Sally Richardson reviews Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and Dublin by John Newsinger, Merlin Press, ISBN. 085036518X, £14.99 pbk
THIS LIVELY and highly readable book tells the story of two great confrontations of Irish history, the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and the 1916 Easter Rising. It is also the story of two great Irishmen, James Larkin and James Connolly.
John Newsinger's account of the Dublin Lockout packs in plenty of detail, describing the appalling living and working conditions imposed on the Dulbin working class by capitalists like Murphy, who controlled industry, slum housing and much of the media. Larkin's 'proto-syndicalism' (as it has been called) sought to turn the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union intoa machine capable of smashing the capitalist system.
Britain, like Ireland, was gripped by industrial unrest in the years just before the First World War and British support was crucial if the Dublin workers were to succeed. The British trade union movement delivered it, as did the recently-launched British Labour newspaper, the Daily Herald.
But not for long. Newsinger puts the blame for the eventual failure on the British trade union movement - not the rank-and-file, who remained staunch, but the leaders, including J H Thomas and more surprisingly Ben Tillett. Newsinger highlights the tendency of the leadership to compromise and to see themselves as mediators between workers and employers.
This is not a charge that could be levelled against Larkin. Newsinger makes no bones about his admiration for Larkin, and although he gives Connolly due credit for his role in the Lockout (while placing him firmly in Larkin's shadow) the second part of the book, dealing with the Easter Rising, is rather more problematic. Connolly comes under attack for having apparently abandoned his previous analysis of Ireland's struggle in favour of "a romantic Fenianism that had little if anything to do with Marxism".
There is not room in this review to deal in detail with Newsinger's criticisms of Connolly, but the Irish working class had been let down badly by their British comrades in 1913. The international socialist movement had failed to generate opposition to the First World War. Ireland was on its own, or so it seemed. By throwing in his lot with the IRB Connolly was not abandoning socialism but claiming an independent Ireland for it in the hopes that it would set an example to other countries.
Newsinger concludes his study with an examination of the failure of the labour movement to capture the Republic for the working class. Irish labour let them down as comprehensively in 1917-23 as British labour had in 1913. The potential was there - many IRA men were active trade unionists, and there were strikes, agrarian rebellion by landless labourers and smallholders, the Limerick and other soviets and co-operative creameries.
A point not picked up by Newsinger but worth mentioning is that most of the leading women Sinn Fein activists were socialists and that their marginalization was a double setback for socialism and feminism.
This is an interesting and informative, if provocative book. But, please, Merlin, get a decent proof-reader. I don't think I've ever before read a book with so many typographical errors. The first half is almost clear, but the second half hardly has a page without at least one or two. It's a shame to spoil a worthwhile book with such carelessness.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2005 Sally Richardson