They sent me out to Swords to get Willy O’Brien. I handed him the message and watched his lips form a tight line. He looked up, rubbed his nose where his glasses rested, then climbed into the cab of the lump of an Austin lorry I’d borrowed. We bounced along the road back to Dublin, the truck leapt and bucked on every rut and pothole but I drove as hard as I could. Willy was quiet. Every now and then he’d take out the bit of paper I’d given him and read it again.
Maybe he was hoping the words would change.
No survivors, he muttered once. Later, they’ll blame us. I turned to say something, but he wasn’t with me. He was watching Drumcondra through the rain.
It had been Jim Larkin’s idea to send the children to stay with the families of union men across the water. Archbishop Walsh had torn into him, said he wanted to turn the children into communists and atheists or, worse, protestants. But those youngsters got trampled on Sackville Street, the winter bit hard and the strike dragged on. No one wanted to watch their children suffer so, in the end, we could have filled the boat three times over.
I couldn’t get the lorry down Gardiner Street through the crowd, so we dumped it and jumped some fences to get to the back of Liberty Hall. The union’s headquarters was full of men smoking hard and staring at their feet, none of them wanting to look Willy in the eye. He paid no heed, barging his way to the front of the building. Larkin was on the steps with James Connolly beside him. Willy went out. I stopped in the doorway.
Beresford Place was heaving, the crowd pressed tightly to the foot of the hall’s low steps and stretched back over Butt Bridge and under the Loopline Bridge towards the old harbour. Rain was coming down in thick cords and sliding off the iron railway bridge in sheets, but no one seemed to care. They were quiet but not really listening to Larkin, who was waving his arms and roaring at them. He was talking politics and he’d lost them.
Hugh, a thick-necked Ulsterman, put a hurley in my hands and nodded towards Custom House. There was a different crowd moving in the gardens there. It was Murray’s Free Labour boys – scabs and strikebreakers – sensing an opportunity.
“Laaarkin, baby killer… Laaarkin, baby killer.”
Some of the crowd took up their chant and started to surge towards us. There was pushing and shoving and scuffles were breaking out. Larkin was still shouting about winning the strike.
A woman broke through the front of the crowd.
Her hair was wild, her bonnet trailing behind her. She had no coat on and her dress was soaked through. She was mad looking and one of our lads went to stop her, I pulled him away.
“William! Is it true William? Are our boys drowned?
Willy turned and I saw his knees go, and his face greyed. Whatever strength had been holding him up just evaporated. The two of them fell to the ground and she was screaming the names of her lost boys.
The scabs missed this. They pushed on, still shouting, but some wee woman turned round and slapped the first of them. All at once the grief in the crowd turned cold and hard and focused itself on Murphy’s men and it was only that they had the sense to go scrabbling back towards Custom House that saved them from a bad beating.
The people turned to us.
Larkin was ready to start again but Connolly put a hand on his shoulder, shaking his head. Some of the lads came over and helped to get Willy and his wife up and guide them into Liberty Hall. Connolly turned back to the crowd.
“We are, as we have always been, a people united by grief,” he said. “We are sorry for your loss.”
At last, Dublin wept.
The truth soon came out. The destroyer HMS Tartar had sailed up from Kingstown with orders to force the SS Connemara back to Greenore and the children back to Dublin. The sea had been rough, the captain of the Tartar had misjudged the currents in Carlingford Lough, and the ships collided. The British captain had panicked and steamed for port. The Connemara turned over and eight hundred children drowned less than a mile from shore.
Then Dublin burned.
“And Dublin Wept” was first published in Pandemonium: Big Jim’s Shadow, Jurassic London
In the early Twentieth Century Dublin was a rapidly growing city in which large numbers of workers endured abject poverty in disease-ridden slums. Two charismatic socialists, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, came together to build the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. They were romantic figures who live on in (near) legend and, indeed, song. The union grew quickly, alarming some of Dublin’s employers, led by William Martin Murphy – owner of, amongst other things, three newspapers and a tram company. In August the employers locked out tens of thousands of workers they suspected of being union members. A long, bitter and often violent dispute had begun.
Jim Larkin did suggest sending the children of Dublin’s strikers to England and Scotland to live with the families of union members. He hoped to ease the burdens on striking families but, more importantly, he hoped to spread support for the strike to the rest of the UK and thought the children would elicit sympathy. However, the combined forces of a hostile press and an equally hostile Catholic Church scuppered the idea.
The lock-out petered out in 1914, with both sides exhausted and forced to compromise. The ITGWU was badly damaged and things got worse when Larkin went off to North America and then, in 1916, James Connolly was killed by the British for his part in the Easter Rising (Murphy used his newspapers to agitate for the execution of his old adversary).
William X O’Brien was the man who emerged to rebuild the ITGWU, turning it into a major force in Irish politics. As far as I know no songs have been written about William X O’Brien.
The SS Connemara, a ferry plying the route from Greenore to Liverpool, did sink in Carlingford Lough but not until November 1916. All aboard were lost, including my great uncle, Private Robert Kenna, who was returning to France after recovering from injuries.