Tuesday 22 October 2019

My 1916: From a lockout to a rising...

Radicalised by the 1913 lockout, dockland residents went on to play a vital role in 1916, says Joe Mooney

Historian Joe Mooney with Eilish Lynch’s 1916 painting ‘They did us proud our heroes gone’
Historian Joe Mooney with Eilish Lynch’s 1916 painting ‘They did us proud our heroes gone’

When the Easter Rising is mentioned, East Wall and the Dublin Docklands would not be the first place people think of. Yet a substantial number of the rebels came from the North Docks electoral ward.

A fierce gun battle took place at Annesley Bridge and continued down nearby streets, as British troops marching from the Musketry school at Dollymount were hit by sniper fire. British forces rounded up hundreds of locals and locked them in St Barnabas Church and in port-side sheds.

Those interned included the future playwright Sean O'Casey and his mother, who narrowly avoided death when a British sniper in the church steeple fired into their house. At least eight civilians were killed in the district, ranging from aged 8 to 78.

When I look back to those momentous events, it's not my own family I consider, rather it's the story of the community that interests me, and the events that occurred in the locality.

The East Wall History Group has been busy researching this period. It is not only fascinating local history, but forms a significant part of the wider narrative of 1916 previously unrecorded. Easter week 1916 is the pivotal event of 20th-century Ireland but it cannot be seen in isolation, and in our work we try to look at the broader details. For each man, woman, boy or girl who was 'out' in Easter Week 1916 we try to find out what path their lives took to bring them to rise up, and how they fared after the event.

While there was 19th-century radicalism, real militancy arrived locally with 'Big' Jim Larkin and his Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU). The casual dock labourers, carters and warehousemen swelled its ranks. Low pay, casual employment, no work, slum housing, hunger and high infant mortality were the daily reality for these workers. With small improvements in wages and conditions secured, many began to look beyond the workplace towards a radical transformation of society.

The brutal 1913 lockout hardened attitudes. The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was initially a workers' defence body but it metamorphosed into an insurrectionary force. For many in the North Docks, having been part of the David Vs Goliath struggle between workers and employers in 1913, the chance to take up arms for a Workers Republic in 1916 was not only a logical progression but a necessary one.

In 1911 a schoolboys' union was founded in dramatic fashion with a three-day strike at the Wharf School in East Wall. One of the pupils was Bernard Courtney, aged 12. The same year, his father Daniel, a grain worker at the Merchants Warehousing Company, joined the ITGWU and gained a weekly pay rise of 2 shillings.

As Christmas 1913 approached, the largest single eviction in Dublin's history took place. The Courtneys were one of the 62 families evicted from company-owned houses to be replaced by strike-breakers. Radicalised, father and son were both combatants during Easter week, at the GPO and Jacob's biscuit factory respectively. Daniel was present at the surrender on Moore Street and interned at Frongoch camp in Wales. Aged 16, Bernard was among the youngsters sent home prior to the surrender. Sadly, less than a year later he succumbed to Tuberculosis. Daniel would remain a committed Larkinite.

At Frongoch, Daniel would have enjoyed the company of many former dockland neighbours, including Tom Daly. When the authorities tried to force the prisoners to construct a road from the camp, Daly declared: "No work today! We are Trade Unionists and we demand Trade Union wages."

An early member of the ITGWU, Daly had been charged with the murder of a 'scab' during the lockout and faced a death sentence, but was found not guilty after the trial descended into farce. As a Citizen Army trooper, he'd been severely reprimanded by James Connolly for firing his weapon into the air during a rabble-rousing address.

Daly served in the City Hall garrison in Easter Week, and tragically his wife would die while he paid the penalty in the prison camp. He remained a trades unionist, but was content to work and live a reasonably quiet life.

Amongst the other local men and women active at City Hall was Willie Halpin. Famously short in stature (Connolly described him as a mascot), when the British captured the building he avoided them by hiding up a chimney, only to eventually drop down near death from exhaustion.

One person who stands out for me as a revolutionary figure of great vision is Kathleen Lynn, not just a hero of 1916 but so much more. Next Saturday, July 18, our group is hosting 'Kathleen Lynn: A Truly Radical Woman', which will celebrate and examine the life and legacy of this extraordinary activist. It runs from 10am-4pm at the Sean O'Casey Theatre, on St Mary's Road, Dublin 3.

A lifelong campaigner for women's rights, in 1913 she became involved with the campaign for workers' rights at Liberty Hall during the lockout. This led to her assuming the role of chief-medical-officer in the Irish Citizen Army and during the Rising she served with the City Hall Garrison.

Imprisoned several times, she was released in 1918 at the request of Dublin's Lord Mayor to help fight the Spanish Flu epidemic sweeping the city. Working alongside her life-long companion Madeline French Mullen, she founded St Ultan's Children's Hospital at Charlemont Street in 1922.

Always a progressive thinker, she was instrumental in tackling the scourge of TB nationally, championed community health care, and brought educationalist Maria Montessori to Ireland in the 1930s.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of her death and her place in Irish history should be better recognised.

Her life will be discussed next Saturday at the inaugural Sarah Lundberg Summer School, held to honour the memory of our friend Sarah - an archivist, historian and publisher - who passed away tragically last year.

All are welcome to this free event at the Sean O'Casey Theatre, which will explore many aspects of Lynn's life, activities and legacy.

Irish Independent

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