A potent symbol of freedom

Peter Berresford Ellis recounts the history of Dublin's Liberty Hall and highlights its significance as a focal point in the struggle for social, political and national independence in Ireland

ALTHOUGH NINETY-YEAR anniversaries are not considered of particular significance, I believe that in the next few months we should be concentrating our minds on the fact that March, 2002, will see the 90th anniversary of the opening of Liberty Hall in Dublin. Then we might prepare the way for something more significant when we reach the centennial year.

At its foundation, Liberty Hall was the heart and centre of progressive socialism and national self-determination in Ireland. It was the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and then the command centre of the Irish Citizen Army. For the colonial administration in Ireland, for capitalists, industrialists and landlords, Liberty Hall became the hated symbol of Irish working class defiance.

But the building that was to be named Liberty Hall at No 18 Beresford Place, at the corner of Beresford Place and Eden Quay, had links with progressive movements of the past.

It was the site of the old Northumberland Hotel which, by 1911, had become almost derelict. The hotel had been the meeting place for members of the Young Ireland movement. Initially, the Young Irelanders were a part of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association, seeking the repeal of the Union of 1801. But they had fundamental differences with O'Connell and his political ideas.

Led by Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon the group had formed around The Nation launched in October, 1842. They believed in 'internal union and external independence'. Their policies were populist, radical and progressive.

Young Ireland remained within the general Repeal Association until O'Connell demanded that all members take a pledge that under no circumstances could physical force be justified.

This was asked against the genocidal background of 'The Great Hunger', one of the most obscene acts of violence committed against the Irish nation.

In July, 1846, led by William Smith O'Brien and John Mitchell, Young Irelanders expressed their disagreement with O'Connell and walked out of the meeting in Conciliation Hall, Burgh Quay, and went to the Northumberland Hotel.

But splits within their 'physical force' wing led to the disastrous attempt at insurrection in July, 1848. The arrest and flight of its leaders followed the collapse of Young Ireland.

Young Ireland, however, did bequeath to the Irish nation, its modern flag -- the green, white and orange tricolour, designed on the style of the French revolutionary flag and given as a gift to Thomas Francis Meagher in April, 1848, on a visit to France.

The Northumberland Hotel later became the meeting place for members of the Land League, especially the North Dock branch of the movement in the 1880s. What better historical building could have been chosen when a new generation of progressive radicals sought their headquarters?

The ITGWU dated its birth from January 4, 1909, although this has always been argued as a convenient time for issuing the first membership cards. In fact, the decision to establish it, at a meeting on the quays of Dublin, was taken in December, 1908, and was the result of a revolt against the United Kingdom's National Union of Dock Labourers who had just suspended Jim Larkin from his post as organiser because of his concentration on specifically Irish problems and methods of dealing with them. Larkin became general secretary.

The infant union managed to rent a room at 10 Beresford Place and later secure affiliation to the Dublin Trades Council and, in May, 1910, to the Irish Trade Union Congress.

The fledgling union had a mountain to climb. It should be remembered that in 1911 Dublin's 305,000 population had a higher death rate than the population of Calcutta. Of deaths in Dublin, twice as many occurred in its pauper workhouses, lunatic asylums and other institutions for the diseased, as they did in the worst industrial slums of England.

A third of Dublin's families lived in single rooms. These were in decaying and over-crowded tenements without running water or adequate sanitation, buildings actually collapsing because of neglect from rack-renting landlords.

By May, 1910, the membership stood at 3,000 and branches were being established in Cork, Sligo and Belfast. James Connolly had returned from the United States and began his syndicalist teaching, the 'One Big Union' concept. He started to link the union's aggressive policy and tactics not only with his concept of industrial unionism, but with the concept of national self-determination.

Until then most members of the union had been members of the Redmonite Irish Party or were found in small socialist and republican clubs or gatherings. Now the idea of a Socialist Party of Ireland, advocated by Connolly, began to take hold.

Union branches were opening in Wexford, Waterford and Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and on May 27, 1911, The Irish Worker and People's Advocate was launched with Larkin as editor.

In March, 1912, the rented room at 10 Beresford Place, was vacated and the Northumberland Hotel was taken over in its entirety, It became the headquarters of what was then the No 1 Branch of the union, the offices of The Irish Worker and the headquarters of the Irish Women Workers' Union.

A few months later, Connolly, making his first appearance at the Irish Trade Union Congress in Clonmel, succeeded in getting majority support for the establishment of an Irish labour party.

The forces arrayed against the ITGWU were many and powerful. But the struggles in Cork and Waterford against the industrialists and landlords for the basic right to belong to a trade union were as nothing compared to the Dublin Lock Out of 1913.

The ITGWU emerged from all the attempts to destroy it bloodied but unbowed. However on the eve of the 1916 Rising the union had only 5,000 members, with branches in nine towns and cities and only £96 in funds in hand.

In 1916 Connolly had come to the point where he was to stand up and be counted in the fulfilment of his life's work and teachings. He believed the time had come to strike for Irish national self-determination.

It was in Liberty Hall that the Proclamation of the Republic of 1916 was printed during Sunday, April 23. The next morning members of the Irish Citizen Army marched off to their tryst with history in Dublin, On the afternoon of Monday Seamus McGowan of the ICA supervised the removal of all arms and war stores to the General Post Office garrison.

By 6 pm, Monday, 24 April, no one was left in Liberty Hall except the caretaker, Peter Ennis. Connolly had given his word to those trade union colleagues who did not agree with his part in the rising that the Citizen Army would vacate the hall when the insurrection started so that the union would not be compromised.

In spite of Liberty Hall being empty, on Wednesday HMS Helga, a gunboat, steamed up the Liffey opposite the Customs House and opened fire on Liberty Hall. The guns fired for an hour without once hitting their target, although many fell on the citizens huddled in the swarming tenements around it. The Helga was finally withdrawn. Some years later, ironically, it was commissioned into the Free State service as the Muirchu.

British artillery men, operating a battery of two 18-pounder field guns, opened up from Tara Street, ranging their shots over the Pro Cathedral, then filled with people at service as well as refugees seeking shelter from the fighting. Direct hits set the interior of the building alight. According to the Irish Times: 'Liberty Hall' was the centre of social anarchy in Ireland, the brain of every riot and disturbance. When it was determined to use artillery to defeat the rebels, Liberty Hall was singled out both because of "its great notoriety and because it and two neighbouring houses were strongly held by the insurgents."

That was patently untrue. The caretaker Peter Ennis had remained in Liberty Hall until the shells started to fall on it.A day or so later, soldiers raided it, although there was no one to resist them. They took what documents had survived, union books, records and even the badly damaged printing press to Dublin Castle.

Liberty Hall lay in ruins. Connolly was executed along with Michael Mallin, and many other members of the Irish Citizen Army were dead in the fighting or imprisoned like the ITGWU President Thomas Foran, officials like William O'Brien, John O'Neill, Cathal O'Shannon, PT Daly, Connie Markiewicz, Winifred Carney and Helena Molony.

Eighteen months later, like a phoenix, the ITGWU boasted 67,800 members organised into 210 branches, a head office staff of 12, 17 field organisers and that one year's income of £27,699. The mortgage on Liberty Hall was cleared and plans put it place to rebuild it.

Today, of course, Liberty Hall rises on the Dublin skyline in a new guise. Plans for the high rise block were finalised back in 1959. Yet it is not a place that Connolly would recognise. I do not mean its physical appearance. The Services and Industrial Professional Technical Union (SIPTU) does have its headquarters there but the Irish-based 'One Big Union' of Connolly's vision is no more.

Of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), a staggering 32 unions covering the Republic of Ireland are run from headquarters in Britain; in fact 17 unions organising in Ireland have not even bothered to affiliate to the ICTU. And, as for the Irish Labour Party, the hopes and aspirations Connolly had for such a body as part of a radical socialist republican movement were never fulfilled.

However, as we start to head towards a period when centennial anniversaries will occur for the foundation of a specifically Irish trade union movement, of the foundation of Liberty Hall as Connolly knew it, and of the ideas of industrial unionism as opposed to trade unionism, of national self-determination, we should start giving our minds to how best we might commemorate them.

These aspirations are still regretfully unfulfilled. In commemorating the momentous events we might also consider how we might progress towards their eventual fulfilment -- that dream Connolly had -- of a 32-county workers' republic. Or are we to say that Connolly, too, was just part of a dream which could never have been a reality? As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote:

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
Let us hope not.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-07-30 10:08:50.
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