October 2013        


A century of working-class life

David Convery (ed.), Locked Out: A Century of Working-Class Life (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013; €58.50 / €22.55)

This book is a collection of essays about how a distinct working-class life is a richer diversity of Irish society than the orthodox narrators of such things. The editor in his introduction mentions how the new nation “would be defined by a commonality of people based on ethnicity and united in the task of building an independent state. Class differences, although patently in existence to those who would look, were submerged.”
     The contributors to the volume take aspects of Irish working-class life to show its vitality in the industrial, social, sport and cultural spheres—a challenging task, yet they make use of methods of research that allow the protagonists of their stories to speak as openly as possible. They attribute this approach to historical authenticity as being indebted to E. P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class. As the editor, David Convery, acknowledges the pioneering work of the Irish Labour History Society, this book is part of the second shift coming on board!
     The fullness of any person’s life is measured in their interaction with all society’s activities. So the contributors seek out aspects of workers’ lives wherein they identify their role as being part of a class. 1913 was pivotal, as the organised working class under Larkin and Connolly placed the ambitions of labour on the national scene, as related here by the editor and Conor McCabe.
     It is, however, the breadth and originality of the essays that arouse the interest. One deals with the Irish Worker, the radical weekly of 1911. One of the reasons the newspaper, claiming a circulation of approximately 20,000 per week, edited first by Larkin and then by Connolly, was so colourful and interesting was its diverse coverage.
     One of the columnists was a largely unknown Andrew Patrick Wilson, a Scotsman, later manager of the Abbey Theatre. He wrote short stories for the paper based on the life of the slum-dwellers he lived among. Here indeed was the bread and roses of the new trade unionism.
     Another essay deals with the politics and conflicting loyalties of the Irish in America, particularly as seen through Larkin’s intervention in the mining town of Butte, Montana. An explosive mix indeed, of militant IWW, the reformist craft unionism of the AFL, Irish politics polarised by the AOH, Catholic Action, Clan na Gael emigrants, the Pearse-Connolly Club, a multi-cultural work force, local politics, an imperialist and racist ruling class; and then throw in the fiery Larkin.
     The recognition of the strength of the labour movement when it is mobilised and directed is illustrated by essays on the general strike against conscription in 1919 and in the large strikes in the engineering industries in Belfast during the Second World War. The latter ware unusual, as they were against the trend in the war industries of Britain and the North, encouraged by the left, which was for full production to strengthen the anti-fascist war effort. Local factors, together with the peculiarities of Irish politics, point to further investigation, and maybe there are some pointers for today.
     Oral history plays a large part in the examination of the lives of Irish workers in Britain, using the medium of that great song popularised by Joe Heaney, “I Never Would Return Again, to Plough the Rocks of Bawn.” These techniques also inform the essay “As if you were something under their shoe: Class, gender and status among Cork textile workers, 1939–70.” How workers utilised leisure time is analysed through the development of modern football teams from the factory and pubs to leagues and championships.
     The criminalisation of the working class, particularly through the industrial schools, is not neglected. The responsibility of the state, the Catholic Church and the ISPCC is illustrated in the case of the death of a boy, John Byrne, from a beating at Artane in 1935. The case was published in the Workers’ Voice, the paper of the CPI, and taken up by the Labour Defence League.
     Michael Pierse’s essay furthers his work on the presentation of the working class in popular culture through O’Casey and Yeats to today’s “Love/Hate” and “Tallafonia.” This fixation in RTE on the portrayal of an unglamorous working class raises such questions as Where was “Strumpet City”? Aptly, Michael Pierse asks, “Why is it that RTE felt comfortable having presenter Joe Duffy, earning a whopping €408,889 in the middle of a deep recession, present the case for James Connolly, a radical socialist who must have surely somersaulted in his grave.”
     One of my favourite contributions, perhaps because I was brought up in Dublin’s inner city, is Dónal Fallon’s “Newsboys and the Animal Gang in 1930s Dublin.” The Animal Gang was a name to be feared, not alone for their criminal and anti-social behaviour but for their use by clerical and right-wing forces in the burning down of Connolly House and attacks on trade union and progressive organisations in 1933 and later.
■​ Available from Connolly Books, or or get it from the library.

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