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… to organise the workers of Ireland for the attainment of full economic freedom.”

So reads a section of the rules submitted to the Registrar of Friendly Societies on 15th July 1924 by Peter Larkin for the creation of a new union, the Workers Union of Ireland. The trades and occupations organised by the WUI were listed as ‘dockers, coal carters, builders, bakeries, public services, distributive and productive and miscellaneous.’

The Union was in part a product of a very public falling out between the leadership of the ITGWU, (in particular General Secretary William O’Brien) and Jim Larkin on his return from the United States, where he served three years of a five to ten year sentence meted out in the midst of the first ‘Red Scare.’ Larkin’s return was well heralded, and there was an assumption on his part that he would walk back into a leadership role in the union, something which was not forthcoming. His stubbornness to adapt his anarchic oratory style and organisational methods did not endear himself to the leadership of the ITGWU, though in a short time many of that Union’s members would abandon en-masse to join the new Union, swayed by the personality cult around Larkin. Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain said of him around the time

Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own, and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.

A bitter pay dispute between the Shipping Federation and the ITGWU added to the conflict, with the latter sensing (correctly) Larkin’s influence on a number of workers unwilling to accept a compromise won by the ITGWU on their behalf. A third factor was a dispute between the Union and one of it’s members who on being promoted, refused to give up their ITGWU membership. Strike action was approved at branch level in support of their case, but William O’Brien refused to sanction Strike Pay. Larkin was (again correctly) assumed the instigator, putting the final nail in the coffin. This incident led to an occupation of Liberty Hall by a group of men including Larkin. The occupation ended after Liberty Hall was surrounded by the new Free State army with truck mounted guns, and the men arrested and charged with trespass.

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The image that would immortalise Jim Larkin, taken by Joe Cashman in 1923

Following on from this incident, and with Larkin having left Dublin on 27th May 1924 to attend the meeting of the Comintern in Russia, his brother Peter announced the foundation of the new union- arguably despite instructions to the opposite. Regardless, Jim would join the Union as General Secretary on his return from Moscow on 25th August 1924. As previously mentioned, membership of the ITGWU temporarily hemorrhaged with upwards of 40, 000 workers deflecting to the new WUI, the latter now known now colloquially as ‘Larkin’s Union,’ and its members proudly identifying as ‘Larkin’s Men.’

There was to be nothing but acrimony between the two unions whose members would not work peacefully alongside each other as comments in this letter from William Smith O’Brien to Thomas Johnson show-

Things have gone fairly smoothly with us here, especially in the coal dispute where we are getting stronger every day that passes. We have now a very large number of men engaged and are putting on extra men practically every day. There have been a considerable number of attacks on our men, but the position is not as bad as we expected. A bomb was thrown last Saturday into the Custom’s House docks where a number of our men are housed, but no damage was done.

The dispute above occurred in July 1925, when the Coal Merchant’s Association, fed up of the constant conflict between members of the two Unions, temporarily locked both sets of workers out and refused to re-admit them until men employed in the coal yards could work amicably together. The ITGWU would break, with scabbing members returning to work under no little intimidation from WUI members- newspaper reports tell of ITGWU men and their families suffering harassment at the hands of their WUI counterparts, with fights a regular occurrence, and a near riot breaking out at Alexandra Basin where coal was being unloaded.

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Larkin’s Sons Denis, Fintan, Bernard and Jim Jnr. leading the cortege at his funeral. Photograph: The Irish Times

The feud culminated in a Mill’s bomb (a type of hand grenade) being thrown into an ITGWU manned dockyard near Connolly station. Though without much damage or destruction, the incident could have been a lot worse. The blast, which rang out across the north inner city occurred near a shed in which the Union men, all but permanently stationed at the site were resting. An Irish Times article sub headed ‘Supposed Attempt at Intimidation’ reported

The eight coal workers were in their hut, just thirty yards from the office and close to the high wall and the ‘up’ platform of the station. It appears that only one piece of the bomb struck the hut. It pierced the iron side and buried itself in the bed of one of the men, who was on the point of falling asleep at the time. He had a wonderful escape, for the hole made by the bomb splinter was about two inches from his head.  (IT, 28/9/1925)

The report also spoke of the ‘professionalism’ of the attack- the distance and accuracy of the throw suggesting that the bomb was thrown by someone who knew what they were doing; unsurprising given the country wasn’t long out of the horrors of the Civil War.

In an attempt to gain the upper hand in the feud, Larkin struck a deal with a Welsh pit owner, and imported hundreds of tonnes of coal which he sold to WUI members and Dublin’s poor at cost price, killing two birds with one stone- providing affordable fuel which was dubbed ‘Unity Coal’ to Dublin’s needy, and part funding his strike in the process. Larkin would claim that provision of affordable coal to the poor of Dublin ‘taught the employers of Dublin the old spirit of militant unionism is not dead in this country.’ With Larkin’s Union owing £12, 000 to the pit-owner, supply was threatened- in return, Larkin argued that if the strike should fall, then there would be no money to pay for the coal; an argument he would win, though its highly probable no payment passed hands. The Lockout was not to end amicably- the workers returned to the yards but a bitterness between the two Unions was to remain for decades.

Many thanks to Aileen O’C and Donal for their help with this article. 

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Below is the excellent 1976 RTÉ documentary on Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (Spanish Anti-Fascist War, 1936-1939) uploaded by our good friend and grandson of brigadista Michael O’Riordain, Luke in the last couple of days. Presented and produced by Cathal O’Shannon, the documentary features contributions both from Irishmen who fought for the International Brigades on the Republican side and those who travelled with Blueshirt Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade to support Franco and Fascism.

The documentary title was inspired by poet Charlie Donnelly, who remarked that ‘even the olives are bleeding’ shortly before he died fighting for the Republic at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

The documentary features some amazing footage, including an Eoin O’Duffy address from the balcony of the Ormond Hotel on Dublin’s Ormond Quay. Other notable contributions, apart from those with Michael O’Riordan and his great comrade Bob Doyle, came from Terry Flanagan, ex-baker and Saor Eire member and Alec Digges, a brigadista who returned to Ireland from Spain, before going on to fight in the Second World War, where he lost a leg.

Mural of Brigadista, Bob Doyle, installed on the Cobblestone Bar, Smithfield, (since removed.) From An Phoblacht.

On the fascist side, there is contributions, amongst others, from George Timlin, an NCO in the Irish Army who gave his reasons for going to Spain as “the spirit of adventure” and to quote “to oblige a friend… Eoin O’Duffy who wouldn’t have asked me if he didn’t want me to go” and Padraig Quinn, veteran of the War of Independence and the Civil War who, encouraged by the anti-communist sermon of his local bishop, joined Eoin O’Duffy’s legion.

Its sometimes easy to forget that there were Irishmen on both sides in an at times brutal war, and this documentary gives a good account of both.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade, the infamous battle that took place in the midst of the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) remains one of the worst displays of military recklessness ever recorded. We’ve talked briefly about Dublin’s link to the fateful event before, in that not only was the bugle that sounded the charge made here, but the bugle call was given by a Dubliner, William ‘Billy’ Brittain of the 17th Lancers, Orderly Bugler to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the 673 horsemen involved in the charge, it is believed over 100 of those were Irish.

But the Charge of the Light Brigade was only one of many tactical and military errors committed in a conflict lasting more than three years. David Murphy, in History Ireland (Vol 11, Issue 1) estimated that at the time of the war, approximately 30-35% of the British army was made up of Irish troops, and that somewhere in the region of 30, 000 of those Irish troops served in the Crimea. They left Dublin with a fanfare bordering on the hysteric,  with the departure of the 50th Foot regiment on 24 February 1854 as recorded in the same article

The bands of three other regiments of the garrison led them along the line of route, one of the finest in Europe; and vast crowds accompanied them, vociferously cheering, while from the windows handkerchiefs and scarves were waved, and every token of a ‘God Speed’ displayed.

Irish involvement in the war wasn’t confined to belligerents though. Civilian medics tended to the wounded, and in a war where “frontline correspondants” arguably played a role for the first time, Irishman William Howard Russell’s first hand reports on troop welfare led Trinity College to award him an honorary degree on his return. As the war drew on, and casualties mounted (albeit mainly through disease, as cholera and malaria were rampant) the support that was granted to it as troops left the country diminished.

That is not to say that, returning victorous, the regiments were not treated to same the pomp and occasion they received as they left. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, at the suggestion of the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, called together a committee to organise a National Banquet to pay tribute to Crimean veterans stationed in Ireland. A subscription list was established, and over £2, 000 was collected within the first nine days of it’s inception. An Irish Times report on the centenary of the event claimed that the merchants and the traders of Dublin showed great interest in the project, with offers of assistance coming from different patrons including

…a gentleman, styling himself the Wizard of the North who offered to give a performance for the benefit of the National Banquet Fund.

His offer was kindly declined. Over 3, 500 guests were invited to the banquet, (3, 628 sat down for dinner) along with over 1,000 paying spectators and such numbers caused large problems with regards finding a location.

The Banquet. held in Stack A, Custom House Docks.

The Banquet. held in Stack A, Custom House Docks

The Rotunda, the Mansion House and several halls in Dublin Castle were examined but deemed too small to fit the purpose. There was a proposal to raise a purpose built marquee in the grounds of the Castle or Leinster House, but this plan too was dismissed. Finally, a Mr. Scovell offered the use of his bonding warehouse near the Customs House (the modern CHQ building in the IFSC.) Built as a “fireproof” tobacco warehouse in 1821, it remains to this day one of the oldest iron-frame buildings in Ireland. The date was set for October 22nd, and preparations for the Banquet were set underway.

The hall itself, which can still be seen almost in its original state, measures 260 feet long and 150 feet wide, with rows of pillars supporting a magnificent roof of iron framework painted in bright coloursfor the occasion. During the banquet, the walls of the building were covered in numerous national flags, some bearing the names of the major Battles of the War- Alma, Sevestopol, and Balaclava amongst others and decorative field guns on platforms guarded the entrance to the building.

The report continued

…the total length of the tables was 6, 172 feet. The viands supplied included 250 hams, 230 legs of mutton, 500 meet pies, 100 venison pasties, 100 rice puddings, 260 plum puddings, 200 turkeys, 200 geese, 250 pieces of beef weighing in all 3,000 lbs.; 3 tons of potatoes, 2, 000 half pound loafs, 100 capons and chickens and six ox tongues…. Each man was supplied a quart of porter and a pint of choice port wine.

There were guests from every regiment stationed in Ireland, along with “500 pensioners, constabulary and marines, and 60 gentlemen of the press.” Given that Ireland was in the grips of famine not a decade previously, it is surprising to read of the joy and excitement that the banquet generated. For while across the country people had starved, here you had the gentry feasting at what must be the largest number of people to have ever sat down to dinner together in this country; and yet there are several accounts of the vans containing the steaming food being cheered and applauded as they careened down Dublin’s North Quays!

The building of course was recently redeveloped at a cost of €50 million. It has gone on the market at a price a mere fraction of that… But that’s another story!

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On Sir John Rogerson’s  Quay on the Southside of the Liffey stands a statue of Irish born Admiral William Brown. It was unveiled nearby in September 2006 by the Teflon Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but was relocated here, with an added plinth and plaque in August 2012. The statue was lucky to have made it to these shores at all. Two bronze statues were commissioned to be cast in Beunos Aires, and then transported here for unveiling in Foxford, where the Admiral was born, and on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, where the below photograph was taken.

The statues were a gift from the Argentinian Navy to the people of Dublin and Foxford and was donated as part of the anniversary celebrations of their foundation. However, a mix up regarding who would pay for the transport of the statues meant that they almost didn’t arrive in time for their official unveiling. Given that in Argentina over a thousand streets, several hundred schools, a couple of towns and a football club bear his name, it would be a shame were he not celebrated here in the country of his birth.

Admiral William (Guillermo) Brown

Admiral William (Guillermo) Brown

Born in Foxford, Co. Mayo June 22nd, 1777, William Brown was brought to Philadelphia at the age of nine. Irish was his first language, with his first education having come from his Uncle, the parish priest in the village of his birth. Three years after arriving in Philadelphia, in an area already heavily populated by Irish immigrants, he began work as a cabin boy. Within ten years of this, his status had risen to Captain of a US Merchant Navy vessel. He was press-ganged into the British Navy, and fought several battles against the Spanish. Respect for his skill at sea grew, and in his mid-twenties, he was already the master of a large schooner.

Shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, his ship was captured by the French and Brown was imprisoned. He was first placed in a prison in Verdun, where he contrived to escape having charmed the governor’s wife into handing over a warders uniform. He was re-captured within hours and was transferred to Metz, where he managed to burn a hole in the roof of his cell using a hot poker, and escape using a rope of knotted bedsheets and made his way to England via Germany. He was heralded a hero on his return, fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy family and married.

But the his adventures at sea were only beginning. Brown and his family relocated to Argentina at a time when the South American colonies were in revolt, with Argentina no different. Brown made his base in the town of Ensenada, not far from the captial Beunos Aires. He established several trade routes, but was constantly harassed by the Spanish navy.  This provoked Brown to take a hand in the revolt, and the Spanish quickly learned they had made a bad enemy. After several raids, with his ship was finally impounded by the Spanish, Brown made his way to shore where he procured two small fishing vessels. He rounded up as many English speaking sailors he could; Irish, Scottish and English and with a dozen or so men in each boat, he sailed out into the Estuary where a well armed Spanish Cruiser was anchored. The men boarded the unsuspecting vessel, overpowered the men aboard and captured her.

Statue of “Admirante Brown” in Argentina

His exploits earned him praise from the highest levels, and Brown was asked to take control of a small band of ships to lead the naval resistance against the Spanish. To say he succeeded in his role would be an understatement. Several times in the face of adversity with a small ragtag bunch of ships, he stood up to Spanish warships and was victorious, capturing many, burning others. Once, having taken control over a narrow estuary, he cut a new deck into one of his largest ships, lined the new deck with canon, ran her aground on a sandbank, and simply blasted an oncoming naval flotilla to smithereens.

Another occasion, on Patrick’s Day 1817, along with the assistance of another Irishman, James Kenny, forced the retreat of Commodore Romerate, one of the Spanish Navy’s prized officers. But it was not only on the sea that Brown helped the fight for independence. Any spoils he earned were sold via a businessman and friend by the name William White, and the proceeds for these bought guns and ammunition for ground assaults. And while his battles are too numerous to mention, the ones that earned him most plaudits were at Martin Garcia and Montevideo. After the declaration of Argentine independence, he went on to help the Uruguayan cause sailing against the Brazilian navy in his merchant vessels.

William Brown died on May 3rd 1857. His funeral oration, delivered by later Argentine president Bartolomé Mitré read: “Admiral Brown bears with him the admiration of all patriots, and the love of all good men; and the Argentine Navy remains orphaned of the old father who watched over it’s birth in the bosom of the River Plate, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Plate and the Paraguay will be forever the immortal pages on which will be read his greatest deeds. And while one sloop floats on these waters, or one Argentine pennant flies above them, the name of William Brown will be invoked by every sailor as the guardian genius of the seas.”

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On August 7th 1912 four women- Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh, Jennie Baines (under the nom de guerre Lizzie Baker) and Mabel Capper were sentenced at the Green Street Special Criminal Court in Dublin accused of “having committed serious outrages at the time of the visit of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.” The trial lasted several days during which police came under fire for initially refusing to allow admittance to women. Given the nature of the case, this act was met with steady and mounting pressure until the ban was repealed.

The “acts of serious outrage” have been mentioned in passing here before in an article on the Theatre Royal. The visit of Asquith to Dublin in July 1912 was met with defiance from militant suffragettes, some of whom (including the four above) had followed him over from England. On July 19th, a hatchet (around which a text reading “This symbol of the extinction of the Liberal Party for evermore” was wrapped) was thrown at his moving carriage as it passed over O’Connell Bridge. The hatchet missed Asquith but struck John Redmond, who was travelling in the same carriage, on the arm. There was also a failed attempt at setting fire to the Theatre Royal as he was due to talk on Home Rule in the same venue the following day. A burning chair was thrown from a balcony into the orchestra pit and flammable liquid was spread around the cinematograph (projector) box, and an attempt made to set it alight. It caught fire, and exploded once, but was quickly extinguished. The Irish Times, as below, reported the attempt which, in any case was foiled by Sergeant Durban Cooper of the Connaught Rangers who was in attendance:

At this moment Sergeant Cooper saw a young woman standing near. She was lighting matches. Opening the door of the cinematograph box, she threw in a lighted match, and then tried to escape. But she was caught by Sergeant Cooper and held by him. She is stated to have then said: “There will be a few more explosions in the second house. This is only the start of it.” (Irish Times, July 19th 1912)

Taken from "Votes for Women," August 9th, 1912

Taken from “Votes for Women,” August 9th, 1912

The four women mentioned above were accused and charged over both actions. The then Attorney General for Ireland, C.A O’Connor conducted the prosecution, and the case was presided over by Judge Madden. It seems that the authorities were at great pains to quell the burgeoning suffragette movement, and so set out to brand the women as highly dangerous provocateurs. O’Connor spoke of the horrors the fire in the Theatre could have caused, and Judge Madden, upon passing sentence on the women, rendered it his “imperative duty to pronounce a sentence that is calculated to have a deterrent effect.” Large crowds had gathered inside and outside the court for their sentencing upon which, as seen in the Evening Post clipping below, applause rang out around a largely hostile room.

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Image from front page of Trinity News (April 21st 1966)

Image from front page of Trinity News (April 21st 1966)

In April 1966, the Irish state marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in spectacular fashion. The state laid claim to the legacy of the Easter Rising, while Republicans fought for a voice within the year of commemoration. One unusual group who protested during the commemorations were Misneach, an Irish language activist group, who voiced their anger at the “non-achievement of the aims of the signatories of the Proclamation” by going on hunger strike for a week, frequently picketing the front of the General Post Office. Their strike began, as the Easter Rising itself had, on Easter Monday. They attracted considerable media attention worldwide, with the New York Times and others covering the protest.

In March 1966, the group Misneach used a press conference in the Clarence Hotel to outline their planned hunger strike, and noted that during Easter week they would picket the G.P.O, the newly constructed Garden of Remembrance, Liberty Hall and other sites associated with the rebellion. Their statement, which was issued in the Irish language, was signed by Micheál Mac Aonghusa (the secretary of Misneach), Eoin O Murchú, Deasún Breathnach and others. In total twelve men and one woman were committed to the April hunger strike in Dublin, with others pledging similar action in Belfast.

Micheál Mac Aonghusa told The Irish Times that Misneach did not believe “those who died in that Easter Week died to have their deaths celebrated, but rather their aims be achieved.” He asked just what the Ireland of 1966 had to celebrate. “The death of the Gaeltacht, economic independence on Britain, partition or emigration?” The protest by Misneach members enjoyed support (in the form of resolutions) from a wide variety of groups, including branches of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Éireann and the Celtic Youth Congress.

The official state commemoration marches past the General Post Office, 1966.

The official state commemoration marches past the General Post Office, 1966.

For the duration of the hunger strike, the members of Misneach slept in a small tenement room just off Parnell Street, and their protest attracted plenty of media coverage at home and abroad. Several men in Belfast staged a similar protest in Hawthorn Street, and pledged to “think, speak, write and read only Gaelic during the strike period.”

Those on hunger strike were described in the national media as “mostly people in their twenties, mild spoken. They use no English.” Many were students, primarily from University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin. Pronsais Nic Uait was the only female hunger striker, and hailed originally from Boyle in Roscommon. She was a student of Trinity College Dublin, studying English. The car of one hunger striker, Deasún Breathnach, was stolen from the north inner-city during the hunger strike, but found undamaged by Gardaí soon after and returned.

The Irish Times details the hunger strikers (April 12 1966)

The Irish Times details the hunger strikers (April 12 1966)

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Given that this week has seen the unveiling of a mural and the erection of a plaque in memory of the Irish anti-fascists that went to fight in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, it was great to come across the clipping below when doing research for a completely different article. Reading like a veritable who’s who of revolutionary politics, Charlie Donnelly, Frank Ryan, and the sons of Thomas McDonagh and Francis and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington all appear in an article dated May 12th 1934.

The article focuses on the foundation of a society called Student Vanguard at a meeting in a room in 41 Parnell Square. The society, a joint effort between UCD and Trinity students, unveiled its manifesto at the meeting, stating:

The Student Vanguard sees in Fascism in Ireland the bludgeon of the reactionary elements against the struggle for the national and social liberation of the Irish people.

The meeting did not go entirely to plan though, and eleven Blueshirts made their presence known at the back of the room causing a scuffle to break out and the meeting to be interrupted. Bizarrely enough, it looks very much like the Blueshirts were present, somewhat under the blessing of Charlie Donnelly, who would later fight and die in Spain, on the Republican side. A Mr. K. Patton from UCD, who declared himself a Blueshirt stated at one stage “We promised Mr. Donnelly we wouldn’t cause any trouble here tonight.”

From the Irish Press, Saturday, May 12, 1934

Frank Ryan later apologized in the meeting stating that if it was the case that the Blueshirts present were indeed there under invite, then he retracted his demand for them to leave. At the meeting, it was also stated that “Fascism (means) political, economic and cultural repression; distortion and restriction of education; the crushing of all progressive movements; perpetuation by force of ‘the present economic anarchy,’ unemployment and distress.”

Despite what seemed to pass off as a rift between two groups of students, settled by a polite handshake and an apology, a couple of years later, men from both sides would be making their way to Spain to fight on either side of the Civil War. The Blueshirts left with a fanfare, and came back without a loss in combat and with their tails between their legs. Some on the Republican side, like Michael O’Riordan and Bob Doyle would come back alive, others, like Charlie Donnelly would not.

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