The Dublin Lockout of 1913 and its significance for today’s revolutionaries

24/07/2013 by socialistfight

The Dublin Lockout of 1913 and its significance
for today’s revolutionaries

By Gerry Downing, July 2013
It is a hundred years since the great Dublin Lockout of 1913; what is its significant for today’s revolutionaries, what lessons must we learn from this great mass movement and why did it fail? What material and political conditions globally and in Britain and Ireland led to the strike?

Ireland lost its bourgeois revolution in the failed uprising of 1798; union with Britain was imposed in 1801. This had profound economic and political consequences for Ireland. In the north of Ireland the Presbyterian republicans (Dissenters) were suppressed and its leaders, Henry Joy McCracken and Roddy McCorley (some 32 in all) were hanged. But they did not suffer anything like the reign of terror visited on the south, upwards of 20,000 died in the short few weeks of the revolution and the reign of terror that followed, mainly in County Wexford.

Dublin was the second city of the Empire at the time of the Act of Union in 1801. By 1913 the south was a rural backwater, taxed out of all proportion to its ability to pay, its industries and commerce suppressed, its peasantry reduced to subsistence living typified by the Great Famine of 1845-52. This was imposed by Britain, particularly the Whig/Liberal administration of Lord John Russell from 1846. They wanted to clear the land for pastures for dairy produce following the repeal of the pro-Tory Corn Laws and were satisfied to see upwards of a million starve and another million emigrate rather than divert the food exports to save them. It also had the happy consequences for them of undermining the Tory party, who gained the most from their Irish rack-rented estates.

The north was industrialised and depended on its close connections with the empire. The Presbyterian population was reintegrated into the sphere of influence of the sectarian Orange Order (of course there were always principled radical opponents) after 1798. But the populations of the southern cities were mainly unskilled labourers living often in single rooms in the centre city town houses vacated by the Ascendency ruling class as they moved to the suburbs. Infant mortality was the worst in Europe, disease, particularly the killer tuberculosis, periodically swept the tenements and ‘free labour’ vied for available work on the basis of who would work for the least. As University College Cork’s Multitext Padraig Yeats says:

There was good reason for discontent in Dublin in 1913. Unskilled workers lived in desperate poverty. Housing conditions were deplorable. Overcrowding was a serious problem, and bred disease and infection. Malnutrition was common. The death rate in Dublin (27.6 per 1000) was bad as Calcutta, and the city’s slums were amongst the worst in the world. Over 20,000 families lived in one-room dwellings. There were often more than ten families in town houses that were built for one upper-class family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These houses became dilapidated when wealthy elites left them and moved to the suburbs. The houses were often taken over by landlords who rented them out, room by room, to poor families, and they quickly became slums. There was little privacy. Facilities for cooking, cleaning, and washing were wholly inadequate. Sanitary conditions were worse. Many tenement buildings shared one lavatory in a yard.

In 1913, events occurred which made clear the dreadful conditions of poverty in Dublin. On the evening of Tuesday, 2 September 1913, at about 8.45 (just a week into the strike), two houses in Church Street suddenly collapsed, burying the occupants. The buildings were four storeys high, with shops on the ground floor. The sixteen rooms upstairs were occupied by about ten families, over forty people. Rescue parties worked through the night digging people out. Seven were killed in this disaster and many more were badly injured. [1]

Meanwhile Britain had overcome the loss of its American colonies by the inauguration of the ‘Second Empire’ from 1783–1873. Australia and New Zealand were conquered and in 1763 India was added (formally following the defeat of the Great Uprising in India 1857-1858) and Sri Lanka in the Kandian Wars between 1796 and 1818. Having defeat Napoleon in 1815 Britain grabbed the Cape Colony, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Guyana, and Malta. Irish peasants supplied much of the cannon fodder for these wars.

After the Great Depression of 1873-79 the modern global epoch of Imperialism opened. Britain’s participation in the Grab for Africa gained it the modern day lands of Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Egypt and Myanmar and Malaya in Asia. William Martin Murphy, the anti-Parnellite ex-MP and leading Dublin millionaire and chief organiser of the Lockout, had substantial interests in Africa. The 1913 map of Africa is a telling account of the politics of the age:

Politically the world had changed fundamentally from 1873 to 1913 and there is a large volume of literature analysing these changes. For revolutionaries the fundamentals are summed up in Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest stage of Capitalism (1916). In a few sentences the differences are that capitalism is now dominated by huge industrial and financial monopolies, these finance houses dominate the globe in this alliance and capital is now exported to colonies to extract super profits from brutally exploited sweated labour. The rise of organised labour in the metropolitan countries has made this necessary and an aristocracy of Labour had arisen here who accepted colonialism and later semi-colonialism as the sources of wealth that will buy off this skilled layer of workers. The Reform Act of 1867 extended the franchise and so made the trade union branch secretary the object of the attention of politicians seeking his members’ votes.  This saw the development of the trade union bureaucracy as a career-orientated middle class layer who welcomed the booty of empire as the source of their privileges.

The partial gains made in the New Unionism of the late 1880s when the unskilled labour forced their way into political consideration in the Bryant and May’s ‘Match Girls’ strike of 1888 and the ‘Dockers’ Tanner’ strike of 1889 led to the formation of the Labour party eventually. But the TU bureaucracy controlled the movement; thus the Labour party was a pro-Imperialist party from the outset reliant on the booty of empire for its gains for themselves and for the labour aristocracy, the upper layers of the British working class. Ireland’s 1913 Lockout fundamentally challenged this.

James Connolly understood all this background only too well: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs”. Shan Van Vocht (socialist newspaper) January, 1897. Reprinted in P. Beresford Ellis (ed.), “James Connolly – Selected Writings”, p. 124.James Larkin

What made the Lockout different from and yet part of the Great Unrest that swept Britain and its Irish colony in the half decade before WWI?
It is the nature of the workforce the south of Ireland in 1913, particularly in Dublin, and its political and economic history that set this strike apart as different from the Great Unrest in Britain itself. But it was also very much a part of that great industrial movement. Falling wages and rising prices were destroying the living standards of the British working class in the decade before 1911, when the Great Unrest began. Cynical trade union leaders sold out strikes and negotiated compromises detrimental to their membership to offset the loss of international markets to the more efficient rising capitalist powers of Germany and the USA, very much as they have done today since 1985 defeat of the miners’ strike.

A layer of women and young workers lost confidence in the TU leaders and began to embrace the politics of syndicalism whose most prominent members were Tom Mann and Jim Larkin. The movement grew to revolutionary proportions, embracing miners, dockers, seafarers, railway workers and even school students. 961,000 workers took strike action in 1911. Asquith’s Liberal government sent warships to the Mersey in 1911 and Churchill notoriously sent troops to Tonypandy to put down the riots of 1910 and 1911 and prevent the strike from winning.

Jim Larkin is often cited as a typical example of the syndicalist leaders of his day. In one way he was but in another he was very different. Larkin supplemented his syndicalism with revolutionary socialism and Irish republicanism, often in a very contradictory way. Most syndicalists simply wanted to improve the conditions of workers under capitalism and this meant accepting the booty of Empire, including the super-profits gleaned from Ireland. In 1907 he had organised a successful strike in Belfast as an official of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), whose general secretary James Sexton who had been a Fenian. But Sexton had become a British TU bureaucrat pure and simple, a defender of the status quo and Larkin’s talk of revolution disturbed him greatly. He expelled Larkin in 1908 on a trumped up charged of embezzling union funds he used for a strike in Cork, for which he later had him jailed. Larkin correctly immediately formed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and broke from the British TUC because he recognised the social chauvinism of Sexton and his likes in Britain.

The ITGWU now began using the revolutionary tactics Larkin had developed in Belfast and which became integral to the Great Unrest itself; sympathy strikes and blacking, very militant pickets against scabs and inspiring propaganda for socialism and revolution. More importantly the ITGWU began organising women workers and the unskilled in the same union as skilled men. The conservative principles of the labour aristocracy were breached and the class was acting as one unit in defence of its weakest members – it was now truly a class for itself, a condition that had never been fully achieved in Britain itself despite the New Unionism and the Great Unrest. Here they had turned this great potential into the safer realms of the Labour party and parliament. Instead of using parliament as a means to develop the cause of the working class in revolution it quickly became apparent that it was a substitute for this; they simply wanted to advance the cause of the working through parliament, they said. It quickly became apparent that their ‘cause’ had now become their own careers as servants and administrators of the capitalist system.

TUC and Ben Tillett Betrays the Dublin strikers.
But syndicalism was no answer to the treachery of class-collaborating TU bureaucrats. A rejection of corrupt leadership with no strategy to replace them meant no leadership at all, no political perspective and no solution to the question of the state and its unbending allegiance to the capitalist class. On this rock the Great Unrest foundered and sections of the British ruling class welcomed WWI because of (probably unfounded) fears of its revival. Matters were different in Ireland.

Two more cases that illustrate the treachery of the British TU leaders are Ben Tillett and Arthur Henderson. As Laurence Humphries noted in his review Rebel City by John Newsinger: With Many Dublin workers locked out and their families starving, there was support from British workers who sent £50,000 worth of food parcels to the ITGWU and its supporters. The leadership tried to secure a compromise settlement, but as Newsinger observes, the Dublin employers led by Murphy “did not want to inflict defeat on the ITGWU, but to completely destroy it”. Larkin came to Britain. There was tremendous solidarity support in Manchester. 130 NUR rail union branches called for action. In South Wales, rail workers and dockers went out on unofficial Strike.

The response of the TUC leadership was to head off the movement and they called a special conference. Newsinger criticises Larkin for agreeing to the TUC conference and feels that unofficial action would have resolved the situation. He says: “The union leaders would have been carried along by the momentum of the movement.” But he produces no evidence to back this assertion.

On 9 December 1913 the TUC Special Conference met and predictably there was a sell-out and betrayal of the Dublin strikers. As Newsinger comments, talking about the reason for calling the conference: “In reality it was to decide what was to be done about Larkin.”

Ben Tillett, the dockers leader who Larkin had considered a fellow supporter, “wielded the knife that struck the fatal blow”. This final decision not to support the Dublin workers led to defeat and intimidation with the full weight of the state used against the ITGWU’s members. [2]

Tillett went on to support WWI and denounced those Labour leaders like Keir Hardy and Ramsey McDonald who opposed the war and failed to as act as recruiting sergeants for the killing fields of France, showing his essential Empire loyalism. So the treachery of the left bureaucrat should come as no surprise. Arthur Henderson was another matter, no one expected him to do any other as a right winger but what this former trade union leader and now leader of the Labour party did astonished even his closest followers. He entered the cabinet in 1914 under Asquith, precisely to act as a recruiting sergeant for the war, then became a member of the small War Cabinet under Lloyd George in 1916 and approved the death sentences on the 1916 Easter Rising leaders, including on fellow socialist and trade unionist James Connolly. Reportedly he led the cheering in the House of Commons when it was reported that the executions had begun.Griffiths argued in favour of a dual monarchy for Britain and Ireland.

Arthur Griffiths, pre-1916-Sinn Fein and the Irish Parliamentary party Also bitterly opposed to the Lockout were the right wing dual-monarchist nationalist of pre-1916 Sinn Fein led by Arthur Griffiths. In the blog Work in Progress Political World Flower, in response to a laudatory obituary on the 90th anniversary of Griffith’s death, makes the following observations on his politics:

Griffiths backed the employers during the 1913 lock-out – attacking Larkin and the ITGWU for ‘undermining Irish trade’ and accused Larkin of being a British saboteur and demanded that he be removed as leader of the ITGWU. Regularly during the period from 1919-1922 Griffith backed the use of the IRA against striking workers. Indeed one of his last actions was to meet with Farmers leader Laffin during the farm labourers strike in East Limerick and ordered the IRA to declare martial law and break the strike.

Some of the more enlightening pieces written by Griffith: An intro to (John) Mitchel’s Jail Journal: “His (Mitchel’s) demolition of the “moral basis” of the Abolitionist case in his trenchant letters to the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. […] In the essential work of dissevering the case for Irish independence from theories of humanitarianism and universalism. […] Even his views on negro-slavery have been deprecatingly excused, as if excuse were needed for an Irish Nationalist declining to hold the negro his peer in right. […] The right of the Irish to political independence never was, is not and never can be dependent on the right of the admission of equal rights in all other peoples”.

His anti-Semitism was long-standing: “The Three Evil Influences of the century are the Pirate, the Freemason, and the Jew” (United Irishman, 23 Sept. 1899): ‘’(In) all countries in all Christian ages he has been a usurer and a grinder of the poor … The Jew in Ireland is in every respect an economic evil. He produces no wealth himself – he draws it from others – he is the most successful seller of foreign goods, he is an unfair competitor with the rate-paying Irish shopkeeper, and he remains among us, ever and always alien.” (The United Irishman, April 23rd 1904.)[3]

In fact the Irish Parliamentary party, whilst no friends of Larkin, had a long running feud with William Martin Murphy going back to his pro-British anti-Parnell stance and so took a more neutral position. As the Padraig Yeates explains: “The Irish Parliamentary Party, whose members were mostly middle-class and drew their support from the farming community, was hostile to the strike. Even those who felt sympathy for the plight of the striking workers feared that the strike and lockout would distract attention from what, to them, was the much more serious struggle with Carson’s Ulster Unionists. John Dillon, Redmond’s second-in-command, expressed the party’s exasperation with the Lockout when he wrote: “Murphy is a desperate character, Larkin is as bad. It would be a blessing for Ireland if they exterminated each other”.[4]

And what effect did the strike have on the radical petty-bourgeois leaders of Irish nationalism: Yeates again: “Murphy would have broken the tramway strike relatively quickly except for two things. One was Bloody Sunday, which enraged liberal as well as socialist opinion in Britain, as well as Ireland, and the other was his determination to break the ITGWU through the use of the Lockout tactic. There were many unintended consequences of this strategy. One of the most paradoxical was that the aid from Britain and the interference that came with it propelled separatist tendencies within the Dublin trade unions. Another was that radical nationalists, already becoming disillusioned with the Redmondite project, saw the behaviour of the nationalist ruling elite in waiting as confirming all their worst fears. Far from being repulsed by Larkinism they sympathised with it. W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and AE (George Russell) all sided with the workers, as did every signatory of the 1916 Proclamation.

The power of the Catholic Church, demonstrated by the ruthlessness with which it suppressed the Dublin Kiddies Scheme, gave Southern Unionists a foretaste of what Home Rule would be like. The outcome of that battle gave fair warning that the rights of parents and children would be secondary to those of the Hierarchy in an independent Ireland. [5]

The course of the strike
The beginning and course of the strike is well known and we will only sketch it in outline here from by Padraig Yeates: “Shortly after 10.00 a.m. on Tuesday, 26 August 1913—the first day of the Dublin Horse Show, one of the city’s busiest events—drivers and conductors stopped their trams and abandoned them in protest. About 700 of the 1,700 Tramways Company’s employees went on strike. The city was filled with tension on the days following. Strikers resented the workers who continued to operate the trams, and fights often took place between them. Workers who usually distributed the Irish Independent—[owned by Murphy] though not employed by Murphy—refused to handle it in protest. Messrs. Eason and Co., the large city newsagents, were asked by Larkin not to sell the paper. They refused. As a result dock-workers at Kingstown (Dún Longhaire) refused to handle any Eason and Co. goods from England or addressed to England”.

Murphy, also appealing for support, issued a statement on behalf of over 400 employers that repeated his opposition to the ITGWU. The employers drew up a pledge for workers, which stated that they were not, and would not become, members of the proscribed Union: “I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers, and further, I agree to immediately resign my membership of the ITGWU (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not join or in any way support this union”.

Those who refused to sign would be dismissed. Angered by this document, thousands of workers refused to sign. Many who were not even members of the ITGWU, could not sign it in conscience, even though they had no dealings with Larkin or his Union. James Connolly wrote of one such case: “A labourer was asked to sign the agreement forswearing the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and he told his employer, a small capitalist builder, that he refused to sign. The employer, knowing the man’s circumstances, reminded him that he had a wife and six children who would be starving within a week. The reply of this humble labourer rose to the heights of sublimity. ‘It is true, sir’, he said, ‘they will starve; but I would rather see them go out on in their coffins than I should disgrace them by signing that’. And with head erect he walked out to share hunger and privation with his loved ones. Hunger and privation—and honour. Defeat, bah! How can such a people be defeated? His case is typical of thousands more”.

Chronology of the Strike and Lockout
26 August 1913. The strike began. Tram workers deserted their vehicles in protest when William Martin Murphy forbade employees of his Tramways Company to be members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. 28 August. Larkin and other labour leaders were arrested on the following charges: seditious speaking and seditious intent to break the public peace, and to spread hatred towards the Government. They were released later that day.

 29 August. Official proclamation issued prohibiting the proposed meeting in Sackville St (now O’Connell St) on 31 August. Great meeting in Beresford Place. Before 10,000 people, Larkin burned the Government proclamation prohibiting the gathering.

 30 August. Police issued a warrant for Larkin’s arrest for using seditious language inciting people to riot and to pillage shops. Riots in Ringsend, Beresford Place, and Eden Quay, during which the police baton-charged the crowds and injured many protestors. James Nolan, caught in the riots, died from injuries received from police.

 31 August. Although warned by the police not to attend the planned mass meeting, Larkin appeared in the window of the Imperial Hotel, in disguise, to address the huge crowd assembled. He was immediately arrested, and a riot followed. There were riots throughout the city that night.

 2 September. The Dublin Coal Merchants’ Association locked out members of the ITGWU. Two tenement houses collapsed in Church Street, causing the immediate death of seven persons and serious injury to others.

 8 October. Serious riots occurred in Swords, Co. Dublin when striking workers tried to prevent farmers bringing cattle to market. Police and civilians were injured.

 14 October. In response to the Commissioners’ Report, the Employers’ Federation announced that they would end the Lockout only if the ITGWU were completely reorganised, under new leadership, and that they would not promise to reinstate every worker because they would not fire workers who replaced those on strike.

 16 October. A crowd of about 4000 striking workers marched through the city to protest at the employers’ statement.

 20 October. Archbishop William Walsh condemned the plan to send children of strikers to England for the duration of the strike.

 21 October. The first group of children set sail for England, amidst loud protests from angry crowds at the ports.

12 November. Labourers in Dublin port stopped work.

18 December. Representatives of workers and employers met again to try to reach agreement but discussions ended two days later because of disagreement about the reinstatement of workers who had been on strike.

December 1913 & January 1914. Striking workers gradually began to return to work and the Lockout ended by degrees. [6]

And how did the Lockout affect James Connolly? Together with Larkin he was inspired by the support for the strike by the rank and file of the British trade union movement, who sent tons of food and took sympathetic strike action when they could. Connolly’s political education came in the Socialist League, a split from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Eleanor Marx was a member and Frederick Engels was their mentor. He was also secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, affiliated to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led by Kier Hardie. Connolly moved to Dublin with his family in 1896 and founded the Irish Socialist Republican party and published the Workers Republic. He immigrated to the US from 1903 to 1910 (a move he later regretted) and fell under the influence of Daniel De Leon and the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist group.

He read what little of Karl Marx’s works were available in English, he certainly understood the Labour Theory of value, for instance. He it was that tried to meld the theory of the socialist revolution led by the working class to the fight against British Imperialism in Ireland and recognised the need for an insurrection to overthrow British and capitalist rule in Ireland. In that sense he had developed a version of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, not only must any revolution today be led by the working class to be successful but also that revolution must be a socialist revolution; Connolly’s Workers Republic.

True he had not developed theory to the level of the revolutionary Marxist movement in Germany and Russia at the time but he was far in advance of any British self-declared revolutionary with the possible exception of Scotland’s John McLane. He did tend to identify the national question and the socialist revolution as the same thing which was a weakness in regard to the Irish capitalist class, whom he accused of essentially being a foreign imposition. He meant literally that “the cause of labour is the case of Ireland” as well as its corollary, “the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour”. Neither Connolly nor Larkin were atheists but both were strongly anti-clerical in that they recognised the baneful influence of the Bishops on the Irish workers and made strong propaganda against them. Neither can be regarded as Marxists but their subjective revolutionary instincts in those years were unparalleled although Larkin drifted to the right in the period of reaction in Ireland following the counterrevolution led by Collins, Griffiths and the ‘free staters’ in 1922-23 and after. [7] 

Larkin had been very successful in building his new union from 1908 to 1913 and this success forced the hand of his greatest enemy, William Martin Murphy, the leading capitalist in Dublin who began the Lockout himself on 26 August 1913 when he decreed that no ITGWU member could work for his Tramways Company. Eventually some 25,000 workers were in battle against 300 employers led by Murphy. Five strikers were killed and thousands injured in the brutal confrontations with scabs and the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

Connolly co-founded the Irish Labour Party with Jim Larkin and William O’Brien in 1912 as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress. The latter had been founded in 1894 as a consequence of the British TUC continually ignoring Irish issues, even those pertaining to craft unionism. The new organisation was called the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC). However the body remained dominated by craft unions that were mainly Irish branches of British-based unions, with the bulk of these located in the north. To maintain unity political issues were never discussed. Only with the arrival of Larkin and Connolly’s participation did the balance of power shift in this uncomfortably compromised organisation from the craft to the industrial and therefore from the north to the south. This advance was apparent in the ITUC programme adopted in 1914 for, “the abolition of the capitalist system of wealth production with its inherent injustice and poverty.” Syndicalism was the means to accomplish this aim. It was to be a short-lived victory; the conservative craft unionism could not be defeated by syndicalism; it reappeared in 1916 in Sligo when Congress President Thomas Johnson had delegates standing in respect for those who had died in the Rising and in “foreign fields”. An ominous indication of its future role in Irish society was the fact that it took no part in the Lockout; Connolly and Larkin were left to fight without official backing for fear of alienating craft unionism, overwhelmingly Loyalist.

The Lockout ended in defeat for the striking workers but the ITGWU continued to fight and gradually the men and women rejoined the union and it rapidly grew again. The employers had no stomach for another lockout so the result was really a draw, in James Connolly’s words: “The battle was a drawn battle. The employers were unable to carry on their business without men and women who remained loyal to their union. The workers were unable to force their employers to a formal recognition of the union and to give preference to organised labour. From the effects of this drawn battle both sides are still bearing scars. How deep these scars are none will reveal”. 

James Connolly and Jack White, an ex-British officer, founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) in 1913 in response to police violence against the Lockout. This was the first and only armed workers’ militia in Britain and Ireland, reflecting the revolutionary spirit of that age in Ireland.  Although numbering a few hundred they remained intact after the defeat of the Lockout and adopted as their goal an independent and socialist Irish nation. This was the vehicle which propelled Connolly into the 1916 Easter Rising. Connolly had become convinced that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity and that an armed uprising for a Workers Republic was only possible during the war. He was bitterly disappointed with the betrayals of the German and British trade union and Socialist leaders in particular who had abandoned all their previous opposition to war and pledges to turn the war into a civil war and voted war credits and entered war cabinets to support their own capitalists in slaughtering other workers similarly betrayed by their leaders.

[1] Yeates, Padraig. UCC Multitext:

[2] Rebel City – Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin labour movement John Newsinger, Merlin Press £14.95
[3] Flower, C. 12/08/2012, John Mitchell, a Fenian leader, fought for the Southern salve owners in the American Civil War and he clearly believed in their ‘cause’.
[4] Yeates, Padraig. Opus cit.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] See Connolly A Marxist Analysis, by Andy Johnson, James Larragy, and Edward McWilliams for a detailed analysis of Connolly’s political evolution and beliefs.

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