Ernest Kavanagh- Artist of the Irish Labour Revolution 1884-1916


Killed on the steps of Liberty Hall by a British Army sniper in 1916, the cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh, an illustrator, union activist and revolutionary have been turned in to a book by historian James Curry.

Last week, I got to attend a wonderful event at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin’s Kildare St. Historian James Curry whose specialised interest is the 1913 Dublin Lockout was giving a lecture on the work of Cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh including a slide show of Kavanagh’s art.

The lecture traced Kavanagh’s origins from an unemployed inner city Dubliner to an Insurance clerk in ITGWU at Liberty Hall. His illustrations for the Union’s paper” Irish Worker” during that tumultuous period for workers and their fight targeted against William “Murder” Murphy for a decent wage and right to  union organisation.

Nat Lib Ire 1913 006

Historian Mike Curry and Councillor Máire Devine

Ernest was a quiet and unassuming man, an ardent Republican who was moved by the social injustices witnessed daily as he walked around Dublin streets seeing the waifs and the starving. A witty raconteur- he described himself as possessing an “inherent antipathy to order” and it was probably this trait that honed his skills as a cartoonist.

The Cartoons reflect the dire circumstances in which the city’s poor lived, a tenement city exactly as portrayed in the classical popular novel STRUMPET CITY(J. Plunkett-1969) which tells the story of the wretched life endured by Dubliners in the myriad of disease ridden slums as they are swept up in the brutal repression of that significant watershed in the Irish Labour Movement.

Aptly now in this the centenary year it is” The one city- one book for 2013” Reading recommended!

20,000 workers were shut out from Murder Murphy’s businesses. He  owned Cleary’s store, ran the tram transport and produced the neo liberal newspaper “Independent” whose reins were handed on to the ever so solid and reliable anti worker magnate SIR Tony O’Reilly in 1970s.

The workers and their families suffered and starved for 8 months in their rightful struggle for a decent wage and improved living conditions that were the disgrace of Europe. The iconic photo of the first attack on them by the hated and ruthless Dublin Metropolitan Police on August 31st 1913 where they bludgeoned a number of the strikers to death s attached. Kavanagh often portrayed the Dublin Met Police as Apes – brutish and unreasonable – which was probably intentional given that the Irish people were usually portrayed this way in the “PUNCH” magazines since the time of An Gort Mór -1840’’s. Apologies to the apes.

His profound belief was that “an injury to one is the concern of all”

Of particular interest to Cllr Devine was the Cartoon “Angel of Freedom”  which casts John Redmond (leader of the wimpish Irish Parliamentary Party) in the starring role of a triumphant Angel standing on a bound woman while boldly declaring “No women need apply- no votes for women” as he pushed his agenda of Home Rule. World War 1 and a rising Irish political awareness leading to the Rising of 1916 interfered with those plans. The rest is history- scéal eile. This cartoon is probably one of the earliest published within Ireland in support of women’s suffrage.

In this the centenary year of the Lock out it is timely that we relearn and add to the fight of the working man and women. Today it could not be more relevant. Workers locked out of their employment with refusal by employers to abide by wages and entitlements. It is a serious growing trend. Take corta vitex, HMV, Waterford glass. La Senza, Laura Ashley and the thousands of other workers dismissed with no notice or adherence to our meanly labour laws.  According to the Trade Unions it is part of an alarming growing trend of workers being “left in the cold” after being made redundant with increasingly weaker responses from this Government. Trade Union Leadership please wake up and stop being impotent.

Nothing really has changed -the wealthy protect their assets and their own, the citizens are expendable at the drop of a hat. The people and the country’s welfare are not a priority – they never come first .We would be foolish to ever hope or expect that ,the wealth remains with 1 per cent of our population.

I am inspired by the newest release of Spielberg’s LINCOLN. a prophetic man who possessed integrity – an Idealist yet pragmatic. His fight in January 1865 – the final four months of his life- was devoted to efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed and it is epitomized in the following quote;

“As I would not be a slave so I will not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” AL

Powerful stuff. Let that be our guiding principle.

Earnest Kavanagh was shot dead by a British sniper on the steps of Liberty Hall in Easter 1916. He was reporting for duty to the Citizen Army for the Rising but was unarmed at the time of his death. It is believed that the bullet came from the British army as their boats hastened up the river Liffey to repel and quell the rising of the Dubs. Remember him and his passion for justice- A spirit that should resonate in all of us.

The British misguided brutal suppression of the rising led to massive increased support for Irish independence, partially obtained in 1922. We still have to complete the task of a Republic.



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