Friday, June 07, 2013

Larkin in the Park


 A DAY IN THE PARK. Irish Citizens Army members parade outside Croydon House

TALKING about the tremendous wave of protest sweeping Turkey, which has led to clashes with police, and unions calling strike action, someone was saying on TV the other day that it was strange for such an explosion of anger to be started by a fight over a park.

Though I've never been to Istanbul, I can imagine that for the inhabitants of its teeming streets, proud as they may be of its historic buildings and views of the Bosphorus, being able to enjoy a breath in the park neath some fine leafy trees is something to treasure over another flaming shopping mall. I'd be on their side even without the banners of the Left to guide me.

It also occurred to me that maybe we have grown complacent over our right to parks, fresh air and green, open spaces. Just because some trees are old does not mean they were always ours to enjoy. Coming from a place whose proletarians fought for the vote at Peterloo, and later for space to roam on the moorlands, leading to the Peak District National Park, and looking at what's happening to our NHS, I'd say never take what your ancestors gained for granted.

But what the remark about the Taksim Gezi park reminded me of more topically is that this year the Irish labour movement is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Dublin transport strike and lockout. Involving more than 20,000 workers in struggle against 300 employers, this bitter dispute lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914.  Although the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), led by Liverpool-born James Larkin, was simply fighting for decent pay and conditions, this was a battle for the basic right to belong to a trade union.

About Dublin in 1913, Wikipedia tells us:

In 1913, one third of Dublin's population lived in slums. 30,000 families lived in 15,000 tenements. An estimated four million pledges were taken in pawnbrokers every year. The infant mortality rate amongst the poor was 142 per 1,000 births, which was very high for a European nation. The situation was made considerably worse by the high rate of disease in the slums, which was the result of a lack of health care and cramped living conditions, among other things. The most prevalent disease in the Dublin slums at this time was tuberculosis (TB), which spread through tenements very quickly and caused many deaths amongst the poor. A report published in 1912 claimed that TB-related deaths in Ireland were fifty percent higher than in England or Scotland, and that the vast majority of TB-related deaths in Ireland occurred amongst the poorer classes.     

If anyone needed to organise and raise themselves to decent conditions it was the Dublin workers. Yet organising in this city, with so many unskilled workers competing for what were often casual jobs, could not be easy. 

William Martin Murphy, the owner of the Dublin tramway corporation and much else beside, was supposed to be a charitable man in private, but in his his business he preferred casual staff as less likely to join the union, had people working up to 17 hours a day, and encouraged an informer culture so people snitched on fellow workers. A former Home Rule MP who considerd Larkin a dangerous revolutionary, Murphy owned newspapers to take his side, and rallied the employers to resist trade unionism. On August 15, 1913 he set the path by sacking 40 workers suspected of belonging to the ITGWU, and over the following weeks got rid of 300 more.   

During this struggle the workers were not only up against the employers and scabs. On August 30, two men were killed and hundreds injured when the Dublin police baton charged a crowd in Sackville Street (Now O'Connell Street) where Larkin had been addressing a rally. The Church, too, sided with the bosses and denounced socialists like Larkin and his deputy James Connolly as enemies of religion. When the socialist Dora Montafiore arranged for locked out workers' children to be given a break and be taken care of by sympathisers in England, the Church denounced this as a plot to meddle with their souls and convert them to Protestantism or atheism. Priests led mobs to stop the children embarking.

If anyone could stand up to such reactionary foes it was James Larkin. A pioneer of the flying picket and the sympathy strike as tactics, he was reknowned as an orator who could raise the morale and unity of a crowd, articulating their finest aspirations. Already before founding the ITGWU he had achived the rare feat of uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast in what began as a dock strike in 1907 and became a general strike movement even affecting the police.

But there was more to Larkin's vision of "One Big Union" than strikes and pickets. To organise women workers, but also to extend the union's reach to the workers' family and community, both to reinforce it as a union and make it a force to change society, 'Big Jim' was joined by his sister, Delia Larkin. Early in 1912 the union had acquired its Liberty Hall headquarters, and here Delia Larkin started a workers' choir and later a workers' dramatic society. There were Irish language classes, and every Christma there would be children's party, with jelly and ice cream and presents for all.

.Then on Sunday, August 3, 1913, Croydon Park, a country house with three acres of parkland at Clontarf, was opened as the union's recreation centre. There was a "Grand Temperance Fete" and children's carnival, with singing and dancing and games, and the band played all day. The park became home to two workers' football teams and a boxing team too. And come Christmas 1913, in defiance of the employers' lockout, and the barrage of attacks from priests and press, a fine Christmas tree went up in the park, along with three large marquees in which 5,000 children could be fed and entertained.
The bosses and reactionaries might paint Jim Larkin as the devil, but to many Dublin working people it was the Larkins and the union who had put a smile on the children's faces.

In September 1913, following the police brutality experienced in Dublin, Croydon Park was given another historical significance. It was here that the newly formed Irish Citizen Army would assemble to train and drill, under a former British Army officer, a son of the Protestant Ascendancy, Captain Jack White.. Begun as a workers' defence force, the Citizen Army under James Connolly's leadership would have a major role in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Why Taksim Gezi plan raised emotion

Croydon Park and the ICA.

See also:,_Humanities_%26_Social_Sciences/History/news_viewer?did=218756893

Books:  James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, 1876-1947, by Emmet Larkin

             A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-1960, by Emmet O'Connor

             Strumpet City (novel) by James Plunkett

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