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Weeping for the Workers

A little counterfactual history: if Daniel O’Connell and his Catholic merchant friends had won a repeal of the union in the 1840s and had their bourgeois revolution, the nineteenth century would have been different. The prayer of late twentieth century lefties “Oh why can’t we be like everywhere else, why can’t we have class politics?” would never have been necessary. The O’Connellite bourgeoisie would have produced and exported and they would have had a muscular attitude towards their workers. The workers would have flexed their own more modest biceps and a standard sort of class politics would have emerged. There would have been sufficient fat to allow the workers a small share. Life would have been ordinary. What we got instead was fudge ‑ a national sweetmeat which many ideologues in our own era have found hard to digest.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the national question predominated in Dublin politics, with a major division largely along confessional lines. It was pretended that, as far as politics was concerned, social class barely existed and, that where it did exist, it was of no importance compared with the overriding necessity for solidarity within the opposing blocs.

In Dublin the Protestant fudge involved a pretence that all Protestants, whether bankers or semi-skilled labourers, were essentially gentlemen and that if they were not then they ought to be. The Catholic fudge was inverse in character and was that middle class Catholics and their politicians were greatly concerned and aggrieved by the condition of the city’s poor.

Out of this peculiar swamp a certain kind of nationalist local politician emerged in Dublin, one of the hallmarks of whose style was great and public hand-wringing over the condition of the poor combined with resolute pursuit of their own business interests.

JP Nannetti, who has featured previously in this blog, and who made a brief appearance in Ulysses, was one such. The son of an Italian sculptor, he began his political life as a Fenian and, according to Ciaran Wallace, claimed to be close to the leadership of the IRB. A printer by trade, he was involved in the trade union movement in Liverpool and Dublin, where he was a founding member of the Dublin Trades Council, serving as its secretary and president.

At the same time as the Joyce family was in social decline and constantly moving to always inferior housing, Nannetti and his family were conducting the opposite manoeuvre ‑ from Juverna terrace on the Finglas Road to St Anne’s Terrace in Clontarf and finally to Whitworth Road, Drumcondra. An upward social trajectory was not the norm at the time.

Nannetti was elected to the corporation in 1898 with the support of the skilled craftsmen of the DTC. In his essay on Nannetti in Leaders of the City, Wallace explains: “Initially, Nannetti upheld labour policies.” This did not last as “[n]ationalism swamped the (labour) movement inside and outside the council chamber”. Labour candidates had to support the nationalist programme, which consisted of Home Rule, a Catholic University and freedom for political prisoners. Meanwhile, as Wallace tells us, “their IPP opponents claimed to represent the working man”. In 1900 Nannetti became Irish Parliamentary Party MP for the College Green constituency, an office which apparently brought him significant business opportunities, including the position of trustee with the Royal Liver Assurance Company.

A change was taking place in Dublin working class politics around this time. The stage was being set for the great confrontation of 1913, a moment when the fudge dissolved ‑ only to return when the workers were effectively starved back to work some months later.

Ulysses, Joyce’s great Edwardian novel, is a poor guide to the class politics of the time. The author may have had socialist sympathies, but his soul was consumed by the doings of the largely IPP Catholic middle classes, a class which did not particularly rate the political concerns of their social inferiors.

Leopold Bloom remembers Nannetti’s father hawking statues house to house: “Nannetti’s father hawked those things about, wheedling at doors as I.” Bloom clearly saw his job selling small ads for the Freeman as similar. In depressed Dublin, social rank was jealously guarded. Knowing the origins of all was important information to be used in asserting one’s own status. JP Nannetti was one of the few who successfully swam against the current and rose socially. Bloom was an atypical Dubliner in that he was not inclined to make an issue of Nannetti’s modest origins.

Dublin was a poor city, lacking a prosperous bourgeoisie and a solid working class. There was a constant struggle for resources within and between the social classes. Naturally enough, when it came to the struggle between employers and employees, the property owners were better positioned to win. And they did. As William Martin Murphy said, his shareholders would still enjoy three meals a day through the lockout.

The ultimate point seemed to be that in depressed Dublin workers would not be permitted to improve their living standards at the expense of the middle classes no matter how well organised they were and no matter how charismatic their leaders. Notwithstanding the hand-wringing of the IPP, the desperately poor would remain desperately poor.

From 1905 to 1913 the new wave of Labour councillors condemned the IPP as a party of slum landlords and publicans. Double-jobbing Nannetti was one of their targets. He was elected lord mayor in 1906 with the backing of the IPP and against the opposition of labour councillors who accused him of profiting personally from his position and merely paying lip service to the cause of labour. James Connolly described him as a “nationalist labour poseur”.

The labour movement was routed in 1913 following its one heroic stand. Socialists like Connolly realised that the O’Connell agenda of gaining economic control was what mattered. But this time it would not be entrusted to sclerotic parliamentarians but won through rebellion, a rebellion in which socialists would engage under their own flag.

Leaders of the City: Dublin’s First Citizens, 1500-1950, Ruth McManus, Lisa-Marie Griffith (eds)

http://www.drb.ie/blog/dublin-stories/2012/12/07/curates-and-counterjumpers