Earlier this year I gave a talk on the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band for a conference entitled Music in Ireland: 1916 and Beyond. The FLPB would come to be seen as the ‘band of the Irish Citizen Army’, and were in their own right an important part of Jim Larkin’s cultural vision. This is an edited version of that talk.
Studies of the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and other working class organisations in the revolutionary period have tended to focus on their political histories – examining events and themes such as the Lockout of 1913, the Easter Rising and the political ideology of leaders like Larkin and Connolly. There is still, I would maintain, much work to be done on the culture of the radical trade union movement of revolutionary Ireland.
What James Larkin attempted to do in Dublin from the time of his arrival in the city in 1908 amounted to more than political revolution – there was an enormous social dimension to his project. Emmet O’Connor, Larkin’s most outstanding biographer to date, contends that Liberty Hall was the centre of a working class “counter culture.” It had a theatre, a printing press, a workers co-operative shop, food facilities and more besides. To the movement of Larkin and Connolly, culture formed an important component – and perhaps no aspect of it was more important than the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band, who would lead their movement through the streets.
Jim Larkin’s arrival in Ireland:
Jim Larkin, born in Toxteth in Liverpool to Irish parents in 1867, remains the single most important figure – and one of the most divisive figures – in the history of Irish trade unionism and labor politics .He arrived in Ireland in 1907 as a trade union organiser with the National Union of Dock Labourers, sent to organise on the docks of Belfast, where he succeeded in doing the unimaginable and defying the sectarian divisions there, something well-documented in John Gray’s study City in Revolt. Larkin was renowned for his deployment of the sympathetic strike tactic – believing that an injury to one was an injury to all – undoubtedly one contributing factor that led to his sacking by the NUDL and his decision to establish his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he based in Dublin. This was a revolutionary union committed to the overthrow of capitalism, and modeled on the politics of syndicalism – that is a belief that workers’ could transform society through unified industrial action. A journalist from The Times in Britain wrote of ‘Larkinism’ in 1911 that:
For the present it is enough to say that the object of Mr.Larkin’s Union is to syndicalise Irish Labour, skilled and unskilled, in a single organisation, the whole forces of which can be brought to bear on any single dispute in the Irish industrial world.
Summing up ‘Larkinism’ himself, Jim Larkin stated:
“The employers know no sectionalism. The employers give us the title of the ‘working class’. Let us be proud of the term. Let us have, then, the one union, and not, as now, 1,100 separate unions, each acting upon its own. When one union is locked out or on strike, other unions or sections are either apathetic or scab on those in dispute. A stop must be put to this organised blacklegging.”
The rise of Liberty Hall:
Larkin based his new union in what he called Liberty Hall, a former hotel which had fallen into rack and run. This premises offered everything an emerging movement could need; as Emmet O’Connor has noted, it “offered rooms for band practice, Irish language classes, a choir and a drama society.” Liberty Hall would prove a tremendous resource to the labour movement, providing the location for a printing press for example, and as Christopher Murray has noted in his biography of Sean O’Casey its former life as a hotel proved invaluable on occasion, not least in 1913 when “the old kitchens were still usable in the basement.”
Much has been written of Larkinism in labour dispute – little has been written of the culture that surrounded Liberty Hall. Indeed, the Manchester Guardian was so moved by Larkin’s project, that they proclaimed “no Labour headquarters in Europe has contributed so valuably to the brightening of the lives of the hard-driven workers around it…it is a hive of social life.” For Larkin, there was an enormous emphasis on the self-respect and dignity of the working class, and in their visible orgnaisation and solidarity.James Plunkett, in an essay of remembrance, recalled that:
Torchlight processions and bands, songs and slogans and the thunder of speeches from the windows of Liberty Hall, these were his weapons, and he calculated than a man with an empty belly would stand the pain of it better if you could succeed in filling his head full of poetry. Those who previously had nothing with which to fill out the commonplace of drab days could now march in processions, wave torches, yell out songs…It was Larkin’s triumph to inject enough of it into a starving class to lift them off their knees and lead them out of the pit.
An often overlooked but hugely important part of Larkin’s personality – and something James Connolly shared – was his commitment to a teetotal lifestyle. The public house was often denounced in the pages of his newspaper The Irish Worker, he denounced the popular politician Alfie Byrne as Alfie Bung for owning a pub, and even led the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union onto a temperance parade in 1911. As much as anything else then, Liberty Hall was designed to get men out of the pubs and to keep them out of the pubs.
This in the context in which the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band was born – the emergence of a ‘counter culture’ for the working classes, which brought learning, creativity and community into the doors of a crumbling old hotel, and invented Liberty Hall. Later, one newspaper would describe it as “the brain of every riot and disturbance” the city witnessed.
The birth of the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band, and the influence of an earlier radical:
The Fintan Lalor Pipe Band was born late in 1912, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Bob de Coeur, a union activist with the ITGWU, and chairman of its No. 16 Branch, which was based at 77 Aungier Street,a premises shared with young radicals from Na Fianna Éireann, the separatist boyscouts. R.M Fox, a labour activist who would pen a well-received history of the ICA with the support of veterans, wrote of interviewing one veteran:
He told me how one morning…he saw Bob de Coeur gazing into the window of a secondhand shop were a set of pipes was displayed for sale. Bob had an eager light in his eye. “I’m going to buy them” he said, nodding at the musical instruments. “We must have a Union band!”
R.M Fox maintained that Larkin induced the Union purse-string holders to advance £25 pound on loan to allow de Coeur to start the band, and a notice was placed in Larkin’s newspaper, The Irish Worker, appealing for players. The first piping instructor of this new band was a Scot, William M. Mackenzie, who the FLPB history notes was “a good player and teacher, who had recently begun making bagpipes in Bolton Street.” Young Fianna members seem to have been enthusiastic to join the new endeavor, some of whom would later join the ICA.
The naming of this new band, The Fintan Lalor Pipe Band, was enormously significant. In Lalor, radicals found someone who fused the social and the national questions of Ireland. He was one of the Young Irelanders of the 1840s, though decades on his political philosophy was still influential: “Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky. The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland.”
His words appeared on the mastheads of radical papers, and indeed it could be said his influence can be seen on the Proclamation. It maintains that “the ownership of Ireland belongs to the people of Ireland”, Fintan Lalor proclaimed that “the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.”
The Fintan Lalor Band would come to be seen as the band of the Irish Citizen Army. The ICA, a workers’ militia, was born in 1913 out of the horrific conditions of the Lockout – when 20,000 workers were locked out of their employment, and told to only return when they were willing to sign a pledge not to rejoin Larkin’s union. The strike was brutal, and marred by police violence which ultimately resulted in the deaths of several workers. Captain Robert Montieth, later to take part in Roger Casment’s 1916 expedition, remembered witnessing the death of James Nolan, killed by a baton outside Liberty Hall:
The horrible crunching sound of the blow was clearly audible about fifty yards away. This drunken scoundrel was ably seconded by two of the Metropolitan police, who, as the unfortunate man attempted to rise, beat him about the head until his skull was smashed in, in several places. They then rejoined their patrol, leaving him in his blood. For saying “You damn cowards” I was instantly struck by two policemen and fell to the ground, where I had sense enough to lie until the patrol had passed.
We have some memories of the band in its earliest days thanks to the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements – an impressive but faulted source, owing to the distance of time between the events of the revolutionary period and the collection of memoirs. One founding member of the band was Thomas O’Donoghue, he recalled that:
When the 1913 strike took place, the workers were really hopeless, and one means of keeping up their enthusiasm was through marches of the Pipers’ Band.One Sunday we were coming from Liberty Hall to Aungier Street, and on turning into South Great Georges Street, some commotion took place at the rear of the band and I gave the order to halt in a very loud voice….
The band and the police exchanged verbals, and O’Donoghue claimed that that evening “Bob de Coueur called a meeting and proposed that hurleys be provided as a bodyguard for the band, and a man named Charlie Armstrong (reservist of the Royal Irish Fusiliers) was appointed to drill and train the members to act on whistle signals only. From the time the bodyguard was provided, we had no more police interference.”
The Fintan Lalor Band wore a beautiful uniform, as did the Irish Citizen Army, both produced by Arnott’s. The men and women of the ICA took enormous pride in this, and it is important to state they were drawn primarily from the ranks of unskilled and general labourers – so this put enormous expense on individual members.
It has been suggested, most notably by Sean O’Casey in his history of the Irish Citizen Army, that there were strong class divisions between the Volunteer and Citizen Army forces. O’Casey claimed that “the old lingering tradition of the social inferiority of what were called the unskilled workers, prompted the socially superior tradesmen to shy at an organisation which was entirely officered by men whom they thought to be socially inferior to themselves.” I believe O’Casey’s point to be somewhat exaggerated – there were skilled workers to be found in the ranks of the ICA and unskilled men in the IV – but there was still some truth to it. It’s easy to understand why the ICA band were so protective of their instruments, given their social class and the fact the instruments were bought on borrowed finance.
The band was not entirely unique – it was unique in that it was aligned to labour, but there were other pipe bands with separatist credentials, including the Saint Laurence O’Toole Band. O’Casey was a member and Secretary of this band, which emerged from the activities of Gaelic Leaguers. This band frequently participated in the annual excursion to Bodenstown for example, to visit the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone. As Christopher Murray has noted “it was bound up with the Irish language and with IRB interests.” O’Casey designed the uniform of “green kilt,flowing crimson shawl, brooches at breast and knee, and jaunty balmoral cap.” Veteran Fenian Thomas J. Clarke was made Honorary President, as a sign of respect and political commitment. There was also the Black Raven Pipers of North County Dublin, of which Thomas Ashe was a founding member. A member of this band, Thomas Rafferty, was killed fighting at Easter Week, and Ashe would die on hungerstrike the following year.
In the aftermath of the workers’ defeat in 1913, Larkin departed for the United States, and James Connolly became the Secretary of the Union, and the de-facto head of Liberty Hall. Contrary to the popular belief today, there were very real tensions between these two men, Connolly regarded Larkin as difficult to work with and highly authoritarian, something he confided in his close friend and ally William O’Brien in private correspondence – O’Brien, detesting Larkin, later published these. Connolly moved the Union towards a more nationalist political outlook, not least against the backdrop of the European War which he regarded as creating the opportune conditions for revolt, but culture remained an important part of the project.
The Fintan Lalor Band remained too, and there activities were documented in The Workers’ Republic, newspaper of Connolly. This paper lacked some of the bite of Larkin’s earlier The Irish Worker, but is a hugely important historic source, given that it was published right up until days before the Rising. Feis and competitive sporting, military and musical competitions were frequent occurrences – Volunteers and ICA men often participated in sporting and cultural events – and the ICA traveled to Tullow in July 1915 to partake in a Feis, there were some attempts to stop them partaking by members of the National Volunteers, supporters of John Redmond. Frank Robbins recalled that “Mallin marshaled the whole Army together and paraded right through Tullow, headed by the Fintan Lalor Puipe Band, which was part and parcel of the Irish Citizen Army.” Of the events, Connolly wrote that “the incident was disgraceful to those attempting to exclude our men, and it was just as well they were taught the lesson that the Citizen Army knows what it wants, and always means to get it.”
The band participated in the enormous funeral procession of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, which was very much regarded by the watching ‘G Men’ intelligence police officers as a sign of the increasing collaboration between the forces of advanced nationalism and Liberty Hall. They were present too at the highly symbolic raising of the Green Flag over Dublin Castle only days before the Rising in April 1916, when James Connolly entrusted young activist Molly O’Reilly with the task. Connolly would write himself that:
The Fintan Lalor Pipers’ Band is among the very first rank of the pipe bands of Ireland, but so anxious and prayerfully eager were the people that its fine music was scarcely heeded as the hearts of all beat rapidly with longing for the appearance of the flag upon its position.
What of the band in Easter Week? Alongside Bob de Couer, a number of men from the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band took part in the occupation of St. Stephen’s Green. George Campbell, Ted Tuke, Michael Delaney, Tomhas O’Donoghe, Christy Crothers and Tommy Crimmins were among the members of the band to mobilise for Easter Week activities. Of Crothers, an excellent biographical sketch has been penned by Hugo McGuinness of the East Wall History Group.
When the ICA seized the Royal College of Surgeons, Tom O’Donoghue of the band took delight in finding a set of bagpipes, which “I got out in the yard at the back of the College of Surgeons for a little recreation with them.” Music formed an important part of the experiences of men and women in different garrisons – the Soldiers Song and God Save Ireland were often sung with gusto, but the ICA were surely the only garrison to enjoy a bagpipe session.
Tom O’Donoghue and Bob de Couer of the band were particularly hostile to the idea of surrender when it was discussed in the Royal College of Surgeons, even contemplating disobeying the orders of Michael Mallin, their military superior. When eventually agreeing to his order, they wished to surrender with the band leading the garrison. To quote O’Donoghue:
I asked Mallin for permission to take one of the sets of bagpipes and play it at our head as we marched through the streets of Dublin as prisoners, but Mallin would not agree to this, adding that they were not our property and to take them out of the College of Surgeons would be tantamount to looting.
The Fintan Lalor Pipe Band remained active throughout the War of Independence and later, though that is a story for another day. For bands, the revolutionary period brought its own risks; on one occasion, instruments would be destroyed by the Black and Tans during a raid of Liberty Hall, and later seized by the CID Police of the Free State during the Civil War. They remained a feature of republican commemorative marches in the decades that followed, and today the band still exists – based in Lucan in County Dublin. While no longer as explicitly political or bound to the Union movement, they continue to take part in commemorative events for the ICA, and wear ICA insignia on their uniforms. Their music, and their very existence, must be seen as part of the project of Larkinism, designed to lift the poor of Dublin and to give them a cultural identity in a city where they owned little and were given less.