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Upper Grand Canal Street, 1967 (National Library of Ireland)

Having spent a lot of time in recent months in Belfast, I became accustomed to the iconography that celebrates King William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. Billy on the walls is always depicted upon a white horse. Perhaps Benjamin West’s iconic 1778 painting, The Battle of the Boyne, has been most important in establishing this in popular memory, though some historians have disputed the claim. Regardless of what colour the horse at the Boyne was, the fact of history is that William was victorious (with Papal blessing no less), and Seamus a’ chaca (“James the shit”, as the defeated King James II was derisively known in Ireland) has a bad day out in a field in Louth.

Images of white horses adorn Orange Order banners, murals, commemorative tea towels and everything one can imagine. More forgotten is the fact they were once a frequent sight in the fanlights of Dublin houses. There is dispute over just what the white horses once fashionable in parts of Dublin meant, but many suggest they denoted a Protestant home and identity.

In 1934, a writer to The Irish Press insisted that “away back in the days when Orangeism was rampant in Dublin, houses which displayed the white horse of Hanover in their fanlights were left unmolested”, something also mentioned in a piece from the Evening Herald around the same time, suggesting that “during the height of the 1798 terror, bands of Orange Militia roamed the streets seeking Croppies, and every Catholic house was suspect. In order to distinguish themselves, the loyalists displayed a drawing, or effigy, of a white horse prominently on their houses, the white horse being an Orange emblem representing William’s charger at the Boyne.”

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Evening Herald, February 1937.

Other accounts suggest that the primary reason to display such a symbol was to make a polite but clear point towards those carrying out Catholic church collections or other such door to door activities. One 1930s source claims that “these ornaments are most numerous in the neighborhood of Prussia Street.”

Whatever they once meant, as time went on these symbols lost their political significance of course (if they ever had any to some who displayed them). Within the collections of the National Folklore Collection, housed in University College Dublin, some inner-city Dublin Protestants tell of “displaying statues of white horses that, to their eyes, represented William of Orange, while to onlookers they appeared to be merely decorative items (thus allowing them to display important iconography after Independence without exposing them to problems with their Catholic neighbours.”

The diversity of Protestant identity in Dublin should never be forgotten too, something beautifully captured in the autobiographies of Sean O’Casey. A few white horses survive in Dublin today, while during regular banking hours one can walk into the House of Lords in the Bank of Ireland College Green and see the eighteenth century tapestry displayed there, depicting Billy’s victory on the Boyne. Note the horse:

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Tapestry in the House of Lords, Bank of Ireland.

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A little Vietnamese boy, his sallow face pinched with exhaustion, led a plane-load of boat people ashore to their new life, as the first group of refugees arrived in Ireland yesterday.

So wrote the Irish Independent of 10 August 1979. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of the so-called ‘Boat People’ from Vietnam in Dublin. They arrived by aeroplane, but the images of people fleeing Vietnam in boats had made their impact on popular consciousness. At a time when the Irish public were more accustomed to emigration than immigration, there was enormous public interest in the plight of the Vietnamese who came here against the backdrop of political violence in their own country, though the dialogue around them in the press was sometimes curious.

Mark Magire, author of the the book Differently Irish: A Cultural History Exploring 25 Years of Vietnamese-Irish Identity , gives brilliant insight into the contemporary discussion that surrounded their arrival here. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, called on the state to do more,attacking what he termed the “meager response” at first to the crisis in Vietnam. Others attempted to emphasis the quality of the people coming to Ireland. One commentator – a historian of all people – argued that we were importing “a ready made creative minority”, and even noted that “naturalised their very grandchildren… would doubtless vote Fianna Fáil.”

The images of the Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970s were broadcast into the homes of millions. It’s estimated that some 800,000 people left the country from 1975 onwards, seeking sanctuary across the world. The idea of global responsibility to assist those in war torn regions was almost unheard of, and when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees requested the Irish Government resettle three Vietnamese families in 175, the request was refused on economic grounds.

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Sunday Independent, 5 August 1979.

Under pressure to play a significant role in the worsening crisis, the Irish state accepted some 200 Vietnamese people from August 1979 onwards, who were to be housed primarily in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital at Blanchardstown, with two spacious ward units converted to housing. Jim Kennedy, an Irish Red Cross beteran of some forty years who had assisted in the rehousing of 3,500 refguees who fled South to escape from sectarian attacks in the North, was optimistic, telling the Sunday Independent that “the food won’t be a problem. These people eat rice, pork, chicken, fish, vegetables and all sorts and, of course, they are great tea drinkers.” Some later arrivals would be housed by the Christian Brothers in Swords. The Vietnamese would be taught English, before being spread across the island. The real fear was ghettoisation, but as was rightly pointed out, the outcome may have been social isolation.

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Irish Independent, 10 August 1979.

Despite the fact the island of Ireland was experiencing its own political turmoil, frontpage news in some parts of the world, there was almost no awareness of Ireland among the Vietnamese themselves who arrived here. One of them later recounted:

None of us knew very much about where we were going or even exactly where it was. When we arrived in Dublin Airport we thought it was only a stopping off point. We did not believe that a national airport of a country could be so small.

Media interest in the personal stories of those who arrived here was significant, the Irish Independent reporting the harrowing words of one arrival,that “we were sailing for three days and three nights when Malaysian fisherman took us in. I have left everything behind. I still have four sisters working in labour camps near Saigon.” There had been considerable media interest in Ireland in Vietnamese refugees in Britain in the months before their arrival in Ireland, a Mayo-born volunteer working with Vietnamese families in Liverpool reassuring Irish Independent readers that “the Vietnamese people are a reserved and quiet race but they have great enthusiasm and energy and would contribute more to Irish society than they would take.” There were widespread calls from across the political divide to take in more Vietnamese families, and when the families were spread into communities beyond Blanchardstown,local press reported on them with interest.

Some in the community would enter the food industry, focusing on providing take away food, in particular Chinese food, across Dublin. In Maguire’s study, one member of the community reflected that this was a difficult business to get ahead in:

Some friends and me got the money to put one family into the business and we tried to leam about the cooking, the grub! There was very little Chinese food in Ireland at that time. I learned to cook from some people who worked in a Chinese restaurant and after that I showed other people how to cook. In 1984,1 was working on a comer near a bus stop— we were only making a living.

Many of the Vietnamese families who arrived here in 1979 ultimately settled in Ireland. In an excellent 2015 piece on the original families who settled here, Erin McGuire noted that the popular Pho Viet restaurant on Parnell Street is maintained by one of the 1979 families.

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Pearse Street Play Centre kick about, at Pearse Square. Dublin City Public Libraries (for more footballing images from the city collections see here)

Soccer was Sheriff Street – that’s all we played there. Soccer was working class. Soccer was ballet. Soccer was skill. Soccer made sense. Soccer was Manchester United. Soccer was the Busby Babes. Soccer was the Munich Air Disaster. Soccer was grief. Soccer was joy. Soccer was Spurs doing the double. Soccer was the past and the present. Soccer was Jackie Carey and Liam Whelan and Noel Cantwell. Soccer was Drums and Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers and Saint Pat’s. Soccer was Tolka Park on a Sunday with Shea and Johnny and Da. Soccer was Dundalk and Ma crying when they won the FAI Cup. Soccer was life itself…

So writes Peter Sheridan in Forty Four: A Dublin Memoir. Perhaps nobody has captured what football means to this city so elegantly.

Póg Mo Goal is a beautifully produced football magazine, from right here in Dublin. With an emphasis both on the local game and football culture internationally, it occupies a unique place in the world of Irish print magazines, while it also enjoys a lot of support from fans of good design, owing to the emphasis on the aesthetics of the publication. It looks – and reads – unlike any other football magazine this island has ever witnessed.

With a strong emphasis on fan culture, articles have examined things as diverse as the European ‘Ultras’ movement, football in war-torn regions, fan ownership of clubs and more besides. There’s plenty of strong historical content, and I tip my hat especially in the direction of Cian Manning.

I’ve been fortunate to write some pieces for Póg Mo Goal to date, ranging from Dublin City FC (RIP), to the history of women’s football in Ireland (big up to the Ballyfermot All Stars and Finglas side Suffragettes FC!) as well as a piece on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s love of the beautiful game, something entirely different from the norm for me.

The latest edition of Póg Mo Goal is Issue 5. The magazine, which is published annually(ish), has taken a new direction, moving from newspaper format to a spined magazine. Writers include Kevin Brannigan, Jelena Đureinović, Edd Norval and Mé Féin on ‘Gentleman John’, the great Jackie Carey. You can support the magazine here, and you can even buy a brilliant John Aldridge t-shirt while you’re at it.

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Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis

Today is the centenary of the birth of the magnificent piper Séamus Ennis. This anniversary has been marked with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in Finglas, where Ennis hailed from, and a pop-up exhibition and series of talks in the local library. Ennis is commemorated with a beautiful statue at the Séamus Ennis Centre at the Naul, where the finest tribute to his memory is the fact the music continues to play.

In recent years, Dublin has witnessed something of a renaissance of traditional and folk music, which has even propelled acts like Lankum to international attention. Central to all of this is the oral tradition, as songs and reels make their way through the generations and find new audiences. There is perhaps nobody as significant to the story of collecting that oral tradition as the great Séamus Ennis, born a hundred years ago today. Born in North County Dublin, Ennis was not only a legendary uilleann piper but a collector of songs and tunes, traveling all over Ireland on a trusty bicycle in search of ceol dúchasach (native Irish music), against the backdrop of the hungry 1940s and ’50s. His collections are today deposited in the National Folklore Collection, capturing an Ireland that could well have vanished in his absence.

The life of Séamus Ennis would have been very different were it not for his father, civil servant James Ennis, chancing to enter a pawn shop in London. Drawn immediately to a set of uilleann pipes on display and for sale, he purchased them without hesitation, discovering later that they had been made on Thomas Street in Dublin. Beginning at the age of 13, Séamus learned the complex instrument from his father. In time, the younger Ennis developed a keen appreciation for the need to capture Ireland’s rapidly vanishing disappearing oral tradition. At the age of 23, in 1943, with Europe at war and rationing a feature of Irish life, Séamus Ennis took off on an amazing journey through Ireland. Giving him “pen, paper and pushbike”, the Irish Folklore Commission entrusted this young Gael with the task of recording and documenting the oral and music traditions of rural Ireland.

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New commemorative plaque to Séamus Ennis, Finglas. (Image Credit: DCC Historians in Residence)

As Ríonach uí Ógáin notes in the introductory essay accompanying Ennis’s diaries, by the 1940s modernisation and emigration appeared to threaten a rich heritage, heralding “a speedy decline in many aspects of a hitherto relatively unchanged lifestyle and its associated traditions, especially in storytelling in Irish”. Ennis was paid almost £3 a week, and it was difficult work – the rural communities that he visited were sometimes insular places, and he cut a funny shape, one account remembering him as “long in the leg, famished looking, thin-shouldered and nervous”.

Reading Ennis’s diaries from his years traveling Ireland in search of songs and stories, it is evident that the Dubliner cherished each moment.Take his account of visiting Carna in Connemara in July 1944, where “a few lads and girls gathered in and we had a great night’s music and dancing in a house. The man of the house – Breathnach – is one of the great old-style dancers. We left the house at 5.30am after a great night’s sport and music and dancing. Went to bed at eight o’clock.”

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Séamus at the Willie Clancy Festival. Liam McNulty image via Willie Clancy Festival site.

In time, Ennis went from being the curator and gatherer of oral traditions to the subject of another collector. In 1951, the famed American folklorist, oral historian and archivist Alan Lomax arrived in Ireland, in the company of folk singer Jean Ritchie. Lomax, keen to capture the musical traditions of all cultures, believed Ireland’s heritage particularly worthy of recording, as “the last notes of the old, high and beautiful Irish civilization are dying away. A civilization which produced an epic, lyrical and musical literature as noble as any in the world.”The images of Ennis captured on that trip are beautiful, including him playing his uilleann pipes before an audience of curious children in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Ennis had a pivotal influence on a generation of young Irish musicians, including both Liam Óg O’Flynn and Christy Moore of the pioneering group Planxty. Liam Óg, a piper himself who inherited the pipes of Ennis, remembered that it was his love for capturing tradition that set Séamus apart, as “he was this incredible musician, but most incredible musicians like that don’t tend to go into the background of things in any sort of academic or structured way…Ennis combined the two.”

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From the ‘Masters of Irish Music’ LP series.

As a recognised expert of his field, Ennis presented As I Roved Out for the BBC, an important moment in the history of folk-music broadcasting, bringing Irish voices into thousands of British homes. Ennis played before packed halls in the UK’s thriving folk-music scene too, with Bob Davenport remembering the electric effect of his playing of audiences, as “like watching a cowboy film where the marshal walks in and everybody looks round. When he played, there was nobody ever comes close. It stood your hair on end. It was just absolutely devastating.” As the folk- and traditional-music revival of the day began, Ennis was a respected elder around younger musicians, performing at events like the Newport Folk Festival and Lisdoonvarna. A festival appearance is brilliantly captured in this archive footage brought to the internet by TG4.

Ennis died in October 1982, having lived out the later years of his life in the familiar surroundings of north County Dublin, in a caravan he christened Easter Snow. In a song of the same name dedicated to his memory, Christy Moore recalled how “He called up lost verses again”. And yet, the verses were not lost. It was Ennis who captured them, ensuring their place in the archives and the continuation of ancient tradition. In the words of traditional musician Tony MacMahon, “He made me realise music is magic and a spiritual experience. It cannot be taught in any university. It is beyond that.”

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The President of Ireland, Dr. Patrick J. Hillery, unveiling the monument of Jim Larkin, June 1979 (Image Credit: Dublin City Public Libraries Digital Depository)

There is something magic about the monument to trade union leader James Larkin in the centre of O’Connell Street. Monuments to political leaders tend to capture men and women in a particular pose, which is relaxed but commanding. By comparison, Larkin is captured in Oisin Kelly’s monument exactly as he was in life. It calls to mind the words of biographer Samuel Levenson, who insisted that Larkin was “revolution incarnate; a man able to set crowds aflame while seeming to speak to each listener individually.” In a similar vein, Seán Ó Faoláin would recount him as a man who “burned with a simplicity of belief in his fellow-man, and his speech to them was like a lava.”

The monument to Larkin, in popular memory, is most synonymous with the days of the 1913 Lockout, calling to mind the defiant meeting held on Sackville Street despite a police proclamation prohibiting the gathering at the end of August 1913. In reality, the depiction of Larkin is based on a later image of the union later, captured by the photographer Joseph Cashman in 1923, as Larkin returned from the United States and a period of grueling imprisonment which had played its toll. He returned to an Ireland partitioned and a Dublin where Liberty Hall was in the hands of a new union leadership. In some ways, he was at his lowest ebb, far removed from the heroic spirit of 1913 Dublin a decade earlier.

It was perhaps in the spirit of Jim Larkin that when the President of Ireland unveiled the monument on a summer evening in 1979, there were a few dissenting voices in the crowd. Placards reading “the inner-city has not changed since 1913” were reportedly carried by some. Among the great and the good gathered for the unveiling were the Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, the Soviet Ambassador to Ireland, leaders of the Workers Union of Ireland and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and the leaders of the major Irish political parties. Hillery proclaimed:

This statue is a monument to the achievement of so much of what Larkin laboured for. In the ages to come it will stand, a work of art raised to the memory of a great man who spent his energies and talents in the cause of his fellow-man, an inspiration to all who gaze upon it to strive on behalf of their brothers and sisters everywhere.

Larkin would have found humour in the Irish Independent describing him as “the greatest of our Labour leaders” in its report on the unveiling of the monument, given the role of the paper in the 1913 dispute. Much had changed, and a dead Larkin was no threat. Press coverage was overwhelmingly positive on the artistic merit of the monument, depicting a bronze figure of Larkin, weighing almost a ton and some nine feet high, standing proudly upon his plinth.

Denis Larkin, President Patrick Hillery, Russian Ambassador Anatoli Kaplin, Fintan Larkin attend the unveiling of the monument (Dublin City Public Libraries Digital Depository)

Within days of the monument being unveiled, camera crews were filming for Strumpet City in the vicinity of the monument, struggling to keep Larkin out of sight. There were other issues too; an Irish Press reporter noted of filming that “Jim Larkin’s cab was pulled by a very sweet-natured horse, who couldn’t quite get the hang of stopping in the right place. I fear his career in show-business could be quite short lived.”

What strikes many people immediately about the monument is the size of the hands of Larkin. As art historian Paula Murphy has noted, this is a distinctive feature of Kelly’s work, clearly demonstrating the artists awareness of how important they were to capturing the spirit of the subject:

Hands are an important device in Kelly’s work generally, and perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the Larkin statue, where they have immense presence. Fergus Kelly remembers his father worrying away at the hands and the difficulties of them being seen from below. Although the sculptor never knew Larkin, he clearly recognized not just that the man had what were described elsewhere as ‘great hands like shovels’, but how important they were to the passionate nature of the depiction.

By 1979 Oisín Kelly was considered the leading public sculptor in Dublin. His work included the stunning Children of Lir monument in the Garden of Remembrance, ensuring his standing in Irish artistic life. On O’Connell Street, his bronze statue would be joined by the immortal words of Seán O’Casey and Patrick Kavanagh on either side of the monument, while a bronze plaque below Larkin includes words borrowed from the French Revolution, and which once appeared in the masthead of radical newspaper The Workers’ Republic:

The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!
Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal. Éirímis!
Le grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes a genoux. Levons-nous!

A curious feature of the monument, still visible today, concerns the year of Larkin’s birth. At the time of the unveiling of the statue, this was listed as 1876, though later historic research has established 1874 as the year of his birth with certainty. The correction of this mistake is still visible in the plinth today.

Jim Larkin died in January 1947. In a memorial piece entitled ‘The Catholic Communist’,capturing many of the complexities and contradictions of the giant of Irish Labour, Bertram D. Wolfe wrote that:

During a bitter blizzard on January 30, 1947, Jim Larkin died. Despite the cold and snow, the tumult of Irish crowds which be so loved surrounded the approaches to Saint Mary’s Church on Haddington Road, Dublin…He lay in state in the church while those who loved him, and many who did not, passed the coffin where one could see the brown rosary beads in his hand, given him by the Archbishop of Dublin.

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Cork Hill is, to my mind, pretty much unrivaled when it comes to architectural views in Dublin. On one side of it, Thomas Cooley’s City Hall (once the Royal Exchange) has stood proudly since 1779, while opposite it sits the former Newcomen Bank building, now the City Rates Office. The work of architect Thomas Ivory, the building is of great architectural importance, as noted by the Dublin City Architects:

It is an exquisitely made neo-classical building of sharply detailed Portland stone, the material reserved for the best public buildings in the Georgian city. Records show that James Hoban, the Irish architect who went on to design the White House, worked for Ivory on the design for Newcomen.

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The City Rates Office, Cork Hill (Image Credit: Dublin City Public Libraries, Fáilte Ireland Collection)

A more recent addition to the side of the City Rates Office, dating from 1886, is perhaps the most lavish street sign in Dublin, reading ‘Lord Edward Street. A.D 1886’.  A plaque below it notes that the street was ‘opened’ by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, T.D Sullivan MP.

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T.D Sullivan, Lord Mayor of the capital from 1886 to 1888, hailed from Cork’s Bantry. He was a journalist, poet, songwriter and politician. A member of the Parnellite Home Rule League, he was elected to the Westminster parliament in the 1880 general election, “convinced that without self-government there could never be peace, prosperity or contentment in Ireland.”

As a songwriter, he is most famous for penning ‘God Save Ireland’,a song honouring three Fenians hanged for their involvement in the 1867 Fenian year of revolt. The Manchester Martyrs had played their part in freeing captured Fenians from police custody on the streets of that northern English city, only to be hanged themselves. The words ‘God save Ireland!’ were defiantly shouted in court by one of the three men, and their deaths became a rallying call for nationalist Ireland. Sullivan’s song first appeared in print in December 1867, on the eve of the funerals of the men. While buried in an English prison,mock funeral processions were hold all over Ireland in their honour. An empty grave in Glasnevin awaited the men,though their bodies were never returned to Irish soil.

“God save Ireland!” said the heroes;
“God save Ireland” said they all.
Whether on the scaffold high
Or the battlefield we die,
Oh, what matter when for Erin dear we fall!

In a pre-1916 world, when it was eventually eclipsed by ‘The Soldier’s Song’, this song was sometimes refereed to as the ‘Irish national anthem’. Certainly, for Irish separatists, it was nothing less. That it was written by a constitutional nationalist was something of an irony, but when it came to commemorations and the like, constitutional parliamentarians could sometimes turn on the separatist charm, and Sullivan was no exception.

The opening of the new street in 1886 connected Dame Street to Christ Church Cathedral, clearing the warrens there before. Its proximity to Dublin Castle, the historic seat of British rule in Ireland, no doubt influenced the nationalist tone of naming the street in honour of revolutionary leader Edward Fitzgerald. The Freeman’s Journal commented on the new street “lying under the shadow of Dublin Castle, the centre of all that is saddest and most dreary in the bitter page’ of our country’s history.”

The street unveiling drew huge crowds, and it was reported that “many of the residents of the neighboring streets had green flags displayed from the windows of their houses”, a display of nationalism that would have been unwise in Fitzgerald’s own day, but which reflected the changing political atmosphere.It wasn’t all about politics, and Sullivan noted that “it is a work not only of the beautifying of our city, but also a work of great public utility.” The area was long synonymous with severe poverty, and the improvements were widely welcomed. The street, the Mayor noted, was not only named in honour of “a great Protestant Irish patriot”, but “the materials used in the paving of the street are, we have been informed, exclusively Irish products.”

The plaques could easily be missed, a portrait of Edward Fitzgerald can be found just around the corner however gracing the front of The Lord Edward public house (which very much has the CHTM seal of approval), while a plaque in his memory adorns the stunning sandstone facade of St. Werburgh’s Church, his final resting place. If he’d embrace the street name is perhaps open to debate, with Fitzgerald proudly casting aside the title of Lord in favour of citizen. His sister would recall after his death, “he was a Paddy and no more; he desired no other title than this.”

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May Day 1919 poster. From John Cunningham’s Mayday! Galway and the origins of International Labour Day.

“Dublin, like three-fourths of Ireland, has spent an absolutely idle day” was one account of May Day here a century ago.

While 1919 has entered our collective memory as the beginning of the War of Independence, with the first shots of the conflict fired at Tipperary’s Soloheadbeg in January, on the ground the early months of the year were defined more by industrial unrest. A ‘general strike’ against British militiarism in Limerick, which the press would label a Soviet, coupled with the remarkable engineering strike in Belfast demanding a 44 hour working week, gave the authorities plenty to worry about.

There was no unanimity on the question of Ireland’s future with the tens of thousands of workers who engaged in such acts of industrial unrest across the island. In Limerick, the death of a local Irish Volunteer, Robert Byrne, was the catalyst for the unrest there. In Belfast, by comparison, many of the workers at the centre of the agitation regarded themselves as Unionists. When asked by a Belfast striker if he was loyal to the King and the Union, the Scottish communist leader Willie Gallacher replied, “That’s a stupid question. I am a revolutionary and my only loyalty is to the working class”.

Things were happening on the Clydeside too, were tanks were deployed on the streets against Scottish workers seeking a 40 hour working week. May Day 1919 witnessed in excess of 100,000 people take to the streets of Glasgow, addressed by a variety of speakers that included Countess Markievicz, now an elected M.P. Along with ‘The Red Flag’, ‘The Soldier’s Song’ was sung with gusto, and tricolours were carried amidst the red flags.

Across the island of Ireland, the day was marked by significant labour processions. The leading industrial union of Ireland, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, called on workers to down tools, to show that “Irish workers join with the international labour movement in demanding a democratic league of free nations.” A combination of factors, including wartime inflation, had swelled the ranks of the union in the immediate years around 1919. A union that had some 15,000 members in 1914 could boast in excess of 102,000 by 1919. The growth, in the words of one leading historian, was simply “Lazarus like.”

ITGWU branches nationwide marched behind red flags, while in some quarters local units of the Irish Republican Army joined them. This said more about local interrelationships that any official statement of political sympathy. In Dublin, many things ground to a halt, leading the Irish Independent to describe the day as “idle, dull and dismal.” The paper reported that:

In Dublin there were no trams, no North Wall sailings, no theatres, no cinemas, no electric power, no taxis, no restaurants or licensed houses open, and no trains, except the Great Northern Railway.

The regional demonstrations were significant in scale. The Irish Independent reported over three thousand parading in Bray,  more than that in Wexford, and noted that “in Killarney, colonial soldiers joined in a procession of about 1,000 headed by banners and Father Matthew’s band.” In Clonmel, they noted “several red flags were carried in the procession…notwithstanding police intimidation on the matter.” These regional demonstrations gave cause for concern to the paper, who noted that through “the displays of the Red Flag by the demonstrators…and the singing of the song associated with that flag there is evidence, unfortunately, that the ideas of the continental Socialists are beginning to penetrate into Ireland….that these doctrines should gain a footing in Catholic Ireland is much to be deplored.”

The song ‘The Red Flag’, which would ring out in so many cities on May Day 1919, had an Irish author, Jim Connell.  He himself proclaimed that the song  “gave expression to not only my own best thoughts and feelings, but the best thoughts and feelings of every genuine socialist I knew.” Its impact was truly global; as Ronan Burtenshaw notes in a recent piece for Tribune magazine:

It was sung when the National Guard was sent in to repress striking West Virginia coal miners in 1912, and when Australian workers organised a mass strike in 1917. It closed out a 1918 meeting of radical republicans welcoming a delegation of Bolsheviks to Dublin, and was sung by mutinous British soldiers during World War One. Randian miners in South Africa sang it on their way to their death at the gallows. As Tom Mann would say at Connell’s graveside, “The Red Flag inspired thousands, possibly millions.”

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Liberty Hall, 1919. William O’Brien, Cathal O’Shannon and Nora Connolly are among the gathered leaders of Irish labour. (Image Credit: Century Ireland)

In Dublin, there were no radical demonstrations. Here, military proclamations outlawed any such gatherings, though as the Trade Union Congress Annual Report for the year would note, “In Dublin, where the military proclamation prohibiting public meetings and processions held sway, the workers had to be content with their silent, workless demonstration.” The Evening Herald carried disgruntled letters from members of the public (all anonymous, and thus potentially fake) pouring scorn on the workers for not going to work.

For some Dublin workers, there was punishment for their involvement in the day. Shackleton’s Mill, Lucan, “locked out” some fifty men who had participated in the May Day strike. Shackleton’s had been proactive supporters of William Martin Murphy’s policy during the 1913 Lockout, and the premises would later be attacked by the Irish Citizen Army for breaking the ‘Belfast Boycott’ which was in place.

Ulster too remained largely quiet. While tens of thousands would parade in Belfast, they waited until the following Saturday to gather in Ormeau Park. There was a real fear among some northern workers of being seen to be used by what they perceived to be a nationalist-inclined labour movement.  The Ulster Unionist Labour Association in Derry encouraged their members to boycott May Day, erroneously stating that the day was “of a revolutionary and Bolshevik nature and supported by Sinn Féin propagandists, as already stated at the opening of Dáil Éireann and that honest labour should repudiate such actions.”

Irish Labour in 1919 was nothing if not optimistic. For Republicans, militant Labour could present both opportunities and potential challenges, as the years ahead would show in the interactions between Dáil Éireann, the Labour Party and militant workers. Still, three months on from May Day 1919, the delegates of the Irish Trade Union Congress would be told Labour’s forecast had come true, and the future lay in their hands:

We cannot afford to make many mistakes. The workers of Ireland have shown they are responsive to the call, and this responsiveness on the part of the rank and file makes the responsibility of the leaders the greater. On all sides at the moment we see industrial unrest. And can we wonder at this. We have for the past four years been warning our people that as sure as morning the industrial war would follow the cessation of hostilities on the Continent. Our forecast has proved but too true.

 

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