Catholic hierarchy took a lead in nationalist politics. The anti-conscription campaign, which fuelled Sinn Fein to victory in the 1918 election, was heavily organised by bishops and priests. The priests kept their place, even with the Dublin workers.
But through the next four decades many thousands of —Catholic— workers continued to back Larkin, openly a Communist until well into the ’30s, and never renouncing such politics, despite many a violent campaign against him.