Was the defeat of the Irish Revolution an inevitable result of immutable national and sectarian divisions? In this close examination of the little-known surge in labour militancy in Tyrone, and its apex during the Caledon lockout of 1919, Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh sheds new light on the possibilities in a period where “something approaching revolutionary conditions prevailed”.
The past several decades have seen a fairly relentless effort on the part of the Irish academic establishment to obscure or deny the revolutionary potential of the upheaval detonated by the First World War. The late Peter Hart, whose work married innovative methodology and deeply conservative politics, insisted that ‘[t]here was no socially revolutionary situation in Ireland even in prospect.’ Though compelled to admit that ‘Ireland did share in the international rise in working-class power,’ and to acknowledge that an uncommon level of violence accompanied the numerous strikes and disputes of the period, he wrote that ‘organised labour never contemplated an overthrow of the state, except in so far as it supported Sinn Féin in doing so… This is not to say that nothing happened in terms of social unrest, or that nothing important happened, but rather that nothing revolutionary happened.’ There we have it: flexing its growing social power in a series of explosive confrontations—including overtly political strikes—the Irish working class somehow neglected to engage in a revolution.
Readers of Rebel will be familiar with the recent exchange between John Gray and Conor Kostick regarding the revolutionary potential of the Belfast General Strike of 1919. While Kostick rightly acknowledged the prominence of the Belfast Labour Party (BLP) in suggesting that ‘there were well-rooted revolutionaries involved in the strike’, Gray countered that ‘it doesn’t serve to exaggerate the significance of episodes such as these, or to ignore their limitations’. Kostick’s analysis highlights measures taken by authorities in the North to crush the nascent socialist movement the following summer—most significantly, mass expulsions from the shipyards and engineering works—and notes that the British government’s decision to enrol pogromists in the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) established ‘the core structures of a future partitioned Northern state.’ Nevertheless, the general strike of 1919 demonstrated that an ‘alternative’ society based on ‘working-class unity and the collapse of sectarianism’ may have been possible.
The evidence from rural Ulster suggests that something approaching revolutionary conditions prevailed from the year leading up to the Armistice until the summer of 1920. Interestingly, events in Tyrone demonstrate the significant role played by members of the BLP—Dawson Gordon, Robert (Bob) McClurg and Sam Kyle—in the rise of local trade unions. These Belfast socialists—all three of them Protestants with a following in ‘their own’ communities—had sided with James Connolly in his earlier dispute with William Walker. They sought to use the English-based syndicalist organisation, the Workers’ Union (WU), to launch a movement based on the unskilled workers across industrial Ulster, whose dire conditions exposed the ‘myth’ of Protestant prosperity and progress that ‘concealed many lags in social development; the exploited underclass of linen lasses, the marginalised Catholic workforce [and] the subsistence waged labourers in agriculture, which remained the north’s chief industry.’
At a time when building unity across the divide has again become both urgent and possible, the experience in mid-Ulster is worth reclaiming. This article explores the ideological roots of the BLP, assesses their role in the torrent of militant trade union activism in Tyrone, and looks closely at the Caledon lockout to reflect on the nature of the formation of the Orange State.
The Belfast Labour Party
When Sam Kyle topped the poll in the Shankill ward in the January 1920 elections to the Belfast Corporation, with Gordon also elected for the same constituency, their vote was socialist, anti-partitionist and predominantly female. Again and again in court proceedings and newspaper reports, female factory and mill workers (or Millies) appear conspicuous in the militancy and strikes that washed over Ulster before the pogrom. Gordon himself identified the gender balance and non-sectarianism of this embryonic movement in an interview with a female American journalist in 1919:
‘All my life,’ said Dawson Gordon, the Protestant president of the Irish Textile Federation, as we talked in the dark little union headquarters where shawled spinners and weavers were coming in with their big copper dues, ‘I have heard stories that were so much fuel on the prejudice pile. When I was small, I believed anything I was told about the Catholics. I remember this tale that my mother repeated to me as she said her grandmother had told it to her: A neighbor of grandmother’s was alone in her cabin one night. There was a knock at the door. A Catholic woman begged for shelter. The neighbor could not bear to turn her back into the night. Then as there was only one bed, the two women shared it. Next morning grandmother heard a moaning in the cabin. On entering, she saw the neighbor lying alone on the bed, stabbed in the back. The neighbor’s last words were: “Never trust a Catholic!”’ As I grew a little older I found two other Protestant friends whose grandmothers had had the same experience. And since I have been a labor organizer, I have run across Catholics who told the same story turned about. So I began to think that there was a hell of a lot of great-grandmothers with stabbed friends—almost too many for belief. ‘But hysterical as they were, such stories served their purpose of division.’ 
Gordon went on to catalogue the atrocious working conditions of Belfast’s Millies before identifying the war’s crucial impact in the progress of trade unionism. How, ‘with hunger at their heels’, workers ‘forgot [their] prejudices. Catholics began to go to meetings in Orange halls. Protestants attended similar meetings in Hibernian assembly rooms; at a small town near Belfast there was a recent labour procession in which one-half of the band was Orange and the other half Hibernian, and yet there was perfect harmony.’ The Irish Textile Federation’s membership grew from four hundred to forty thousand by 1919, all based on the unions ability to extract concessions from employers.
Henry Patterson argues that the BLP’s vote merely represented ‘municipal politics with a vengeance’ and that ‘the minority of Protestant workers who voted for the Labour candidates had not revolutionised their politics’. Nevertheless, their loyalist opponents, particularly in the Ulster Unionist Labour Association (UULA), consistently portrayed the BLP as a republican Fifth Column linked to Bolshevism. At the aforementioned local elections, James Turkington the vice president of the UULA and the secretary of the Ulster Workers’ Union (UWU)—a yellow union used by unionist employers as break strikers—faced off against Sam Kyle and Dawson Gordon in the Shankill Ward. His speech left his audience well-informed about the BLP’s intentions:
men who were pledged to Home Rule, yet these men said politics should not be introduced into a municipal election. Sinn Feiners, Socialists and Bolsheviks were going about today asking the people for their suffrages in that division [Shankill], and he wanted the voters to watch the game of these particular parties. Here was a game going on, and socialists were running candidates in all the divisions of Belfast – men who were pledged to a republic and pledged on the Home Rule question. He wanted to draw the attention of the audience to the condition of the countries which had had republics of late ad he did not think they would be satisfied with it… With regard to the wages question, the socialists had opposed the granting of a living wage to the police, whom they had been fighting, and slaughtering throughout the country so as to terrorise them in order that they could have a workers’ republics in Ireland and rule Belfast, but that would never be. These people had also denied a living wage to the teachers, because Sinn Feiners wanted education to be in the hands of the priests. In conclusion he said he was out against revolution, Bolshevism, and rampant Socialism.
Faced with a free choice, thousands of Protestant workers ignored the Sinn Féin blood libel and labour candidates consistently out-polled their UULA opponent. Turkington and his UULA running mate secured less than 500 votes as against Sam Kyle’s poll-topping 2082 and five hundred for Gordon. A resilient working-class politics had demonstrated itself impervious to a year of black propaganda; the loyalist backlash would subsequently adopt less subtle methods.
Through their promotion of the Workers’ Union, the BLP also attracted significant elements of the rural proletariat to its platform of working-class solidarity and anti-sectarianism. Within the climate of a temporary post-war boom, poorly paid and largely unskilled Catholic and Protestant workers seized the opportunity to demand better wages and gain union recognition in an unprecedented fashion. In line with grass-roots initiative across Ireland, ‘the emergence of sabotage and violence preceded the independence struggle by two years and its form was determined primarily by the “pioneering” and localized character of trade unionism’. As early as 1917, the WU organised two strikes at Roan Spinning Mill in Coalisland. The union then organised workers in Dungannon’s two major linen mills. Gordon subsequently appeared as a speaker in several packed meetings of Catholic and Protestant mill hands in East Tyrone. He told an audience at St George’s Hall (in working-class Protestant district of Dungannon), that they now lived in ‘a period in history… when nothing else could be done except try their strength with the other side and the strongest side won.’
Successful strikes followed at the two major linen concerns in Cookstown, before the WU challenged pay and conditions at Brown’s soap works in Donaghmore. This action involved 140 workers and the court cases surrounding the disturbances during the strike provide interesting details about the issues involved. Every day, during the week-long strike, workers attacked black legs, with female strikers such as Annie McCluskey prominent in the violence. Charles McKeown and Robert Stewart hijacked the company lorry and drove it through the front gates. Protestant employees who remained at work taunted the strikers with Union Jacks, while the strikers paraded the village with a red `flag bearing the words “Up the Workers’ Union”.’  Several Protestant workers struck, but the manipulation of sectarian animosity by the factory owner (who supplied the flags) foreshadowed more concerted efforts to fracture local working-class unity.
The summer of 1918 witnessed militant trade unionism across the county amongst factory workers and agricultural labourers. In July, the Roan Spinning Mill struck again to secure a closed shop. Indeed, militant agitation was not restricted to the WU or East Tyrone. In August 1918, striking textile workers at Omagh destroyed produce and wounded an RIC man in the course of a riot. Activism in the other two main towns, operated within the orbit of the Derry Trade Council and similar bodies were established in both Strabane and Omagh. The use of scab labour triggered similar disturbances the following month in Strabane. By August, female workers in Doherty’s factory in Strabane went out on a three-week strike, after the owner, apparently, ‘put the girls out’ and ‘told them to take their Union with them’. Led by Minnie Duddy, the local union president, female workers paraded behind a white flag bearing the motto, ‘Unity is Strength’ before the police drew their batons to protect scabs returning home across the bridge to Lifford. The women relentlessly picketed nine non-Union workers, subjecting them to serious ostracisation and intimidation, to the extent that Duddy ‘announced amid loud cheers that the non-Union worker who was struck with the umbrella had become a convert to trade unionism and decided to join her fellow workers.’ In 1918, the RIC reported that the half a dozen serious strikes ‘all ended favourably to the workmen’.
By May 1919, the Belfast WU’s organisers led a workers’ parade in Dungannon, just days after their involvement in the monster May Day celebration in the city. Contingents converged on the market town from Workers’ Union and Roughers’ and Spinners’ Trade Union groups in Donaghmore, Benburb, Cookstown, Pomeroy and Coalisland. The procession was headed by pipe and flute bands, while the platform included local Catholic and Protestant trade union organisers and the English socialist suffragette, Kate Manicom, representing the Workers’ Union. Robert McClung promised that socialism could ‘win for the workers an ever-increasing share of the profits accruing from their combined labour until the present system which gives control of industry to those who live upon rent interest and profits was abolished… he hoped the day was not distant in Ireland that labour would come into its own’. He continued that:
In the past labour was paid with mere pittance, gathering up the crumbs from the rich man’s table, but he hoped that in the future they would get up off their knees as working people, and live the life that God intended that they should live… they intended to show to the country that if they stood shoulder to shoulder together that ultimately they would take over this whole wealth that they produced.
Dawson Gordon commented how ‘the mill workers of that district were the lowest paid of any mill workers he knew’. Responding to unionist taunts regarding the green and gold banner of the textile union, Gordon told ‘them the banner floated at demonstrations in Belfast long before the Sinn Féin movement was started.’ He continued that ‘the object of that demonstration was to break down the barriers separating Protestants and Catholics, so that they would all realise that they were workers and that they must organise, if they were to improve their state of life’. He concluded by asking; ‘Why should they as workers live in the hovels they had lived in in the past? It was up to them to sweep these things away, and make Ireland a place worth living in, and they had the matter in their own hands.’ Sam Kyle claimed that those present were neither ‘Bolshevists or Sinn Feiners.’ ‘They were there,’ he said ‘as workers and labourers first and last.’ Some people said that demonstration was organised as a Sinn Féin demonstration, but he denied that was so as they stood as workers and workers alone. Kyle then claimed that they:
wanted to make this world a place fit for heroes, and safe for democracy. What had the governing classes offered those of them who offered their services in the late war? An unemployment dole (Laughter) They of the working class never brought on war, as they were always against it. The war was brought on by twenty men in Europe, and the actions of these twenty men brought misery into twenty million homes. If the working class could get control of industry they would be able to live to develop their faculties and bring up their children in the proper way… there was no other movement that could emancipate the workers.
The Caledon Lockout
This wave of militancy culminated and broke in the Caledon lockout between March and May 1919, which followed a year of successful local industrial struggle. Caledon differed, however, in the respect that the ITGWU rather than the WU organised the strike. As O’Connor has rightly pointed out: ‘By the time Dublin [ITGWU] was ready to push northwards, British unions like the NAUL and the WU had already cornered the market’. While the ITGWU would be subsequently accused of poaching from British skilled amalgamated unions, a very different relationship existed with these non-skilled unions.
Where employers were intent on suppression, as at Monaghan Asylum, the workers’ strength and militant tactics overcame opposition. Nevertheless, by 1919, a clear strategy had developed amongst Unionist employers and politicians to fracture working-class solidarity. The Caledon strike was called by Peadar O’Donnell, who formed a branch of the ITGWU in the village at the behest of a local Orangeman, Willie Hare, who had taken part in the successful action at the Monaghan Asylum.  After establishing a branch of the ITGWU under the big tree at the foot of the village, the workers received a reduction in hours and almost doubled their pay. It was at this stage that the employer, John Fulton, expelled two Catholic union organisers, the Goan brothers, allegedly to provide employment for returning ex-servicemen. As a result 160 out of 220 workers went out on strike to establish a closed shop at Fulton’s. Fulton was a prominent local businessman, spokesman for the ‘leading residents in the Clogher Valley’ and an associate of the UVF leader, Fred Crawford, and future northern Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates.
Writing in September 1920, Crawford recounted the strike from Fulton’s perspective and claimed that Catholics, who struck to remove the mill’s Protestant foremen, filled servicemen’s jobs during the war. He alleged that the local Catholic priest, ‘the leader of the Sinn Feiners in the district’, organised the strike to persecute Protestants. In reality, Fulton’s intransigence and poor pay provided the motivation. The local union secretary was an Orangeman, but O’Donnell later recollected how ‘gradually the Union Jacks gave way and the red flags took their place’. The contemporary record suggests that O’Donnell mobilised genuine enthusiasm for the strike, and that working-class Orangemen clearly identified with the cause:
In South Tyrone, in a town where the majority of workers are Protestant, we have a mighty Red Flag procession – ‘No Surrender’ emblazoned on one side of the flag, ‘Up the Irish Transport’ on the other. The flag that thus can unite our Irish workers is the flag we want… and don’t let the hoisting of it in strikes be left so much to me.
After four weeks, with 130 workers still on strike, Fulton introduced UWU ‘blacklegs’, and readmitted strikers on a sectarian basis. This was accomplished through the agency of Bates and the aforementioned James Turkington. Fulton was also ably assisted by James Stronge, a prominent local landlord and head of the Orange Order as well as the local Unionist MP William Coote, who alleged in parliament that Catholics armed with hurleys had attempted to drive Protestants from the mill and the village. When the strike eventually collapsed, Fulton celebrated by holding a social under a banner which read: ‘Caledon’s double celebration: overthrow of the Hun and the Irish Bolshevists’.
In reality, the two Goan brothers had served in the War and their brother died fighting in Flanders. Indeed, the Orangeman and Union secretary, James McMenemy and his brother, a decorated war hero, stayed true to the union and Fulton promptly evicted their aged mother from a rented terrace house adjacent to the factory. The Watchword of Labour reported on the ‘dirty game’ in which Fulton evicted ‘some of his strongest opponents’. ‘Failing to drive them out of the country as the others were driven has led to even dirtier tricks’, all part of ‘the modern machinery used in the crushing of human beings who had dared to seek their rights’. In any event, while some Protestant workers accepted ‘the dope handed out by the mill management’, which included ‘free beer for the scabs, and five pounds for each striker who reneges on the Union’, others Protestants demonstrated commendable solidarity. 
O’Donnell claimed that forty-seven Protestant workers took the train and went across to Yorkshire to find work; later, while being held as an anti-Treaty IRA prisoner in Curragh Camp, he received ‘greeting[s] from a group that met in a public house in Yorkshire of these people that went off.’ The village remained a hotbed of sectarian tension, witnessing the forced expulsion of Catholic residents by the USC in 1922, partly because Fulton manipulated religion to preserve his own interest.
Caledon mirrored the tactics of the subsequent pogrom in Belfast in July 1920. Unionist politicians spread a reactionary trope that trade unionists formed part of a Sinn Féin-Bolshevik conspiracy bent on expelling Protestants from Ireland. The Unionist party and UULA also employed the issue of ex-servicemen’s jobs as justification for direct intervention in employment and the imposition of a Protestant economy. The British state then effectively sanctioned these initiatives by employing these Protestant ‘imperial guard’ in the USC—itself an attractive source of income during an escalating economic slump. 
Sectarianism From Above
The examination of revolution and counter-revolution in Caledon sheds light on events in Ulster as a whole. Patterson has argued, in the case of Belfast, ‘that the local bourgeoisie were happy to see trade unions weakened and the left attacked is quite probable, but this had occurred because of developments over which they had little or no influence’.
The Caledon Lockout fundamentally undermines this conclusion, as does the reality of the Belfast pogrom in 1920. On the first day back from the Twelfth holidays, loyalist workers expelled ten thousand Catholic and ‘rotten’ Protestant trade unionists from the city’s shipbuilding and engineering works. In reality, this represented a co-ordinated purge carried out under the auspices of the UULA and the Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association (UESA). The former represented the brain child of Edward Carson, while the Unionist leader was also UESA vice-president. Carson met both groups prior to his infamous speech at the Orange field in Finaghy on July twelfth, where he claimed that ‘these men who come forward posing as the friends of labour care no more about Labour than does the man on the moon’. He continued: ’we in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Fein… we will take matters into our own hands… And these are not mere words. I hate words without action.’
Evidence from the minute book of the UULA indicates that for all intents and purposes, the UULA organised the meeting that sparked the pogrom and Dawson Bates effectively controlled the UULA, particularly through his relationship with Turkington. Carson subsequently told the House of Commons that ‘I am prouder of my friends in the shipyards than of any other friends I have in the whole world’. Yet, with Bates operating as the political fixer in Old Town Hall, there is valid prima facie evidence that the Unionist leadership anticipated the expulsions, as well as the reorganisation of the UVF, with both Carson and James Craig pushing for a Special Constabulary in government—to conclude otherwise is to wilfully ignore the evidence.
No serious observer disputes the presence of a reactionary Orange ideology within sections of the Protestant working class. The Caledon example, however, challenges the dominant consensus around the immutability of sectarian antagonism in Ulster. For a brief period, the majority of working people in a small Tyrone village, many of them Orangemen, embraced an egalitarian ideology and many maintained solidarity with their class despite economic and physical coercion. Orange ideology did not operate on some intangible level of the superstructure, it required material sustenance and depended on determined agency. Its triumph in Caledon relied on its deliberate manipulation by the employer in the first instance and its consolidation operated against the foundation of a discriminatory statelet, whose birth pangs reverberated to the beat of Lambeg drums.
Events in Ulster between 1918-20 clearly demonstrated that thousands of workers sought an ‘alternative society’ based on ‘working class unity and the collapse of sectarianism’ (Kostick, Rebel, 21 February 1919). That their aspirations floundered in Connolly’s much quoted, but perhaps less well understood, ‘carnival of reaction’, relied on the convergence of partition and a discriminatory Orange state within the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions of a delayed post-war slump. It also relied on the timidity of the Irish trade union leadership and Sinn Féin’s subordination of social issues. In effect, a non-sectarian future’s only chance against the onslaught of Orange pogromists bankrolled by the British imperial state would have been a nationwide movement firmly committed to democracy and significant social change.
 Peter Hart, The IRA at War 1916-1923 (Oxford, 2003), p. 21.
 O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 173.
 Ruth Russell, What’s the Matter with Ireland (New York, 1920), pp 146-7.
 Ruth Russell, What’s the Matter with Ireland (New York, 1920), pp 148-152.
 Patterson, pp 119-20.
 Ibid, p. 123.
 NL, 9 Jan. 1920
 Emmet O’Connor, p. 33
 Four hundred people assembled in the centre of the town in support of the strikers and a ‘living wage’ Irish News, 30 May 1917; Tyrone Courier, 5 November 1917.
 Dungannon Democrat, 15 August 1917.
 Tyrone Courier, 4 October 1917.
 Tyrone Courier, 15 November 1917.
 Report of the Tyrone County Inspector R.I.C., March 1918; for the number of workers see, Report of the Tyrone County Inspector R.I.C., April 1918.
 Dungannon Democrat, 15 May 1918.
 CI. July 1918.
 Strabane Chronicle, 31 Aug. 1918.
 Irish Times, Sept. 1918; O’Connor, Syndicalism, p. 32.
 Strabane Chronicle, 14 Sept. 1918.
 Annual Intelligence Notes for County Tyrone 1918, Colonial Office: Judicial Division, CO.903/19/4.
 Tyrone Courier, 15 May 1919.
 Emmet O’Connor, Syndicalism, pp 168-9.
 Conor Kostick, Revolution in Ireland, p. 70.
 Mary T. McVeigh, ‘Lock out? Caledon 1919’ in Dúiche Néill, ix (1990), p. 98.
 CI Tyrone, Jan. 1919 (TNA, CO 904/108).
 Wickham to S. J. Watt, 30 Mar. 1922 (PRONI, HA/5/905).
 Crawford diary, 28 Sept. 1920 (PRONI, Crawford papers, D640/11/1).
 McVeigh, ‘Lock out?’, pp 98–102.
 Derry Journal, 28 February 1919
 Ibid., p. 108.
 Watchword of Labour, 13 Dec. 1919.
 Voice of Labour, 19 April 1919.
 O’Donnell, Monkeys, pp 16-17.
 Patterson, p. 138; Morgan, p. 276.
 Patterson, p. 142
 Aiken et al, The Men will Talk to Me (2018), p.
 UULA executive special meeting, 15 Dec. 1920
 Quoted in Morgan, p. 277.