The March 1920 Stockport By-Election

In March 1920 Irish Republicans used a by-election in Stockport to highlight the plight of Republican prisoners on hunger-strike in a British prison.

In March 1920 William O’Brien, secretary of the Irish Labour Party and a leading member of the Irish trade union movement, was arrested and taken to Wormwood Scrubs where seventy other Republican political prisoners were already being held. When they began a hunger-strike he joined in. O’Brien had helped found the Irish Transport & General Workers union and had been close colleague of James Connolly.

O’Brien’s arrest coincided with growing dissatisfaction amongst many in the Irish community in Britain at the attitude of the British Labour Party to events in Ireland and, in particular, its refusal to wholeheartedly support self-determination for the Irish people. At a meeting in the Free Trade Hall on 1st March 1920, for instance, Sean MacEntee (TD – a member of the Irish Parliament – for South Monaghan) and A Connor (TD for South Kildare) attacked the Labour party’s views on Ireland. MacEntee said that it was useless to talk to them of Dominion status. They were not a colony, but a nation with a record as proud and cleaner than England’s and nothing less than complete independence would satisfy them.

Connor ridiculed the report of the Labour party delegation to Ireland, saying that it had concluded that the Irish were rather too naughty to be entrusted as yet with the conduct of their own affairs. At the end of the speeches the packed audience passed a resolution stating that “this meeting of Irish citizens of Manchester and district hereby pledges its allegiance to the Republic of Ireland established in Easter 1916 and confirmed by the vast majority of the people of Ireland in the election of 1918.”

A parliamentary by-election was due in Stockport, following the death of Spencer Leigh Hughes and resignation of George Wardle, the two Members of Parliament. Local Irish people sent a delegation to the Labour Party NEC protesting at its attitude on self-determination and alleged inaction on the arrest of William O’Brien. In particular they wanted to know whether the Labour party was prepared to grant immediate recognition of the right of the Irish people to self-determination, even if a majority decided for an Irish Republic, whether they would release all Irish political prisoners if returned to power, and finally, whether they would specify a time for the withdrawal of the army of occupation.

The Labour Party said that these were hypothetical questions and instead handed them a long statement justifying the party’s views and actions. This evidently did not satisfy the delegation, for on 16th March a meeting of over a thousand Stockport Irish electors invited William O’Brien to contest the Stockport seat “as a protest against the apostasy of the Labour party on the question of Irish self-determination and against the inactivity in the face of military tyranny in Ireland”. The United Irish League urged support for the Labour party but by now their views carried very little weight in the Irish community which had thrown its weight behind the Republican movement.

The defection of the Irish seems to have had an effect for in his manifesto Sir Leo Money, one of the two Labour candidates, wrote that he regarded with shame the fact that “at the conclusion of a war waged for human liberty Ireland is governed by a military despotism”.

No doubt hoping that the Irish electorate would in time return to the fold, the Labour Party also allowed the Irish campaign to use its meeting rooms at Central Hall for an opening election rally. J Clancy from the ISDL presided, stating that they refused absolutely to take the gloved hand offered by the English Labour Party any more than the mailed fist of the Coalition. The Labour Party had failed dismally on the question of self-determination for Ireland and their object in fighting the election was to make Labour realise that its attitude was not consistent with the democratic principles which they professed. Thus the decision of the Irish to support O’Brien was nicely timed to expose the gap between Labour’s past rhetoric and Labour’s present position and push the party into outright support for complete self-determination.

In his election address issued from jail William O’Brien (standing as Workers Republican) said that his aim “was to raise the clear issue of the right of the Irish people to determine their own destiny. The issue is whether the people of Ireland are to have their own free choice, without the interference of any power, people or parliament, in deciding the form of government under which they will live.” He went on to argue that the Labour Party had recanted from the position it had adopted in April 1919 at an international conference in Amsterdam when it had supported the immediate application of the right of self-determination to Ireland. Now it seemed to favour some form of Home Rule which would still leave foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the British Empire. “Labour, like the British government, has one definition of freedom and self -determination when applied abroad and another interpretation of it at home.”

During the campaign Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had been murdered by the British during the Easter Rising, came to speak in support of O’Brien, as did Captain MacNaghten, an Ulster Protestant who had fought in the war but afterwards joined the Republican movement. When the results were announced on 11th April O’Brien had received 2,336 votes, which the Manchester Guardian estimated was substantially the whole Irish vote in the constituency. The two seats were won by the Coalition candidates.

O’Brien continued his hunger strike until the government did a deal to move him into a nursing home (where he was visited by the veteran Fenian Dr Mark Ryan) and finally release him in early May. O’Brien was later elected to the Dail for many years and died in 1968.

Article by Michael Herbert

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The arrest of William O’Brien MP in Hulme Town hall, January 1889

William O’Brien, a leading Irish nationalist MP, escaped from a court in Ireland in January 1889 and was re-arrested in Hulme Town Hall after a dramatic public meeting. After being held for a night in Manchester Town Hall, he was sent back to Ireland.

O’Brien was born in 1852 in Mallow, County Cork and took up the trade of journalism as young man. Like many of his contemporaries he was attracted to the revolutionary Fenian movement and, after its defeat by the British government, became involved in the campaign for land reform and Home Rule. In 1881 Charles Stuart Parnell appointed him as editor of the United Irishmen. Within months O’Brien was imprisoned, along with Parnell and other Irish Nationalist leaders, in Kilmainham jail until a deal was done with the British government the following year. In 1883 O’Brien was elected as an MP to Westminster and was frequently arrested for his activities over land rights.

The story of this dramatic episode in Manchester begins in Ireland where O’Brien had been summoned to appear at Carrick-on-Suir courthouse on 24th January 1889. When he and his entourage arrived they found the town occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary, who had fixed their bayonets and were preventing the townspeople from getting anywhere near the courthouse. O’Brien argued vociferously with the police, while his fellow MP and counsel Tim Healy was nearly stabbed by a police bayonet. When they eventually got to the courthouse the two men found that it too was full of police. After some fierce arguments with the magistrates O’Brien announced his intention to leave. A policeman tried to stop him but was set upon by O’Brien’s supporters and, much to his surprise, the MP found himself outside. The enraged police now set upon the crowd with batons and bayonets, beating them mercilessly whilst O’Brien fled amidst the disorder, disappearing into the darkness.

According to the Manchester Guardian he was taken to the bakery of a Miss O’Neill, who dressed him as a farmer and then escorted him through the streets. O’Brien apparently pretended to be drunk when challenged by the police and made good his escape, a local priest driving him to Wexford (in his account in the pages of United Irishman, O’Brien, perhaps mindful of the strong temperance movement in Ireland later denied that he had been disguised as a farmer or pretended to be drunk).

Attention now switched to Manchester, where O’Brien had an engagement to address a Liberal Party meeting, the annual address of local MP Jacob Bright (a Pro-Home Rule Liberal). The speech was to take place at Hulme Town Hall on Stretford Road – a site now occupied by the Zion Arts Centre and the Zion Health & Resource Centre. O’Brien had particularly wanted to go to Manchester, he had said, because he wanted to address Mr Balfour’s constituents (Balfour was the Chief Secretary for Ireland and an MP for East Manchester). There was great expectation amongst the public because O’Brien was famous for not missing engagements, although few believed that he would be able to evade the authorities when the meeting was so publicly advertised in advance.

On the evening of Monday 29th January the hall was packed to the rafters, while a very large crowd had gathered outside as had hundreds of police – personally commanded by the Chief Constable of Manchester Malcolm Wood – who guarded all entrances to the building. Inside the platform was packed with local Liberal politicians, including a number of MPs and their wives. Dr Woodcock took the chair and began some introductory remarks amidst high tension. A few minutes into his speech O’Brien himself appeared and mounted the platform, the signal for the hall to erupt into what the Manchester Guardian reporter described as “a hurricane of rapturous cheers such as a Manchester audience has hardly ever accorded to even the most famous and best beloved of Englishmen.” It was subsequently revealed that the organisers of the meeting had used a decoy dressed as O’Brien. He had drawn up in a cab at the front of the hall and attracted the attention of the crowd and the police, thereby enabling the real O’Brien to slip into the meeting by the rear entrance.

When the crowd had finally quietened Jacob Bright made a short speech before handing over to William O’Brien, who began by stating that “…as soon as this meeting is over I am at the disposal of Mr Balfour’s policemen but meanwhile I stand here in spite of him”. He then went on to speak for an hour, despite his obvious tiredness, noting that if he were a Russian or French refugee England would fight to the last man before she would surrender him but as an Irishman he could be dragged away and sent back. He attacked the conduct of the Irish police and the British government. The man from the Manchester Guardian concluded his report of the meeting by lamenting “that England as now governed can do nothing with such a man as Mr O’Brien but make a felon of him, and all honour to Mr O’Brien that has not made of him an enemy.”

Jerome Caminada, Chief Detective Inspector of the Manchester police, gave the police view of the evening’s events in his engaging memoirs Twenty Five Years of Detective Life, published some years later in Manchester. Interestingly he gets some of the facts wrong, alleging, for instance, that O’Brien had escaped from custody in late December, when in fact it had been but a few days earlier, and that the meeting was an “indignation” meeting when it was in fact a Liberal party constituency meeting. Caminada would not, of course, be the first policeman (or indeed the last) to misremember some key facts when it came to the arrest of an Irishman. Here is his account:

“I beckoned from the platform to the Chief Constable, who at once joined me, accompanied by a number of detectives. He was immediately struck on the chest and knocked backwards off the platform, carrying in his fall four of the detective officers who were following him up. I immediately struck the man who had committed the assault a violent blow on the side of the head, which sent him after the officers. The platform stands about four feet above the level of the floor, and it was not a gentle fall. Fortunately the attack upon the Chief Constable was not seen by the main body of the police; but it was difficult to restrain those who did witness it. A little space was cleared, and the Chief Constable again ascended the platform”.

After further rough and tumble (including an assault on some of the meeting organisers) the police secured the hall and O’Brien surrendered into their custody without further resistance when he was presented with the warrant. The police were wary of putting their prisoner into a cab which might easily be overturned in the course of a rescue attempt and decided instead to surround him with a square of police and walk him to Manchester Town Hall, where the Lord Mayor William Batty had agreed that he might stay in a guest room in the mayoral apartments, rather than being kept overnight in a cell.

O’Brien was cheered every inch of the way to town by large crowds who lined the route. In Lower Mosley Street a small drum and fife band struck up. The police procession and their solitary captive finally arrived in Albert Square a few minutes before eleven, where a tremendous crowd had gathered after turning out from the local theatres and places of amusement. Finally O’Brien was able to get some rest after an exhausting evening.

The following day the police arranged for the express train from Manchester to Holyhead to stop at Ordsall Lane Station where O’Brien was put on board, accompanied by Manchester detectives – including Caminada – and members of the RIC. Despite the secrecy word had got out and O’Brien was greeted by crowds at both Chester and Holyhead where the party took the steamer Ulster to Ireland. In Dublin thousands turned out to welcome the errant MP and he was joined by his counsel Tim Healy, before being taken by train back to the court-house from which he had originally escaped. O’Brien was then imprisoned for several months. Back in Manchester a packed “indignation” meeting was held in the Free Trade Hall on 4th February at which the speakers included Jacob Bright, CE Schwann MP and Robert Leake MP. The meeting received many letters of support, including one from CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, noting “the provocations and humiliations to which the Irish people are now exposed, I believe that it is by the sympathy of the great masses of Englishmen that they can best be supported and restrained.”

O’Brien’s ordeal did not end when he was sent to Clonmel jail, for the authorities demanded that he put on prison clothing. When he refused he was forcibly stripped, twice put in a prison uniform and shaved. When the prison warders finally let go of him, he immediately took off all the prison clothing except a shirt. News of his treatment quickly spread with the Manchester Guardian commenting “To carry out this rule against a prisoner of Mr O’Briens’s type and character is either a piece of administrative stupidity of the first water or a down right malignity”. The Freeman’s Journal accused Balfour of adopting “the tactics of the thug” and “the strategy of the garrotter”. There were protest demonstrations in Ireland and Britain. O’Brien got his clothes back and was allowed proper food and books, although in parliament Balfour maintained those convicted under the Crimes Act were not political prisoners, and even if they were, did not deserve special treatment. In practice the government compromised to defuse the issue and in the future Irish political prisoners were allowed their own clothes and other facilities with O’Brien even being able to write several novels whilst in prison.

O’Brien continued his agitation on the issue of land rights until it was finally settled in the early 1900s with Bills which granted land and housing to Irish tenants. He died suddenly in 1928.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Irish in Manchester and the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland, 1963-1974

The emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland led to solidarity organisations being established in Britain, seeking through meetings, marches and strikes to highlight what was happening. The government used the prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in November 1974, to clamp down hard on campaigners.

The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland

In May 1963 local Catholics in Dungannon established the Homeless Citizens’ League to campaign for better housing conditions. One of its leading members was Patricia McCluskey, wife of local doctor Conn McCluskey. In August 1963 thirty families squatted in condemned buildings and eventually embarrassed the Stormont government, after Doctor McCluskey had personally lobbied it, into announcing that some 64 new houses would be built in the town.

News of this victory quickly spread beyond Dungannon and the McCluskeys received letters from families across Northern Ireland, asking for advice on how to win similar concessions for their own towns from Stormont. This convinced them of the need for a more permanent pressure group and led them to establish the Campaign for Social Justice on 17th January 1964 “for the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community”. The CSJ sent out regular newsletters and produced five pamphlets which detailed the injustices happening in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formally established at a meeting of 100 delegates in the International Hotel, Belfast on 29th January 1967. On 5th October 1968 a Civil Rights march in Derry was brutally attacked by the RUC and sparked a wave of anger, leading to the formation by students of a radical group, People’s Democracy.

Bernadette Devlin rapidly emerged as one of its leading figures and in April 1969 was elected to the House of Commons on a Civil Rights ticket. She made her first appearance in the Commons two days later, rushing over to take part in a debate on Northern Ireland and looking like “anybody’s classless undergraduate daughter” as the Daily Mirror put it. She attacked Unionism and the Wilson government for forgetting what Socialism was and rejected attempts to label the Civil Rights movement as a narrow Catholic uprising, saying “We are not sectarian. We fight for the rights of both Catholics and Protestants”. She spoke at countless meetings in Britain and the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was set up, including for a while a group in Manchester based in Gee Cross, Hyde. This organised a meeting under the title The Real Struggle in Northern Ireland at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th November 1969 at which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy was the principal speaker

Solidarity in Britain with the Civil Rights Movement

Events in Northern Ireland were now being keenly followed by many in the Irish community in Britain. The day after the attack on the Civil Rights march in Derry The Observer carried a full and graphic report of the RUC’s violence, written by Mary Holland under the headline “Ulster Police Club Marchers”. She also wrote a long feature, carefully researched, entitled “John Bull’s White Ghettos”, which exposed the political gerrymandering in Derry. Her articles were very influential.

According to the Irish Democrat the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association was now meeting every 3rd Wednesday at The Crown & Anchor public house in Hilton Street and becoming active again under the direction of Joe McCrudden, a Belfast man. There was a Civil Rights meeting in Manchester at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th March 1969, at which the speakers were Desmond Greaves and Betty Sinclair, a trade unionist and Communist from Belfast.

College students in Manchester also set up a Civil Rights Committee. The most active members of this seem to have been those attending the Catholic De La Salle teacher training college, who held a mass meeting on 16th January 1969 and leafleted city centre pubs and clubs on events in Ireland, as a prelude to an all night vigil in support of the demand for Civil Rights in Albert Square. The weather was not on their side – there was fog and rain and only 30 students stayed the course. They were pictured next day in the Manchester Evening News, walking around the Albert Memorial and carrying banners which demanded (unironically) “One Man One Vote”. The chair of the Committee was 20 year-old Conal Harvey from Belfast who told the press, “We want to draw the unfair situation in Northern Ireland to the attention of the people in Manchester. We are planning more protests.”

The British Army goes in

In August 1969 there was a three day battle in Derry between the people of the Bogside and the RUC. Rioting then broke out in Belfast in which whole streets were burn out and people were killed. Finally James Callaghan, the Home Secretary, sent in the army.

Frank Gogarty, a leading member of NICRA in London, was reported in the press as saying that the Association proposed to call all Irish people in Britain out on a one-day strike as an expression of horror and indignation at the police brutality in Derry. The Guardian reported that on 14th August there had been sympathy strikes in Birmingham, Coventry and London with more than 500 people staying away from work and further strike action planned in the Midlands to bring out all Irish labour. This was followed on 20th August by a further strike by Irish workers in Birmingham whose co-ordinator Tom McDowell claimed that some 7,000 people in the area had answered the call with support from corporation bus workers, factories and building sites.

St Brendan’s Centre in Manchester was named in the press as a recruitment centre for volunteers wishing to go over to the north. Local organiser John Madden said that he hoped to get the first volunteers across to Ireland almost immediately and was planning to organise a demonstration in Albert Square and a walkout by Irish workers. The following day St Brendan’s publicly denied that it was being used as centre for volunteers as this would be against its constitution.

On 25th August 1969 there was a march in Manchester. Supporters of the Civil Rights movement gathered in Platt Fields and marched to Ardwick Green . A photograph of this march in The Guardian showed one marcher holding a placard which stated “Get The Troops Out.”

In October Manchester City Council (then Tory controlled) refused to allow the local branch of the Campaign for Social Justice to hire council-owned halls to hold public meetings on the situation in the North of Ireland and a planned meeting had to be called off. On 6th November the CSJ organised a torchlit procession in the city centre in protest. John Madden, who was originally from Dungannon and had lived in Manchester for 15 years, claimed that 99% of the Irish population were sympathetic to their cause. He told the Irish Democrat it was “the sort of thing I used to experience when I was a councillor in the worst place in Northern Ireland for discrimination. I did not expect to find it in Manchester.” There was a protest march to the Town Hall against the ban after the annual Manchester Martyrs procession.

The Manchester CSJ stepped up its activities by taking part in the national petition for a Bill of Rights and holding a meeting in Houldsworth Hall on 22nd March 1970 at which the speakers were Ivan Cooper MP, Betty Sinclair, Mark Carlisle MP and Stan Orme MP. On 4th April they held a folk concert in the Lesser Free Trade Hall featuring the Grehan Sisters.

In July 1970 the British army imposed a curfew and ransacked the Falls Road in Belfast, looking for weapons. Four people were killed. In February 1971 the IRA shot dead a British soldier. Daily gun battles were soon taking place as well as a bombing campaign. At 4.30am on 9th August 1971 the Stormont government re-introduced internment, leading to more gun battles and extensive rioting. Nationalist areas virtually seceded from the Northern Ireland state.

Bloody Sunday, January 1972

A NICRA march was held in Derry on Sunday 30th January 1972. British troops from the paratroop regiment prevented it getting out of the Bogside and the usual small riot developed involving local youth. Most of the marchers were listening to the speakers, who included Bernadette Devlin and veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, when the paratroopers charged into the Bogside shooting thirteen men dead. Another man died later of his wounds.

A hurricane of anger swept Ireland, North and South. There were strikes and marches as tens of thousands of Irish workers protested in Dundalk, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Dublin. Airport workers at Dublin and Shannon refused to handle British aircraft, grounding planes in Manchester and other British airports. Jack Lynch declared 2nd February, the day of the funerals, as a national day of mourning. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down when a crowd estimated at 30,000 gathered outside it and threw petrol bombs. In the North rioting went for days in almost every Nationalist area. Bernadette Devlin told the Daily Mirror, “It was mass murder by the army . This was our Sharpeville and we shall never forget it. The troops shot up a peaceful meeting”. By contrast Brian Faulkner blamed the organisers of the march and the IRA for the killings.

In Britain Bloody Sunday provoked the most intense response by the Irish during whole the thirty years of the Troubles. In Manchester over 100 students from De La Salle College, Middleton held an emergency protest meeting at midnight followed by a mass meeting in the afternoon which voted to boycott lectures and hold three days of mourning. A number of the students then went to the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly and, amidst a snowstorm, began a vigil and fast, setting up a makeshift black flag and a wooden cross bearing the words “Will they rest in peace – how many more?” Some bus-drivers and office and shop workers jeered and shouted abuse as they passed (postal workers at the South Manchester sorting office threatened to boycott all mail to Ireland except Forces Mail on the grounds that the soldiers were not getting a fair deal). Members of the James Steele branch of Provisional Sinn Fein in Manchester mounted a protest at the army recruiting office on Fountain Street with placards that read “Derry Bloody Sunday, 13 massacred by British army”. Their spokesperson Seamas O’Morain gave his name in Irish and told reporters that they were protesting peacefully against the British army’s campaign of murder in Ireland.

On Thursday the De La Salle students led a march of 2,000 from the Cathedral through Manchester city centre, passing the Army Recruitment Office which was heavily guarded by police, and finishing with a rally at the Mancunian Way. There was a further march in Manchester on Saturday organised by the Manchester Connolly Association attended by 1,500, which was addressed by Lennie Draper, Desmond Greaves and Ann Doherty from the Manchester Civil Rights Association. A meeting attended by 1,500 students at Manchester University banned all military recruiting on campus and denied union facilities to the British army Officer Training Corps. An attempt to close the University Student Union failed when Tory students obtained a court injunction preventing this.

The Irish Democrat produced a special four page supplement on Bloody Sunday to go with their usual February issue. Desmond Greaves called for the resignation of Maudling, suspension of the Commander in Chief of British forces in Northern Ireland, immediate withdrawal of all paratroops from Northern Ireland, withdrawal of all troops from streets where they had become a provocation, an immediate end of internment and negotiations to lead to a united Irish Republic. The Manchester Connolly Association sent a telegram to Edward Heath (signed by John Tocher, divisional organiser of the engineering union and others), condemning the massacre of civil rights demonstrators and calling for troops to be confined to barracks and for a Bill of Rights to be brought forward.

Irish Civil Rights Association

In the general election held in October 1974 six candidates stood in the British general election under the banner of the Irish Civil Rights Association, the first time that candidates had stood on a specifically Irish platform since the Anti-Partition League in 1951. Margaret O’Brien, secretary of ICRA in Britain, said that they called for higher pensions and lower mortgages. “We should achieve this by a commitment to a United Ireland instead of propping up a rotten little statelet that costs £700 million in year and makes her name the derision of the world”.

The ICRA candidates stood in constituencies with sizeable Irish populations. Neil Boyle stood in Moss Side, Manchester, gaining just 238 votes. According to his election leaflet he was aged 37, born in Donegal, married with four children, worked for British Rail and had been active in the Civil Rights movement since 1969. ICRA candidates called for the release of all internees and a general amnesty for all political prisoners; a commitment from Britain to the idea of a united Ireland and a phased withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland. ICRA attacked the Labour government for increasing the number of internees in Long Kesh and Armagh, for renewing the Emergency Provisions Act and for the death of Michael Gaughan on hunger strike. It was clear from the results that, whatever strong feelings that Irish people might have had about events in Ireland, most Irish people at this period continued to give their vote to the Labour Party.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act

On 21st November bombs exploded in two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and wounding 162. There was widespread public outrage and fury, some of which was directed at Irish people in Britain (although a number of the victims had been Irish).

Within two days the government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law on 29th November. Such was the public mood that not a single MP dared vote against. Desmond Greaves commented in later years that “the disastrous bomb outrage did the Irish movement in Britain more harm than a regiment of cavalry. The witch hunt that followed, which included anti-Irish marches, threw the Irish movement back decades.”

There were frequent police raids, arrests and exclusions from Britain. Many Irish solidarity organisations stopped meeting and it was not until the hunger strike campaign of 1981 and the emergence of new organisations such as the Irish in Britain representation Group that Irish people began to speak out again about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

Article by Michael Herbert

The General Strike in Manchester, May 1926

The General Strike was the most significant British labour dispute of the twentieth century. It was a massive solidarity action called by the Trades Union Congress in support of the miners, who were striking against cuts in pay and longer hours. It began on 3 May 1926 and was called off on 12 May by the TUC with no guarantees from the Tory government of fair treatment for the miners and no guarantees against victimisation of returning strikers. The miners’ strike lasted until the end of 1926 and ended in bitter defeat.

Background

The mining companies had been placed under government control during the First World War. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain pressed for complete nationalisation and called a national strike in February 1919. It was delayed after the Coalition government led by Lloyd George promised a Royal Commission to look at the future of the industry.
In June 1919 the majority of Sankey Commission members recommended that the mines should be nationalised but, having bought a breathing space, the government now reneged on its agreement and handed the mines back to the owners on 31 March 1921. The miners were locked out the following day by the coal owners after refusing to accept worse employment conditions. The railway and transport union promised to take action in their support on 15 April but called it off at the last minute. This betrayal became known “Black Friday”. After three months on strike the miners were forced back on the employers’ terms.

In 1924 A J Cook was elected secretary of the MFGB. A charismatic speaker, he toured the coalfields, addressing large meetings of miners and their families and revitalised the union after the defeat of 1921.

Faced with a declining economic outlook in June 1925 the employers’ organisation – the Mining Association – gave notice of its intention to reduce wages and increase hours on 31 July.

On 10 July the General Council of the TUC met the Executive of the MFGB and offered its support. On 25 July the Council proposed an embargo on the movement of coal should the miners be locked out. Meetings between the government, the miners, the owners and the TUC failed to reach an agreement. On 30 July a Special Conference of Trade Union Executives agreed to support the transport ban and also empowered the General Council to offer financial support.

At 4pm on 31 July the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin announced to the House of Commons that the government would subsidise the miners until 1 May 1926 and also set up another Royal Commission under Lord Samuel to report on the future of the industry. Once again the government was buying time

It is clear that the government expected a strike to take place eventually and used the breathing space to devise and implement ways of maintaining supplies and transport in the event of industrial action, setting up 150 haulage committees to co-ordinate privately owned fleets of lorries and placing local authorities on alert to maintain essential services. In addition to the government’s own extensive preparations other bodies, such as the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, led by Lord Harding and Admiral Jellicoe, enrolled volunteers. They claimed to be “non-political” and acting for “the good of the community”. By May 1926 they had registered 100,000 volunteers.

By contrast the TUC made no plans for a general strike, seemingly believing that a settlement would be reached, only establishing a Ways & Means Committee on 27 April 1926, just days before the strike happened.

The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised, but rejected the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and miners’ wages should be reduced.

On 30 April the coal owners locked out the miners.

On Saturday 1 May the TUC held a special conference of union executives which pledged support to the miners . That same day May Day marches were held throughout Britain amidst growing excitement and a conviction that a strike was now inevitable.

“Surely the most momentous May-Day in our history…I heard tonight that the Hyde Park demonstration was the largest and best even our oldest folk could remember…..Reports show that everywhere yesterday’s demonstrations were the biggest ever known. The workers seem ready”. Fenner Brockway, “Diary of the General Strike”, Socialist Review, June 1926.

The Strike in Manchester

Saturday 1 May

It rained, of course. Undeterred thousands paraded on the annual May Day march from Ardwick Green to Belle Vue under “dripping banners “ and “rain sodden umbrellas” as the Manchester Guardian reported.

“Men and women in gleaming mackintoshes and wearing the red and yellow favours of the Labour party; delegates from trade unions following in dignity behind their banners; Communists with broad ribbons across their shoulders – a splash of colour in the drab train”….The banners of the trade unions were varied by those of other groups, ranging from a sober ‘Stand by the Miners’ to the appeal of the Communists – ‘Don’t Shoot the Workers’.”

After the procession a meeting chaired by the MP JE Sutton (a former miner and MP for Clayton) took place in the Great Hall at Belle Vue. In the midst of the speeches another MP, Joe Compton, announced that “the trade unions of the country have decided to call a general strike”. After a moments hush the audience broke into cheers.

“The Communists waved their red streamers and hats were thrown into the air. Thereafter every reference from the platform to ‘the coming fight’ and every appeal to ‘stand by the miners’ was received with cheers and applause. The solidarity of the meeting was incontestable”
(Manchester Guardian)

The meeting finished by unanimously agreeing a resolution in support of the miners which ended “He who is not for the miners is against the working class.”

Monday 3 May

As the midnight deadline approached the railway workers, tramwaymen, carters, dockers, power enginemen and foremen, printers, iron and steel workers, vehicle builders and builders all announced their intention to strike work. The Electrical Trades Union, which had its headquarters in Manchester, issued an instruction to its branches to take joint action “along with any other section of men who have ceased work on transport, printing, engineering and steel production”.

Mr Mattinson, general manager of the Manchester trams, announced that strenuous efforts would be made to maintain “ as good a service as possible” and that plans were being made to use taxi-cabs and charabancs on routes from Albert Square.

Councillor Mellor, Secretary of the Manchester & Salford Trades & Labour Council, gave assurances that every effort would be made to co-operate with local authorities in ensuring the safety of food supplies and other essential services. The trade unions set up a central committee to run the strike covering the whole of the North West. The Secretary was JA Webb from the Transport & General Workers Union, whose members would be crucial to the success of the strike.

The police were making their preparations too, of course. According to testimony given to WH Crook, author of The General Strike, published in 1931, preparations for the strike had included the need to keep transport moving from the very first day of the strike. The police had drawn up route maps of the roads that would be used and these had been circulated to police constables in March. Mobile squads of police were to be held ready for instant deployment in threatened areas. It was announced publicly that the Chief Constable Sir Robert Peacock would review the force of special constables set up in Manchester during the war with the purpose of discovering the present strength of this force. Volunteers for this force were also being enrolled at the training school at London Road fire station. Manchester City Council announced that it was setting up a Manchester Area Emergency Committee and enrolling volunteers at public buildings.

The Manchester Evening News told its readers to “Keep Cool and Carry On.”

“The security of the Constitution having been threatened the duty of every right-minded citizen lies plain before him. The Englishmen who never will be slaves to kings or conquerors will never be slaves to a class. The people who have invented the right to rule themselves will not submit to the rule of any minority of workers who may seek to usurp the powers of government. The government must govern.”

Three trains left Manchester for London at midnight from London Road, Central and Victoria railways stations, though with few passengers on board since there was no certainty that they would reach the capital as they had to change drivers en route. Shortly after midnight pickets took up their positions outside the stations. Railway company officials were uncertain what level of service would be provided. All would depend on whether railway workers would be loyal to their union and obey the strike call.

More than 5,000 Manchester tramwaymen held a mass meeting at midnight in the Co-operative Hall, Downing Street at which there was solid vote in favour of striking. The power for the trams was cut off at 2am.

Tuesday 4 May

Not a single tram ran. There were no local trains and only one train to London from London Road at 9.30am via Sheffield and Nottingham and one each way between Central Station and Derby.

With no public transport there was enormous traffic on the road into Manchester city centre from the suburbs, as the middle classes turned to their cars. Taxis charged 6d a ride. The docks were at a standstill, though food and other essentials were being moved.

By the early afternoon it was claimed some 12,000 volunteers had been enrolled at the Free Trade Hall for various services, including one aviator.

Stella Davies, then a member of Gorton Labour party, vividly recalled the first day of the strike in her book North Country Bred, published in 1963.

“The mill chimneys ceased to smoke and the wheels ceased to turn, Over Gorton, Openshaw, Clayton, Newton Heath and Collyhurst the air grew clearer: the hills which ring the east of Manchester could be seen with an unusual sharpness across the intervening river valleys. The pavement and even the roads were crowded with pedestrians and the drivers of private cars offered lifts with surprising generosity.”

A Manchester news-sheet reported that “city girls” were wearing red ribbons at tram and bus stops, indicating that they would like a lift.

At the Socialist Hall on Margaret Street, Openshaw, the District Committee of the Communist Party was meeting in permanent session, whilst speakers addressed the crowds outside. Dick Stoker, a party member with a car, had just arrived back from London with copies of the CP emergency bulletin The Workers Daily when the police arrived and arrested him. He was later sentenced to two months in prison for “having committed an act likely to cause disaffection”. Quick-thinking members of the Young Communist League hid some of the bulletins under a pile of coke and later distributed them locally.

Wednesday 5 May

Public transport was largely at a standstill. A half-hourly service was achieved on the line to Radcliffe, one of the volunteers being a vicar.

Stella Davies visited her local station with other members of the Labour Party Women’s Section, taking tea and sandwiches.

“The pickets were steady men responsible who, as the occasional train drew into the station, regarded with interest and much amusement the efforts of the amateurs to bring the engine to stop at the right place and not over-shoot the platform. ‘Now you know’, they said to one discomforted youth, who had taken the train right through the station, ‘any fool can start a train. When you’ve learned to stop it where you want, you can join the union.’”

The strike reached the nation’s breakfast table after the decision of the TUC to call out the printers and shut down national and local newspapers.

The Manchester Guardian commented

“The decision of the Trades Union Congress to call out the printers and to silence the press seems to us a singularly misguided policy, and we cannot believe that it will be maintained. To put the press out of action gives a most dangerous power to the Government, which by its control of broadcasting will enjoy a complete monopoly in its distribution of news and views. Is this desired by the Trades Union Congress and the miners?”

The work force of the Manchester Guardian actually appealed to the TUC for an exemption from the strike but this was turned down.

The Government now produced its own newspaper the British Gazette, whilst the TUC used the presses of the Daily Herald to produce the British Worker which first appeared on 3 May.

Most newspapers attempted to producer some form of publication. The Manchester Guardian appeared a two sides of typescript on 3 May and on following days as a single printed news-sheet. The Manchester Evening Chronicle managed a daily typewritten sheet and also displayed news in the huge windows of its Withy Grove offices.

The public was also able to get news from the intriguingly named “Mutagraph” which the Manchester Evening Chronicle described as the latest and most fascinating of publicity devices… used at once to give vital news to large Manchester crowds thirsty for first-hand news of the nation’s new ordeal”. Fenner Brockway watched the device in action during his time in Manchester, “In Piccadilly a large crowd – mostly strikers – watched a Daily Dispatch news bulletin thrown up on a huge sky sign. Again a capitalist monopoly of news”.

It was reported that there were many empty seats for a show at the Manchester Hippodrome.

Thursday 6 May

A four page news-sheet entitled the Manchester Emergency Echo was published by EH Lumby at Central Press in Chorlton on Medlock, much of the content being lifted from the anti-strike Daily Mail which was now being published abroad and flown into Britain. The content included the following advice

“Don’t pay attention to wild stories of disorders, rioting, outrages and the like. Evil tongues are deliberately inventing these to scare you. …. Don’t criticise the Government . They are doing their best to deal with a different situation and will do better with your support and help…Don’t go denouncing the strikers in violent terms. Many of them are patriotic Britons led into a desperately foolish course by reckless leaders…Above all, don’t get scared.”

Friday 7 May

Ellen Wilkinson and JJ Horrabin, who were reporting back to the TUC on the position in parts of the country, declared that in Manchester “the position is absolutely solid”. They urged, however, that a strike newspaper be produced in Manchester.

Saturday 8 May

Fenner Brockway arrived in Manchester to edit a Manchester edition of the British Worker.

JA Webb reported in optimistic terms to the TUC. “The response to the TUC has been splendid…The feeling among members of the various sections is splendid and no instance of friction with police authorities has been reported.”

Sunday 9 May

The Lord Mayor of Manchester announced that food supplies were being maintained satisfactorily. A man was arrested by the police for allegedly attempting to interfere with a lorry-load of flour from Sutcliffe’s Mill, Hulme. He was later jailed.

There was a large rally in support of the strike in Platt Fields. Stella Davies described it as a “large orderly crowd and the presence of many women and children with sandwiches and bottles of milk made it seem almost like a picnic….the speakers exhorted the strikes to keep quiet, stay at home and offer no provocation”.

A report on the meeting sent to the TUC estimated that there were at least 20,00 people present. Two brass bands made up of striking tramway workers led the procession into the park. The speakers, who included Mary Quaile and Rhys Davies, addressed the crowd from three platforms. There were also meetings in Gorton and Blackley.

Interestingly the Manchester Guardian reported that the size of the meeting as “several hundred” strikers.

Monday 10 May

The North West Strike Committee informed the TUC that they had received authoritative information that 2000 beds, blankets and pillows had been sent into the Salford Docks in readiness for strike-breaking volunteers.

The Electricians Union threatened to stop electric power if attempts were made to run trams in Manchester.

The first edition of the Manchester edition of the British Worker appeared in a run of 50,000. It was printed by the Co-operative Publishing Company after the Co-operative Printing Society has refused to print it.

The front page declared

“The General Council does not challenge the Constitution. It is not seeking to substitute unconstitutional government. Nor is it desirous of undermining our Parliamentary institutions. The sole aim of the Council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life. The Council is engaged in an industrial dispute. There is no constitutional crisis.”

The paper reported that there was wonderful solidarity everywhere and that the workers’ response had exceed all expectations.

“They have manifested their determination and unity to the whole world. They have resolved that the attempt of the mineowners to starve three million men, women and children into submission shall not succeed. All essential industries and all the transport services have been brought to standstill. The Trades Union Congress General Council is not making war on the people. It is anxious that ordinary member of the public shall not be penalised for the unpatriotic conduct of the mineowners and the Government.”

Tuesday 11 May

The print-run of the Manchester British Worker rose to 100,000.

Workers at the only flour-mill still working in Manchester now joined the strike. Three men were prosecuted in the Manchester Police Court for allegedly inciting a crowd to set fire to a railway company motor-lorry in Piccadilly, which had been taking foodstuff from London Road station to Victoria. The lorry had been partly destroyed. Peter Tilley, John Marshall and John Marsland were sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

The Manchester Guardian in an editorial entitled “Is it an Industrial Strike?” called upon Manchester’s striking tramwaymen to return to work.

This call appears to have been part of a co-ordinated attempt to get the trams running for the Tramways Committee now threatened to sack strikers if they did not return to work by noon the following day. Getting the trams back on the streets would be a psychological blow against the morale and unity of the strike.

The TUC called out all members of the shipbuilding and engineering unions. The police escorted 500 volunteers to Salford Docks to unload foodstuffs.

Wednesday 12 May

Only 29 tramwaymen obeyed the call to return to work. The other 5,000 mustered at their depots at noon and marched into the city centre. The procession from Hyde Road depot was a half-mile long, led by the tramway band and miners carrying lamps.

Even as the procession set off the General Strike was coming to an end. The government had refused to negotiate with the TUC. Instead there had been meetings between the TUC and Sir Herbert Samuel. On the basis of a meaningless memorandum the TUC went to Downing Street and called off the strike, even though the memorandum had been rejected by the miners leaders. It was no less than a complete surrender. They had failed even to ask for guarantees of no victimisation of strikers when they returned to work.

Stella Davies later wrote about how the news was heard in Manchester.

“In the course of the afternoon while I was on my round of the picket stations, the news came through. The end of the strike had been announced as an ‘unconditional surrender’. The pickets could not at first believe it. They would wait until they heard from their headquarters before they left their post and I left them, still picketing, to rush home and sit before the wireless. No comfortable words came from the BBC The official governmental line was that the Samuel Memorandum was not binding upon them, being merely a recommendation, its terms were not, in the event, put into operation.”

Fenner Brockway wrote in his diary of the strike

“Everyone was confident that the Government had climbed down….Then the fuller reports became to come by wire….When they showed that the terms were only an arrangement with Sir Herbert Samuel and that the miners lock-out was to continue one simply could not believe one’s eyes”

Thursday 13 May

The Manchester Guardian accurately summed up the situation.

“The effects on British labour will be profound. The history of 1921 has repeated itself. The support of other unions has been withdrawn, The Government has committed itself to little or nothing. The mineowners are committed to nothing.”

The strike continued in many areas as employer attempted to victimise returning strikers. In Manchester 25,000 railway workers stayed out and marched in protest and the dock workers stayed out in their support

Friday 14 May

It was a “day of humiliation”, according to Fenner Brockway, “The TUC has ordered them back, their own Executives have ordered them back. There is no hope of concerted resistance, so they are going back, disappointed, disillusioned, yet still heeling the exaltation of the remarkable solidarity of these days.”

JA Webb reported to the TUC that many employers were trying to impose worsened terms and conditions on returning workers. “ Many men have been informed that their engagements will only be temporary and that the regularity of employment that they have enjoyed in the past has now been withdrawn”.

John Forshaw, a Communist, was arrested by the police for having copies of “The Great Betrayal”, a leaflet put out by the Communist party attacking the TUC’s decision. He was sentenced to one month imprisonment. He was kept in a cold cell and, though diabetic, refused a doctor. He contracted pneumonia whilst in prison and died a few days after being released.

Aftermath

The miners carried on fighting but were forced back by poverty and starvation by the end of November. Some miners were out of work for many years. The miners’ union did not stage another national strike until 1972, nearly 50 years later.

Sources and Further Reading

The General Strike archive at the Working Class Movement Library includes books, pamphlets, newspapers, the British Worker, strike papers, photographs and other items.

Fenner Brockway, “A Diary of the Great Strike”, Socialist Review, June 1926

Wilfrid Morris Crook, The General Strike (1931)

Stella Davies, North Country Bred (1963)

Edmund and Ruth Frow, Nine Days in May, New Manchester Review,, 12, 23/4/1976

Edmund and Ruth Frow, The Communist Party in Manchester (nd)

R H Haigh et al, The Guardian Book of the General strike (1988)

Merseyside and the General Strike

TUC archive on the General Strike

Article by Michael Herbert

The Irish Self Determination League in Manchester

The Irish Self Determination league was a national organisation set up to rally support in Britain amongst the Irish population for the struggle for Irish independence between 1919 and 1921.

In December 1918 the nationalist party Sinn Fein won a majority of the seats in Ireland in the General Election (73 out of 105). They now implemented their policy of achieving separation from Britain by refusing to go to the Westminster parliament and on 21 January 1919 they met in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. The British government refused to recognize and attempted to crush the new state with military force. The new government fought back with its own armed forces, the IRA.

In February 1919 Sinn Fein leaders Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and others addressed a huge and enthusiastic meeting at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool. Following this a conference was held in Manchester at which it was resolved to form the Irish Self Determination League. This was launched on 19th October at a meeting at the Free Trade Hall advertised as starting at 2.30pm, though the hall was full long before that time. At short notice the Palladium Picture House was engaged to cope with the overflow but that in turn was soon filled to capacity and so an impromptu meeting was held in the narrow street between the Free Trade Hall and the Theatre Royal. The Manchester Guardian estimated that some seven thousand people in all had attended the three meetings.

Arthur Griffith MP, S O’Mahoney MP and Sean Milroy (director of Sinn Fein’s operations) received a standing ovation on entering the Free Trade Hall. Griffith said that alone among European nations which answered to the requirements of the principle of self-determination, Ireland was still enslaved. English publicists and politicians had said that the Irish question was insoluble. “The only question in Ireland was whether they could get the burglar out of the house.” England, they countered, could solve the Irish question in five minutes by withdrawing her armed forces and permitting the Irish people the same right which Russia permitted Poland, the right to govern herself. Griffith recounted a recent incident.

“On Thursday last in Dublin, Lord Birkenhead arrived to create a favourable atmosphere for the reconciling of the Irish people and on the night of his arrival we in the Sinn Fein headquarters were served with another notice bidding us to consider ourselves suppressed. They have been telling us for the last three years we have been suppressed. They are adjuring us or assuring us that we cannot be other than suppressed. We have come to take these orders for suppression with a certain thankfulness to have bureaucracy which, for all its malignity and stupidity, seems still to have a sense of humour. Imagine, then, the people who profess to be setting up a committee to reconcile the Irish people using the morning of the visit of the angel of peace Lord Birkenhead to announce to the world and to us that we are suppressed. Well, we refused to be suppressed and we went on with the business we had arranged for the day. Some hours after we had transacted our business 800 soldiers, with many tanks, a number of machine guns and Lewis guns and 200 Dublin policemen, armed with automatic revolvers, came and surrounded the Lord Mayor’s residence. They remained there seven hours when they learned that the Convention they had come to suppress had already met and carried out its business”.

Sean Milroy said that the Irish Republic existed and would continue to exist when Lord French, Mr Ian Macpherson, Lord Birkenhead and the ‘other Empire muddlers’ had passed into oblivion. “There is a new Ireland to-day”, he insisted, “an Ireland which would never be content again to hang on to the hopes of what English politicians would do for her”. The meeting then enthusiastically passed a resolution demanding for Ireland the complete rights of self-determination, the withdrawal of the army of occupation, the reinstatement of Irish newspapers and the release of all political prisoners.

The ISDL quickly gathered momentum and by February 1920 the organisation was able to sell out the Royal Albert Hall for a major meeting, at which the speakers included Art O’Brien, Charlotte Despard, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and P J Kelly (President of the ISDL). Kelly called for the release of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Thomas Kelly, who was being held in Wormwood Scrubs along with over sixty other prisoners who had been deported and jailed in England. In June there was march and rally in Trafalgar Square and a Tory MP protested to the Home Secretary in the Commons about the fact that the flag of the Irish Republic had been carried through the streets of London “under police protection”.

A year after its launch the ISDL had over 200 branches across Britain. It also had its own newspaper the Irish Exile, first published in March 1921 by the London district of ISDL but after November 1921 published by the Central Executive of the League. The last issue appeared in June 1922.

Manchester was a major centre, claiming 7,465 members out of a national membership of nearly 39,000. Among those active in Manchester was Hugh Lee, a councillor in Collyhurst elected as a Liberal in 1919. Lee was from Cavan and came to Manchester at the age of 14 to be apprenticed to his cousin in the grocery trade, later opening his own shop on Rochdale Road. His shift from supporting the Liberal Party to support for the ISDL indicates the rapid political transformation taking place in the Irish community in this period (Lee subsequently became a Councillor for Blackley in the 1930s and 40s, his single shop prospered and became a chain, and he was Lord Mayor between 1945-46).

The ISDL planned a weekend of events for 27th and 28th November 1920 in Manchester, including a national conference on Saturday at the Coal Exchange on Saturday, a march on Sunday morning from Bexley Square to St. Patrick’s church to commemorate the Manchester Martyrs, and a rally on Sunday afternoon at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue to which leading Sinn Fein figures such as Arthur Griffith had been invited.

The ISDL leadership held a meeting with the Chief Constable Sir Robert Peacock on the Friday, at which the police tried to get the meetings called off, but the Irish stood fast and insisted on their right to free speech. The following day the Home Secretary banned the conference, procession and rally from being held in Manchester, citing as an excuse the fear of grave disorder while simultaneously in Dublin police arrested Arthur Griffith and Eoin MacNeill. The Chief Constable sent copies of the order to George Clancy, chair of the Manchester District Committee of the ISDL.

The National Executive of the ISDL, chaired by P J Kelly from Liverpool, met in emergency session in Manchester and announced their intention to proceed with their plans. The Executive attacked the decision of the Home Secretary, stating that “This is evidently the forerunner of the arrest of the leaders in Great Britain.” (The leaders had good grounds to suspect the government might act against them, for in March 1920 Charles Diamond, the editor of the Catholic Herald, had been sent to prison for six months, convicted at the Old Bailey of inciting murder by writing an editorial entitled “Killing No Murder.)

The ISDL evaded the restrictions by moving the site of the conference from Manchester to Salford, where it was held in the Hibernian Hall, Chapel Street. Three hundred delegates attended, representing 234 branches. In his opening remarks P J Kelly said recent events would not deter them. “They have banned our conference and proclaimed our procession and meetings and arrested two of the leaders who were to have been present to address and advise us. These events do not disturb us. We simply go on, calmly, firmly and resolutely performing our allotted task in the glorious work of rebuilding the Irish nation”

He welcomed the recent Labour party policy of “self-determination” and hoped that they mean it. ISDL General Secretary Sean MacRaith reported that 200 new branches had been established in the last six months. A resolution to allow English Catholics to become members of the League as well as those of Irish birth and descent was rejected. The Sunday morning procession was called off by the organisers when it became clear that the police would not permit it to go ahead.

Permission to use public halls was regularly refused for ISDL meetings and the matter was raised on Manchester City Council by Councillor Hugh Lee. After a stormy debate the motion in favour of allowing the use of halls was carried 45 to 15. The Irish National Aid committee worked in conjunction with the ISDL sending large sums to the White Cross and Republican Prisoners Dependents Fund in Dublin. The civil war in Ireland which broke out in the wake of the Treaty quickly reduced the membership of the ISDL and by July 1922 it was practically defunct in Manchester. A remnant of the organization survived and eventually merged into the Connolly Association.

Article by Michael Herbert

Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the 1913 Free Trade Hall meeting

On 16 November 1913 a historic meeting took place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in support of the Dublin Lockout, a huge industrial and social struggle which had brought the city of Dublin to a halt. The meeting was addressed by the leaders of the strike, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, and other trade unionists. The hall was packed and thousands gathered in the streets outside.

The last years before the First World War have often portrayed as lost age of peace, social harmony and long drowsy summers swept away by the cataclysm of war. Nothing could be further from the truth. Edwardian society was shaken to its roots by the militant campaign for votes for women, the growth of mass trade unionism and the rise of Irish nationalism which sought independence from Britain.

On of the most significant episodes was the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The lockout began on 26th August after William Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company, sacked 100 men for joining the Irish Transport and General Workers Union which, under the leadership of Jim Larkin, had organised most of the unskilled workers in Dublin. Murphy was determined to keep the union off the trams. The temperature was raised when the police began attacking strikers’ demonstrations, killing one man and injuring hundreds. Other employers locked out ITGWU members and by early September some 25,000 workers were on the cobbles. Delia Larkin and Constance Markiewicz organised a vast relief operation to feed strikers and their families from their base in Liberty Hall, the union headquarters.

Larkin had been born of Irish parents on 21st January 1876 in Cumberland Street, Liverpool. At the age of 17 he joined the Independent Labour Party and, after a year away at sea, became a regular worker at the south end of the docks, rising by 1903 to the much sought after position of foreman dock porter and acquiring the nickname “The Rusher” for the pace at which he worked his men. He neither smoked nor drank, nor accepted bribes to give men jobs. Outside work he was an active socialist and became involved in trade unionism after a bitter and unsuccessful thirteen week strike in June 1905 at the end of which Larkin had emerged as a charismatic strike leader with the ability to address large crowds and inspire the union membership. He was quickly taken on by the union as a paid organiser working in Scotland and Ireland until he was sacked in 1908 after a strike in Cork.

The leader of the union Jimmy Sexton, a former Fenian, now feared that Larkin’s activities in Ireland would bleed the union dry. It was also a political conflict. Sexton believed in making gains for the working class within the status quo and indeed eventually became MP for St. Helens in 1918. Larkin’s ultimate objective was to organise the working class for social revolution. In response to his dismissal Larkin now set up the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and fought the NUDL for the waterfront workers in Ireland.

On Sunday 14th September Larkin paid a brief visit to Manchester to speak at an afternoon meeting at Alexandra Park, organised by the Manchester & Salford Trades and Labour Council to protest against events in Dublin. He was not billed to appear as a speaker but an unofficial announcement had been made a few days earlier. Soon after the chair Tom Fox (President of the Trades Council) and other speakers had ascended the platform Larkin appeared in the crowd and was immediately recognised (despite his latest “disguise,” a shaven top lip) and invited onto the platform.

Mr Partridge from the Dublin Trades Council spoke first, declaring that the troubles in Dublin arose not from a strike or simple lock-out, but from a conspiracy between the representatives of the government and the employers to smash trade unionism. He denounced “the drunken frenzy” of the police and, after mentioning some specific cases of brutality, produced from his breast pocket a broken truncheon which, he said, had been shattered on the head of an unoffending citizen and which, he added grimly, the man who used it would not need again for some time to come.

Speaking next Larkin apologised for his intrusion without notice and added that, in spirit, he was still across the channel. He was full of confidence. “When William Martin Murphy and his hired thugs set out to make good their boast that they will beat Larkinism they will fail because to beat Larkinism is to beat the race to which I belong…..I have a divine mission to make men and women discontented, and no one can stop me carrying on the work for which I was born.”

He denounced Murphy, Carson, Redmond and the TUC amongst others and announced that he was out for revolution, “…..they can only kill me and there are thousands more coming after me”. At the end of his speech Larkin said he was immediately returning to Dublin. Alf Purcell moved a resolution protesting against the brutality of the Dublin police and demanding an enquiry into their conduct which was carried to the accompaniment of cheers.

Larkin returned to Manchester on 26th September to send off the steamer Hare with 250 tons of provisions for starving families, in the company of Keir Hardie of Labour Party Fame, Jimmy Sexton and others. He was jailed for sedition in Dublin on 27th October, but released after just 17 days, following protests in Ireland and Britain by leading figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst and George Bernard Shaw. Impatient with the lack of support shown by the British TUC, Larkin and Connolly toured Lancashire in November, calling for more action to support the struggle in Ireland.

On 16th November they spoke in Manchester, accompanied by the leading American socialist Big Bill Haywood with support from the Labour MP Ben Tillett. Before the meeting they visited the Socialist Clarion Cafe on Market Street (where their picture was taken) then walked to the Free Trade Hall which was packed with five thousand people with thousands more standing in the street in the rain unable to get in.

“The working class of Dublin is being slowly murdered” James Connolly told the audience. Connolly had been born in Edinburgh in 1868, his parents emigrating from County Monaghan. He served 7 years in the British army and became a Socialist in 1889 whilst back in Scotland. Moving to Dublin he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. He spent some time in the United States before returning to Ireland to work with Larkin in the ITGWU. He had incidentally visited Manchester several times before in the early years of the century to give lectures on Socialism.

Connolly was followed by Jim Larkin spoke to the packed hall for an hour. The Manchester Guardian described the working-class orator in action. “Larkin is something over forty years of age. His plentiful hair is a dusky grey, and over his forehead, until, disarranged by the straying of his fingers, it stands out like the peak of a cap… Standing with a light poise, turning sharply from side to side, gesticulating with outstretched arms frequently but with restraint, speaking with great vehemence and often with anger he carried the conviction of sincerity.”

After the meeting he drove in a closed car through the crowds to a nearby speaking pitch, then got out and spoke again to several thousand people, publicly challenging his enemies. “Who am I? I am James Larkin, son of James Larkin, the son of Barney Larkin of County Armagh. Ask my accusers for yourselves. Send them over to face me in Dublin.”

The dispute ended in early 1914 “as a drawn battle” in the words of Connolly. In its aftermath it left a politicized working-class in Dublin conscious of its strength. It also led to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia originally set up by Connolly to defend people from police violence but which now continued to train and drill after the strike with a membership of a thousand and which played a major role in the Easter Rising in 1916. Larkin went to the United States in late 1914 and did not return to Ireland until 1923. Connolly was shot by a British Army firing squad on 12th May 1916. He was seated in a chair, having been badly wounded during the Rising.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Manchester Martyrs

The Manchester Martyrs were three innocent Irishmen hanged in public outside the New Bailey prison in Salford on 23 November 1867. They had been convicted of murdering a police sergeant, killed in the course of a successful raid on Hyde Road, Manchester to free two leading Fenians.

The story of the Manchester Martyrs begins with the founding of the Fenian movement, which encompassed two separate but deeply entwined organisations; the Fenian Brotherhood – founded in New York on 17th March 1858 by John O’Mahon; and the Irish Republican Brotherhood – founded in Dublin by James Stephens, Thomas Luby and others who had taken part in the 1848 Rising.

The Fenians took their name from the Fianna, ancient warriors of Irish myth and legend, and their aim was the establishment of an independent Irish Republic, free from British rule, to be established by an armed uprising. The Fenian Brotherhood was a mass movement which men joined by oaths pledging allegiance to the future Irish Republic, while the IRB was a select and secret organisation which survived until 1922 when it was destroyed by the Irish Civil War.

The Fenians’ bedrock of support was in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Irish people had emigrated in the wake of the Famine, and where in addition many Irish men served in the Union (and a few in the Confederate) armies of the American Civil War – often in Irish regiments – giving those who survived the bloody conflict valuable military experience. In 1866, for instance, the Fenians made a number of raids across the border into Canada.. They also built up their organisation in Ireland and in Britain. The Royal Irish Constabulary had several detectives permanently based in Lancashire in order to monitor Fenian activities, which they did principally through the traditional device of recruiting informers. RIC detective McHale, based in Liverpool, supported the view that the Fenians had a wide base in England.

“I find the great majority of Irish labourers in this town, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as those residing in towns of less note through this country, if not actually enrolled members of the brotherhood, are strongly impressed with the spirit of Fenianism, and there is another class of Irish resident in this country, who are in comfortable and easy circumstances…and who have the strongest sympathy with the movement & altho’ not enrolled members would, I am quite certain, give active cooperation if it so happened that there was a rising, or any attempt at rebellion in Ireland. There also numerous young Irishmen…who are Fenians. Many of them joined volunteer corps in order to acquire a knowledge of drill and military movements, for the express purpose of using in the Fenian cause…..”

Some arms shipments were made through Liverpool and by 1865 everything seemed in place for a successful rising in Ireland. Tens of thousands had taken the Fenian oath while Irish regiments in the British army had been infiltrated. At this critical juncture the Fenian leadership hesitated and delayed whilst the British government was alerted to the danger and struck first in September 1865, arresting a number of the most prominent leaders in Ireland, such as O’Leary, Luby and O’Donovan Rossa. They all received long sentences. Early in 1866 the government finally realised the extent of Fenian subversion in the army and rushed through a suspension of Habeas Corpus in one day on 17th February, enabling them to arrest thousands and imprison them without trial. The army court-martialled many soldiers, transporting some to Australia in the last convict shipment ever sent there, reaching Western Australia in 1868. Fenian organisation was fatally weakened and by the time the rising finally took place on 5th March 1867 it was easily defeated, despite some initial successes.

After the failure of the rising the Fenians sent two leading figures in the movement to Britain to rally and reorganise their followers . One was Colonel Thomas Kelly from Galway, who had replaced James Stephens as head of the IRB. Kelly had served in an Ohio regiment during the American Civil War, and had been responsible for rescuing Stephens from Richmond Jail, Dublin in November 1865. The other was Captain Timothy Deasy from Clonakilty, County Cork, who had also served in the American Civil War

Both men were arrested in Manchester on 11th September. This was a major coup for the authorities but Edward O’Meagher Condon, another Irish-American civil war veteran who was in charge of re-organising the Fenians in the north of England, immediately set plans in motion to free the two men, procuring arms from Birmingham and organising a party of men to effect a rescue. The two men were being held at Bellevue gaol on Hyde Road and conveyed to and from court in a horse-drawn police-van.

On 18th September Condon’s raiding party attacked the van on its way out of Manchester as it neared a railway bridge on Hyde Road, shooting the off-horse and sending the police escort packing. Then they began to break open the van in the course of which a man named Peter Rice accidentally shot dead Charles Brett, the policeman inside the van. The raiders got Kelly and Deasy out of the van and, despite strenuous efforts by the authorities to recapture them, the Fenian movement successfully smuggled them back to the United States.

The Manchester police arrested some of the rescuers at the scene and dragged in dozens of other Irishmen in the following days as the constabulary ransacked the Irish quarters, enraged by the death of their colleague. The government was equally dismayed. Home Secretary Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his diary, “This at Manchester! What are we coming to…. The Times is as the public will be ready for strong measures. England will never endure that such an event should happen unpunished.” The legal hearings in Manchester began on 27th September. Amongst the lawyers defending the Irishmen was William Prowting Roberts, who lived in Pendleton and had been an active Chartist in the 1840s, when he had even been imprisoned for a time. Roberts had been one of the speakers at the Free Trade Hall meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1848.

Twenty eight Irishmen appeared before the stipendiary magistrate and the number eventually rose to fifty. The court was ringed by troops, some of whom actually sat next to the magistrate on the bench. All the prisoners were in shackles and the magistrate refused to order their removal, despite protests from the lawyers. Roberts did his best, gaining the release of some prisoners, but the authorities merely filled the gaps in the ranks with newly arrested men. He was also heckled from the court gallery, which was filled with Manchester’s well-to-do come to watch the spectacle. “How dreadful it is to have to address such a spirit that reigns against these men”, he told the court, “ it paralyses the tongue”. The intimidation even continued outside the court. One evening a mob turned up outside Roberts’ hotel and he had to escape by the back entrance. The Times even devoted an editorial to attacking him, “……the prejudice which Mr. Roberts deprecates is not, we suspect, local as much as national, being no other than a prejudice against organised conspiracies for the defiance of the law and the murder of its authorised agents”. Ernest Jones was another barrister for the men. He had qualified as barrister in 1844 and then joined the Chartist movement, becoming editor of the Northern Star, and also served a term of imprisonment.

The special commission which tried the prisoners started sitting at the Assize Courts in Manchester on 28th October, presided over by Justice Blackburn with the Attorney General Sir Thomas Karslake leading for the prosection. W P Roberts and the other defence lawyers petitioned in an attempt to get the trial moved to London but this was rejected. Manchester was filled with police and troops during the five days of the proceedings. Twenty-six Irishmen were tried, with five of them being found guilty of murder, seven of riot and assault while the remainder were convicted of lesser offences.

The sentence of death on Edward O’Meagher Condon was commuted because of his American citizenship. Another condemned man Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine home on leave who had been swept up by the police in their raids, was given a free pardon after the press reporters at the trial got together and petitioned the Home Secretary, declaring their belief in his innocence. It was plain that he had played no part in the raid or the death of the policemen, having only just come back to Manchester after ten years away. And yet many witnesses had sworn on oath that Maguire had been a participant. What reliance could now be placed on the evidence given against the other three men?

There was a vociferous campaign for clemency for the three condemned men by Irish and English radicals. On 18th November a deputation went to the Home Office to present a memorial from a meeting held at Clerkenwell Green the previous day. The Home Secretary Gathorne Hardy refused to see them so the men forced their way into the Home Office and held an impromptu “indignation” meeting before leaving just in time to avoid the police. In Manchester a number of citizens met at the Trevelyan Hotel in Corporation Street and drew up a petition which asked the queen to exercise her prerogative of mercy “…..on the ground that the British government can always afford to exercise clemency even to its worst and most misguided prisoners, although not sentenced for a political crime, but solely for the high crime or murder, may be regarded in a sense as political criminals…..” Like all others this petition was turned down. Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to Sir Stafford Northcote at this time that the Irish “are really shocking, abominable people – not like any other civilised nation.”

The campaign for clemency failed and the sentences were carried out in public on 23rd November outside the New Bailey prison on Bridge Street where Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were hanged at day break on a platform built on the walls. Below them was a large, jeering crowd and hundreds of police and the army, ready to prevent any possible rescue attempt. Few Irish attended, having been told by their priests to go to Mass and pray for the souls of the condemned.

After the execution the bodies of the three men were swiftly buried in quicklime in the prison grounds. Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Marx predicting that “yesterday morning the Tories, by the hand of Mr Calcraft, accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided by Derby and G Hardy. Only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed which will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland, England and America”.

In Ireland tens of thousands paraded in mock funeral processions in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and many other towns, with participants and spectators dressed in mourning and wearing green ribbons and rosettes and other items. Newspapers remarked upon the large numbers of young women who marched in contingents in the parades, something new in Irish political life. Many of the women wept as they walked and in Cork an eyewitness described the women “keening” when the procession reached St Jerome’s cemetery, “the occasion of the gathering rendered this wild cry of sorrow sadly impressive and moving.” As the processions gathered momentum across the country across the country the Lord Lieutenant issued a proclamation banning all future ceremonies under the Party Processions and Party Emblems Act.

Annual commemorations of the executions became part of Nationalist political life, with marches in many Irish towns every November, often in the dramatic form of a torchlight procession.

Many years later Edward O’Meagher Condon returned to Manchester to a hero’s welcome. On 26th September 1909 he crossed the Atlantic from the United States and was received in triumph when he arrived at Exchange Station in Manchester, accompanied by the MP John Dillon and John O’Callaghan, secretary of the United Irish League of America. The party made their way to the Grand Hotel on Aytoun Street, accompanied by a large crowd and the Michael Davitt and Thomas Davis branches of the UIL in Manchester in a torchlit procession. The following day Condon visited the various scenes associated with the events of 1867 and in the evening there was a great meeting at the Free Trade Hall to welcome both him and those who had accompanied him on the visit. Condon was pictured in the papers seated alongside O’Callaghan, F L Crilly (Secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain) and Stephen Gwynne (MP for Galway).

A veteran Manchester Fenian, Seamus Barrett, formed a Manchester Martyrs Memorial Committee at the beginning of the twentieth century which put up the monument in Moston Catholic cemetery, unveiled by James Stephens, the former Fenian leader. Thereafter an annual commemoration was held, involving a parade from Bexley Square, Salford to St. Patrick’s Church on Livesey Street, where Mass was said. Afterwards the parade, led by an Irish pipe band, would proceed to the Shamrock Hall on Rochdale Road or to Moston cemetery. In 1974 the march was cancelled, following the Birmingham pub bombings, and the memorial was extensively vandalised and defaced. In recent years it has been restored.

Article by Michael Herbert