Connolly, the Dublin Steampacket Company dispute and the 1916 Rising


“The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. They cannot be dissevered” – James Connolly

The article below is an extended version of a paper given to the Dublin Dockworkers’ Preservation Society on 23 May 2015.  Thanks to the author for sending this fascinating article to the blog.

by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

All too often, James Connolly’s last months tend to be seen as a period in which he compartmentalised his tasks, dividing his time between preparing a military uprising and, to a lesser extent, performing basic trade union work. An extreme variation of this is that he followed the majority of his socialist contemporaries in abandoning the class struggle at least until the end of the World War, if not altogether, and that, in any case, he never organised an actual, or, anyway a major strike.

None of these assumptions is true. The full facts of his wartime career show him to have been acting as a socialist, even if, as he admitted, other socialists would not understand.

Guiding strategy

His guiding strategy was summarised in the last paragraph of the Resolution on War, passed in 1907 by the Socialist International’s Congress at Stuttgart:
“In case war should break out… it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

This has been ignored all too often by those trying to explain Connolly’s first World War strategy. This ignorance is helped by the fact that he did not attend the said Congress (or, indeed any other Congress of the International). Nonetheless, such non-attendance was due to extraneous causes. His internationalism stimulated him to learn to read three languages beside English and to speak fluently in Italian. He reported on the Stuttgart debate in The Harp. He was, in fact, in the Socialist International, albeit on the fringes, unable to participate adequately in its polemics and thereby handicapped in his political development. Nonetheless his actions during the World War were quite in keeping with the directive given in the Stuttgart resolution’s paragraph quoted.

Until, August 1914, Connolly’s strategy had been summarised empirically in his formula “peacefully if possible, by force if necessary”. Along with the other leaders of the Irish Trade Union Congress (TUC), he criticised the third Home Rule Bill mainly because of its undemocratic nature shown in the terms of election for its planned Irish assembly and, then, in partition. On this last, he did sound a militaristic note:
“To [partition], Labour should give the bitterest opposition. Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.” Irish Worker, 14 March 1914.

However, his definite strategic proposal was:
“The true path of salvation for our class is along the line of a closer organisation of our forces…. Political power must wait upon economic or industrial power…. Had we such an organisation of Labour today there would be no fear of the Exclusion of Ulster, nor any other betrayal of our national hopes.” Speech to I.T.U.C. Annual Meeting, recorded in Irish Worker, 30 May 1914.

This attitude can be compared with that of Padraig Pearse expressed at the mass meeting celebrating the announcement of the third Home Rule Bill (later the Home Rule Act). Like Connolly, Pearse supported the bill critically. His criticism was of a more tradtional republican kind:
“If we are tricked this time, there is a party in Ireland – and I am one of them – that will advise the Gael to have no counsel or dealings with the Gall [the foreigner=the British] for ever again but to answer them henceforward with the strong hand and the sword’s edge. Let the Gall understand that if we are cheated once more there will be red war in Ireland.”

Had the republicans staged a rising, the author of Labour in Irish History might have joined it (and shocked his comrades in the Socialist International), but he would not have played the incendiary role that he did in 1916.

World War I and divisions on the left

The opening of the European war caused him to advocate revolution for an independent Irish Republic. The Socialist International had collapsed, the vast majority of the members of its affiliates becoming Defencists, lining up behind the bourgeois governments of their own states. In Britain, the Labour Party majority supported the United Kingdom war effort, and the party’s general secretary, Arthur Henderson, would serve in the cabinet that gave Sir John Maxwell the freedom to execute Connolly. Of the specifically socialist groupings, the British Socialist Party (the former Social Democractic Federation) split, with its leader, (and Connolly’s former leader) Henry Hyndman, forming a pro-war breakaway National Socialist Party which liquidated later into the Labour Party. The parties to its right (the non-Marxist Independent Labour Party) and its left (the Socialist Labour Party of Scotland) stayed firmly anti-war. In particular, two old friends of Connolly capitulated to the frenzy. One was Dan Irving who had entertained him in Burnley, Lancashire; the other his
old mentor, John Leslie, the author of The Irish Question.

In Ireland, outside the Ulster protestant working class, most of whose members were part of the trade union movement but not the political labour movement, only Francis Ledwidge comes to mind, though the anti-war majority on the executive of the Irish T.U.C. and Labour Party were worried enough to postpone Congress’ 1915 Annual Meeting to the next year.

The anti-war minority of socialists were handicapped further
by a division that was not immediately obvious. Most of them considered themselves pacifists, that is to say they spoke and agitated for a peace to be negotiated between the warring capitalist governments, after which, presumably, political life would resume as previously. This was generally the line of the British I.L.P. A leading Irish figure of this current up to 1916 was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. Sean O’Casey seems to have leant that way too, as did, more certainly, the Chairman of the Executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress & Labour Party (ITUCLP), Thomas Johnson, though his position became clear only after the Rising. This group tended, only to a lesser extent than the Defencists, to ignore the Stuttgart directive, but they were inclined to compensate for this by emphasising their support for the weaker parts of the resolution, notably for the blanket opposition to nationalism, regardless of the democratic content of its specific demands.

A second notable factor was that in the need to ally against the war, its members’ real difference with the minority, the Defeatists who upheld the need to turn the war into a revolutionary war, and who included Connolly and Lenin tended to be obscured, particularly among socialists in peripheral countries like Ireland . It was not until Easter Week 1916, while Connolly was fighting in Dublin, that, at a conference at Kienthal, in neutral Switzerland, Lenin proclaimed the need for a new International, centred on those willing to act to mobilise their countries’ masses against their states’ war. This was too late for Connolly.

What was to be done?

His relative isolation compounded his problems. The organised labour movement in Ireland had been weakened by the Dublin Lockout, while nationalist Irishmen were being urged to join the British Army by the untrue assurance that the Home Rule Act had established an independent Ireland. Accordingly he recognised that the national issue would prove a certain catalyst for the Irish workers to utilise the war crisis ‘to rouse the masses and hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.’

The question was how this was to be done. Some parts of his strategy were clear. Firstly, he wanted to involve the organised Irish labour movement in the leadership of the struggle. Secondly, and unlike other revolutionary anti-war socialists, he did not look to a politically-defined working class body to give such leadership. Of the two such parties in Ireland, Irish Labour was identical to the country’s Trade Union Congress until 1930, while the Independent Labour Party of Ireland was a struggling propaganda group. He was discouraged from trying to turn either into a revolutionary force by his experience of a succession of politically homogenous socialist groups. Nor did he have the expectations that Larkin had for the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) other than as the coercive arm of militant Labour. As an old Wobbly, a member of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), he looked to his Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) to give the lead but it had been weakened by the Dublin lockout. In any case, he recognised that the ITGWU was organised to include all members of certain worker groups, regardless of consciousness and that, accordingly, though the most militant of all Irish unions, it would not take the offensive on the national issue.

His first proposal was “we must consider at once whether it will not be our duty to refuse to allow agricultural produce to leave Ireland until provision is made for the Irish working class.” Only then did he add: “This may mean more than a transport strike, it may mean battling in the streets to keep in the country the food for our people.” In turn, the international task: “Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.” Irish Worker, 8 August 1914.

Despite some support from ITGWU members, this strategy could not work. Their union was not organised in all the Irish ports, and the railway unions were led by Defencists. So Connolly headed an alliance with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Sinn Fein under the public cover of an Irish Neutrality League. To ensure this, he fought successfully for the post of his union’s Acting General Secretary. He could not project a consistent strategy for the League. It collapsed in December 1914 when the state’s suppression of anti-war publications caused the IRB to end open work outside the Volunteers. After this, Connolly concentrated on reorganising his union and on its
industrial work, made more necessary by wartime inflation.

From May, he made propaganda in his Workers’ Republic, including articles on Revolutionary Warfare. They warned against concentrating insurrection in one city and against relying too much on the propertied classes, but encouraged readers to join both “the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers”. By then, too, he was trying to start a new agitational Anti-Conscription League with Sinn Fein, itself by then a shadow of what it had been. These moves may have been encouraged by major strikes in south Wales that seemed to offer immediate possibilities of working class rebellion throughout these islands. This door closed in November when the chauvinist Defencist Charles Stanton defeated the official Labour candidate in the by-election for the pacifist Keir Hardie’s Merthyr seat.

The Dublin Steampacket dispute

By then, anyway, the situation in Dublin had become more definitely promising because of the strike of the dockers employed by the Dublin Steampacket Company. Of the nine concerns operating out of Dublin port, it was the only Irish-based line and, thus, an enterprise that many of Connolly’s nationalist contemporaries would have considered to be barred to class struggle. More significantly, in that port and in that of Kingstown, it was one of the most important of the shipping companies. It had the government franchise to operate the Irish Mail. It employed more than 200 of Dublin’s 600 dockers. The company’s Managing Director, Edward Watson’s, view of organised labour was similar to William Martin Murphy’s, though for him the great Satan was not Jim Larkin but James Connolly. When Larkin had been in jail during the lockout, his substitute, Connolly, had repudiated an agreement between their union and the company in order to close the port completely. His act was not criticised by his comrades. Nonetheless it embittered relations between union and company. Connolly had to recognise this if he were to increase dockers’ wages. Over the late summer of 1915, he organised successful strikes of the dockers employed by the railway companies operating at the East Wall.

Then, on 1 October, he called on the shipping companies serving Dublin port to raise dock wages. Permanent workers earning 30 shillings a week should gain three shillings, casuals’ wages should rise by one shilling a day from six shillings, overtime rates should rise from five shillings and eightpence per hour to six and six. (To get this in today’s real wages in cents, these figures should be magnified one hundred and fifty times.) After a brief strike, five of the nine settled on the 23rd, three others within days. Only Watson and the Steampacket Company remained opposed. On the 29th, the dockers were offered arbitration or the threat of arrest under the Munitions of War Act. They braved the latter (an empty threat, as Connolly noted) and struck from the next day.

As yet, Connolly seems to have been reluctant to concentrate too much of his union’s resources in the struggle. He did not want a new lockout. He had reason for this fear. William Martin Murphy was eager to make such an attempt to smash the union when Watson approached him. Other members of the Dublin Employers’ Federation were less enthusiastic and refused to move without the co-operation of the Master Carriers Association, whose carters were refusing to pass the pickets. On 8 November, this co-operation was refused, giving the death blow to Murphy’s strategy of general lockout. Admittedly, as Connolly recognised, this was a blessing in disguise for the employers who would show after the collapse
of the economic boom after 1920, that it was easier to beat their workers by piecemeal attacks. For now, the strike continued. The wartime boom enabled many strikers to supplement their strike pay through ‘nixers’. From 15 December, their numbers were swollen by the unofficial action of the seamen of the British (and chauvinist Defencist) National Seamen & Firemen’s Union (NSFU) against the company. This made it pointless for it to employ scab labour on the docks, since it could not man its boats to sail there.

Connolly’s refusal to agree to arbitration was said by him to
have been out of loyalty to the shipping firms with which he had reached agreement, but there seem to have been other considerations which increased in importance. Even before the Master Carriers’ refusal, he used the stoppage as a way to reinforce the Citizen Army (ICA) which had been losing members since the outbreak of the war. He organised regular drilling of the pickets to form an ICA Reserve. Secondly, the central importance of the Steampacket Company presented the possibility that the British Army might be used to break the strike. Watson appealed to Dublin Castle for this. Connolly saw that this could start a major crisis that would spread well beyond the port. In particular, it could provoke the ITGWU. to unite against the colonial state. Unfortunately for his hopes, Sir Matthew Nathan, the Irish Under-Secretary, saw this, too, was determined to avoid this and would continue to do so despite further appeals from Watson and others.

The company got support from the Irish Party (the Home Rulers) who appealed unsuccessfully to Connolly to accept arbitration. The party’s allies on the Dublin Corporation flooded the docks with the city’s Metropolitan Police. It threatened also to get the British Admiralty to requisition the company’s ships. Connolly warned that this would be seen as a declaration of class war by the state. In the end only one ship was requisitioned. The company’s one victory was
achieved when boats chartered by the cattle trade were able to
load at Dublin on 23 December. It did not happen again.

Perhaps most importantly, as the strike began, the conscription issue began to come to a head. The United Kingdom government was known to be under pressure to impose that measure on Britain and Ireland. Above and beyond its general unpopularity, this would expose the lie, used by the Home Rulers on the recruiting platforms, that Britain had granted Ireland genuine independence. It was fuel for revolution. The Anti-Conscription League revived, now with IRB participation. Though, in the new year, the published Conscription Bill excluded Ireland from its provisions, Connolly warned against employers sacking workers to starve them into the British Army. The Workers’ Republic published his articles urging revolution alongside reports of the strike. In December and January, he presented an economic programme for a republic. A week after the second piece was appeared, the Military Council of the IRB brought him to negotiate the alliance that would fight at Easter. He wanted the Rising sooner, perhaps fearing the collapse of the strike. In the end, he agreed. As long as the strike continued, the labour movement, or part of it, could claim to provide a barrier to British troops entering Dublin by sea, leaving such forces to proceed through what the revolutionaries intended would be a country mobilised against them.

Connolly’s fears for the strike would be fulfilled, but it was a close run thing. For more than two months, the dispute continued. Its weak spot was composed of the sailors in the NSFU. That union’s leaders offered them a wage increase of five shillings a week if they resumed work. They did so on 27 March. The company began to run boats to Dublin again and to look for scabs to unload them. The psychological effect was far greater. The strikers’ momentum was broken. Though Connolly called to intensify picketing on the Steampacket Company sheds, his appeal does not seem to have been effective. On the other side, probably under government pressure, Watson did not go beyond his offer. On 11 April, the dockers resumed work at the old rates but with scabs dismissed and with the issue going to arbitration.

From industrial dispute to Rising

Connolly’s hopes of a Citizen Army Reserve of dockers had been dashed. Nor was it possible to involve the Transport Union as such in the coming rebellion. He made one last attempt to provoke the colonial state by raising the green flag above Liberty Hall on 16 April. The said state remained unprovoked, though the flag may have given it the impression that the Hall was the headquarters of the Rising. Unfortunately, it was after the revolt had started that this illusion was made effective, and the resultant bombardment of the building contributed to union members’ reluctance to support future revolts. Meanwhile for that insurgency, Connolly had to rely on the purely military forces of the Citizen Army and the Volunteers, though some dockers may have joined the rebels after the outbreak. By then, anyway, the Volunteer commander, Eoin MacNeill, had ensured that the Rising would be restricted to Dublin and a few other urban centres and their surroundings. The Rising planned for all nationalist Ireland was postponed, and Connolly had to choose between leading just such a localised, class-amorphous rebellion as that against which he had warned, or waiting to be interned. Considerations, international as well as national, convinced him to lead his colleagues to choose the first option.

The arbitration tribunal on the Steampacket Company strike met on 29 June, after Connolly’s death. The dockers were represented by his friend William O’Brien, then Acting Secretary of Dublin Trades Council. Released from internment to negotiate in handcuffs, O’Brien won the dockers 37 shillings per five hour week, overtime at five pence an hour: casuals, six shillings and twopence per day and the same overtime: Sunday work a shilling an hour. The strikers had won their demands. The full possibilities of their action had not been realised.

Labour movement after the Rising

Shortly after this, in August, the ITUCLP held its first Annual Meeting since 1914. Its Dublin delegation composed nearly half the attendance. its members had been traumatised by the Rising and its aftermath. The ITGWU had had its headquarters ruined, its Acting General Secretary executed, its President interned, and several leading members killed or invalided. Not surprisingly, it is said that a rump of its executive had voted to expel Connolly while he was still alive. Congress itself had its Secretary interned and the leader of the Dublin Labour Party killed.

After the failure of a strategy, there is often a gut reaction to assume that the failure occurred because it was too ambitious. This gut reaction was rationalised by Congress’ President Thomas Johnson. Connolly seems to have under-estimated him, seeing him as if he was an over-cautious Defeatist. In fact, Johnson was a principled Pacifist; moreover, he was Chairman of the Congress and Party Executive, in which Connolly had been a first-term member. After the Rising, with Connolly alive and waiting his fate, Johnson had sent a letter to the government pleading for the release of working class non-combatants, but not asking for clemency for Connolly and the militants. Now he spoke to bury Connolly’s strategy. The 1916 rebels were praised in the same manner as those fighting for Britain. Indeed, Johnson expressed his support for the British war effort, though denouncing “the national habit of mind” as the cause of war. Above all, he urged a slow building of labour’s organisational strength, backed by a programme of practical demands. The message was clear: Labour was too weak to seek power for itself. It could wait until the Irish bourgeoisie defeated the British state and then seek to take power constitutionally.

In practice, this meant avoiding too great an identification with
the national struggle save when the occupying power abused its strength too obviously. The Citizen Army became an increasing embarrassment to the ITGWU and had eventually to leave Liberty Hall. The new line meant, too, a less militant approach to industrial struggles, summarised by the Transport Union President Tom Foran’s statement “nowadays we get things done by negotiation”. This worked for a while until the wartime boom finally broke in 1920. From the Anglo-Irish truce onwards (and, in the north, even earlier) the bosses of Ireland picked off their workers’ gains, industry by industry, as Connolly had warned was their most effective strategy. They were supported by the new bourgeois state in which the failure to win independence provided the basis for new divisions in which one side was able to steal enough of Labour’s clothes to relegate it to third, and sometimes fourth party status for ninety years. It is difficult to imagine that a continuation of Connolly’s policy would have served the working people of Ireland any worse.

The question remains: how far did he make a conscious decision to use the Steam Packet Company dispute as a means to bring his union into direct opposition to the colonial power in Ireland ? It is still an open question answerable only by circumstantial evidence. What is certain is that the data to support it both on his side and on the side of Dublin Castle is fuller than any selection that backs the traditional account of the Easter Week leader who happened to be (or, just, to have been formerly) a socialist.


Posted on January 5, 2016, in 1913 lockout, British state repression (general), Economy and workers' resistance, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Internationalism, Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Labour Party, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Scabs, Social conditions, The road to the Easter Rising, Toadyism, Trade unions, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Connolly, the Dublin Steampacket Company dispute and the 1916 Rising.

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