Pat Murphy and the Irish Workers Group

After my obituary article on Gerry Lawless was published earlier this year, I was sent a copy of an internal document of the Trotskyist group that was established after Lawless and Liam Daltun broke up the Irish Workers’ Group late in 1965 in order to wage the struggle against Stalinism.  While that struggle was still being waged within the IWG, information was laid with the police of the Royal Navy, which led to the attempted arrest of one of the ‘Stalinists’.  It was evident in the circumstances that the information was laid by either Lawless or Daltun or both.  The internal document of their group, which is largely about a conflict that arose between Lawless and Daltun once they had broken free of the seductions of Stalinist realism, confirms that this was the case.  In making a case against Lawless, Daltun mentions in passing that Lawless was proud of the fact that he made use of the police in the factional struggle.  That is how I assumed it was.  I would have been very surprised if it had been Daltun who did the informing.  But, when the fate of the world is at stake—and that was how it seemed to them at the time—anything can be done to save it:  that was the reasoning.  I am glad to find that Daltun didn’t do it, and that he didn’t like the fact that it was done by his close associate.

Another interesting thing I learn from that document is that Daltun was paid £10 a week for a couple of weeks so that he could write an answer to something I had written.  The money was paid to him by Lawless from funds made available by the general Trotskyist movement in London.  That was while we were all supposed to be working out things together within the IWG, under an agreement that Pat Murphy made with them.  Ten pounds free of tax and insurance was a pretty good weekly wage at the time.

I don’t know what it was that I wrote that caused such apprehension among the great names of British Trotskyism that they became advisers and paymasters to a group within the IWG.   Whatever it was, it was written while I was working as a manual labourer.  And, as far as I recall, I was digging graves by hand at the time in Highgate Cemetery. 

There an old gravedigger showed me where Marx had actually been buried before being dug up in the early fifties and placed under a monument on the main avenue of the graveyard. He had dug him up and handled his bones. The idea was that one should approach tourists who were admiring the great head on the monument and offer to show them the actual burial spot in a modest out-of-the-way area, and get a tip.  But I was never any good at that sort of thing.

I was living at the time in a room that Daltun arranged be sub-let to me, in his substantial flat, and I was discussing things freely with him.  I could see at times that he had to restrain himself from unleashing his great physical power against me.  But he always did restrain himself—though I recall that once he got right to the brink of letting himself go.  However, I had been a Gaelic football goalkeeper, unprotected by rules in the goal-mouth melee, and I didn’t let that disconcert me.

Whatever writing I did was at a workingmen’s cafe in the Liverpool Road on the way to work.  I got up an hour early to make time for it.  Of course I could only do it that way because I didn’t have to grapple with a self-contradictory tangle of theories every time I put pencil to paper, as he had.  Poor Liam!  I reckon he earned his tenner a week.

Daltun was the first person I knew who read the Irish Times.  I had never seen it until I saw it with him.  I suppose I knew it existed, but it had not penetrated into Slieve Luacra then.  And it was not to be got there for another thirty years.  But Liam could not get through the day without it, and without a French newspaper whose name I forget.  I found it incongruous that a fierce Republican and Marxist revolutionary was addicted to the imperialist culture of the Anglo-Irish remnant.  He gave me some practical reason why it had to be read, but I could see that it was soul-food to him.  At first I put it down to eccentricity but, as time went by, I noticed that he was far from being the only revolutionary who was spiritually dependent on it.  I had a go at reading it, but I couldn’t stay the course.  One of the first issues I read had a column of advice for emigrants.  It advised against race-mixing, and particularly warned cailíns to beware of the charms of black men.

One of Daltun’s reasons for reading the Irish Times, that I recall, was that it occasionally had a column or an article in Irish, and things could be said in Irish that would not be allowed in English.  I was never attracted by the esoteric and I thought it was a debasement of Irish to use it as a secret language for expressing heresy.  At the age of 12 I was bi-lingual for all the practical purposes of an academically unambitious 12 year old.  My vocabulary did not extend afterwards as English was the actual language in use in Slieve Luacra.

Peter Hart, in his book that was hailed as a classic by Roy Foster and that the History Department of Cork University would tolerate no criticism of, said that Slieve Luacra was an Irish-speaking region.  It hadn’t been for over a century.  One might have expected Cork University to know that.  But perhaps the range of city thought did not extend that far into the wilderness—certainly not as far as the “upland peasants” that lived on the fare side of the Mushera Mountain.  But Hart was not in Cork University.  And the reference he gave for the assertion that Slieve Luacra was Irish-speaking was me.  In fact, I had never said anything on the subject but that Slieve Luacra was distinctive in that it did not wait passively for Anglo erosion to destroy the language and the culture with it, but by an effort of will pre-empted erosion by becoming English-speaking while transferring as much of its culture as possible into English.  That was in the second quarter of the 19th century.  I’m sure I said that clearly every time I referred to the matter, and I took Hart’s treatment of it as the mark of a charlatan.

Pat Murphy urged me periodically to get in on the Gaelgoir business, get the Fainne and play them at their own game.  It was one of the few things I disagreed with him about.

A year or two after the break-up of the IWG I was involved with Sean Kearney in publishing a periodical in Irish for a manufacturing development in the Gweedore Gaeltacht in Donegal.  Quite a few issues were published.  But it all came to nothing.  Gweedore spoke Irish domestically, but absolutely refused to transact Trade Union business in Irish.  Kearney was a stubborn, strong-willed individual, but even he could not make them do it.  They had fixed ideas on the subject.

Then in 1970 I worked for a few weeks on the building of a housing estate that was to be the centre of a Belfast Gaeltacht.  And something came of that.  As far as I observed in the 1970s and 1980s that Irish movement was rather contemptuous of the Republicans, with their cúpla focal*.  They took the “Tír gan teanga” maxim in earnest and felt that they were laying foundations that were safe from political accident.

But to get back to Lawless and Daltun.  Six or seven years after the break-up of the IWG, in the early seventies, I was living in West Belfast, almost in the shadow of Divis Tower, publishing a weekly directed against the war, which had some effect, and I was surviving.  I heard that Daltun had killed himself in London.  I never heard the story of it.  But I wasn’t surprised.  He was too complex an individual—with a reflective bent along with a strong impulse towards action—to be satisfied with the position he seems to have found himself in after Northern Ireland blew itself apart.  I imagine he was unable to find his way through the theoretical maze in which he was trapped so that he might be able to do something in a way that made sense to him.

Pat Murphy, who was a unique combination of Dubliner and Culchie, and whose knowledge of the world was got through direct observation of people and situations—he missed out on education due to a prolonged bout of bone-TB—gave an undertaking to Daltun and Lawless that, if they stayed the course with him, a socialist organisation that counted for something in the real world would be established, and they would have ample opportunity for exercising their very different talents.  He was very sure of himself.  They had drawn him into their group, but it was he who knew how to make something of it.

The difficulty was Trotsky’s view of the Russian revolution and the state of mind it developed, which got in the way of a realistic engagement with the current situation.  He got them to agree that we should try to reason our way through the course of the revolution, the nature of the system established by Lenin, and the kind of criticism made by Trotsky after Lenin died.  They obviously discussed this with their London Trotskyist patrons, who were horrified, and made them ashamed of themselves.  But by then they had started us up and when they retreated we carried on.

The Russian difficulty had to do with Trotsky’s theory, or vision, of Permanent Revolution.  But I will leave that for another article.

One of the things I discussed with Pat Murphy in those times—I think the IWG broke up before it got to discussing such things—was how one might go about constructing a socialist economy in Ireland.

Pat was greatly impressed by the English Department of Agriculture and especially the Milk Marketing Board.  The latter, as I understood him, was a sort of national wholesaler which controlled prices, maintained a steady market demand for producers, and maintained a degree of national self-sufficiency in the world market.  Milk production was effectively an area of planned economy within the market.

Other spheres of agricultural production were also subject to State control, but with the object of exploiting the world market, which was of course an English creation.  Prices of home-produced products were kept low by means of state-subsidies to English farmers, in order to compel exporters (chiefly from the English colonies, Ireland and Argentina) to sell cheaply into the English market.  It was hopeless for England to try to feed itself.  The possibility of that went in the mid-19th century with the repeal of the Corn Laws.  England then arranged for the world to feed its industrial masses cheaply.  Of course that arrangement depended ultimately on the power of English militarism and dominance of the world’s seas, but Pat was appreciative of the internal economic arrangements in Britain by which it was facilitated, and he saw them as having a wider applicability.

These were matters in which Lawless and Daltun took no interest.  Socialism was an affair of making revolution with the industrial masses and they did not seem to notice that the Irish population was predominantly rural and its economy predominantly agricultural.  But I have heard a leader of the Farmers’ Union explaining things much as Pat explained them.

I don’t know that rural Ireland was any less socialist than urban Ireland.  While I lived in North Cork it had one safe Fianna Fail seat (Sean Moylan’s, who never courted popularity and challenged the electorate to disgrace itself by not electing him), one safe Labour seat (held by Paddy McAuliffe (who lived in a Labourer’s Cottage, and showed the independence of spirit which the Labourers’ Cottages, established by the Land & Labour League and the Unionist Government, were designed to instigate), and a third seat which was in contention between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.  

McAuliffe told me that in 1948 he had opposed joining the first Coalition.  He hoped to make the Labour Party a force in its own right, and he could not see that happening in alignment with Fine Gael.  But the Party leadership wouldn’t hear of it.  And twenty years after that, with Conor Cruise O’Brien prominent in it, the Party leadership proclaimed Socialism In The Seventies and set about getting rid of the rural backwoodsmen who were holding them back.  Ten years after that O’Brien became an Ulster Unionist—only to be described by a rival Unionist as a cuckoo in the nest.

The Official IRA (Stickies), having fought their lunatic war in the early 1970s, and gone through a phase of being Moscow’s alternative Irish party, took on the leadership of the Labour Party, and last year threw away the opportunity to become the Opposition and put down its marker to be a future Government, preferring to take a few jobs from Fine Gael.

Political activity has to be conducted in the actual world.  Protest can be conducted against the actuality of the world, from a fantasy viewpoint, and might occasionally make an impact on some feature of the actual world.  Pat Murphy had, in my experience, a unique understanding of the actuality of Irish society combined with a strong will to act on it.  His proposal to Daltun and Lawless that, if they stayed the course with him, he would enable their capacity for protest to be brought to bear on the actual world, and get to be something more than a passing phenomenon of protest within bourgeois politics, was realisable.  I think that, left to themselves, they would have stayed the course, but world Trotskyism wouldn’t’ have it so.

A couple of years after the IWG was broken up, Pat—in conjunction with Denis Dennehy—showed, in the Housing Action movement, what a bold agitation in support of a realistically-conceived demand might achieve.  From that point on I was mainly concerned with Northern Ireland.

Pat’s view was that public control of wholesaling was the practical point of entry for a socialist movement realistically engaged with the project of socialist reform of capitalist society.

I worked for a number of years as a labourer in a Co-op Creamery and Mill in Slieve Luacra.  The Co-op had about 120 members—people who had been active in William O’Brien’s land agitation, had bought the land they farmed under the 1903 land purchase subsidy scheme which he negotiated with the Unionist Government in 1903, and had supported his campaign against Redmond’s Home Rule Party in 1910 on the grounds that it had taken on a strong Catholic-sectarian character, and because of this and because it was committed to achieving Home Rule by manipulating the conflict of British parties, it was driving the situation towards Partition.  Then in 1918 they had voted for independence—or had not needed to vote because Redmond had given up North Cork as lost to his cause before the second 1910 Election and his successor did not contest the seat in 1918.  They had taken part in enforcing the 1918 vote in war.  Then they limited the destructive effect of the Treaty War forced by Britain. After that they had got down to business in a market system modified by co-operative wholesaling.

They were milk producers in the main. They sold the milk to themselves organised co=operatively as a wholesaler.  And they imported maize and fertilisers as a wholesaler and sold it to themselves retail.  They employed a Manager from the Agricultural College in the University to oversee the business, but held regular meetings as a Co-op to advise him.

Every morning they brought the milk to the Creamery.  I reckon the average was three or four 20 gallon milk churns each.  I began the day by humping a few hundred churns—tanks we called them—onto a platform and emptying them into a vat while the farmers stood around discussing the affairs of the world.  “Going to the Creamery” was a sociable business, except for one or two super-industrious fanatics.

Marx’s comparison of peasants to a heap of potatoes in a sack struck me as absurd the first time I came across it.  And, when I later came across idyllic descriptions of the socially and publicly concerned town life of the bourgeoisie in parts of the Continent, what it put me in mind of was North Cork peasants going to the Creamery.

Michael Davitt saw what one might call the bourgeois potential of the peasantry at a time when cultured opinion tended to see them as apes, and helped them to take the first steps towards realising it.  Some years later Arthur Balfour saw it when he was Chief Secretary and was engaged in putting down the land agitation by police action, and when he became Prime Minister he collaborated with William O’Brien (whom he had once imprisoned) in realising in Ireland the Tory ideal of a property-owning democracy.

Davitt went on from the organising of the Irish peasants in the Land League to organising English workers in industry on similar lines.  He was distracted when Parnell, overcome by a Messianic vision of himself, set about destroying the Irish Party—but by then Davitt was finding that co-operative action did not come as easily to wage-workers as it had come to the tenant-farmers.

But if workers do not encroach on the capitalist system co-operatively, how is a socialist system to be brought about and maintained?

The scheme whereby the workers were to be reduced to a proletariat with absolutely nothing and then, through a revolutionary convulsion, were to become a working-class ruling class with everything—somehow creating a new kind of society in the process—did not seem realistic to either of us.

After 1969 I got drawn into the politics of the Northern Ireland situation while Pat carried on with working class self-help projects in Dublin.

I tried for a while to keep up with the new economic devices thrown up in the course of capitalist development, but then concluded that they were all just increasingly sophisticated developments within wholesaling.

My understanding of the market, aside from what I observed as the labourer in the Creamery Co-op, came from a reading of Capital while I was the labourer in that Co-op.  That is to say, it was theoretical.  Pat had somehow become fluent in the language of business economics.  Between us we managed to figure things out.

We met at the Working Men’s College in Camden Town, which was then the Irish centre in London.  The WMC was set up by Christian Socialists following the Chartist scare.  Its mission was to exert a liberal bourgeois influence on the working class.  Its philanthropic patrons around 1960 came almost entirely from the City of London, and their world outlook was Liberal Imperialist.  One or other of them would occasionally come down to awe the minuscule fragment of the masses that was there to hear them with their condescension and their expertise.

One day the Director of the Bank of England came and was quizzed by Pat in his own language.  That was the closest I ever got to the centre of finance capitalism.  The Bank of England, to give it its due, was eager to explain itself, and was pleased to be subjected to hard questioning.  What I got from it was that the business of the Bank of England in its purely economic capacity was to facilitate wholesaling.

A few years later we met an Australian, Graham Ruthven, whose obsession was the rise of capitalism in Europe.  And his view was that the great banking houses had grown consistently from origins in small-scale wholesaling, one thing leading to another.

(To be continued, maybe)

PS:  In my first article about Lawless and Daltun I failed to mention John Palmer.  Like Joe Quinn, he hovered closely around the edges of the IWG.  He was, he said, the nephew of Sean Treacy—the Sean Treacy.  He wrote an article about Treacy for a single-issue magazine published by Daltun before the IWG.  It was called Parabellum Patriot as I recall.  Palmer was, I think, a member of the inner circle of Tony Cliff’s elite International Socialism group.  And he was a journalist on the Financial Times.

Brendan Clifford

IPR November 2012

* Few words.  Ed.

* Country without a tongue.  Ed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: