SJD8 #5: Inchicore as Battleground: Spatial Conflict and Dublin’s Working Class, 1902-1914

This is the fifth in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #5), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022.

Dublin 8 is an area that should be of great interest to all advocates of spatial justice. The social and economic challenges faced by working-class communities, in the past and present, starkly reflect the growing inequalities that can be seen across Ireland today. Yet as geographer Edward Soja (2009) surmises, it is much easier to identify and describe the outcomes of injustice than to understand the spatial processes leading to the initial production of unjust geographies. This blog attempts to uncover some of these processes by tracing the historical influences of the socio-economic development of the area in the early twentieth century. I focus on the growth of trade unions at the turn of the century in Inchicore, an area historically known as New Kilmainham, to analyse how transportation employers, the Catholic Church, and workers sought to establish power and influence within the spaces of an emerging industrial village. The metaphor of the ‘city as battleground’, which draws upon concepts by Massey, Katznelson, Marcuse, and Gramsci, is particularly relevant when tracing how dominant powers clashed with workers as the former ruthlessly sought to retain their control. After outlining the historical socioeconomic institutions of the area in the first section, I analyse how labour relations came to be spatially divided across New Kilmainham to then discuss the outcomes of strike actions by two separate trade unions in 1902 and 1913, as well as the different responses by the Catholic Church in supporting or opposing the two unions. I conclude by considering the lasting repercussions these events have had on Inchicore today.

A socioeconomic history of New Kilmainham

Figure 1: 1910 map highlighting five dominant centres of political-economic activity in New Kilmainham/Inchicore. Base-map from Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historic Map 25 inch (1910), with additions by the author.

In the nineteenth an early twentieth-centuries, at least five main spheres of influence existed in rural New Kilmainham north of the Grand Canal that would have a lasting influence on the socioeconomic development of Inchicore (see also Kearns, SJD8 #3 The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham, 1911). The first began with the establishment of Richmond Barracks (Figure 1, Location 1), a British military base built in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars (Richmond Barracks, 2021). The scale of this fortified barracks was immense, with thousands of British and Irish soldiers passing through the gates during its time in operation during a time of colonial rule (Barracks Square Estate, 2017).

The establishment of a colossal railway works for the Great Southern and Western Railway in 1844 (GSWR) (Figure 1, Location 2) also dramatically transformed the rural landscape into a new seat of industry for the city (Geraghty and Rigney, 1983). Taking inspiration from British industrial towns, the GSWR essentially built a company village within the boundary walls of the works. They provided high quality housing for workers, adding a dining and social hall, and a model school in time (ibid). Given the rural nature of the area, the provision of housing and other services was a practical necessity to accommodate the sudden growth in population. Most of the highly skilled jobs and houses were initially given to British Protestant workers, brought over to Ireland to compensate for a lack of local skilled workers (Geraghty and Rigney, 1983). As owners of these residential spaces, the GSWR employers could control the values, behaviours, and social norms that were permitted and reproduced within them, enforcing what Harvey (1989: 284–307) calls ‘the politics of place’.

With these two dominant employers,  a demand for service and unskilled workers existed, and soon a large Catholic population migrated to the area, in line with growth trends in the city more generally (Daly, 1984, pp. 122-123). The Oblate Fathers arrived in 1856 (Oblate Parish Inchicore, n.d.) to safeguard the faith of this burgeoning community in the presence of the former two more heavily Protestant institutions (Figure 1, Location 3), thus establishing the Catholic Church as a third significant presence in New Kilmainham/Inchicore. The Oblate Fathers ensured that workers with limited free time would still attend mass and fulfil their religious duties. The original humble wooden place of worship was later replaced by an elaborate stone church and house of retreat (ibid) that dominated the surrounding landscape. As depicted in Figure 2, the Church’s influence and ideology was communicated powerfully in the built environment, and their hegemony unquestioned by members of this growing congregation.

Figure 2: Aerial view of Oblate Church of Mary Immaculate and House of Retreat, 1956. Showing church and neighbouring house of retreat, with later additions visible, including: a primary school (buildings to right of house of retreat), grotto, and processionary grounds (behind and to left of church). Ring Street Dublin Corporation housing (behind grotto, top left corner) also visible. Source: Morgan, A.C. (1956).

Like the GSWR before them, the Church also provided for the everyday needs of their parishioners. They set up much needed educational and social spaces, until eventually their presence infiltrated almost all aspects of life in the area (Figure 3). They indirectly controlled the Dublin Corporation’s first social housing estate, as units were built on land donated by the Oblate Fathers (Fraser, 1996). Indeed, this new residential development became a Catholic stronghold in its own right, under the ever-watchful eye of the religious order. For example, for one of the streets in this development, Ring Street, 89% of its residents were listed as Catholic according to the 1911 unpublished census records for the New Kilmainham District, compared to the district as a whole, with 75% of residents identifying as Catholic (Kearns, 2021).

Figure 3: 1910 map of spaces controlled by the Catholic Church in Inchicore. Base-mapfrom Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historic Map 25 inch (1910), with additions by the author.

Inchicore’s position as a transport hub was later cemented in 1882 with the construction of a tram depot by the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC) (Figure 1, Location 4) at Spa Road (Dublin City Council, 2014). Located at the end of Emmet Street (Figure 1, Location 5), trams made their way to and from the city centre down this main thoroughfare.

While the fortune of these dominant groups grew in tandem with the flourishing village, the same cannot be said for all of the workers living in the area. In the early twentieth century, Dublin had the undesirable honour of being one of the worst slum cities in the world, with countless working-class families forced to live in squalid, cramped conditions in the city’s notorious tenement buildings (McManus, 2003). The plight of the urban poor was exacerbated by employment trends of the day. McManus (2003) describes how a third of the working population of Dublin City were unskilled labourers, who relied on casual employment, including at the railway works and tram yard, to eke out a meagre living earning much lower wages than workers in other industrial cities. Families were forced to rely on the help of local charities — many of them run by the Catholic Church — for food and other necessities. It is unsurprising then that the rumblings of dissent began to grow amongst the city’s workers. We will look now at the spaces these workers inhabited in Inchicore and how different groups came together to challenge the unequal balance of power held by exploitative employers.

Spatial divisions of labour

There are several theories we can draw on when considering space in relation to Inchicore’s workers. Doreen Massey was one of the first to consider the ‘spatial divisions of labour’ in her 1984 book of the same name. She claimed that spaces of industry are inextricably linked to the wider spatial organisation of capitalist societies; uneven production of spatial hierarchies in capitalist economies are reflected in the uneven hierarchy of social classes (Massey 1984). Massey (1991) further developed this concept of uneven production of space in her seminal work on power-geometry, arguing that different social groups have different levels of power within spaces, as well as differing abilities to move through and out of them. Katznelson also considered this division of labour in his book City Trenches (1981). Using the example of a working-class neighbourhood in 1960s Manhattan, he introduced the concept of city trenches where there is a ‘radical separation in… politics of work and politics of community’ (p. 7). In this system, ‘workers’ are mobilized into class-agnostic unions in their workplaces, while as ‘citizens’ they are dispersed in space, identifying with different social groups in their homeplaces (ibid). Marcuse (1995) proposes the concept of the ‘quartered city’ in his theory of spatial division, employing the notion of walls to define the boundaries of his city quarters and the hierarchal position of residents within them. With these concepts in mind, I consider how two different groups of workers in Inchicore came to unionise, paying attention to the distinct social and spatial factors that separated them. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was founded in 1851, with highly skilled and well-educated engineers as members, forming the upper echelons of the industrial working class. The ASE reflected the nature of trade unions in general at this time, which were open to highly skilled workers only (MacMahon, 1981). Inchicore differs from Katznelson’s (1981) above observations in relation to Manhattan, as social hierarchies closely mirrored labour hierarchies. Drawing on Marcuse’s (1995) theory of walls as simultaneously enabling social cohesion and division, we can see how this situation could have developed. Many of these union members would have lived in the company housing within the walls of the works, or later in purpose-built housing developments such as that at Ring Street; their work and home social groups were identical. Figure 4 shows just how tall and imposing the boundary walls of the works were, completely separating residents both physically and socially from the rest of the village and perpetuating a hierarchal class divide.

Figure 4: Inchicore Railway Works boundary walls, viewed from Grattan Terrace. Source: Google Street View (2019).

When James Larkin founded the socialist Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in 1909, unskilled workers were given a collective voice for the first time, with membership open to dockers, transport workers and other ‘ordinary men’ (Devine et al., 2013). The ITGWU wanted to improve all aspects of life for their members by offering alternative educational and social spaces, thereby reclaiming some of the power from employers to shape these social spaces on workers’ terms. Metscher (2001) outlines how the union provided various amenities for their members such as Irish classes, music concerts and soccer teams. From 1912, much of this activity took place at Emmet Hall, a building Larkin purchased in the middle of Emmet Road (O’Meara, 2013). This choice of location was certainly strategic — a clear act of provocation against the employers. Emmet Road led directly to both the GSWR and DUTC (Figure 1), placing the ITGWU deliberately at the mouth of the beast, in between the transportation giants and the main route to the city.

Although there were Catholic members in both unions, the Church’s attitude to workers organisations differed greatly. During the AES’s 1902 strike, for example, the local clergy acted as mediators between the union and the GWSR, and supported securing better wages for union members (Geraghty & Rigney, 1983). It was in the Church’s interest for these more upwardly mobile parishioners to increase their power in society, and with it, also the Church’s own position. In contrast, the Church denounced Larkin and the ITGWU from the outset (Yeates, 2000), pledging allegiance to the employers. On the face of it, the Church’s issue with the ITGWU was of an ecclesiastical nature. As an explicitly socialist union, the ITGWU was seen to be bringing a ‘militantly anti-religious ideology’ to Ireland (Hobsbawm, 1978, cited in Newsinger, 1986).

However, Larkin himself was a devout Catholic and the ITGWU had a strong Catholic ethos (Newsinger, 1993). So, we must question what other motives the Church may have had for opposing the workers’ struggle. While Larkin targeted the industrial employer, his actions had the unintended consequence of also attacking the Church’s Foucauldian power network (Gregory, 2009). Recall that the working poor of Dublin relied heavily on Catholic charities, schools, and other services for survival (McManus, 2003). As these workers came to turn to the ITGWU for such support, the Church felt their control over their parishioners slipping and went on the defensive. We must also consider the real economic threat the ITGWU posed to the Church, as cynically suggested by the author of An Open Letter to the Clergy, published in The Irish Worker during the earlier 1911 strikes at the Inchicore Railworks:

‘If you are really anxious to settle the strike, go read the Sermon on the Mount to the managers and the shareholders of the railways and timber yards. Or, perhaps, you would, as shareholders yourselves, ask the Board of Directors whether 14s. per week is enough to support a man, his wife and children?’ (cited in Larkin, 1985, p. 72).

Calling out the Church as stakeholders in many of the companies targeted by the ITGWU, this author indirectly also points to the negative financial, as well as spiritual, repercussions the worker’s actions had to the wellbeing the religious institution.

The city as battleground

With this detailed understanding of the relevant spaces and power relations in Inchicore, I now explore some examples of how the battle between workers and employers (and their supporters) during the strikes of 1902 and 1913 unfolded within these places, both physically and symbolically. The conceptualization of the ‘city as battleground’ is a common theme across urban studies. Extending the language of war introduced above, through Marcuse’s (1995) discussion of barricades and stockade walls, and Katznelson’s (1981) concept of city trenches, I include next the work of Antonio Gramsci, who broadly considered civil society as a modern form of trench warfare (in Glasius et al., 2012). Gramsci presented the dual concepts of a ‘war of position’ in which dominant groups worked steadily to maintain their power, and of the opposing ‘war of movement’, in which groups of resistance mounted an attack on these dominant actors, momentarily disturbing the balance of power. Ultimately, Gramsci believed these ‘movement’ attacks were doomed to fail as they become gradually worn down by the deeply embedded hegemonic ideology of civil society at large (ibid).

We will look first to 1902, when the Inchicore branch of the ASE served notice to the GSWR of their intention to strike over a pay dispute (Geraghty and Rigney, 1983). The GSWR imported blacklegs from the UK to replace the striking workers and housed them in small wooden huts inside the walls of the works (ibid). The fact that the GSWR could call on this foreign labour, as they did when they first set up, is an example of Massey’s (1991) concept of power-geometry, and the ability for those with power and resources to extend their reach far beyond their physical location when desired. These ‘scab workers’ were described as leading ‘a “prisoner of war” existence’ (Geraghty and Rigney, 1983, p. 24), for attempts to leave the works often led to attacks by strikers and their supporters. Here we see Marcuse’s (1995) concept of city walls gaining relevance once more, this time for the scab labourers who found both protection and confinement within the walls of the works. The GSWR ultimately refused to engage with the striker’s demands; when workers eventually returned to work it was at a lower rate of pay than they previously earned (Geraghty and Rigney, 1983).

The conflict of 1902 pales in comparison to the events during the infamous Dublin Lockout of 1913, and the violent battles for power that occurred in Inchicore. On August 26th 1913, the day the Lockout began, union members working in the DUTC Spa Road depot used their position within this industrial fortress to attack the employer’s power from the inside (O’Meara, 2013). They blockaded the entrance with the help of local supporters, stopping trams that had been damaged in city centre clashes from returning to the depot for repairs (ibid). Further crowds gathered at Emmet Hall, where protesters and police clashed, with vicious attacks on both sides. (ibid). Eyewitness reports from the police on duty (Henry, 1914) state that:

‘A large crowd – about 300 or perhaps more… commenced to shout and booh(sic), and a volley of stones were thrown at the trams’… ‘Every pane of glass in the trams was broken’ (cited in O’Meara, 2013, pp. 164, 166).          

The police called on the support of soldiers from the nearby barracks, and at one point in the battle, were forced to retreat behind the safety of the military garrison’s boundary walls. Having recuperated, they returned to the streets and beat the crowds with batons, forcing them to disperse into side lanes and nearby homes. Without the physical protection of powerful walls, the strikers eventually were overcome.

View of Richmond Barracks from Emmet Road. Source: Richmond Barracks (2021).

While the Church stayed out of the physical conflict, they had other means by which to assert their power in the fight against the ITGWU. Painter (2008) states that ‘power does not inhere (only) in material resources, but it is also exercised culturally’ through the ‘power of discourse and particularly of narrative to shape understandings of political events’ (p. 65). The Church used their hallowed position of power atop the altar to weave their own narrative of events, painting Larkin and the strikers as godless and immoral in increasingly damning sermons, thus sowing the seeds of mistrust and resentment in the minds of their congregation (MacMahon, 1981). They also mobilised their other spaces of power to offer support to those in need, using local schools to distribute food and clothes to non-union workers affected by the strike (Devine et al., 2013). During the Lockout period, the St. Vincent De Paul society distributed 2,450 meals to children in Dublin’s Catholic schools every day and provided clothing to over 2,000 children in the parishes most affected (ibid, p. 211). While undoubtedly this was done as an act of genuine benevolence, the dual purpose of preventing other groups from gaining worker’s loyalties cannot be discounted – it was a deliberate strategic move for the Church and affiliated groups to provide these services, to keep families out of the hands of ‘proselytising’ Protestants offering the same (Daly, 1984).

So why did the Catholic Church react with such vicious force to what was ultimately a rebellion of Catholic workers? It can be argued that their actions were grounded in fear. During this same period, the Church was on the cusp of gaining great political power within the structures of a newly imagined Ireland, after centuries of struggling to merely survive under colonial rule (Larkin, 1985). The Home Rule movement had been growing in the years leading up to the Lockout and many felt that the transfer of political power from Westminster to Dublin was imminent, with the Church primed to play a pivotal role (ibid). The fear of anything seen as a threat to this fragile new order clouded their judgement, and at a time when the Church could have played an integral part in forming a fairer and more equal Ireland, they instead chose to perpetuate the unjust and unequal social hierarchies of a colonial society, so long as it continued to benefit them. The Lockout came to an anticlimactic end in January 1914, when the workers were forced by economic necessity to return to work (Yeates, 2010). This also marked the last serious attempt at a worker’s revolution in Ireland. We see here Gramsci’s prediction of the inevitable failure of such ‘wars of movement’ proven correct. Despite their best efforts, the workers could not compete with the deeply ingrained power relations and hierarchies present in the physical and social spaces of Inchicore.

Lasting influence in Inchicore

What processes of spatial injustice can be identified as having been set in motion during this important period that continue to be felt in present day Inchicore? While many of the physical walls have been removed, the metaphorical boundaries and power alliances they imposed can still be seen expressed through the spatialised class divisions in the area. There is a growing privileging of the values and requirements of a newly arriving middle class over the basic needs of the strong working-class communities that have lived and worked in the area since the time of the tram and railway works (Bissett, 2021). Class-based inequality is evident in forms of gentrification across Dublin 8 and the city at large, posing a significant threat to the continuance of working-class communities that have played an integral role in Dublin’s history and development. The historical influence of the Church has been replaced by the influence of governmental institutions (often serving corporate interests), that impose a culture of short-sighted decision-making in relation to gentrification and their efforts to maintain and grow their own political and economic power. But similar to the past, we see the interests of the working classes of Inchicore being ignored by those ostensibly charged with supporting them.

For those with an interest in addressing spatial injustices in Dublin 8 today, an understanding of the historical and geographical processes that led to the current situation is therefore essential. Having outlined these processes, I suggest a modern focus on ‘the city as battleground’ may prove invaluable in staging a renewed working-class revolution for a fairer, more spatially just, Inchicore.

— Nicola Whelan

Nicola Whelan is a MA Spatial Justice student in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University. This blog developed from an essay written for a postgraduate Geography module, ‘GY607: Field School’, taught by Professors Till and Kearns, Semester 1, 2021.


My thanks to Professor Karen Till and Professor Gerry Kearns for their support throughout the ‘GY607’ course and fieldwork; their guidance and imparted knowledge were indispensable in shaping this blog. Thanks also to Karen for her hard work in organising, editing, and publishing this blog series, and to Gerry for final copy editing work, for the great cause of MU Social Justice Week 2022.


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  1. […] SJD8 #5: Inchicore as Battleground: Spatial Conflict and Dublin’s Working Class, 1902-1914, by Nicola Whelan, MA Spatial Justice student […]


  2. […] part of our ‘GY607: Field School’ walks in Inchicore in 2021 (see also Whelan, SJD8 #5, ‘Inchicore as Battleground: Spatial Conflict and Dublin’s Working Class, 1902-1914‘. Fernihough et al. (2014) meanwhile highlight how interfaith marriages caused social […]


  3. […] its colonial rule; and the Oblate Fathers as the seat of Catholic doctrine (see Whelan SJD8 #5: ‘Inchicore as Battleground: Spatial Conflict and Dublin’s Working Class, 1902-1914’). The material uses and symbolic meanings of these various areas changed throughout time […]


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