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Raising the Red Flag at the Rotunda. The workers occupation of January 1922

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The seizure of the Rotunda concert hall by a reasonably large group of unemployed workers, and the hoisting of the red flag over the premises, remains one of the most bizarre and understudied events of the Irish revolutionary period.

 

In his excellent history of the ITGWU, The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years C. Desmond Greaves wrote that, early in 1922 “….industrial conflict took the form of individual struggles rather than a concerted class war.” The occupation of the Rotunda came two days after the foundation of the new state, and was perhaps the earliest example of class anger within it, a direct response to the existing high levels of unemployment. One of the leading figures of this occupation was Liam O’ Flaherty, today well-known as the author of The Informer, the classic novel, but then acting as a dedicated socialist.

 

He, like so many other unemployed men in Dublin, had served in the Great War, serving with the Irish Guards. He had been on a strange journey before returning to Dublin, and Emmet O’ Connor notes in Reds and the Greens that “After being invalided out of the British Army he set off trampling about the Mediterranean and the Americas, joining the Wobblies in Canada and the Communist Party in New York. He returned to settle in Ireland in December 1921….”

 

 

On January 18 1922, a group of unemployed Dublin workers seized the concert hall of the Rotunda. The Irish Times of the following day noted that “The unemployed in Dublin have seized the concert room at the Rotunda, and they declare that they will hold that part of the building until they are removed, as a protest against the apathy of the authorities.”

 

“A ‘garrison’, divided into ‘companies’, each with its ‘officers’ has been formed, and from one of the windows the red flag flies”

 

Liam O’ Flaherty, as chairman of the ‘Council of Unemployed’, spoke to the paper about the refusal of the men to leave the premises, stating that no physical resistance would be put up against the police and that the protest was a peaceful one, yet they intended to stay where they were.

“If we were taken to court, we would not recognise the court, because the Government that does not redress our grievances is not worth recognising” O’ Flaherty told the Times.

 

A manifesto was issued by the occupiers, the first publication of O’ Flaherty. O’ Connor notes in his study that “Their manifesto was O’ Flaherty’s first publication. One could say that Phelan (A reference to a CPI comrade of O’ Flaherty, Jim Phelan) was impressed. ‘It’s language has not, I think, been approached since the days of the American War of Independence and the first French Revolution’ “

 

 

A later Irish Times report gives some idea of the level of organisation involved in such an occupation. On January 20 the paper noted that a man had been court martialed and reduced to the ranks. “…we reduced him to the ranks for disobeying orders” the paper quoted the “leader of the men” as saying. By that stage, two days into the occupation, around 200 men were present.

The paper noted a maintainance fund had been established, with Bolands bakery on Capel Street making a grant of 500 loaves to the men. The paper also noted that sporadic concerts had taken place inside the occupation, and that “A meeting of the unemployed was held during the day yesterday, and the “garrison” paraded Parnell Square”.

 

Of course, many Dubliners were extremely hostile to the sight of the red flag in Dublin. Angry demonstrations occurred each night during the occupation, and the Irish Independent noted (January 21) that “About 8.30 last night a hostile crowd of about 500 assembled in Cavendish Row, and indulged in shouts and derisive cheers. About 10pm a young fellow made an attempt to reach the red flag hung out from a window, but fell to the ground. He was taken to Jervis St. Hospital, but he was not detained.” When the flag was removed, the crowd cheered loudly.It was only thanks to the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Republican Police that those inside the Rotunda were unharmed, as the crowd stormed the building. It was becoming clear the occupation was not sustainable. On the Thursday night, a member of the occupying group had been attacked collecting money near the premises, and since then tensions had been high.

 

The occupation, which had begun on Wednesday, was to end late on Saturday night. As the hatred outside intensified, shots were fired over the heads of the mob from inside the hall. Just before midnight, and under the protection of the combined police forces, the occupiers left the building and the crowd soon departed without incident. O’ Flaherty took off for Cork.

 

O’ Flaherty would later fight in the Irish Civil War, one of the socialists present in Vaughan’s Hotel, a republican seizure of note owing to the fact it was a favourite meeting place of a certain Michael Collins during the War of Independence! O’ Flaherty is not the only Irish writer of note to have partaken in the Civil War of course, with Sean O’ Faoláin just one other example. The early parts of 1922 saw much industrial unrest, and a number of creameries in the south of Ireland were sized in May. Greaves noted in his prior mentioned study of the history of the ITGWU that the Labour Party and TUC had attempted to “…ensure the neutrality of the Citizen Army by incorporating it into a ‘Workers Army’ that would cover the whole country….But no army can fight for neutrality, and the project soon fell through”

 

Still, the physical battles between two armed factions and the class conflict remained more or less disconnected from one another. An editorial in the Workers Republic, printed on July 22 1922, noted

 

“What will attract the masses to support the Republicans? At present, they cannot see any benefit in fighting for it! At present the Free State offers them more economic and social advantages. At the moment it seems as if the Labour Party, representative of the masses, can find its salvation in the Free State rather than in the Republic”

 

Liam Mellows, perhaps the republican figure who fought hardest for republicanism to add a real social dimension to its goals, was to be executed in a hail of bullets. His now famous prison notes noted that “In our efforts now to win back public support to the Republic we are forced to recognise whether we like it or not- that the commercial interest, so-called, money and the gombeen men are on the side of the Treaty”

 

The occupation of the Rotunda remains an often overlooked piece of the history of the period. Before Mellows penned the above, O’ Flaherty and a small band of followers had demanded a Workers Republic, and nothing short thereof. In Irish history, the Rotunda is seen as being of great importance as the site of the foundation of the Irish Volunteers. Sadly, no plaque marks the workers occupation of the site in 1922.

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I was in the Square in Tallaght at the weekend and passed by the HMV, one of the ones which has been taken over by the workers. A number of the HMV shops have seen similar action, and also at the end of last week a hotel in Athboy in Meath was also taken over by workers in protest against its closure by the receiver.

The demands of the workers were modest, payment of their overdue wages, as we have seen in other protests from Thomas Cook workers, to Visteon and Vita Cortex, but there is an increasing awareness that workers have the ability to take over their workplaces.

 

There is no red flag flying over these shops today, but how long will it be until one of these occupations starts to use the siezed property to produce in its own right?

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Thats a very interesting development. Will the suppliers agree to continue supplies - including the ESB etc. If so, there is no reason why these shops couldnt continue to operate under democratic workers control.

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Thats a very interesting development. Will the suppliers agree to continue supplies - including the ESB etc. If so, there is no reason why these shops couldnt continue to operate under democratic workers control.

 

They're not at that level yet, but with a little help who knows???

 

Obviously HMV staff have a difficulty, they would find it hard to start selling the merchandise (although that would be great to see!!!). The hotel however are in a better position, they could probably run the place if they want, but unfortunately from what I saw, they were simply saying that they wanted a new owner to take it on.

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They're not at that level yet, but with a little help who knows???

 

Obviously HMV staff have a difficulty, they would find it hard to start selling the merchandise (although that would be great to see!!!). The hotel however are in a better position, they could probably run the place if they want, but unfortunately from what I saw, they were simply saying that they wanted a new owner to take it on.

 

I dont know. I would have thought it would be fairly easy to get supplies of DVDs, CDs, etc. I'd say the main problem would be the likes of the ESB, who may be owed very large amounts of money by HMV, and may not be willing to supply any particular unit while the bourgeois legal position has not been resolved. The hotels would face the same problem.

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I dont know. I would have thought it would be fairly easy to get supplies of DVDs, CDs, etc. I'd say the main problem would be the likes of the ESB, who may be owed very large amounts of money by HMV, and may not be willing to supply any particular unit while the bourgeois legal position has not been resolved. The hotels would face the same problem.

 

Where would they get the capital to acquire new stock? And with the risk of being ejected at any stage, it would be financially risky to acquire the stock. Its different in services industry where the biggest input expense is the staff themselves. But yes, with some creative thinking something could surely be done.

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Where would they get the capital to acquire new stock? And with the risk of being ejected at any stage, it would be financially risky to acquire the stock. Its different in services industry where the biggest input expense is the staff themselves. But yes, with some creative thinking something could surely be done.

 

Yes, the threat of eviction would be the main obstacle. But, presumably there is stock already in the shop, and this can be sold. But then you will face the bourgeois police accusing you of theft.

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Yes, the treat of eviction would be the main obstacle. But, presumably there is stock already in the shop, and this can be sold. But then you will face the bourgeois police accusing you of theft.

 

I suppose you could claim a lien over the stock (a legal right over property in lieu of unpaid sums - the same way a car mechanic can hold on to your car until you pay for repairs or an accountant or lawyer can hold on to your file until you pay their fees). I'm not sure however that I'd trust the bourgeois courts to come to the right decision on that one though.

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I see that occupations apparently ended on Saturday after HMV promised to pay wages. Short-lived, but still its a sign of increasing frustration. Needs to be accompanied with more consciousness than simply getting wages though. Redundancy payments of a few grand each probably and a promise of 188 Euro on the dole. Realistically needs to be a deterioration in the material conditions too to spark a widespread consciousness, but still I reckon it won't be long before we see something more radical emerge. Of course, we shouldn't be sitting around waiting for it to happen!!!

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I see that occupations apparently ended on Saturday after HMV promised to pay wages. Short-lived, but still its a sign of increasing frustration. Needs to be accompanied with more consciousness than simply getting wages though. Redundancy payments of a few grand each probably and a promise of 188 Euro on the dole. Realistically needs to be a deterioration in the material conditions too to spark a widespread consciousness, but still I reckon it won't be long before we see something more radical emerge. Of course, we shouldn't be sitting around waiting for it to happen!!!

 

Not sure about that to be honest. I think as people suffer further deterioration of their material conditions it does increase desperation but also fear. Fear of losing a job, or rocking the boat in any way will stop many people speaking out or taking action. Most people will want to just keep the head down and hope they will be ok.

 

I dont think worsening material conditions alone will raise consciousness. I wish I knew what the answer was but I think it will have to involve a broad movement of socialist organisations and parties working hard to organise people out of work, in temporary or agnecy work and those 'underemployed'.

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Certainly it suits capitalism to have larger numbers "underemployed", so that have at least something to lose. We are seeing a huge shift towards that at the minute with people being made redundant from "permanent" jobs and ending up in much more insecure work with fewer hours.

 

Desperation does shift consciousness, but it does nothing to empower the individual. Our task is through our actions to show people that there is an empowering way to deal with their desperation, action that is not based on fear. I think the biggest single contributor to fear is the isolation that people feel. They are not prepared to rock the boat because they know that they are alone. If we can show them that they are not alone, and build solidarity within the community, then people will become a lot braver.

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I think militant unionism has a major role to play in raising class consciousness, but at the moment, it is something that is totally lacking or non-existent. Unless the unions are radicalised, workers will be further reduced to worsening material conditions. And as has been said, desperation does shift consciousness, but without the proper guidance, the course of direction it takes can manifest itself into something entirely different, and even dangerous. An example of this would be the rise in racist, anti-worker attitudes, that we have become accustomed to by many desperate, out-of-work, or underpaid, workers. Another example would be that, people loose all faith in unionism and also from socialist organisations, who should be there from the get-go, organising and educating people on how to deal with unscrupulous employers.

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Good points.

 

My own experience, working in what would be considered a 'unionised' workplace, is that even though we are all part of one union and do support each other, the prevailing attitude is "Thank f*** we have a job". Recently a new shift pattern was imposed upon us. It was discussed and voted in by union members but it was not popular and was clearly a worse shift pattern in terms of weekend and night working than what we had before. It was voted in by a clear majority as most people were grateful to be in a job and were frightened that a 'no' vote would lead to a dispute which, at the moment, no one thinks we would be able to win. Even as recently as 4-5 years ago, the new shift pattern would have been rejected out of hand and we would have been confident in any dispute with managment.

 

I think you're (Nico and Lugh) right with your points above, our worsening condiions do raise consciousness, but our position at the moment is weak. Most people are unorganised, the Unions (especially in Ireland) are mainly indistinguishable from the politicians and generally considered to have their snouts in the trough.

 

I think the key to any working class fight back is work place millitancy. It educates workers, it gives us experiance in working together and raises consciousness in who and what we are fighting against. Its not the immigrant, the single mother or whoever. Without organisation, as Nico said, many people turn to the right and are easily led by right wing rags like The Sun and The Mail. It makes the elites job so much easier. Without workplace organisation, in my opinion, theres little chance of working class people uniting, bombarded as we are by right wing media.

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The sad fact we have to face is that the vast majority of working class people have a totally bourgeois ideology. The trade unions reflect that fact. You will not get the trade unions to adopt a different ideology from their members. Almost nobody in the working class in Ireland is talking about régime change. They are talking about having a "fairer" régime - which really just means the régime looking after them personally. There is still little or no collective spirit among the Irish people.

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As someone was saying on another thread, the mantra of 'there is no alternative' is useful to governments here.

 

Everyone knows the game is rigged when it comes to elections. Everyone, even as they are listening to a politcians speech, knows that he/she is lying. The politicians know that we know they are lying and continue to lie with impunity. Everyone knows that FF,FG, Lab or the Tories/Lab/Lib Dems are essentially the same lying, cheating, craven opportunists and careerists. The thing is people believe there is no alternative.

 

Again, I wish I knew the answer, but I suppose somehow showing people there is an alternative must be a priority. As must be taking back control of unions from careerists (easier said than done, I know). Even if they are not revolutionary organisations, in my opinion, a radical fighting union is the best format (for want of a better word) we currently have for educating poeple, and giving working class people an experience of unity and involvement in something, besides ticking a box for a politicain every few years.

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