by ehistoryadmin on May 16, 2014

Newbridge vigilantes block transport of children to England

Liam Kenny

The legacy of the lockout and strike which pitted employers and labourers against each other over the autumn and winter of 1913 is being discussed at length on the airwaves and in print. It represents the first of the major centenaries which will populate the history agenda in Ireland over the coming decade.

The location of the lockout was primarily in the capital city where the abysmal working conditions and appalling tenement housing created a volatile context for conflict between the poor labourer and the middle-class employer.

Among the controversies which boiled over as the strike became long and vicious was a scheme to send children from impoverished families to Liverpool where they would be looked after by families sympathetic to the cause of the labourers in Ireland. This plan ignited opposition from Catholic organisations who were horrified at the thought of Irish children being sent to what were perceived as the “Godless” cities of industrial Britain. Vigilante groups sprung up to attempt to block the transport of children. Co. Kildare was not immune to such manifestations of social conflict.

The Kildare Observer carried a report in its issue of 1st November 1913 that a “very large meeting” of the Newbridge division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians had resolved to block the transport of children through the locality. It was noted that Monsignor Tynan, chaplain to the Newbridge A.O.H. was in attendance. The report recorded that the meeting appointed a “Vigilance Committee” to put Newbridge train station under surveillance as rumours warned that children were to be deported by rail to the ports for embarkation to England. The Newbridge vigilantes lost no time and that night the mail train through the station was “attended” to ensure that no children were on board.

While it would be easy to portray this as a callous move by Catholic inspired middle class activists their stance was not without the appearance of compassion. At the same meeting a subscription list was opened and a large amount handed in. On the suggestion of Mons. Tynan it was decided to form a Ladies’ Committee in connection with a “clothing fund for the children of the Dublin strikers.” 

The 1913 Lockout impacted outside of Dublin in other ways. In October of the same month there was an impressive demonstration of trade union solidarity which extended well beyond the bitter streets of the capital. A consignment of provisions from the Irish Transport Union reached Robertstown – a place as far removed from the urban setting of the strike as one could imagine –  for boatmen who were stranded there in consequence of the strike and lockout. And there was more – two union representatives travelled with the consignment and distributed eight shillings in strike pay to each of upwards of a dozen men from the locality who were promised a similar allowance of provisions and money on each succeeding week.

The experience was much less comforting for those workers who chose, for whatever reason, to continue to work irrespective of their blacklisting by trade unionists. The Observer reported in December that a number of men and women resident in Celbridge and who were employed at a woollen mill in Leixlip were being escorted to their workplace by police from Celbridge and Leixlip.

The Celbridge area saw the incendiary emotions of the lockout becoming a reality through incidences of alleged arson at a big farm at Hazelhatch where there had been tense relations between farmer and labourers. The Observer reported that the farmyard of Mr. Harrison near Hazelhatch on the Kildare/Dublin boundary had been the scene of a serious conflagration with fires breaking out in ricks of corn and of hay a hundred yards apart.

It was noted that Harrison’s workmen had been on strike some time previously, but had returned to work under a new arrangement “with their master”. However this arrangement had evidently broken down and the men were out of work at the time of the incident. This was the second fire to have erupted in the vicinity in ten days and the episode had “caused much consternation in the locality which is now being specially patrolled by police.”

Many middle class people in business and in farming feared the way in which the fiery union leader James Larkin could bring the capital city almost to a standstill. Trade unionism as a widespread force had been unknown in Ireland with the existing unions relatively small and content to form a consensus with employers in narrow niches of commerce. The movement inspired by James Larkin was different – it threatened the subtle but rigid social hierarchies in the country.

This was particularly the case in a country where land and its ownership had been central to any class struggle over the previous decades. Many leaders of rural opinion did not understand the forces unleashed by urban activists and feared how strike might evolve into an all embracing socialism which would threaten ownership of land.

There was also an uneasy relationship between Larkinism and the major dynamic in Irish political life – the struggle for Home Rule. Some of the most ardent campaigners of the day for an independent Ireland were also among the biggest critics of the workers’ union.

Such reactions were epitomised in a report of a meeting held near Rathvilly in Co. Carlow published in the Kildare Observer in late November 1913 at a stage when the Dublin centred dispute was at its most rancorous.

A speaker at the meeting, a Mr. Ignatius Kelly, of the United Irish League – a party which had wide support among small farmers throughout the country – declared that “they were determined that they would not allow Socialists to interfere with the liberties of the Irish nation.” He went on to say that Larkin and his supporters were “the enemies of Ireland and should be kicked aside by the people.” On referring to the fact that Larkin had been gaoled previously a voice shouted from the hall “Why did they let him out?” 

Such polarised reactions to the Lockout of the Dublin workers in 1913 were to complicate the relationship between labour activists and Irish public opinion in the decades that followed. Leinster Leader 3 September 2013, Looking Back Series no: 347.

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