John Newsinger,Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, Merlin Press, London, 2004, pp182, £14.95

In Dublin City in Nineteen-Thirteen

The boss was boss, the employee the slave; 

The woman worked and the child was hungry,

When Larkin came like a towering wave.

JOHN Newsinger’s book provides a narrative and an analysis that fits almost exactly the period from 1913 to the 1916 Easter Rising, the very subjects of Donagh MacDonagh’s ballad, whose opening lines appear above. The book’s final chapter deals with the Irish labour movement in the War of Independence and the early years of the Free State, ending with the period from Larkin’s return to Ireland in 1923 to his death in 1947.

The bulk of the book’s first 110 pages deals impressively with the 1913 Lockout. which was a concerted attempt by the employers to smash the recently formed (and, under Larkin, highly successful) Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Newsinger gives detailed evidence of living conditions in the Dublin slum districts, ‘where the degradation of human kind is carried to a point of abjectness beyond that reached in any city of the Western world, save perhaps Naples’ — this from a supporter of the employers, quoted on page 4. Larkin’s rhetoric (delivered both orally and in print) worked a great transformation in working-class attitudes in the city. Newsinger quotes several examples, and correctly explains the ferocity of his language:

His great concern was to raise up the working class from subordination to a recognition of its own power and strength. His abuse of the multitude of oppressors that day after day lorded it over the working class was but the other side of this coin. Raising up the working class required pulling down its enemies, and this was the intention behind his rhetoric of vilification and abuse. (p29)

It is also clear that Larkin’s version of trade unionism had some affinity with the late twentieth-century ‘social unionism’ developed in such countries as Brazil and South Africa (on which see Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World, Verso, 1997). Newsinger writes: ‘Larkin completely rejected any narrow economic view of trade unionism as a capitulation to the capitalist class. For him, the ITGWU was the means to build a new world, humane and just, and it was this philosophy that filled the pages of the Irish Worker.’ (p31, see also p96)

This judgement is only one indication of Newsinger’s excellent use of the newspaper sources of the period. Larkin was obviously a very gifted orator: in the words of one who heard him, his greatest gift was ‘his ability to translate the feelings of his audience into sympathetic speech’ (p18). (Trotsky clearly also had this ability: see Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p460.) However, there was possibly something even more valuable that he was able to contribute: in the words of the same memorialist cited by Newsinger: ‘More than any other man, Jim Larkin taught me that socialism does not spread by itself because of its own inner beauty or consistency. It spreads when there is something in it that makes it a response to the needs of the hour.’ (p18) (This recalls Marx’s observation in ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” — Introduction’ to the effect that: ‘Theory will be realised in a people only in so far as it is the realisation of their needs… It is not enough that thought [should] strive to actualise itself; actuality must itself strive towards thought.’

Larkin’s speaking powers (and indeed his whole political approach) cannot be assessed without some discussion of his use of religious imagery. A characteristic quote appears on page 61 in the context of the Board of Trade inquiry into the Lockout, to which Larkin gave evidence. I remember an Irish socialist giving me his version of what Larkin said — he could have said it more than once — as: ‘We are resolved that Christ shall not be crucified a second time on the streets of Dublin.’ (The reference is to the Catholic doctrine of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, hence a conception of ordinary working-class Christians as Jesus reincarnate.) 

Newsinger has some very pertinent comments on the Irish Catholic Church in general and on the religiosity of Irish workers in the early twentieth century in particular. As he points out: ‘Whereas, on the Continent, the Catholic Church was allied with the great Catholic landowners and with Catholic governments, in Ireland the great landowners and the government were Protestant. Instead, the Church became a middle-class church.’ (p33)

Anti-clericalism, as a result, failed to develop in Ireland, and the Irish working class remained, with the exception of certain pockets of Protestant support, staunchly Catholic. (This comes out in Sean O’Casey’s beautiful play about the 1913 Lockout, Red Roses for Me.) Hence hostility on the part of the Church posed a problem for Larkin and Connolly in their struggle against the Irish employers. Newsinger makes some penetrating observations on how they tried to handle it.

The author also has some very useful comments on the union’s tactics in the Lockout. Solidarity action by the workers in the ‘sister isle’ was the key, as Larkin recognised (see pp81-82). It was necessary to prevent importation of goods into the port of Dublin. Financial assistance, although valuable, was insufficient. Hence Larkin’s ‘fiery cross’ campaign in England. This produced a certain amount of sympathetic action from miners and transport workers (pp93-94). Larkin, however, was, as it turned out, over-optimistic as to what support he could get from the left-wing TUC leaders, banking on their readiness to initiate official sympathetic action. He was to be tragically deceived. A really powerful unofficial movement, Newsinger argues, could have forced the trade union leaders to countenance strike action in support of the embattled Dublin workers. Such a movement could have come into being through judicious use of local grievances (pp97-98). (What is not always emphasised is the fact that the Dublin confrontation was part of a wave of industrial unrest which swept the UK just before the First World War.) As it was, the Special TUC Conference, which convened in December 1913, was deliberately managed so as to condemn Larkin’s attacks on various recalcitrant British trade union leaders (for example, JH Thomas), and called for reopening of negotiations with the employers. A particularly treacherous role here was that of Ben Tillett (pp100-01), who moved a resolution condemning Larkin’s attacks.

The result was a severe defeat for the ITGWU. Larkin left for the United States in October 1914 (see RM Fox, Jim Larkin, International Publishers, 1957, pp130-31). Connolly took over the union’s leadership. Newsinger argues that a succession of demoralising events then pushed him along the road to the 1916 Rising:

The lockout had ended in a victory for the employers, the Home Rulers had accepted partition, the international working class had proved incapable of stopping the war, and the Irish people, including the great majority of the Volunteers, had rallied to the British Empire. The accumulation of defeats seems to have cut him loose from the politics he had championed since the late 1890s. The amalgam of De Leonism and Syndicalism that he had developed proved unable to cope with the crisis. Confronted with the absence of mass resistance to the war either internationally or in Ireland, Connolly was to become the impassioned advocate of revolutionary action even by a tiny minority, even by the few hundred men and women of the Citizen Army… This is not to say that he abandoned socialism. Indeed, he remained a socialist, but a socialist who had concluded that in the circumstances of the time, a republican insurrection had become a political priority. (p128)

This rings true. Newsinger follows up with a consideration of whether or not the Easter Rising had any prospect of success, and concludes that it did not (p138). Here the ‘blood sacrifice’ notion, celebrated by WB Yeats in his poem about Pearse and Connolly, The Rose Tree, cannot be shrugged aside — indeed it surfaces, our historian claims, in an issue of The Workers’ Republic, in an article dated 5 February 1916 (quoted on pp126-27). It is suggested on page 143 that Sir Roger Casement was heading back to Ireland to urge the Military Council of the IRB to call off the insurrection. As is well known, Connolly observed on Easter Monday 1916: ‘We are going out to be slaughtered.’ (p143, see also p154, note 28) Whereas if he had been prepared to hang on until 1918, he would have found a much more favourable set of circumstances.

In passing, Newsinger casts doubt on the authenticity of the famous injunction ostensibly given by Connolly to the Citizen Army to ‘hold onto your rifles’ for a fight for a Workers’ Republic: ‘The trouble with this quotation, which is routinely reproduced in numerous books and articles, is that… there is no contemporary evidence that he actually said it.’ (p131)

One other welcome feature of Rebel Cityis that it contains a number of criticisms of the writings of that prominent Irish Stalinist C Desmond Greaves. Newsinger asserts that Greaves overestimated the extent of support for the Dublin workers in 1913 on the part of republicans, Irish-Irelanders and the liberal intelligentsia in Ireland; that he engaged in ‘systematic denigration’ of Larkin (p110, note 48), claimed in his biography of Connolly (p105) that there were no sackings following the employers’ 1913 victory — here there is a slight hiccup: my copy of Greaves’ The Life and Times of James Connollyhas 1961 as its publication date and the relevant quotation is on p272, whereas in Rebel City(p110, note 50) the publication year is given as 1960 and the relevant page number as 338. Page 131, on the other hand, gives the correct publication year, and misrepresents Connolly as a kind of proto-Stalinist over 1916, and on page 162 he overestimates the role of the post-Connolly Irish Labour leaders William O’Brien and Thomas Johnson in 1918.

There are several other memorable observations in the book: for example, on page 10 we learn that ‘James Sexton, who had organised attacks on imported blacklegs in the early 1890s, carried a pistol in Belfast [in 1907] to protect himself from his own members’. We find the poet Rupert Brooke contributing two guineas to the ITGWU strike fund (p90). George Bernard Shaw spoke at the Albert Hall in London on 1 November 1913, calling on all ‘respectable citizens to arm themselves in order to put a decisive stop to the proceedings of the police’ (who were beating up strikers), and, last but not least, Yeats, who later, to his disgrace, wrote marching songs for the (fascist) Irish Blueshirts, wrote a letter to the Irish Workerprotesting at the anti-union activities of the Dublin bourgeois press and the harassment of strikers organised by the Hibernians, the Catholic counterparts of the Orangemen (p72).

All in all, it is impossible to recommend this book too highly. It illuminates a series of very important events in the history of these islands, and puts the 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Easter Rising in proper historical perspective. As such it serves as a worthy analytical companion to literary treatments of these topics — O’Casey’s plays Red Roses for Me!and The Plough and the Stars, James Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City, and the various poems and ballads of and about 1913 and 1916. Let Donagh MacDonagh’s concluding verse serve as a fit ending for this review:

They shot MacDermott and Pearse and Plunkett,

They shot MacDonagh and Clarke the brave,

And from Kilmainham they took Ceannt’s body

To Arbour Hill to a quicklime grave,

And, last of all of the seven captains,

A dying man, they shot Connolly,

The voice of Labour, the voice of Justice,

Who gave his life that men might be free.

Chris Gray