The impact of Ireland’s relations with the United States and Britain on the emergence and development of Irish revolutionary unionism, 1907-1914.

Revolutionary unionism, also known as industrial unionism, gradually emerged in Ireland between 1907 and 1910, reaching its peak during the Lockout of 1913 — a key moment in Irish labour history, sometimes considered its high watermark. Its rise was characterised by the emergence of important movement leaders, but also by the consequences of the migratory movements that characterised the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in Ireland. In this piece, we will ask how the emergence of industrial unionism in Ireland fed into an international dynamic of communication between the different parts of the English-speaking industrialised (or industrialising) world and how the particularity of the Irish situation influenced the movement’s appearance in that country.

         In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced massive emigration, and saw a large part of its population move to the United States, Canada and Great Britain. In America, the Irish made up a large part of the unskilled labour force. They participated in miners’ strikes as part of the Molly Maguires, an 1870s secret organisation of Irish origins, or in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary union founded in 1905.[1] Moreover, this Irish community in the United States maintained strong roots on Irish territory, through transatlantic organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Fenian Brotherhood. It was therefore only natural that the Irish and US trade-unionist populations interacted extensively, through the press, correspondence and migration.

         If Ireland has a special relationship with the United States because of its diaspora, its unique status as both a colony and constituent part of the United Kingdom was also important to the emergence of revolutionary unionism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no Irish trade union, but rather Irish branches of British unions. Trade union leaders were thus regularly sent from Britain to Ireland in order organise the working masses.[2] It was in this context that Jim Larkin arrived in Belfast in 1907. Larkin was an organiser for the National Dock Labourers’ Union, a union aligned to the current of “new unionism” in Britain, with its characteristic orientation towards unskilled workers and its greater reliance on political action than on negotiation. During his time in Ireland, Larkin gradually turned to more radical methods of struggle, earning his expulsion from the National Dock Labourers’ Union. He founded a new union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which reflected the principles of industrial unionism.[3]

         In addition, James Connolly, a Scot born to Irish immigrant parents who had been leader of the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin from 1896, headed to the United States in 1903, where he met with Daniel De Leon, with whom he had been in contact for several years. During his stay in the United States, Connolly turned to industrial unionism, becoming involved in the IWW right from its creation.[4] He theorised his conception of revolutionary unionism in the US and Irish contexts in a pamphlet he wrote in the United States in 1909, entitled Socialism Made Easy. This pamphlet was destined to travel around the world and was sold by the thousands of copies in Canada, Ireland, Great Britain and even Australia.[5] The exchanges that took place between Ireland and the United States over the distribution of this pamphlet can be observed through the correspondence between two men, namely Connolly and William O’Brien. We learn that Connolly gave two hundred copies to the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) for distribution to socialists and workers in Ireland.[6]

         James Connolly’s literary output in the United States also included the newspaper The Harp, which he published on behalf of the Irish Socialist Federation in the United States starting from early 1908. In its early days, few copies of the paper reached Ireland itself, but it was well-appreciated when it did make it across the Atlantic. In July 1909, Helena Moloney — later one of the leading female figures in Irish industrial unionism — sent a letter to The Harp’s editor regretting that she could not lay her hands on all of its issues.[7] In early 1910, publication was transferred to Dublin, under the editorship of Larkin. The aim, here, was reach a bigger Irish audience in Ireland itself, but also in the United States, for the paper gained in authenticity by being published in the old country. The Harp retained its 800 Irish-American subscribers,[8] but it soon had to cease publication due to libel cases and mismanagement. What we can, nonetheless, see is the general determination of the Irish, both in Ireland and the US, to share ideas through literature.

         This exchange of literature was possible thanks to the correspondence between James Connolly and William O’Brien, an important figure in the SPI and the ITGWU. Here we see two friends and former comrades exchanging letters on mostly political matters. Connolly regularly gave O’Brien advice on the handling of party and union affairs, and here, too, we see the principles of industrial unionism reflected. During this correspondence, O’Brien tried to convince Connolly to move back to Dublin. He succeeded: in 1910 Connolly arrived to carry out a tour of public meetings both on the island and in Britain, before then deciding to stay in Ireland. He became one of the most influential figures in the ITGWU and its leading thinker. It was starting with Connolly’s arrival in Ireland that the ITGWU mounted a turn towards true industrial unionism.

         Although industrial unionism remained in the minority in the Britain of the time, Irish unionists did have some influence on their neighbours. While Larkin was imprisoned in 1910, several support committees were formed in Great Britain. The one in Liverpool — Larkin’s home city — explained that it saw the ITGWU as a forerunner showing the way for the British unions.[9] At the same time, Tom Mann returned from Australia, bringing with him the revolutionary unionist ideas he had encountered in the Australian IWW. During his tour Connolly presented the same ideas he had encountered in the United States. We can thus see a back and forth between the different regions of the industrialised and industrialising English-speaking world. These interactions exerted political influences that took form in the development of a common language and — despite certain ideological differences — common political conceptions.

         We can thus note a great political proximity between these different spaces. Indeed, in the writings of Debs and De Leon (in the USA), Mann (in England), and Larkin and Connolly (in Ireland) we find each of them attributing a central role to industrial organisation in the advent of socialism, along with the idea that the political organisation of the workers must follow from their organisation in the factories. However, if it is often said that revolutionary unionism rejected political parties, the concrete experiences of its actors demand that some nuance be added to such a claim. In all these cases, we can see that the party was not rejected as such, and that the industrial unionists were often also members of socialist parties. Rather, the party was simply no longer central to the road to socialism, instead becoming the means by which the class unity experienced in the factories would be expressed on the political terrain. The party must not be disembodied, but serve as the political expression of industrially organised workers.[10] In fact, even before the appearance of revolutionary unionism this conception could be found in various forms among the different unions and political parties, adapting themselves to this new conception of achieving power.[11]

         Such political affinities were also expressed through the advent of a common language and common practices. Here, we see repeated instances of the One Big Union, the idea of international socialist cooperatives (or a “commonwealth”), the practice of solidarity strikes, and direct action borrowed from continental European unionists. Another common practice was workers’ self-defence against the police and strike-breakers; initially linked to the IWW, we again find this in Ireland during the 1913 Lockout, with the creation of the Irish Citizen Army.

         We can observe that the common thread running through these different categories of interaction was the displacement of populations, which in turn led to the displacement of literature and ideas. Here, we can see a connection between the English-speaking world — which was mostly white, industrialised or in the process of industrialisation — and the emergence and development of revolutionary unionism. Ireland was fully part of these international interactions, as a land actively involved in the emergence of the movement in the United States, and one itself influenced by a foreign-imported industrial unionism. Irish labour was thus part of this international back-and-forth. What made it so particular was that it was perhaps the only part of the Anglophone world where revolutionary unionism was in the majority, possibly because labour activists had a means of rallying people other than workers’ issues — namely the national question, a major political concern in Ireland since the 1840s. The ITGWU set this as a founding principle of its organisation, indeed one evoked in the preamble to its first rule book: “Are we going to continue the policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trades Union movement, losing our own identity as a nation in the great world of organised labour? We say emphatically, no!”

 

Lise Augot


 

[1] Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, New York, Harper, 2017.

[2] Coquelin, Olivier, L’Irlande en révolutions. Entre nationalismes et conservatismes : une histoire politique et sociale (18e-20e siècles), Paris, Syllepse Editions, 2018, p. 398

[3] Ibid., p. 400-401.

[4] Collins, Lorcan, James Connolly, Dublin, O’Brien Press Ltd, 2012, p. 143.

[5] Ibid., p. 164.

[6] MS 13,908/1/16, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien, National Library of Ireland, 1909; MS 13,908/1/21, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien, National Library of Ireland, 1910

[7] MS 13,908/1/10, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien and others, National Library of Ireland, 1909

[8] MS 13,908/1/17, Connolly, J., & O’Brien, W., Letter from James Connolly to William O’Brien and others, National Library of Ireland, 1909.

[9] MS 15,679/22/3, James Larkin: A Labour Leader and an Honest Man, Liverpool: Northern Publishing Co., National Library of Ireland, 1910.

[10]   Connolly, James, Socialism Made Easy , Workers’ Web ASCII Pamphlet project, 1997, p. 20.

[11] Collins, Lorcan, op. cit., p178.


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