When people think of the Labour movement or socialism in Ireland the names of James Connolly and James Larkin immediately spring to mind. They are the towering figures of socialist history. Outside of these two, there were many prominent men and women in socialist circles and among them was a man born in Clonakilty, his name was William X. O’Brien. O’Brien was the organiser of the Labour movement compared to Connolly’s educator role and Larkin’s agitator role.
O’Brien was born just outside Clonakilty in 1881 but moved with his family to Dublin when he was 16. He was immediately drawn to the socialist circles in the city.
He became involved with the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). Founded by James Connolly in 1896, the ISRP is regarded by many Irish historians as a party of seminal importance in the early history of Irish socialism and republicanism. It is often described as the first socialist and republican party in Ireland, and the first organisation to espouse the ideology of socialist republicanism on the island. The party produced the first regular socialist paper in Ireland the Workers’ Republic, ran candidates in local elections and agitated over issues such as the Boer War and the 1798 commemorations. Politically the ISRP was before its time, putting the call for an independent ‘Republic’ at the centre of its propaganda before Sinn Féin or others had done so. O’Brien, along with Coachford man Con Lehane, Edward Stewart and Robert Dorman were other central figures in the party. The party split in 1904 following months of internal political rows. The party would re-emerge in various guises eventually becoming the Communist Party of Ireland in 1921.
Despite the quarrels of the ISRP, O’Brien remained good friends with James Connolly. O’Brien helped establish the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1909. The ITGWU was founded by James Larkin as a general union. O’Brien was instrumental in the Dublin Lock-out strike in 1913. The Lock-out was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers which took place in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin. The dispute lasted from August 26 1913 to January 18, 1914, and is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history. Central to the dispute was the workers’ right to unionise. The employers were led by the powerful Beara born man William Martin Murphy. The Lock-out didn’t succeed in its aims but was important for the future of industrial relations. After the Lock-out Larkin left for America and O’Brien became the dominant figure in the union. He later served as general secretary for many years. Larkin and O’Brien had become quite estranged at this point.
During World War I, O’Brien was interned on several occasions by the Dublin Castle authorities for his activities as a member of the Irish Neutrality League, and the Anti-Conscription Committee.
O’Brien is a key figure in the early history of the Labour Party. The Labour Party was founded in 1912 in Clonmel, County Tipperary, by James Connolly, James Larkin and O’Brien as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress. Unlike the other main Irish political parties, Labour does not trace its origins to the original Sinn Féin. With Connolly executed and Larkin absent, O’Brien wielded considerable influence in the Labour Party; he also controlled the Irish Trade Union Congress. Despite this he was never leader of the Labour Party. Although he was elected a TD for Dublin South at the 1922 general election, and was later elected for Tipperary in June 1927 and again in 1937.
In 1923, Larkin formed a new union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland, to which many of the ITGWU’s Dublin members affiliated. The ITGWU nevertheless remained the dominant force in Irish trade unionism, especially outside the capital. William O’Brien and James Larkin remained bitter personal enemies, and when Larkin and his supporters were re-admitted into the Labour Party in the early 1940s, O’Brien engineered a split in the party, with the new National Labour Party claiming that the main party had been infiltrated by communists. The National Labour Party did enter the First Inter-Party Government against the wishes of the ITGWU. National Labour was represented at cabinet level by James Everett, now its leader, and so the party was obliged to work with several coalition partners, including the Labour Party. Co-operation in government, the retirement of O’Brien and the death of Larkin removed the causes of animosity from the labour movement. In 1950, the National Labour Party folded back into Labour.
A further split occurred in the Irish Trade Union Congress when that body accepted the WUI’s membership in 1945. The ITGWU left the Congress and established the rival Congress of Irish Unions. From the 1950s on proposals to merge the two unions were floated. Finally, in 1990, the ITGWU merged with the Workers’s Union of Ireland to form the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU).
In 1930, O’Brien petitioned the Free State government to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky, a plea that was denied.
O’Brien was a leading figure in the Labour movement yet because he wasn’t as bombastic or fiery as Connolly or Larkin, his role in Irish history has largely forgotten even though his role as an organiser was just as vital to the movement.
For those wishing to know more about William O’Brien, there is a book by Thomas Morrissey called William O’Brien, 1881–1968 – Socialist, republican, Dáil deputy, editor and trade union leader which was published by Four Courts Press in 2007.