It is one hundred years since William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramway Company and the Irish Independent newspaper sought to purge his companies of Jim Larkin’s ITGWU. Along with virtually all the employers in Dublin he called for workers to give up their unions. They refused and as Irish historian John Dorney says, “Some terms in history are undervalued by overuse, and one of them is ‘class war’, but there could be no other term for the bitter ensuing struggle”.Workers on this side of the Irish Sea realised what was at stake and sought to help. The TUC agreed to support the Dublin workers, and with the Co-operative Wholesale Society (the CWS) to send food relief.
The CWS took just 48 hours, to load 30,000 food parcels, consisting of 10lbs of potatoes, 1 lb of tinned fish, 2 lbs of sugar, ¾ lbs of margarine, ¾ lbs of tea, and 2 lbs of jam, onto the first ship, the SS Hare.
When the ship arrived in Dublin on 27 September, the union lifted the strike and distributed the rations to 25,000 families. “A tremendous cheer for co-operation echoed across the Liffey from the meeting on the Sunday afternoon. For it was realised that it was not trade unionism alone, or co-operation alone; but for once a great common effort of the people. And of a great common effort the story will be told and re-told, amongst trade unionists and co-operators, this year and for many a year,” reported the Wheatsheaf.
During the Lock Out almost two million loves, 700,000 ten pound bags of potatoes, and half a million packs of margarine, as well as jam, cheese and coal where shipped by the CWS to Dublin.
Co-operation held an important place in the ideology of both Larkin and James Connolly. Emmet O’Connor suggests that these ideas were embedded in the syndicalist and co-operative movements of the Irish left at that time and part of an attempt to produce a ‘counter-culture’ to the values of British capitalist modernization.
The then assistant editor of the Daily Herald, W. P. Ryan, linked Larkinism with the idea of the Co-operative Commonwealth. He hoped that Larkinism, the co-operative movement of Horace Plunkett together with politico-cultural forces like Sinn Féin, marked a resurgence of the Gaelic primitive communism romanticized by James Connolly in Labour in Irish History.
There is no doubt that Larkin was attracted to the syndicalist idea of underpinning the socialist struggle with a working-class counter-culture based on collectivist values of sharing and solidarity.
Despite the failure of Larkin, and the ITGWU, the Co-operative Movement did not turn its back on Ireland holding the Co-op Congress in Dublin at Whitsuntide, 1914. Big Jim referred to this event when he was made President of the Irish TUC in City Hall on June 1st 1914.
“In this City at the present moment, the annual congress of the British Co-operative Movement is being held. It is attended by men and women from all parts of the earth. It would be news to many to know that we here in Ireland had been pioneers in co-operation long before the Rochdale Pioneers. There had been a communistic colony down at Usher’s Quay, but it was crushed out by jealous and restrictive laws. Like every good thing Ireland ever started, England made it its business to put a stop to it.
The working class of Ireland would be compelled to understand the worth of co-operation. Through its agency we could supply all that life needs by ourselves for ourselves. It needed no argument to favour it. Life itself was co-operation in its truest sense. Man himself was a social animal and lived by co-operation. We had a great opportunity this week to see the in the Co-operative exhibition in the Rotunda what could be done by co-operative methods.”
In a few weeks the world was plunged into World War, a disaster for the working class everywhere, and for the SS Hare which was sunk by a U-Boat in 1917. Retail consumer co-operation was stillborn in Ireland but the co-operative movement proved its worth to the British nation in that war, and was unjustly punished for it, leading to the formation of the Co-operative Party to defend co-operative interests. But that is another story.
The motto of Larkin’s ITGWU ‘Each for All, and All for Each.’ was also the motto of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.