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Struggle or Starve
Working-Class Unity in Belfast's 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots
The story of how thousands of Catholics and Protestants united to challenge poverty and unemployment in Belfast, Ireland.

In October 1932, the streets of Belfast were gripped by vicious and widespread rioting that lasted the best part of a week. Thousands of unarmed demonstrators fought extended pitched battles against heavily-armed police. Unemployed workers and, indeed, whole working-class communities, dug trenches and built barricades to hold off the police assault. The event became known as the Outdoor Relief Riot—one of a very few instances in which class sympathy managed to trump sectarian loyalties in a city famous for its divisions.

Reviews
  • "[T]he ultimate message of this timely and absorbing book – that a class-based politics has operated in Northern Ireland, and thus might operate again – is in itself a useful reminder that the past can, given half a chance, offer lessons for the future." Irish Times

     

    “This is an important story to tell, part of our lost history. It shows that the interests workers share far outweigh the artificial divisions of sectarianism. It is brilliant that Seán Mitchell has brought these great events backs to life. It will be an inspiration to unite again in today’s struggles.”
    —Ken Loach

    "The BBC should commission a six part series of this virtually unknown story tomorrow. It has everything; the riveting contradictions of power and resistance in what was the industrial powerhouse of Belfast, unbelievable misery against the backdrop of the Great Depression, courage, cruelty, violence with the systematic barbarity of Outdoor Relief, charismatic intelligent characters deemed to be of the "low working class type", dreamers, troublemakers, ordinary citizens, up against spies, the brutality of the Specials, the Police, and the political elite, past masters of the dark arts of divide and rule. But this brilliantly researched story challenges the greatest lie of all, that the most humble and marginalised of communities cannot overcome the deadly poison of sectarianism. This story transcends Belfast, Catholic and Protestant. It is full of hope with the whiff of danger.....What happens when workers, the unemployed and their communities transcend differences of religion and identity and come together to resist those who control their lives? Perhaps that is why there are no public monuments to this epic struggle, why it has been ignored, and why the BBC won't be commissioning. But we can read this book and imagine.”
    —Paul Laverty is a Screenwriter, his films include The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Looking for Eric and Jimmy’s Hall

    “Seán Mitchell's blow by blow account of the great Belfast Outdoor Relief workers' strike of 1932 masterfully recreates the drama of events as they unfolded, telling the story as it has never been told before, and in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and profoundly humane. By no means a disinterested academic, Mitchell proudly nails his colours to the mast: he is with the workers every inch of the way. But there is much more to this book than an exciting and moving reconstruction of historical events. Mitchell also provides a thoroughgoing analysis that uncovers fatal flaws in the politics of those who led the strike, flaws that prevented them from consolidating and building on their initial success, and he applies these lessons to the most important question of all: how can working class unity be achieved today, not just on single issues, but so as to transform society and consign sectarianism and the rotten political and economic system that breeds it, to the dustbin of history? This is a book to read, and then read again.”
    —Mike Milotte, award-winning journalist, former senior reporter and presenter on RTÉ s "Prime Time", and author of Communism in Modern Ireland: The Pursuit of the Worker's Republic Since 1916


    "All the binary stereotypes of Belfast's history are challenged in this extraordinary account of how a small group of working-class Communists led an uprising of tens of thousands of Protestant and Catholic unemployed in October 1932. As Mitchell so vividly shows, the Outdoor Relief Movement shook the sectarian North of Ireland statelet to its very foundations."
    —Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

    "What happened in Belfast in 1932 contradicts just about everything conventional history tells us about relations between Catholics and Protestants in the North. Only decade into the existence of the new State, the plain people of the Shankill and the Falls linked arms to fight on picket lines and in the streets for common working-class interests. The events have either been written out of history or sentimentalised so as to drain them of all political relevance. The lesson drawn by Sean Mitchell from the tumult of the time is that the North sloughs off sectarianism when people come together on a basis which has nothing to do with the community they come from but everything to do with the class they belong to. Only class politics offers a practical alternative to communal division. This is history from below, raucous, sprawling, unconstrained by the imposition of an Orange/Green paradigm on events which arose from an entirely different aspect of Belfast’s social being, bristling with intimations of a different way of political life. If the North is ever to deal with the past in a way which doesn’t divide us further, we must bring Belfast 1932 back into focus. Sean’s book makes a major contribution to this vital work."
    —Eamonn McCann- Author, journalist and Civil Rights veteran
  • “This is an important story to tell, part of our lost history. It shows that the interests workers share far outweigh the artificial divisions of sectarianism. It is brilliant that Seán Mitchell has brought these great events backs to life. It will be an inspiration to unite again in today’s struggles.”
    —Ken Loach

    "The BBC should commission a six part series of this virtually unknown story tomorrow. It has everything; the riveting contradictions of power and resistance in what was the industrial powerhouse of Belfast, unbelievable misery against the backdrop of the Great Depression, courage, cruelty, violence with the systematic barbarity of Outdoor Relief, charismatic intelligent characters deemed to be of the "low working class type", dreamers, troublemakers, ordinary citizens, up against spies, the brutality of the Specials, the Police, and the political elite, past masters of the dark arts of divide and rule. But this brilliantly researched story challenges the greatest lie of all, that the most humble and marginalised of communities cannot overcome the deadly poison of sectarianism. This story transcends Belfast, Catholic and Protestant. It is full of hope with the whiff of danger.....What happens when workers, the unemployed and their communities transcend differences of religion and identity and come together to resist those who control their lives? Perhaps that is why there are no public monuments to this epic struggle, why it has been ignored, and why the BBC won't be commissioning. But we can read this book and imagine.”
    —Paul Laverty is a Screenwriter, his films include The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Looking for Eric and Jimmy’s Hall

    “Seán Mitchell's blow by blow account of the great Belfast Outdoor Relief workers' strike of 1932 masterfully recreates the drama of events as they unfolded, telling the story as it has never been told before, and in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and profoundly humane. By no means a disinterested academic, Mitchell proudly nails his colours to the mast: he is with the workers every inch of the way. But there is much more to this book than an exciting and moving reconstruction of historical events. Mitchell also provides a thoroughgoing analysis that uncovers fatal flaws in the politics of those who led the strike, flaws that prevented them from consolidating and building on their initial success, and he applies these lessons to the most important question of all: how can working class unity be achieved today, not just on single issues, but so as to transform society and consign sectarianism and the rotten political and economic system that breeds it, to the dustbin of history? This is a book to read, and then read again.”
    —Mike Milotte, award-winning journalist, former senior reporter and presenter on RTÉ s "Prime Time", and author of Communism in Modern Ireland: The Pursuit of the Worker's Republic Since 1916


    "All the binary stereotypes of Belfast's history are challenged in this extraordinary account of how a small group of working-class Communists led an uprising of tens of thousands of Protestant and Catholic unemployed in October 1932. As Mitchell so vividly shows, the Outdoor Relief Movement shook the sectarian North of Ireland statelet to its very foundations."
    —Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

    "What happened in Belfast in 1932 contradicts just about everything conventional history tells us about relations between Catholics and Protestants in the North. Only decade into the existence of the new State, the plain people of the Shankill and the Falls linked arms to fight on picket lines and in the streets for common working-class interests. The events have either been written out of history or sentimentalised so as to drain them of all political relevance. The lesson drawn by Sean Mitchell from the tumult of the time is that the North sloughs off sectarianism when people come together on a basis which has nothing to do with the community they come from but everything to do with the class they belong to. Only class politics offers a practical alternative to communal division. This is history from below, raucous, sprawling, unconstrained by the imposition of an Orange/Green paradigm on events which arose from an entirely different aspect of Belfast’s social being, bristling with intimations of a different way of political life. If the North is ever to deal with the past in a way which doesn’t divide us further, we must bring Belfast 1932 back into focus. Sean’s book makes a major contribution to this vital work."
    —Eamonn McCann- Author, journalist and Civil Rights veteran