“He who would be free must strike the blow”

Paul Dillon charts the history of the Irish Worker 


In the first issue of the Irish Worker and People’s Advocate in 1911, its editor James Larkin wrote: “Too long, aye! Far too long, have we, the Irish working people been humble and inarticulate. The Irish working class are beginning to awaken. They are coming to realise the truth of the old saying ‘he who would be free must strike the blow’.”

During 1911 the Irish Worker reached a circulation of nearly 100,000 but print runs could be erratic, ranging from 5,000 to 20,000, depending on funds. With each copy of the paper shared around work- places and families according to historian Francis Devine: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Irish Worker was read by the entire Irish working class.”

The paper’s articles encouraged workers to organise and circulated news of workers’ struggles, as well as providing theoretical arguments. It was in the newspaper that Sean O’Casey’s first writings appeared and during the 1913 lockout, WB Yeats, George Russell and Padraic Colum were published content. Other well known con tributors over its 189 editions were Tom Clarke, Standish O’Grady and Constance Markievicz. Larkin reproduced poetry in the newspa- per and in it James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History was first serialised.

The paper was set up by Larkin. Production and content were primarily his responsibility, although James Connolly edited the paper when Larkin was jailed during the 1913 Lockout.

Larkin was proud of the fact that the street vendors received a much greater commission for selling the Irish Worker than any other news- paper. This was in contrast to the editor and contributors who drew down no wage.

The paper aimed to be provocative and almost always controversial. It took vicious aim at the enemies of organised Labour. In July 1913, the Irish Worker printed pictures of the “Savoy Scab Ochette”, eight women who continued to work at a sweet factory during a dispute.

The paper was an information service to workers, advertising rallies, demonsrations and strikes and appealing for support. The small businesses and companies who advertised in the paper were particularly aiming for the patron- age of trade unionists. The edition of Saturday, January the 18th, 1913 carries 40 small ads or notices, most of them making a direct ap peal to class conscious workers. A bakery on Meath Street in Dublin 8 describes itself as “The Workers Baker” and appeals for shoppers to “ask for Larkin’s Loaf”. TP Roche presents itself as “The Workers Hairdresser”.

Of course, such a radical, partisan newspaper of the organised working class would never claim to be unbiased when it came to election time. Thus, in the 1913 local elections in Dublin, the paper advertised the campaign of the Dublin Labour Party, of which Larkin himself was a candidate. The January 11th 1913 issue under a banner headline “Labours standard bearers”, carried five photos of party candidates. Un- derneath the article, an editorial states: “Friends, comrades and fellow workers, the hour is approaching which shall decide the cause of truth, honest administration and probity in public life.”

In characteristic style, the paper does not merely support the Labour candidates, it attacked and undermined their opponents in a vitriolic way. “We wonder if the workers of merchant quay are going to vote for a publican a creature who waxes fat on the degradation of the poor”.

In a sign that the Irish Worker’s loyalty was firstly to the union and secondly the party, in the 1913 election it supported the candidacy of two union activists who had not been officially endorsed by the Labour Party.

The paper proved vital to the workers struggle during the 1913 lockout. In one of his most stirring contributions from the period, Yeats wrote a letter about attempts to stop children being sent to friendly houses in England. The letter was published under the heading “Dublin fanaticism”.

“I want to know why the mob at North Wall and elsewhere were permitted to drag children from their parents’ arms, and by what right one women was compelled to open her box and show a marriage certificate; I want to know by what right the police have refused to accept charges against rioters; I want to know who has ordered the abrogation of the most elementary rights of citizens.”

On September 6th 1913, an article headed “Larkin in Jail” reported the imprisonment of the Irish Worker editor, it states: “William Martin Murphy and the permanent officials of the Irish government are responsible for the murder and outrages per- petrated by hired ruffians in uniform with a lust for blood.”

With Larkin in prison, James Connolly became the Irish Worker’s editor, a position he regained when Larkin departed for the United States. Connolly used the paper to rally support for the Citizen Army. The authorities suppressed the paper, the last issue edited by Connolly, appeared on December 5th 1914 with a blank space where the lead article should have been. The censor had interfered with the printing process.

Undeterred, Connolly issued the article as a leaflet. His words speak for themselves:

“If you strike at, imprison or kill us, out of your prisons or graves we will evoke a spirit that will twart you and mayhap, raise a force that will destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst.”

Only too aware that an “en- slaved press” would never give fair coverage to working class struggle Connolly continued to print publications, including the Worker and the Workers’ Republic, in the wake of the Irish Worker ban.

With Larkin returning to a divided Labour movement in the early years of the Free State his efforts to re-establish the Irish Worker would never result in it returning to its pre 1914 heyday

The passage in 1931 of the constitution (Amendment Act No.17) established a military tribunal with wide powers to suppress newspapers, such as the Irish Worker, whose banned issue of October 1931 declared that “the form of the state is secondary. What matters is what class rules.”

In the face of state oppression and declining readership the Irish Worker finally succumbed in March 1932.

Larkin and the paper remained defiant to the end – one of the paper’s final issues stating:

“…remember that governments are only strong in proportion to the weakness of the organisation of the working class. A united working class commands respect; a disunited working class gets what it is getting today. Be wise, men and women of Ireland!”

Article first published in LookLeft Magazine vol.2 no.6