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The Volunteers and the Lockout 

D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

22 November 2014

The commemoration of the Irish Volunteers promises a great deal.  Purely from the socio-historical perspective, the Kerry initiative of recording the names and dwellings of all Volunteers should be extended throughout Ireland. It should also be extended to the callings of the Volunteers, so that the social structure of the movement can be traced through all its manifestations.

Although it possessed a socially-defined core of supporters, its strategy and aims varied. Defence of the Home Rule Settlement in the first year, under MacNeill and Redmond became opposition to the British imperial war effort that Home Rule was said to justify, and then, from 1916 to the Treaty and, for a majority beyond and against it, the Republic.  All these programmatic changes were reflected in changes in personnel.

This was particularly notable in the case of perhaps its most famous commandant, James Connolly.  At the time of the founding of the Volunteers, he had helped found its future ally, the Irish Citizen Army for the strictly working class aim of protecting the strikers “pickets against the bosses” forces in the Dublin Lockout. This dispute was still being waged at the end of November. A repercussion was the disturbance caused by militant workers protesting against the prominence given L.J.Kettle, a known employer of scabs at the Volunteers’ launch.

In his memoirs, dictated in his dotage, Bill O’Brien would make light of this, dismissing the protestors as “yahoos from Liberty Hall” making criticisms that were “hard to understand”.O’Brien’s mentor, James Connolly took the matter more seriously.  In the Irish Worker, of the following Saturday, 29 November, writing under his pen-name “Spailpin”, he declared: 

A regrettable incident happened at the Volunteer meeting held in the Dublin Rotunda Skating   Rink on Tuesday. One of the persons chosen to take a leading part - indeed the leading part as he was to read the manifesto of the new organisation - was a Mr L.J.Kettle, who has been  notorious of late as an active enemy of the right of the working class to combine for its own benefit. 
Naturally his attempt to pose as a friend of freedom was actively resented by the major part of the audience and a most stormy scene marred, as a consequence, the proceedings.
It might as well be understood by all that this union is unqualifiedly in favour of any movement that makes for a greater national freedom, but we believe that it is of paramount importance to be clear as to the Means by which that freedom is to be achieved. Hence we cannot tolerate the presence on a platform sacred to freedom of men who are actively engaged in an attempt to reduce their fellow-countrymen of the Irish working-class. 
It is as true as it was on the day it was first written by Thomas Davis that “Righteous men must make our land/A nation once again”, and surely under the name of “righteous men” we cannot include slave-driving, labour-hating employers.
Our lauding of such men in invocation of the spirit of freedom is rank blasphemy. The only hope of freedom is an upright, self-respecting intelligent working class. Scabs and the employers of scabs are the natural enemies of such.  Therefore scabs and the employers of scabs, by working for our degradation as individuals and our enslavement as a class, are also working for the destruction of every element that can now or in the future enable Ireland to treat in a dignified manner with the foreign enemy within our walls.

By April 1916, matters had changed.  Connolly was able to take command of combined Citizen Army and Volunteer forces in the Dublin Rising. There were no known employers of scabs among the signatories of the Proclamation or, indeed, among the other leading officers. Moreover Connolly had made clear the social programme for which he was fighting.  As for the cause of the Rotunda dispute, L.J.Kettle, he was recruiting actively to extend the British Empire.The Irish Volunteers had changed.  Events had moulded them into Connolly’s conception of a truly revolutionary force. They would remain as such until truce and economic recession brought pressures to bear that would lead to their split. That would be another story. 

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