Forgotten: The Limerick Dock Strike of 1913

As I walked past the Dockers Monument today, I was reminded of an overlooked aspect of Limerick’s history. Among that blizzard of centenaries that began to fall last year, the 1913 Lockout, and to a lesser extent the bitter strikes in Sligo/Galway, justifiably received vast swathes of media attention and analysis. Yet the first notable industrial dispute in Ireland in 1913 occurred in Limerick City.

The Monument to the Limerick Dockers, sculpted by Michael Duhan. It was unveiled in 2010.

The dispute, which led to several weeks of strike action, was between the dock labourers and their employer, the Limerick Steamship Company. The conflict arose because the dock labourers, who were all members of a union (Limerick Dock Labourers’ Society), objected to working alongside “non-society” men employed by Mullock & Sons, coal merchants. The dockers were concerned that the outsourcing of non-unionised labour by individual employers at the docks, undermined their position and put pressure on their already low wages and job security.

After talks broke down, the labourers took action. Six hundred tons of coal had arrived in the city on the SS Sinainn. The dockers announced that they would only discharge the cargo, if they were also allowed to bag it into Mullock & Sons yard. When this request was denied they began their strike on Friday the 24th January. (Trivia: This ship was detained at Hamburg in 1914 and used as a transport ship by the German Army until it was sunk by mines in 1916)

The Flying Huntsman, Limerick (c. 1910) – Eason Collection (Source: National Library of Ireland)
Flying Huntsman, Limerick Steamship Co. (c. 1910) – Eason Collection (Source: National Library of Ireland)

Imported Strikebreakers from Liverpool

The Limerick Steamship Co. responded by importing labourers from England to complete the work. These men, who numbered around sixty, were all from Liverpool, and they arrived in Limerick with the strike just a few days old. This action was coordinated by the Shipping Federation, which was an association of shipping industry employers, established to curb trade unionism and mitigate the effects of strike action. Limerick Steamship Co. also contacted the constabulary and warned them that there may be unrest because of such a provocative move.

Thus, over three hundred RIC men were drafted into the city to guard the docks while these men from Liverpool carried out their work. All the entry points to the docks were manned by police and the imported labourers rarely left this safe zone during their stay in Limerick.

Yet despite such a rapid intervention, they were too late. Trouble had already flared up as word spread that the workers from Liverpool had just landed in Foynes train station from Limerick. The strikebreakers were clearly avoiding having to walk through the city to reach the docks. They were about to transit from Foynes to the city by sea (via the SS Shannon) when they were set upon by locals, who threw stones at them, leading to some injuries. The Glin correspondent of the Limerick Leader reported that

As they were proceeding from the station to the pier to join the SS Shannon which was to take them to Limerick, stones were freely thrown, and for a time it looked as if a nasty altercation would ensue. Two of the men were seriously injured as a result of the stone throwing, but beyond this no further mishaps are reported.

Secretary of the Limerick Steamship Co. “in a rush” kills pedestrian in Foynes

General view of Foynes (c. 1900) via Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland
General view of Foynes (c. 1900) via Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland

The crisis took a tragic turn near Foynes when the Secretary of the Limerick Steamship Co., Mr Morley, was speeding through the town in his motor car and hit a pedestrian. The victim, William O’Connor, was run over by the motor car and was seriously injured. He was conveyed to Dr. Nolan’s residence in Shanagolden for treatment, but he died a short time later. Mr. Morley explained that he was rushing to the city to make arrangements for the imported workers from Liverpool.

At the inquest, the death was confirmed to have been an accident but a rider was added that this was due to the negligence of the driver. Despite this fact, no charges were brought against Mr. Morley.

Carters join the Strike

Horse and cart by Sarsfield Bridge (c. 1920) via Limerick City Museum
Horse and cart by Sarsfield Bridge (c. 1920) via Limerick City Museum

The dockers spirits were raised during the first week of February, when the carters of the Limerick Steamship Company went on strike in sympathy with their dispute. They refused to handle any of the goods being discharged by the strikebreakers. The Irish Independent reported that this escalation caused “considerable inconvenience” for businesses in the city as it meant that only those merchants who had their own carters could get goods brought to their premises. An official with the Coal Owners Federation told the local press that he would not rule out having to import carters into the city.

Pressure was building on both parties to resolve the dispute. The strikers proposed that they would return to work as long as the old conditions were adhered to. That is, that members of the Dock Labourers’ Society would be the first to be employed when discharging a vessel. This proposal was rejected.

Shipping Route Cancelled

Many local merchants refused to get involved in the strike. In solidarity with the strikers they decided not to employ their own carters to convey the goods from the docks to their premises, and they objected to this being done with police protection. “Consequently, the good were left lying at the docks.” Officials and clerks (inc. the aforementioned Mr. Morley) of the Limerick Steamship Co. had to resort to carting the outbound goods to Limerick train station from the docks themselves. This provoked much derision from the public

A large force of police protected the “carters” on route.  At the entrance to the railway station in Parnell Street a big crowd hooted and cheered, and some stones were thrown but no one was injured. This morning more goods were removed to the railway station under similar conditions. – Limerick Leader (5th Feb 1913)

This arrangement proved to be unsustainable and the Limerick Steamship Co. announced that their Limerick-Liverpool shipping route was now cancelled in both directions.

Advert for Coal (Limerick Steamship Co., 1914)
Advert for Coal (Limerick Steamship Co., 1914)

No concession

Perhaps sensing that they had the upper hand in the dispute, Mr. O’Flaherty, the President of the Dock Labourers’ Society told a Leader journalist that

the members of his society are determined to hold out for union labour, and that under no consideration will they concede this point.

A “Christian Democrat” and the starving children

A letter signed “Christian Democrat” was published, in summarised form, in the Limerick Leader on the 5th February. The Leader described the author as “esteemed”. It fully supported the strikers and the language used is similar to George Russell’s famous letter sent to the Irish Times during the 1913 Lockout. He defends the right of the workers to combine and says “it is positive tyranny on the part of those who would try and prevent it.” The Limerick Dockers, he goes on to say, affirm the trade union principle that “union men must not work with non-union men,” and that the merchants’ answer is the introduction of the strike-breakers, with the evident intention of smashing the dockers’ power and forcing them to swallow their principles.

Meantime, children are starving – this is not an exaggeration – I have had personal evidence of it. If a way cannot be found immediately out of this industrial deadlock would it not be a charitable deed to start a public subscription to help to feed the children who are innocent and must suffer nevertheless.

A mother and three children in a tenement room in Dublin (1912) by Ernest Kavanagh
A mother and three children in a tenement room in Dublin (1912) by Ernest Kavanagh

This was not an exaggeration. Limerick was a deeply unequal city. In 1914 the Medical Officer reported that 3,025 people were living in 884 different one room tenements in the city. This means that 8% of Limerick City’s population were living in what the MO described as “those wretched tenements.” Typhoid, diphtheria, measles and tuberculosis plagued the poor residents of these condemned buildings. The loss of a regular income, even for a couple of weeks, would have had a serious impact on their lives. A further burden for the working class in Limerick was the impact of the National coal strike of 1912, where miners fought successfully for a minimum wage. This increased the price of coal to such an extent that many on a low wage could barely afford to purchase any. The Limerick Leader observed that

It is one of the ironies of poverty that those who can least afford to buy any coal are only able to get but the smallest quantity, and for that they have to pay 4d per stone, which works out at a rate of £2 13s 4d per ton. Turf is in much demand when it can be had, but that too is fetching an abnormally high price.

This essential commodity for heating a home was still prohibitively expense a year later, and a fundraising concert “for the providing of coal for the poor” took place in Carnegie Hall, Rathkeale in January 1913.

Limerick Corporation support the Strikers 

The most significant development in the dispute was Limerick Corporation’s unanimous sympathy for the strikers and their families. They were angry that so many extra police had been drafted in to the city without being consulting and they were loathe to foot the enormous bill incurred. It was anticipated there would be violence in the city if these police were used to protect imported carters delivering goods across the city. Councillors appreciated that the strikers were well behaved and had now admitted they were too hasty to strike in the first instance, but they believed that the Steamship Co.’s reaction was over the top and unnecessarily punitive. Mr. Dalton (Sinn Fein) described Mr. Morley as the “Czar” of the situation and that the corporation should condemn the Steamship Co. as well as setting up a separate coal yard for Limerick citizens. (An anonymous letter appeared in the Leader a few days later also suggesting a “people’s coal yard”, to be funded by subscription via the Confraternity!)

The Corporation eventually agreed to send the Mayor and a deputation from the council to discuss the matter with the merchants to resolve the situation. The Federated Labour Council (for unskilled workers) also released a statement in support of the strikers.

The action taken up by the Limerick Steamship Co. in response to the manly and honest action of the Dock labourers’, was a series of proposals which would make for the destruction of their society, and filching away of any advantage, which the men, by their organisation, secured in the past 20 years…[…] we appeal to the citizens to stand by them in resisting any attempt to drive the dock labourers back into a system of degradation and slavery.

The Limerick United Trades and Labour Council held a meeting on the 7th February, and the following resolution was unanimously passed

That we, the members of the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council, condemn the action of those responsible for the importation of non-union labour into the city, and we call on all workers to give their whole-hearted support to the dock labourers in their fight for the rights of trade unionism.

Formation of Limerick Employer’s Federation

On the 10th February a large meeting of the merchants and traders was held at the Chamber of Commerce. Those present agreed to form a Limerick Employers’ Federation to look after their interests. The passed a resolution that the dispute at the docks should be resolved through arbitration, and that the arbitrators should be Sir Alexander Shaw, Stephen O’Mara, two representatives from Coal Merchants and Ship Owners’ Association, two from the Dock Labourers’ Society, with the Mayor as Chairman.

“Dispute Happily Ended” 

The Limerick Dock Strike ended on the 11th February 1913. Agreement was reached between all the parties at an Arbitration Court, which sat at the Limerick Chamber of Commerce. The terms of the agreement were

  1. Men working in one company’s steamers can be transferred to another of the same company’s vessel without any extra pay.
  2. Baggers employed by importers in the yards to handle coals being delivered from the steamers, and not knocked off when steamers are finished if any portion of cargo is still in the quay. They must remain to bag those coals to not later than 6pm.
  3. During work at the steamers, merchants reserve the right to disemploy any man found under the influence of drink and to put another man in his place.
  4. The men bind themselves not to strike in future without giving a weeks’ notice; the Labour Federation of Limerick to guarantee this.
  5. No labourer to leave his work for drink or any other purpose without the permission of the stevedore under pain of dismissal.

The imported workers returned home to Liverpool, and the extra police that were drafted in returned to their normal duties. The dock labourers returned to work. While the Steamship Co. must have been satisfied to have tightened up agreements on staff discipline and prior notice of strike; it appears that because of majority support across the community, the strikers, on balance, had emerged victorious in their defence of the principle of trade unionism.

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