A ‘fumble in a greasy till...’

Week II

A cartoon in the Irish Worker laughing at William Martin Murphy who led the ‘lock out’ against  Jim Larkin in Dublin 1913.

A cartoon in the Irish Worker laughing at William Martin Murphy who led the ‘lock out’ against Jim Larkin in Dublin 1913.

‘The proposal to build an art gallery over the River Liffey to house the donation to Dublin of Sir Hugh Lane's art collection has been strongly criticised by the businessman and newspaper proprietor, William Martin Murphy.

Mr. Murphy told a public meeting, which he chaired, that opposition to the proposed art gallery was so universal in Dublin that he could not find anyone in the city who supported it. Condemning the proposal of the Dublin Corporation to spend £22,000 on the gallery, Mr Murphy said he had become involved in the matter because it was abominable that such a scheme should be thrust upon the city without any opportunity for citizens to oppose it.

The meeting passed a resolution of protest at the proposal to build the gallery and pledged to oppose the project by any means in its power.’

The ‘vulgarity’ and the ‘contempt shown towards art,’ which I quoted Lady Gregory saying last week, surely included William Martin Murphy. He was the type of man she detested, and she was well able to say so. Both Lady Gregory and Murphy came from completely different backgrounds; yet were similar in that both were intelligent and steadfast in everything that they did.

She was born into a life of privilege, a staunch Unionist, and a landlord. But she underwent a total change during her eighty years, moving from Unionist to Sinn Féin, from wealth to poverty in her old age, becoming a tenant in her own home; while contributing immeasurably to the re-awakening of the hidden Ireland, almost lost in the psyche of its people. With others she brought that culture to the world stage.

Murphy, on the other hand, was born Roman Catholic near Castletownbare, Co Cork. An only child of a middle-class building contractor family. Both parents died when he was young, but Murphy, schooled in Belvedere College Dublin, grew into a remarkably self-reliant young man. He detested bullies. He later regarded Larkin as a bully who had to be defeated by fair means or foul.

He built up his family’s business in Bantry before launching himself into the wider commercial world, rapidly building up an empire which included the Dublin tram system, Cleary’s, the Imperial Hotel and the Independent newspapers, with additional offices in London. He revolutionised the Irish Daily Independent making it the country’s best selling newspaper. He was elected MP, and was initially a staunch supporter of Parnell. But when the Parnell scandal broke he walked away. He remained a committed nationalist. As president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, he organised the Irish International Exhibition in Dublin in 1907. He refused a knighthood from King Edward VII in recognition of his organising abilities. He resented Protestant or Unionist privilege, and urged Catholics to succeed in the commercial world.

The Pirate Ship

When Larkin called out 200 of Murphy’s tram drivers in July 1913, the abandoned trams were left causing traffic chaos in Dublin. But within hours Murphy had them moving again with alternative staff. The Dictionary of Irish Biography says that ‘Larkin tried to organise poverty-stricken unskilled labourers into one big union, which could seize control of the economy and abolish capitalism. Murphy argued that what Dublin needed were more capitalists, that Larkin was an irresponsible demagogue waging war on church and state to gratify his vanity; and that the ITGWU was no more a legitimate trade union than a ‘pirate ship.’

Murphy organised other businesses in the Chamber of Commerce to ‘lock out’ any member of staff who joined Larkin’s union. The locked-out workers’ living standards declined drastically. Long queues formed at emergency food kitchens. When Larkin appealed to British sympathisers to take in hungry Dublin children, Murphy mobilised his newspapers to warn Catholic Ireland that the children were in danger of losing their faith in the Protestant homes of England. Priests, and such organisations as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, rushed to save the young souls of Dublin’s poor.

This was probably the main reason for the breaking of the strike. Men gradually rejected Larkin, and drifted back to work in bleak mid January 1914. The Chamber of Commerce celebrated by presenting Murphy with his portrait painted by William Orpen. But the strikers’ sufferings cemented Murphy’s image as a ‘cold philistine tyrant.’

Public controversies

Watching all of this, and seething with anger at the rejection of the Lane Gallery, Lady Gregory wrote to her friend John Quinn complaining that ‘there is a sort of materialistic recrudescence in Dublin...no money or energy is to be spent except on convents and churches’.

It was probably bad timing to argue for an art gallery, when people in Dublin were actually hungry. The sight of long queues for food, the fact that so many businesses locked out their workers, infuriated Yeats. This was a country that put money first, before people and before the arts. He spoke about ‘ the public controversies which ‘had stirred his imagination profoundly’. These were the fall of Parnell, the dispute over JM Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World, and now, the rejection by Dublin Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce of Lane’s gallery, and the gift of his paintings. He reached back to his speech at the Court Theatre London, and used the phrase ‘groping for a halfpence in a greasy till’ as his starting point. He would fight the philistine with his pen.

It is a powerful poem, and still has resonance today.

The poem, called simply September 1913, was published on the front page of the Irish Times on September 8. On September 19, exactly one hundred years ago today, Hugh Lane took down his paintings from his temporary gallery at Harcourt Street, and closed the door.

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone?

For men were born to pray and save:

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,

It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,

The names that stilled your childish play,

They have gone about the world like wind,

But little time had they to pray

For whom the hangman's rope was spun,

And what, God help us, could they save?

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,

It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,

It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,

And call those exiles as they were

In all their loneliness and pain,

You'd cry, 'Some woman's yellow hair

Has maddened every mother's son':

They weighed so lightly what they gave.

But let them be, they're dead and gone,

They're with O'Leary in the grave. *

*As a young poet Yeats met John O’Leary, an old Fenian, who as a leading separatist had spent many years in prison for his beliefs. He had studied law and medicine, and encouraged Yeats to embrace Irish themes and backgrounds in his poetry.


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