20 January 2009

ITGWU began working 100 Years ago

While this morning Dáil Éireann commemorated its own 90th birthday one day prematurely (which brings bad luck), there was no mention during the special parliamentary session of another Irish institution that is actually 100 years old today.
Sadly only a few people in Ireland celebrated, and most of our citizens are not even aware of the significant date.

Exactly 100 years ago today - on January 20th, 1909 - James Larkin (right) issued union cards to the first members of the Irish Transport Worker’s Union, which he had just founded. (There is a slight dispute over the correct date on which the union began its work. SIPTU, now the largest trade union in Ireland and the direct descendant of James Larkin's first union, celebrated its 100th anniversary already 16 days ago, on the 4th of January.)
The commitment of Larkin and his early union members to fairness, equality, democracy and freedom was a great help in the preparations for the Easter Rising of 1916 and in the subsequent struggle for freedom and independence.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) - as it was called later - organised the strike that led to the Great Lockout of 1913. During this strike Larkin gave speeches all over Dublin, despite being arrested for 'seditious libel' and released on bail.
In a now famous speech on August 28th, 1913 (photo above left) he said: “Before I go any further, with your permission, I am going to burn the Proclamation of the King. People make Kings, and people can unmake them.”

During the Great Lockout of 1913 James Larkin and James Connolly also helped to establish an Irish Citizen Army (Arm Cathartha na hÉireann). Its main purpose was to counter the bands of thugs and criminals hired by employers to harrass union members, and to provide security at workers’ meetings. The Irish Citizen Army had also, by its constitution, to pursue nationalist aims for Ireland.

In 1914 James Connolly said in commemoration of the workers that were killed during the Great Lockout one year before:
"Our fight of last year was not for added wages and reduction of hours; it was for an opportunity of building up in our midst men and women, a chance to develop nobility and grandeur of character for men and women, a time to realise the nobility of life, to study the history of Ireland, to study our rights as well as our duties. It was a time to develop men and women for the coming crisis, so that they might take advantage of it when it came. … If you are itching for a rifle, itching to fight, it is better to fight for our own country than for the robber empire. If ever you shoulder a rifle, let it be for Ireland."

Less than two years later, on Easter Monday, August 24th, 1916, the Irish Citizen Army fought alongside the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, in particular on St. Stephen’s Green and in the General Post Office (GPO) on O'Connell Street (then named Sackville Street).
A British gunboat that shelled Dublin during the Easter Rising singled out Liberty Hall - the headquarters of the ITGWU on Beresford Place - for special attention and left it a smouldering ruin.

After the failure of the Easter Rising it took months before Irish nationalism recovered. But the fire was lit and could not be quenched again, no matter how hard the British tried. The execution of James Connolly and the other main leaders of the rising by a British firing squad outraged Ireland and inspired tens of thousands to join the ITGWU.
In 1918 the union led a general strike against conscription, and this was - together with the widespread activities of Sinn Féin - the preparation for the general election in December and subsequently Dáil Éireann, which will be 90 years old tomorrow.

But today Ireland's workers, true patriots and republicans, remember the great James Larkin (who - after a few years in the USA - returned to Ireland in 1923, continued his work until his death in 1947 and was also twice elected to the Dáil) and the powerful trade union - now SIPTU - he established 100 years ago on this day.

The Emerald Islander

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