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A Revolutionary rehearsal? East Wall 1911. September 13, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish History, Irish Politics, The Left.
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A very welcome guest post by community activist and local historian Joe Mooney


East Wall road School built in 1895

One hundred years ago, and two years before the 1913 Lockout, the district of East Wall had a taste of the battle to come.

A century ago today, September 13th 1911, teachers arriving at the East Wall Wharf National School found a message chalked on the door “ Any boy cot going into school and not following other schoolboys examples will be killed by order Strike Strike Strike”.

The school boys strike had begun, with the demands set out as shorter hours, cheaper books and no canings. For at least three days this Junior Industrial unrest continued, with pupils attempting to enter the school being branded as scabs and pelted with stones and vegetable waste. Unfortunately, history records the strikers as being unsuccessful in achieving their demands.

School kids are always uncannily aware of current affairs if mischief making can result from this knowledge (My own involvement in a very random “victory to Malvinas” rally during a science class proves that). So was the school boys strike just some Bash Street Kids style hi-jinx, or was it an expression of the industrial militancy brewing in the city? It is most likely to have been a bit of both, but the seriousness of those involved should not be under-estimated.

Of course, new ideas of trade union radicalism were spreading like wildfire in the City at that time, “Larkinism” was about the town and a number of important strikes had already taken place that year. This militancy would no doubt have seeped down to the children of Dublin workers, no more so than in the Docks, with its confluence of labourers, carters, railwaymen etc. In his report on the strike, the school inspector added a PS “A good many men have been out on strike for some time in the neighbourhood of this school, the boys are hearing about strikes from morning till night, and the contagion has reached the type specified by the Principal as ringleaders.” This was also the opinion of the school manager/ parish priest Father Brady – “Strikes were in the air at the time, and the residential quarters of the general strikers were all around the school”.

In examining a contemporary newspaper report, what becomes obvious is the intelligence and discipline of those involved. When an Evening Telegraph journalist conducts “An interview with the kids” he asks the boys to speak “one at a time”, they oblige and recount their motivation in an orderly fashion. Their knowledge of events not only in Dublin but also in England is clear – a series of school boy strikes had recently occurred in Wales and the East Wall boys demands were framed in very similar terms, with some obvious inspiration from their Celtic cousins. They were able to point out that while their parents have to pay for school books these were free across the water.

And their organisation ability was worth noting. While press reports of “secret meetings held in fields at the dead of night” may be fanciful, they are just as likely to be true. The reports also claim that the boys had organised pickets in the vicinity of the school to turn back children on their way in. Parents trying to force their way through with children were forced back by the striking boys. The school attendance officer was greeted with boos and cheers when he arrived. The Freemans Journal recorded how “A strike took place on yesterday morning of the boys attending the East Wall National Schools. A large number of the boys assembled in the vicinity of the schools about 9.30 a.m. and paraded the district, carrying flags in which were shown their demands. The strikers sent out “scouts” in all directions to prevent any pupils entering the schools. The police arrived on the scene and were busily engaged watching the boys, who kept parading for a considerable time.”


Not exactly “The best years of our lives”

The traditional working class hatred of scabs was evident too. A newspaper report two days into the strike quotes a striking boy: “If we don’t get our rights we won’t go back, and we will bring out all the boys tomorrow and nail the boys who are at school in the evening”. Fighting talk indeed, and backed up by actions as the blacklegs were pelted with stones and cabbage stalks. The reporter was invited to “Come down, mister, at 3 o’clock and see their ould ones (their mothers) bringing them home under their aprons.”

The East Wall community festival brochure of 1975 had a feature on the strike and considered their demands.

“There is no reference in the papers of the period to whether the schoolboys demands were seriously considered or discussed, but the demands for shorter hours and free books seemed to reflect deep-felt and apparently justifiable grievances. Children in National schools in Ireland 1911 passed long hours in conditions that were often insanitary and unhealthy and many children became unhealthy as a result of the strain of long school hours in these bad conditions. Books in general in those days were expensive and schoolbooks were no exception. Parents would have found it difficult to buy school books for six or seven of their children, when a mans wages in 1911 would be between sixteen shillings and one pound a week. This small sum would have been the wages of a man for twelve hours work a day for six days a week. Schoolbooks would have strained the resources of many families to the limit, indeed the cost of school books are still a strain on family resources. In the England of 1911 children at National school got their schoolbooks free and Mothers in East Wall wanted cheaper books for their children. As one woman put it to a reporter “We want cheaper books, eight shillings and sixpence for books out of my husbands pound a week wages is more than any poor person should be expected to pay.”

Kevin Byrne, the author of the piece (and later Alderman Kevin Byrne) recalls that his father was in the strike (aged 8), and identified some of the active organisers as boys aged “about twelve or thirteen at the time”.

While not wishing to perpetuate the North-side / South-side rivalry, I can’t help but mention an attempt to hold a similar protest at City Quay. The boys here were less successful, with the mothers beating them back and getting all the children into their lessons. A school principles letter from the era also makes reference to events in Marino.


Dublin 1913 – Bash Street Kids or children of the revolution ?

At this moment in time, it is premature to stake a claim that the 1911 School boy strike was part of the growing working class militancy in Dublin City. It is possible though that this may soon be shown to be the case. Certainly the level of organisation and the articulate demands of the school boy strikers closely mirror adult concerns of the time. There were a number of trade unionists active in the area, and a founding member of the Socialist Party Of Ireland lived here.

New research been undertaken by East Wall residents will hopefully provide a clearer picture. Archive material recovered locally has proven invaluable in examining the social history of the community through school records and documents, including details of those who were present as pupils and staff during the strike. While I am reluctant to claim this incident as an heroic stand in the history of the Dublin Worker, I will commemorate the event by encouraging my own children to leave school promptly today at 12.30, and I’ve even provided them with a cabbage stalk in case anyone says otherwise.

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Comments»

1. EamonnDublin - September 13, 2011

Amazing…….children from east wall went to school =)

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2. D_D - September 13, 2011

A fascinating report! Thanks Joe.

There must be lots of similar strikes at a tangent to the trade union movement and now ‘hidden from history’. Has the Stoneybatter ‘pint strike’ story been written down? I myself experienced a hunger strike in the boy scouts in 1964, which I will eventually get around to recording.

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3. Clive Sullish - September 13, 2011

That’s very interesting. I’d come across a number of similar instances at around the same in the West of Ireland, and I’d been saving up the references. There were strikes in 1911 in a number of boarding schools: St Muredach’s of Ballina in September; the Franciscan-run agricultural training college in Mountbellew; in St Jarlath’s College Tuam in November (where one of those disciplined for his role included the future bishop of Galway, Michael Browne). In the latter instance, the reason for the outbreak was the administration by the school authorities of arbitary and unjust punishment in response to a previous incident. It seems, moreover, that the St Jarlath’s lads were aware of the Mountbellew episode.

There were strikes of schoolboys from a more working class background in Sligo (Sligo Champion, 23 September 1911) and in Loughrea (Connacht Tribune 30 September 1911): ‘SCHOOLBOY STRIKE: LOUGHREA HOPEFULS DEMAND CHEAPER BOOKS, SHORTER HOURS, NO HOME LESSONS: On Friday a number of boys attending St Brendan’s National School, Loughrea, went out on “strike”, and paraded thye town, some of the senior boys playing melodeons, and cheered vociferously. The teachers endeavoured to bring them back to the school but failed. The boys demanded cheaper books and no home lessons. With few exceptions, however, the boys turned up at school on Monday morning.’

There were clear similarities between Loughrea and East Wall. I’d always put these strikes down to the example of the railway strike of September 1911 – possibly the first time that workplace pickets would have been seen in places like Ballina, Tuam, and Loughrea.

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4. Dr. X - September 13, 2011

I wonder does this case hint at a wider hidden history of popular resistance to state education (or bourgeois education) in pre-revolutionary Ireland.

What we know of resistance to state education in 19th century Ireland involves violent resistance by both the Catholic and Protestant traditions to the original project of non-denominational education.

In western Canada at roughly the same time, attempts to roll out state education were the subject of violent opposition by students and their parents. England, meanwhile, saw determined efforts to squeeze out working class community schools from the system.

The quarrel in all these cases was, I think, over what sort of product the education system should turn out – what sort of ‘subject’ to use the jargon would the system produce. The hegemonic class wanted a subject who would be an obedient, though subordinate, member of society. Those who insisted on independent systems of education may have had other ideas about how society should be organised. I wonder are there any sources that could be drawn on in the Irish case, to get at what alternative vision (if any) lay behind the East Wall school strike and similar events?

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5. Fringe Thoughts - Schoolboys on strike, 1911 - September 13, 2011

[...] post by Joe Mooney on this bit of hidden history, with some mention of other schoolboy strikes of the period. Does anyone know if schoolgirls also [...]

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6. Laurence Cox - September 13, 2011

Fascinating article and great to see it up here. Does anyone know whether schoolgirls (presumably in urban settings they were mostly in separate schools, though maybe not in the rural cases) also went on strike?

Children learn organising methods from their parents – but they also carry them on into later life. Some of the 12-13-year old ringleaders would have been involved in the Lockout themselves two years later, and perhaps in the Citizen Army over later years (Frank Robbins’ Under the starry plough is a good autobiography by a local participant).

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7. 21stcenturypartisan - September 13, 2011

Fantastic! This is brilliant stuff, more of this sort of thing!

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8. irishelectionliterature - September 14, 2011
9. bob kirwan - September 15, 2011

Any names to go with the story or the photos. My father, mother, father in law, mother in law all hail from East Wall Kirwan Henry Fleming O’Rourke

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10. Kevin O'Donnell - October 9, 2011

Is there any first hand accounts from the boys? I’m looking for anything the boys said at the time? And what other schools were involved?

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