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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Munitions Strike

dublin-dock-strike-1920In May 1920, East London dockers refuse to load the SS Jolly George, a ship intended to carry arms to be used against the new Bolshevik state. The Munitions Strike begins in Dublin on May 20, 1920 when dock workers follow suit and refuse to handle war material. They are soon joined by members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

When news of the proposed radical action is brought to trade unionist William O’Brien’s desk on May 19, he informs Thomas Foran, General President of the union. The following day, the men standing around waiting to begin work are told that the work is not to start.

On hearing of the political action at the Dublin docks, a second ship was diverted to Dun Laoghaire. There, the military are on hand to unload its cargo, but when the cargo arrives at Westland Row station, workers there refuse to handle the goods. While the dockworkers are casual workers who can be reallocated elsewhere, the railwaymen are permanent employers and members of the separate National Union of Railwaymen.

In the following days, the action taken in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire is replicated elsewhere. To sections of the conservative press, the behaviour of dockers and railwaymen is scandalous. The ever reliable Punch illustrated news produces a sketch in a June 1920 edition showing an IRA gunman hiding behind a rural wall, joined by a railway worker, or “the blameless accomplice.”

The brave stand that began on the docks of Dublin spreads nationwide, largely thanks to the militancy of railway workers. From arms in storage, the strike is widened to include the carrying of men holding arms representing Crown Forces.

The munitions strike is an effective tactic, proven by the infuriated responses to it from the upper-echelons of the British military and political class. In November, the British Government begins closing rail lines, including the Limerick to Waterford and Limerick to Tralee lines,as well as trains into Galway, which instigate a fear among the public that the Irish railway system could be shut down in its entirety.

In the absence of sympathetic strike action in Britain, and with increasingly vicious physical assaults on railwaymen, the Irish leadership feels increasingly vulnerable in the dispute, which eventually winds down in December.

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Birth of William X. O’Brien, Politician & Trade Unionist

william-x-obrienWilliam X. O’Brien, politician and trade unionist, is born on January 23, 1881 in Clonakilty, County Cork. He is christened “John William.”

O’Brien moves with his family to Dublin in 1897, and quickly becomes involved in the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). He is described as “a very significant figure in the ISRP” by ISRP historian David Lynch. He is a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, serving on its executive.

A close friend and associate of James Connolly, O’Brien helps establish the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in 1909, and is instrumental in the Dublin lock-out strike in 1913.

A member of the Irish Neutrality League and Anti-Conscription Committee during World War I, O’Brien is interned on several occasions by the Dublin Castle government. During one of these instances, he stands in the 1920 Stockport by-election, but is refused a release to campaign in it.

With the formation of the Irish Free State, O’Brien is elected as Teachta Dála (TD) for Dublin South at the 1922 general election, and again for Tipperary in June 1927 and again in 1937.

An important figure in the Labour Party in Ireland in its formative days, O’Brien resists James Larkin‘s attempt to gain control of the Party on release from prison. Taking Larkin to court over his occupation of ITGWU headquarters, the Larkin-O’Brien feud results in a split within the labour and trade union movements, and the formation of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

In 1930, O’Brien seeks to have Leon Trotsky granted asylum in Ireland, but the head of the Free State government, W. T. Cosgrave, refuses to allow it.

Active in politics and the trade union movement into his 60s, O’Brien retires in 1946 and dies on October 31, 1968.


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Execution of D.I. Gilbert Potter, R.I.C.

gilbert-norman-potterGilbert Norman Potter, a District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary, is executed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on April 27, 1921 in reprisal for the British execution of Irish republican Thomas Traynor.

Born in Dromahair, County Leitrim on July 10, 1887, Potter receives his commission as District Inspector on April 27, 1901 having completed his cadetship at the Depot, Phoenix Park, Dublin. His first assignment is to Castlepollard, County Westmeath. During the 1909 ITGWU strike in Cork, he is temporarily posted there from Dublin and is also involved in policing the August 14 marches in Portadown. Having had charge of No. 4 Company at the Depot, he is assigned to Cahir in 1912.

On April 23, 1921 District Inspector Potter is captured by the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, IRA, following the Hyland’s Cross Ambush. This occurs near Curraghcloney, close to the village of Ballylooby. The ambush party is initially made up of a combination of the 1st and 2nd Flying Columns 3rd Tipperary Brigade. This is the largest force assembled to date by the Tipperary IRA in anticipation of a major battle. However, the convoy of military lorries that is expected never materialises. Dan Breen and Con Moloney return to Battalion Headquarters, while Seán Hogan‘s Column withdraws northward in the direction of the Galtee Mountains.

As Dinny Lacey‘s No.1 Column prepares to leave towards the south, a small party of British soldiers accompanying two horse-drawn carts unexpectedly approaches from Clogheen and are immediately fired upon. Amid some confusion Lacey’s scattered men withdraw southwards towards the Knockmealdown Mountains. One British soldier, Frank Edward Conday, is fatally wounded and two others from the relieving party are wounded.

By chance, Potter, who is returning by car from police duties at Ballyporeen, drives into a section of the withdrawing No.1 Column. Although in civilian attire, he is recognised by one of the IRA Volunteers and taken prisoner. As part of a new strategy, he is held as a hostage for the safe release of Thomas Traynor, an IRA volunteer and father of ten young children, then under sentence of death at Mountjoy Gaol. The IRA offers to release Potter in exchange for Traynor’s release. Traynor is executed. Traynor has since been honoured by the Irish state as one of “The Forgotten Ten.”

The Column, under sporadic fire from soldiers, alerted at the nearby Clogheen barracks, follow the contours of the mountains to the village of Newcastle. Losing their pursuers, they stay for a period of time at the townland of Glasha. Here Potter is detained in an out-building of a farm which is regularly used by the IRA as a safe house. From there the party is guided into the Nire Valley by a contingent of local Waterford Volunteers and on to the Comeragh Mountains.

Accounts from Rathgormack, County Waterford suggest he is kept for at least one night at a nearby Ringfort before being taken down the hill to a field then owned by Power’s of Munsboro, where he meets his ultimate fate. At 7:00 PM, on April 27, following news of Traynor’s execution by hanging, he is shot to death, and hastily buried in a shallow grave on the banks of the River Clodiagh. A diary he kept during his period of captivity and some personal effects and farewell letters, are returned anonymously to his wife. It is the first confirmation she has that he has been killed. The artifacts are later lost when his son’s ship is torpedoed in 1942, during World War II.

(Pictured: Photo of District Inspector Gilbert Potter R.I.C. that appeared in the Press during his time in captivity)


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Formation of the Irish Citizen Army

The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) is formed on November 23, 1913, at the height of the Dublin Lockout. Its purpose is to enable the locked-out men to defend themselves in clashes with the Dublin Metropolitan Police and to counteract the demoralizing effects of unemployment by providing discipline, cohesion and purpose. The idea of forming a force apparently is first formally proposed in 1913 by Captain James Robert “Jack” White, an ex-army officer from County Antrim, who had been educated at Winchester College and Royal Military College, Sandhurst. During a speech in August, James Larkin had already suggested that the workers form a force. He publicly repeats this instruction on November 13. James Connolly likewise urges the men to train “as they are doing in Ulster.” Two weeks later drilling begins. According to the ICA constitution, its members are to “work for an Irish republic and for the emancipation of labour.” Larkin is anxious that those who enlist should not only espouse these principles but also be members of unions recognised by the Irish Trades Union Congress.

Despite competition from the Irish Volunteers, which launches on November 25, 1913, ICA membership quickly surpasses 1,000. However, after the dispute is over in January 1914 and the men return to work, the “army” all but disappears. But it is Connolly above all who, after his appointment as its commandant and as leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, rescues it from terminal decline and welds it into a potent force and potential weapon for his own use. He determines its structure, vets its officers and imposes a rigid discipline. He also demands an ideological commitment to revolution and the goal of an independent Irish socialist republic. The force’s guiding principle is that “the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested by right in the people of Ireland.” Its membership remains small but it is otherwise superior to the much larger Irish Volunteers in its unity of purpose, lack of factional and ideological division and in the quality of its training.

After the outbreak of World War I, Connolly has become increasingly committed to fomenting an insurrection in Ireland. This is reflected in his military preparations with the ICA. He uses its headquarters, Liberty Hall, as his base. Fearing he might act on his own, and recognising the merits of collaboration, the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council informs him of their own clandestine plans for a rising and an agreement is reached.

During Easter week of 1916, 219 ICA men fight alongside over 1,300 from the Irish Volunteers. As the appointed leader of both forces in Dublin, Connolly skillfully ensures that the ideological and social divisions and personality clashes, which have hitherto blighted their relationship, are largely overcome. ICA forces are mainly concentrated at the General Post Office (GPO), the College of Surgeons and Dublin’s City Hall. They win volunteer admiration for their professionalism, dedication, and ruthlessness. Two of their leaders are subsequently executed – Connolly and Michael Mallin, the ICA Chief of Staff. Constance Markievicz, Mallin`s second-in command, is reprieved. Others are imprisoned or interned. The ICA is not revived after the insurrection. The new leadership of the ITGWU focuses instead on building up the union, safeguarding members’ wages and improving working conditions.


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Birth of James Connolly, Republican & Socialist Leader

James Connolly, Irish republican and socialist leader, is born to Irish-born parents in the Cowgate area of Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 5, 1868. He spoke with a Scottish accent throughout his life.

Connolly has an education up to the age of about ten in the local Catholic primary school. He then leaves and works in labouring jobs. Due to economic difficulties, he joins the British Army at age 14, falsifying his age and giving his name as Reid. He serves in Ireland with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment for nearly seven years, during a turbulent period in rural areas known as the Land War.

Connolly develops a deep hatred for the British Army that lasts his entire life. Upon hearing that his regiment is being transferred to India, he deserts. He meets a young woman by the name of Lillie Reynolds and they marry in April 1890, settling in Edinburgh. There, Connolly begins to get involved in the Scottish Socialist Federation, but with a young family to support, he needs a way to provide for them. He briefly establishes a cobbler‘s shop in 1895, but this fails after a few months.

By 1892 Connolly is involved in the Scottish Socialist Federation, acting as its secretary from 1895. During this time, he becomes involved with the Independent Labour Party which Keir Hardie had formed in 1893.

Connolly and his family move to Dublin, where he takes up the position of full-time secretary for the Dublin Socialist Club. At his instigation, the club quickly evolved into the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). The ISRP is regarded by many Irish historians as a party of pivotal importance in the early history of Irish socialism and republicanism.

While active as a socialist in Great Britain, Connolly is the founding editor of The Socialist newspaper and is among the founders of the Socialist Labour Party which splits from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903.

A combination of frustration with the progress of the ISRP and economic necessity causes Connolly to emigrate to the United States in September 1903. While in America he was a member of the Socialist Labor Party of America (1906), the Socialist Party of America (1909) and the Industrial Workers of the World, and founded the Irish Socialist Federation in New York, 1907.

On his return to Ireland in 1910 he is right-hand man to fellow-syndicalist James Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In 1913, in response to the Great Dublin Lockout, he, along with an ex-British officer, Jack White, found the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), an armed and well-trained body of labour men whose aim is to defend workers and strikers, particularly from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. He also founds the Irish Labour Party as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1912 and is a member of its National Executive.

When the Easter Rising begins on April 24, 1916, Connolly is Commandant of the Dublin Brigade. As the Dublin Brigade has the most substantial role in the rising, he is de facto commander-in-chief. His leadership in the Easter Rising is considered formidable. Michael Collins says of Connolly that he “would have followed him through hell.”

Connolly is sentenced to death by firing squad for his part in the rising. On May 12, 1916 he is taken by military ambulance to Royal Hospital Kilmainham, across the road from Kilmainham Gaol, and from there taken to the gaol, where he is to be executed.

Connolly has been so badly injured from the fighting that he is unable to stand before the firing squad. He is carried to a prison courtyard on a stretcher. Instead of being marched to the same spot where the others had been executed, at the far end of the execution yard, he is tied to a chair and then shot.

His body, along with those of the other leaders, is put in a mass grave without a coffin. The executions of the rebel leaders deeply angers the majority of the Irish population, most of whom had shown no support during the rebellion. It is Connolly’s execution that causes the most controversy. The executions are not well received, even throughout Britain, and draw unwanted attention from the United States, which the British Government is seeking to bring into the war in Europe. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith orders that no more executions are to take place, an exception being that of Roger Casement as he has not yet been tried.


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Birth of Union Leader Jim Larkin

james-larkinJames (Jim) Larkin, Irish trade union leader and socialist activist, is born to Irish parents in Liverpool, England, on January 21, 1876. He and his family later move to a small cottage in Burren, County Down. Growing up in poverty, he receives little formal education and begins working in a variety of jobs while still a child.

In 1905, Larkin is one of the few foremen to take part in a strike on the Liverpool docks. He is elected to the strike committee, and although he loses his foreman’s job as a result, his performance so impresses the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) that he is appointed a temporary organiser.

Larkin moves to Belfast in 1907 to organise the city’s dock workers for the NUDL. He succeeds in unionising the workforce, and as employers refuse to meet the wage demands, he calls the dockers out on strike in June. Carters and coal men soon join in, the latter settling their dispute after a month.

In 1908, Larkin moves south and organises workers in Dublin, Cork, and Waterford, with considerable success. His involvement, against union instructions, in a dispute in Dublin results in his expulsion from the NUDL. The union later prosecutes him for diverting union funds to give strike pay to Cork workers engaged in an unofficial dispute. After trial and conviction for embezzlement in 1910, he is sentenced to prison for a year. This is widely regarded as unjust, and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, pardons him after he has served three months in prison.

After his expulsion from the NUDL, Larkin founds the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) at the end of December 1908. The organisation exists today as the Services Industrial Professional & Technical Union (SIPTU). In early 1909, Larkin moves to Dublin, which becomes the main base of the ITGWU and the focus of all his future union activity in Ireland.

In June 1911, Larkin establishes a newspaper, The Irish Worker and People’s Advocate, as a pro-labour alternative to the capitalist-owned press. In 1912, in partnership with James Connolly, Larkin helps form the Irish Labour Party.

In early 1913, Larkin achieves some successes in industrial disputes in Dublin. Two major employers, Guinness and the Dublin United Tramway Company, are the main targets of Larkin’s organising ambitions. The chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company, industrialist and newspaper proprietor William Martin Murphy, is determined not to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce. On August 15, he dismisses 40 workers he suspects of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week. On August 26, 1913 the tramway workers officially go on strike.

The resulting industrial dispute is the most severe in Ireland’s history. Employers in Dublin engage in a sympathetic lockout of their workers when the latter refuses to sign the pledge, employing blackleg labour from Britain and from elsewhere in Ireland. Guinness, the largest employer in Dublin, refuses the employers’ call to lock out its workers but it sacks 15 workers who struck in sympathy.

For seven months the lockout affects tens of thousands of Dublin workers and employers, with Larkin portrayed as the villain by Murphy’s three main newspapers, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, and the Evening Herald, and by other bourgeois publications in Ireland. The lock-out eventually concludes in early 1914 when calls by James Connolly and Larkin for a sympathetic strike in Britain are rejected by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC). Larkin’s attacks on the TUC leadership for this stance also lead to the cessation of financial aid to the ITGWU.

Some months after the lockout ends, Larkin leaves for the United States. He intends to recuperate from the strain of the lockout and raise funds for the union. Once there he becomes a member of the Socialist Party of America, and is involved in the Industrial Workers of the World union (the Wobblies). He becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union and is expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1919 along with numerous other sympathisers of the Bolsheviks during the Red Scare of that year.

Upon his return to Ireland in April 1923, Larkin receives a hero’s welcome, and immediately sets about touring the country meeting trade union members and appealing for an end to the Irish Civil War. In September 1923, Larkin forms the Irish Worker League (IWL), which is soon afterwards recognised by the Communist International as the Irish section of the world communist movement.

James Larkin dies in his sleep on January 30, 1947 in the Meath Hospital. Fr. Aloysius Travers, OFM, who had administered last rites to James Connolly in 1916, also administers extreme unction to Larkin. His funeral mass is celebrated by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who had visited him in hospital before he died, and thousands line the streets of the city as the hearse passes through on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery.


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Death of Irish Dramatist Seán O’Casey

Seán O’Casey, Irish dramatist and memoirist, dies of a heart attack in Torquay, Devon, England on September 18, 1964. A committed socialist, he is the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.

O’Casey is born John Casey at 85 Upper Dorset Street, in the northern inner-city area of Dublin on March 30, 1880. He is a member of the Church of Ireland, baptised on July 28, 1880 in St. Mary’s parish and confirmed at St. John the Baptist Church in Clontarf. He is an active member of Saint Barnabas until his mid-twenties, when he drifts away from the church.

As O’Casey’s interest in Irish nationalism grows, he joins the Gaelic League in 1906 and learns the Irish language. At this time, he Gaelicises his name from John Casey to Seán Ó Cathasaigh. He also learns to play the Uilleann pipes and is a founder and secretary of the St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band. He joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and becomes involved in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, established by James Larkin to represent the interests of the unskilled labourers who inhabit the Dublin tenements. In March 1914 he becomes General Secretary of Larkin’s Irish Citizen Army. On July 24, 1914 he resigns from the ICA, after his proposal to deny dual membership to both the ICA and the Irish Volunteers is rejected.

In 1917, his friend Thomas Ashe dies in a hunger strike and it inspires him to write. He spends the next five years writing plays. O’Casey’s first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, is performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This is the beginning of a relationship that is to be fruitful for both theatre and dramatist but which ends in some bitterness. It is followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

The Plough and the Stars is not well received by the Abbey audience. There is a riot reported on the fourth night of the show. His depiction of sex and religion offends some of the actors who refused to speak their lines. W.B. Yeats intervenes and describes the audience as “shaming themselves.”

In 1928, Yeats rejects O’Casey’s fourth play, The Silver Tassie, for the Abbey. It is an attack on imperialist wars and the suffering they cause. The Abbey refuses to perform it. The plays O’Casey writes after this include the darkly allegorical and highly controversial Within the Gates (1934), which is set within the gates of a busy city park based on London’s Hyde Park. It closes not long after opening and is another box office failure.

Over the next twenty years, O’Casey writes The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1943), Red Roses for Me (1943), Oak Leaves and Lavender (1945), Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1958). In 1959, O’Casey gives his blessing to a musical adaptation of Juno and the Paycock by American composer Marc Blitzstein. The musical, retitled Juno, is a commercial failure, closing after only 16 Broadway performances. Also in 1959, George Devine produces Cock-a-Doodle Dandy at the Royal Court Theatre and it is also successful at the Edinburgh International Festival and has a West End run.

On September 18, 1964, at the age of 84, O’Casey dies of a heart attack, in Torquay, Devon. He is cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.