Reviving the spirit of 1913

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As many of you will know, this year marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the seminal events in this country’s history- the 1913 Lockout.

Centred around a dispute between employers and workers about the abhorrent living and working condition that affected one third of the city’s population 100 years ago, the lockout became the largest labour dispute Ireland had ever seen with over 20,000 employees ‘locked out’ of their occupations due to alleged membership of James Larkin’s ITGWU union.

Although defeated after a five-month stand-off, those initial strikers set in motion a gradual change in attitudes amongst employers which would eventually put an end to Dublin’s infamous tenement slums and the squalid conditions which they perpetuated.

With centennial celebrations higher in profile than many expected, artistic and literary tributes have come pouring in over recent months to commemorate the brave stance taken by the Irish labour cause’s trailblazing pioneers.

Prominent among these tributes is the 30-panel 1913 Lockout Tapestry currently on display at the National Museum in Collins Barracks. Devised by artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson and put together by various community groups ranging from schoolchildren to prison inmates, the tapestry vividly narrates the struggles which strikers went through between August 1913 and January 1914.

A passionate believer in the ideals of the working class, Ballagh, who also happens to be one of the capital’s most revered painters, is delighted to see the revival in attitudes towards the nation’s cultural and historical heritage.

“I found it really encouraging, not just that the tapestry got a good response but there’s been a tremendous reawakening of interest in that period which has always been a period of great interest to me personally,” says Ballagh.

“I’m just one participant in this whole project. It’s an impressive list of volunteers involved in the project, from the Embroidery Guild and Patchwork Society of Ireland to people who’ve never stitched a stitch in their lives before like recovering heroin addicts and prisoners in Mountjoy and Limerick.

“A kind of camaraderie even grew up amongst people who’ve never met and found themselves working together on this project. It reflects the communal struggle in 1913 for justice and for better working and living conditions.”

Hisotrian Padraig Yeates describes the last sequence in the tapestry as “a candle to be passed on to future generations”, and Ballagh is hopeful that this is just how current and future generations will view the exhibition, and indeed the very event which inspired it.

“I hope that our efforts do inspire people to realise that the only way to get what you deserve in life is not working as an individual but to work in a cooperative and communal way to make your demands, and I would sincerely hope that that would become more evident as we move forward in these very difficult times.”

Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson’s 1913 Lockout Tapestry will be on display at the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, until November 14th.

Both artists will be joined by historian Padraig Yeates in a seminar at the museum entitled ‘Dublin Lockout- Impact and Objects’ on Saturday, October 26th. A full itinerary of events for the day can be viewed HERE.

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