Martina Devlin

Thursday 21 August 2014

How the church put itself before needs of starving children in 1913

Published 26/08/2013 | 04:00

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Union leader ‘Big’ Jim Larkin is led away by police after his arrest during the Dublin Lockout

APLAN to evacuate famished children from tenements and send them to homes with food on the table was wrong. But starving their parents into submission during the Dublin Lockout was not wrong.

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Labourers protesting against a harsh working environment, casualisation and subsistence rate pay was wrong. But an indifferent Establishment keeping them in squalid conditions was not wrong.

Workers' rallies were wrong. But unleashing the Dublin Metropolitan Police to baton-charge strikers, or torturing a union official to death in a police cell, was not wrong.

In 1913, the disconnect between right and wrong was as conspicuous as the gulf between rich and poor. At the time, one-third of Dublin's population lived in disease-ridden slums towards which both Britain and the well-heeled Irish middle classes turned a blind eye.

When the worm finally turned, the Dublin Lockout was the result. Some 300 employers – who benefited from casual labour arrangements for unskilled workers and feared collective bargaining – locked their workers out of workplaces for trade union membership.

During five months of deadlock, an organisation that ought to have understood the need for a fairer social order intervened in the Establishment's favour: it was the Catholic Church. Its contribution helped to collapse the strike. Ireland's most famous industrial dispute erupted 100 years ago today. On the employers' side was William Martin Murphy, press baron and entrepreneur, whose titles included the Irish Independent. On the workers' side was 'Big' Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, which exists today as SIPTU.

A century on, the events of the Lockout lose none of their capacity to shock. The employers had the support of the State, which cared little for its impoverished citizens in their teeming tenements. The law, via the police force and the courts, was harnessed to act against 20,000 strikers.

With no social welfare, strikers' children were going hungry. Almost two months into the Lockout, in October 1913, a plan was devised to send them away to the homes of trade unionists in England and Scotland for the duration of the dispute.

At this point, the Catholic Church took an interest. Its opposition can be summarised as: better a child with an empty stomach than one exposed to non-Catholic influences. Archbishop of Dublin William Walsh whipped up hysteria and panic, with a letter to newspapers condemning the evacuation because the children's religion might be jeopardised.

He directed his attack towards mothers, thundering: "I can only put it to them that they can be no longer held worthy of the name of Catholic mothers if they so far forget that duty as to send away their children to be cared for in a strange land, without any security of any kind that those to whom the poor children are to be handed over are Catholics, or indeed, are persons of any faith at all."

Having lit the fuse, he sat back for the explosion. It flared up in the shape of the 'Save The Kiddies' campaign, during which priests and hymn-singing Catholics – presumably well-fed ones – from organisations including the Ancient Order of Hibernians patrolled docks and train stations. Any attempt to take children on board met with physical resistance: their immortal souls were at stake.

Newspaper accounts described a series of fever-pitch encounters, with priests exhorting the faithful to do battle in the cause of righteousness. A Press Association report noted "the fierce battle" between priests and trade unionists, its correspondent observing: "The clergy have entered into the struggle with an energy which is quite remarkable."

In vain did Larkin protest: "Nobody wants to send the children away... But neither do we wish the children to starve."

Mob frenzy about the fate of strikers' children was a turning point. Their parents' struggle to feed them and keep them healthy in the tenements had not particularly captured the public imagination. But a charitable plan misrepresented as an abduction plot – a sinister stratagem to pervert Catholic children to Protestantism – now that set middle Ireland howling.

The evacuation had been proposed at Liberty Hall by an English socialist and feminist named Dora Montefiore. Subsequently, the chief secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, reported to the prime minister that there were no famished children in Ireland, adding: "It was a new advertising dodge of a few silly women, but it has broken the strike."

The workers were starved back to work. Murphy's victory was heavy handed, and history has not remembered him kindly for it.

Already angered by Murphy's opposition to a gallery development for Hugh Lane's paintings, the Lockout inspired Yeats to write 'September 1913': his scathing denunciation of the devoutly Catholic bourgeoisie, of which Murphy was kingpin. The poet depicted them fumbling in a greasy till, adding "the halfpence to the pence / And prayer to shivering prayer, until / You have dried the marrow from the bone."

Although the Dublin Lockout hinged on an employee's right to belong to a union, the strikers were not engaged in class warfare or demanding a redistribution of wealth: they wanted only a slender improvement in their lot.

The Catholic Church did not cover itself in glory during the clash, a watershed in the history of Irish labour's relationship to capital. Clerical interference prevented strikers' children from being removed from the slums – most were condemned to remain in sub-human conditions in a city with one of Europe's highest infant mortality rates.

Still, destitute, malnourished and exposed to disease though the children were, at least they could be certain of a place in heaven. Probably sooner rather than later.

Martina Devlin is among contributors to a commemorative booklet, 'Lockout Centenary: Dun Laoghaire 1913-2013', available in bookshops in the Dun Laoghaire and Bray areas

Irish Independent

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