A Revolutionary rehearsal? East Wall 1911. September 13, 2011Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish History, Irish Politics, The Left.
A very welcome guest post by community activist and local historian Joe Mooney
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.”
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.
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.