Trade Union Activist

In 1905, O’Carroll was proposed for the position of General Secretary of the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stone layers Union.  That same year the bricklayers were locked out in a very divisive strike causing a revolt within the membership.  The employers took a hard line and so the strike raged on bringing the Union to the brink of collapse.

In 1906, O’Carroll was elected into the post of General Secretary and went on to become the most successful leader in the Union’s history expanding its influence and establishing branches throughout the country.  Under his leadership Branch numbers increased from four to fourteen putting the Union on a national footing. O’Carroll quickly gained recognition as a skilled negotiator.  Trusted by smaller unions and associations, he was regularly called upon for guidance and advice which he gave freely.

From 1906 onwards, O’Carroll’s standing grew in tandem with the rapidly evolving Trade Union movement.  In June 1911 the ITUC met in Galway City where O’Carroll, alongside James Larkin and William O’Brien were elected to the Irish Trade Union Congress Parliamentary Committee. He later served on the National Executive of Irish Trade Union, 1911 – 1916.

In 1913, Richard O’Carroll, William O’Brien, William Partridge and M.J. O’Lehane offered their services to the Lockout Committee.


The Lockout  1913

O’Carroll’s influence during the lock out period was significant as symbolically he stood shoulder to shoulder with Larkin, Connolly and O’Brien et al in order that the dignity of workers might be upheld.   A fight for Trade Union recognition and decent pay and conditions was the back drop to the Lock Out.  Starting with the Tram workers , it wasn’t long before  the sway of O’Carrolls influence impacted and the Bricklayers came out in solidarity with the Dockers, followed soon after by the remainder of the construction and craft unions and again his influence was a factor.  Throughout and beyond Dublin, unprecedented levels of worker solidarity mainfested across the spectrum of sectors resulting in a strike of monster proportions.

The Lock Out  of 1913 was and remains the darkest period in the fight for Workers’ Rights in Ireland.  Dublin was a demoralised city.  For the majority of unskilled labourers, jobs were offered on a casual basis, in apalling conditions with pay was at, or slightly above slave rates.  Poverty and destitution were rife.

Ironically, Employers’ fighting against the right of workers to be Organised were themselves, highly Organised.  A four hundred wide Employer response masteminded by William Martin Murphy, resulted in the pre-emptive action of sacking and / or locking out workers who refused to renoucne their membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) headed by James Larkin.  Unbeknownst to most strikers, British employers were subventing their Irish counterparts thus the Lockout raged on and on.


Bloody Sunday 1913

A series of meetings were organised by Trades Union leaders to address the workers and boost morale.  The authorities issued warnings directly to Larkin instructing that the rallies be cancelled.  Larkin was defiant.  The meetings proceeded as planned.  O’Carroll was among the speakers at the Croydon Park rally on the afternoon of August 31, addressing a crowd of several thousands.  On Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, many more thousands of workers arrived.  Eager to avoid arrest, a heavily disguised Larkin wearing female clothing addressed the crowd from the window of the Imperial Hotel, known today (but not for much longer,) as Cleary’s Department Store.

Earlier that day the funeral of Trade Unionist James Brady had taken place with O’Carroll in attendance.  Brady was the victim of a police brutality and the second such death.  The mood was fraught and tensions at the meetings soared.  There was a very heavy RIC presence and in an unwarranted action, the crowds were baton charged. Hundreds of civilians including women and children were injured, many requiring hospital treatment.
It was a black day in Dublin and a black day for the Workers.

O’Carroll speech at Croyden Park was noted as the most important speech of Bloody Sunday.  He spoke of  “the scales falling from the eyes of the workers”… who were beginning to see exploitation and self interest for what it was.

Later that same day, as mayhem prevailed around the streets of Dublin, the police called on O’Carroll’s home seeking his assistance in crowd dispersal at the Redmond’s Hill – Whitefriar area. O’Carroll did this with some degree success, however some rioting did continue in the area.  Still later that night, O’Carroll and William Partridge addressed an audience of tram workers in Emmett Hall, Inchicore.  The meeting was breached by a bunch of baton wielding RIC men who proceeded to beat all around them. Both O’Carroll and Partridge were savagely beaten and needed hospital treatment.  In his testimony O’Carroll referred to the attack being undertaken by “drunken RIC men”. The rioting on the day and at other events was savage.  Photographic images depicting police brutality against the striking workers landed in international media triggering an immediate positive response from the British TUC and its members, whose support was the linchpin of Larkin’s success in keeping the fight for Trades Union recognition going.  British TUC funding amounted to circa 90,000 pounds, €20m in today’s terms (P. Yeats: 1913 Lockout).

The symbolic arrival of the aid ship, the SS Hare into the South Wall of Dublin Port on September 28th 1913, packed with 10,000  food parcels and coal for the cold and starving strikers and their families was a boon to the strike organisers, Larkin in particular. For his part O’Carroll reached beyond England to the workers of America seeking solidarity and contributions to the strike aid fund.

Notwithstanding Larkin’s commitment to achieving TU recognition and improved working conditions, overtures of conciliation were made by the Union, but were rejected.  As time went on it became apparent the employers wanted total capitulation. During the course of the Lockout Period over four hundred men and women were jailed and a thousand citizens treated in hospitals in a harrowing 6 months. The Lockout eventually ended in stages.  In January 1914 many workers returned to work without signing the Employers’ document renouncing Union membership. The last of the strikers, the women of Jacob’s biscuit factory, remained locked out until May 1914.

Later in 1914, O’Carroll was appointed to the Asquith Board of Inquiry into the Lockout.


An Urban Housing Co-op

Living conditions in Dublin’s Tenements were squalid, giving rise to very low levels of general health and intolerably high child mortality.  Not content to wait for the pendulum to swing against the Tenement landlords, O’Carroll  and Walter Capenter (a well known Dublin Trades Unionist activist and socialist)  met in February of 1914 with a view to collaborating on a housing project.  The outcome of the meeting was a template for an urban based housing co-operative which would appear to have been the first such co-operative of its kind in Ireland.  One month after its inception, as many as forty members of the Brick and Stone Layers’ Union had become co-operative share holders, with records showing contributions dating from March 23, 1914.

Notwithstanding that co-operative ventures had been established within the agricultural sector since the 1850’s, its application to urban/city housing was innovative and genius in its simplicity.


(Data sources: Bricklayer’s Files, National Archive & Bricklayer’s Union records )

Note:  Further research is required to establish how the co-operative initiative developed.


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