As darkness fell that Wednesday evening in September 1911, John Francis Homan, school principal, read again the note nailed to the front door. ‘No School - Strike On Here’.
Other slogans were chalked upon other doors.
‘Strike, boys, strike for Free Books and shorter hours and to get home daily at 12:30 for Lunch’.
‘Any boy cot going into school and not following other schoolboys examples will be killed by order Strike Strike Strike’.
It probably did not come as a huge surprise to the 49-year-old Cork man. There had been talk of strikes all week.
It had started on Tuesday 5th September 1911 when thirty boys marched out of Bigyn council school in Llanelli, south west Wales, in protest over the caning of one of their peers in Wales.
The news raced from earlobe to earlobe so that, within days, pupils in more than sixty towns throughout Britain had taken to the streets to express their grievances. In Portsmouth, they demanded the abolition of the cane and a Wednesday half-holiday. In the north of England, the boys of Gateshead went one step further and called for the abolition of punishment at home as well.
And now the school strike phenonemon had crossed the Irish Sea into the Wharf National School in Dublin’s East Wall.
The East Wall boys were the first in Ireland to go on strike. They held a secret meeting in a field near the school exactly one week after the Llanelli strike began. The three ringleaders Joe Cooney, Micky O'Brien and Willow Moore, all aged 12 or 13, may have been past pupils who had already started work. In any case, speaking in revolutionary tones and promising ‘no compromise’, the boys unanimously decided to strike in the morrow.
Many of those at the East Wall industrial school were the sons of railway men working for the London and North West Railway Company (LNWR) on the North Wall. Joe Cooney’s father, for instance, was a carter.
Less than four weeks before the East Wall boys strike, over 400 LNWR workers joined a massive strike by railway men across Britain and Ireland. When the school inspector came to write his report on the East Wall strike, he noted that ‘a good many men have been out on strike for some time in the neighbourhood of this school, the boys are hearing about strikes from morning till night’.
‘Strikes were in the air at the time,’ agreed Father James Brady, the 56-year-old school manager and parish priest. ‘And the residential quarters of the general strikers were all around the school’.
While the railway strike had some success in the UK, it was a disaster in Ireland as over 10% of the striking railway-men were sacked.
But undoubtedly such stories stirred the passions of the large number of boys who gathered on the road adjoining the Wharf National School early on Wednesday morning.
By 9:30am, they had formed into a marching column, four deep, and set off around the vicinity, hoisting flags upon which their demands for cheaper books and shorter hours were again boldly etched in chalk.
Generally it was a peaceful affair although any boy who attempted to enter the school – the scabs and blacklegs - were pelted with manky cabbage stalks and, on occasion, stones. ‘We will bring out all the boys tomorrow and nail the boys who are at school this evening,’ declared one of the ringleaders. ‘We will give every one of ‘em two or three black eyes’.
‘How can you do that?’ interjected a small fellow, ‘they only have two eyes each’.
Some parents tried to intervene but were pelted with cabbages and driven back. Likewise, when the School Attendance Officer approached, he was loudly booed.
A reporter showed up and was mobbed by boys ‘shouting their grievances in a babel of voices’.
‘If we don’t get our rights, we won’t go back’, one vowed.
Primarily this was a strike for 'Cheaper Books'. ‘Eight shillings and six pence is too much for fifth class books,’ objected one lad, not least when a grown man had to work twelve hours a day for six days a week in order to earn between sixteen shillings and one pound. In some schools, the children were punished because their parents had not been able to afford the books. And yet it was widely known that children in England didn’t have to pay for their books at all.
The demand for ‘Less Homework’ was perhaps ambitious, but calls for ‘Shorter Hours’ were perfectly reasonable, not least because school classrooms were often extremely unhealthy places to be stuck. In 1911 Dublin's 305,000 citizens had a higher death rate than Calcutta. There were 26,000 families living in 5,000 tenements, including East Wall and neighboring North Wall.
Many children are believed to have become seriously ill because of the long hours they were obliged to spend at school. The mobbed reporter maintained that while the East Wall boys he spoke to ‘didn’t seem quite of one mind as to what school hours they wanted’, they ‘all agreed eventually’ that the hours should be cut back to 4 ½ hours, between 10am and 2:30pm.
They also objected to corporal punishment. ‘We don’t want the teacher to use the rod,’ explained one boy. ‘And we should not be put down on our knee from one part of the day to another.’
Da Homan, as the principal was known, insisted he had not kept a cane in the school for six years, and that the cases in which he found it necessary to inflict corporal punishment were very rare. Ironically, he would go on to cane several of the boys involved in the strike as punishment.
Word of the East Wall strike quickly spread across the river to St. Catherine’s School in Meath Street, as well as John’s Lane. The boys at City Quay were all set to strike when their mothers intervened and got them all back into the classroom. The Irish Times also sniffed at ‘some youths of the corner-boy class’ who tried but failed to prevent children attempting the school on South Gloucester Street.
Elsewhere in Ireland, there were strikes in Sligo and Loughrea, as well as boarding schools such as St Muredach’s of Ballina and the Franciscan-run agricultural training college in Mountbellew.
By Thursday, the strike had petered out in most of England, although not before a number of boys in Birmingham went on a rampage through the streets and smashed the school windows. Police also dispersed placard-wielding strikers marching through the centres of Middlesboro, Southampton and Bradford.
There was a curious re-ignition of the spark in November when the boys of St Jarlath’s College in Tuam (including Michael Browne, the future bishop of Galway) went on strike because of the authorities’ arbitrary and unjust disciplinary policy.
The East Wall strike effectively lasted one day. While none of the schoolboy’s demands met, a subsequent investigation prompted by the strike did criticize the practice of not allowing boys into the school until they had paid in full for their books. The inspector also raised his eyebrows at the school’s policy of forcing boys to kneel for up to half an hour. ‘I was not aware that this form of punishment was in vogue,’ he wrote.
While it may have been short-lived, one can only imagine the sense of purpose it gave to a class of teenage boys on the eve of the 1913 Lockout and the War of Independence. And, as the riots in England last month proved, one would be ill-advised to snigger at the prospect of schoolboys on the rampage.
Corporal punishment was banned in Ireland in 1982. Its use became a criminal offence in 1996.
An exhibition on the 1911 strike is set to go on show at East Walll School in October 2011. For further details contact Joe Mooney at email@example.com
Kevin Byrne, East Walls Schoolboy Strike 1911, East Wall Festival Brochure 1975).
The origins and significance of the school strikes in south Wales, 1911, R. Grigg, The Local Historian, vol.33 no.3 (August 2003).
When the Kids were united, D. Partridge, BBC History Magazine, September 2003, pp.24-26.
Protest by Pupils, R. Adams, (Falmer Press, 1991)