This year marked the centenary of the start of the great Dublin lockout. The events leading up to and during the dispute are the subject of James Plunkett’s classic Irish novel, Strumpet City. It’s a book I read many years ago but it seemed an appropriate time to read it again.
At the beginning of the 20th Century a third of Dublin’s population lived in tenement slums in the city centre. The overcrowding, squalor and inadequate sanitation combined with poor diet to give Dublin one of the highest infant death rates in Europe.
The lockout was initiated when the Dublin United Tramway Company, owned by industrialist and newspaper proprietor William Martin Murphy, a leading Catholic nationalist businessman and former anti-Parnellite MP, sacked employees he suspected of membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). In response, on 26 August, the tramway workers went on strike. The dispute escalated rapidly with other employers locking out workers who refused to sign a pledge not to join the ITGWU . By late September, the dispute involved 20,000 employees across the city.
The ITGWU was led by the Anglo-Irish Trade Union leader and Socialist, James Larkin.
One of the most notorious events during the struggle took place on the 31st August. Larkin was addressing a meeting in O’Connell Street (then known as Sackville Street), when the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary baton charged the crowd and arrested him. Prolonged rioting ensued leaving two dead and 400 to 600 seriously injured .
Image source Wikipedia
Image source Wikipedia
The bitter dispute lasted for seven months with employers bringing in blackleg labour over from Britain. During the Lockout over £93,000 was sent in cash, food and fuel by the labour movement in Britain. However the Dublin workers were defeated mainly due to the refusal of the British TUC to support the Irish strikers with sympathy action and were forced to return to work in January 1914.
James Plunkett was a broadcaster, short story writer and novelist, born in in Sandymount, Dublin in 1920, who was sympathetic to the Labour Movement. Strumpet City, published in 1969, is his best known book and depicts events during the lockout and the period leading up to it. Life in the slums of Dublin is portrayed vividly and very effectively and as a regular visitor to the city it was particularly interesting to read of places I was familiar with. I could picture the places were much of the action is set. Although he writes principally from the viewpoint of the workers his cast of characters includes members of the upper class. And his portrayal is not one dimensional. He brings out the good points and the bad points in all his characters whose opinions and actions are determined to a large extent by their economic and social circumstances.
Although Larkin and some other real people appear in the story, they are “walk on parts”. The central characters are the ordinary working people facing poverty and difficult decisions when faced with hunger or solidarity with their fellow workers.
The ending of the book wasn’t a surprise of course – it’s based on historical events. In the final paragraphs some of the main characters are described sailing out of Dublin harbour not many months after the end of the strike. A means of escape from their poverty but which is unlikely to lead to a happy ending as their destination is the fields of Flanders.