There were always more workers than jobs in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century and little certainty in life other than you would be hungrier some days than others. The men filed out from the dockland tenements each morning, grateful for any back breaking work they might have. Else, they shuffled into line, competing for the eye of the boss and a few hours casual work.
There was solidarity - of hope some days and despair on others - for even a job didn’t guarantee you a daily meal for your children. Then along came Big Jim Larkin. Born of Irish parents in Liverpool, Larkin set his head and his heart to organising the workers of Dublin, taking on the might of the Dublin employers and one man in particular, William Martin Murphy.
Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (I.T.G.W.U.) in 1909, purchasing the Northumberland Hotel and renaming it Liberty Hall. There were meeting rooms, a printing press, a growing membership - and a plan. By the summer of 1913 the battle lines were drawn. Murphy forbade his workers to join Larkin’s union. Strikes blazed like wildfires across the city and died down again. The poet, William Butler Yeats, cast the employers in the role of Dickensian misers:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
In September two tenement buildings, housing ten families, collapsed and while rescuers dug with bare hands through the rubble for survivors, the city held its breath - was it an omen? Tram workers felt the first blow - dismissed for membership of the I.T.G.W.U. The dispute quickly escalated, the dockers too joining the ranks of the strikers.
Weeks turned into months and Larkin and the workers fought desperately against the combined might of the employers, a sympathetic police force and the Catholic Church. Bloody riots scarred the streets. Scab labour arrived from England - along with food parcels. An evacuation plan for the children of strikers swung into action. Desperate mothers, prepared to see their children sail to England to be fed, watched in dismay as priests and workers came to blows over the heads of the terrified children on the quaysides. The world press arrived and photographs of starving children huddled in doorways appeared in newspapers from London to Paris to New York.
New Year, 1914 brought the desperate realisation that the strike had failed. The workers filed back onto the trams, into the timber yards and onto the docks. Murphy crowed out his success but he hadn’t smashed the union - which became one of the biggest and influential trade unions in Ireland and is still headquartered in Liberty Hall on the banks of the Liffey, a mere stroll from the Seán O’Casey bridge.