Larkin, c. 1910
June 1943 – May 1944
July 1937 – June 1938
September 1927 – September 1927
|Born||21 January 1876|
|Died||30 January 1947 (aged 71)|
|Resting place||Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin|
|Political party||Independent Labour Party (from 1893)|
Labour Party (1912–23; 1941–47)
Socialist Party of America (1914–19)
Irish Worker League (1923–27)
|Children||James Larkin Jnr|
|Relatives||Delia Larkin (Sister)|
|Occupation||Docker, Labour leader, Socialist activist, Trade union leader|
|Allegiance||Irish Citizen Army|
|Years of service||1913–1947|
|Rank||Commandant General (absent during Easter Rising command assumed by James Connolly)|
James Larkin (21 January 1876 – 30 January 1947), sometimes known as Jim Larkin, was an Irish republican, socialist and trade union leader. He was one of the founders of the Irish Labour Party, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU), the Workers' Union of Ireland (the two unions later merged to become SIPTU, Ireland's largest trade union) and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA; a paramilitary group which was integral to both the Dublin Lockout and the Easter Rising).
Larkin was born to Irish parents in Liverpool, England. He and his family later moved to a small cottage in Burren, southern County Down. Growing up in poverty, he received little formal education and began working in a variety of jobs while still a child. He became a full-time trade union organiser in 1905. Larkin moved to Belfast in 1907, but is perhaps best known for his role in the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Not long after the lockout, Larkin assumed direct command of the ICA, and later travelled to America to raise funds for the ITGWU. During his time in America, Larkin became involved in the socialist movement there, becoming a member of the Socialist Party of America. After being jailed in 1920 in the US for 'criminal anarchy', he was pardoned in 1923 and later deported, and returned to Ireland where he again became involved in Irish socialism and politics, both in the Labour Party and the Irish Worker League. Larkin served as a Teachta Dála on three occasions, and died in 1947. The ICA escorted his funeral procession through Dublin in its last public appearance.
Larkin was respected by several commentators during and after his lifetime, with George Bernard Shaw describing him as the "greatest Irishman since Parnell", and his friend and colleague in the labour movement James Connolly describing him as a "man of genius, of splendid vitality, great in his conceptions, magnificent in his courage". Other commentators have noted that Larkin was "vilified as a wrecker by former comrades", with anthologist Donal Nevin noting that some of Larkin's actions, including his attacks on others in the labour movement, meant Larkin had "alienated practically all the leaders of the movement [and] the mass of trade union members" by the mid-1920s.
Larkin was born on 21 January 1876 the second eldest son of Irish emigrants, James Larkin and Mary Ann McNulty, both from County Armagh. The impoverished Larkin family lived in the slums of Liverpool during the early years of his life. From the age of seven, he attended school in the mornings and worked in the afternoons to supplement the family income, a common arrangement in working-class families at the time. At the age of fourteen, after the death of his father, he was apprenticed to the firm his father had worked for, but was dismissed after two years. He was unemployed for a time and then worked as a sailor and docker. By 1903, he was a dock foreman, and on 8 September of that year, he married Elizabeth Brown.
From 1893, Larkin developed an interest in socialism and became a member of the Independent Labour Party. In 1905, he was one of the few foremen to take part in a strike on the Liverpool docks. He was elected to the strike committee, and although he lost his foreman's job as a result, his performance so impressed the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) that he was appointed a temporary organiser. He later gained a permanent position with the union, which, in 1906, sent him to Scotland, where he successfully organised workers in Preston and Glasgow. Larkin campaigned against Chinese immigration, presenting it as a threat that would undercut workers, leading processions in 1906 in Liverpool with fifty dockers dressed as 'Chinamen', wearing faux-'pigtails' and wearing powder to provide a 'yellow countenance'.
Organising Irish labour movement (1907–14)
In January 1907, Larkin undertook his first task on behalf of the trade union movement in Ireland, when he arrived in Belfast to organise the city's dock workers for the NUDL. He succeeded in unionising the workforce, and as employers refused to meet the wage demands, he called the dockers out on strike in June. Carters and coal men soon joined in, the latter settling their dispute after a month. Larkin succeeded in uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and even persuaded the local Royal Irish Constabulary to strike at one point, but the strike ended by November without having achieved significant success. Tensions regarding leadership arose between Larkin and NUDL general secretary James Sexton. The latter's handling of negotiations and agreement to a disastrous settlement for the last of the strikers resulted in a lasting rift between Sexton and Larkin.
In 1908, Larkin moved south and organised workers in Dublin, Cork and Waterford, with considerable success. His involvement, against union instructions, in a dispute in Dublin resulted in his expulsion from the NUDL. The union later prosecuted him for diverting union funds to give strike pay to Cork workers engaged in an unofficial dispute. After trial and conviction for embezzlement in 1910, he was sentenced to prison for a year. This was widely regarded as unjust, and the Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, pardoned him after he had served three months in prison. Also in 1908, Arthur Griffith during the Dublin carter's strike described Larkin as an "Englishman importing foreign political disruption into this country and putting native industry at risk".
After his expulsion from the NUDL, Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) at the end of December 1908. The organisation exists today as the Services Industrial Professional & Technical Union (SIPTU). It quickly gained the affiliation of the NUDL branches in Dublin, Cork, Dundalk, Waterford and Sligo. The Derry and Drogheda NUDL branches stayed with the British union, and Belfast split along sectarian lines. Early in the new year, 1909, Larkin moved to Dublin, which became the main base of the ITGWU and the focus of all his future union activity in Ireland.
In June 1911, Larkin established a newspaper, The Irish Worker and People's Advocate, as a pro-labour alternative to the capitalist-owned press. This organ was characterised by a campaigning approach and the denunciation of unfair employers and of Larkin's political enemies. Its columns also included pieces by intellectuals. The paper was produced until its suppression by the authorities in 1915. Afterwards, the Worker metamorphosed into the new Ireland Echo.
In partnership with James Connolly, Larkin helped form the Irish Labour Party in 1912. Later that year, he was elected to Dublin Corporation. He did not hold his seat long, as a month later he was removed because he had a criminal record from his conviction in 1910.
Dublin Lockout, 1913
In early 1913, Larkin achieved some successes in industrial disputes in Dublin and, notably, in the Sligo Dock strike; these involved frequent recourse to sympathetic strikes and blacking (boycotting) of goods. Two major employers, Guinness and the Dublin United Tramway Company, were the main targets of Larkin's organising ambitions. Both had craft unions for skilled workers, but Larkin's main aim was to unionise the unskilled workers as well. He coined the slogan "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay".
Guinness staff were relatively well-paid and enjoyed generous benefits from a paternalistic management that refused to join a lockout of unionised staff by virtually all the major Dublin employers. This was far from the case on the tramways.
The chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company, industrialist and newspaper proprietor William Martin Murphy, was determined not to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce. On 15 August, he dismissed 40 workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week. On 26 August 1913, the tramway workers officially went on strike. Led by Murphy, over 400 of the city's employers retaliated by requiring their workers to sign a pledge not to be a member of the ITGWU and not to engage in sympathetic strikes.
The resulting industrial dispute was the most severe in Ireland's history. Employers in Dublin engaged in a sympathetic lockout of their workers when the latter refused to sign the pledge, employing blackleg labour from Britain and from elsewhere in Ireland. Guinness, the largest employer in Dublin, refused the employers' call to lock out its workers but it sacked 15 workers who struck in sympathy. Dublin's workers, amongst the poorest in the whole of what was then the Great Britain and Ireland, were forced to survive on generous but inadequate donations from the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and sources in Ireland, distributed by the ITGWU.
For seven months the lockout affected tens of thousands of Dublin workers and employers, with Larkin portrayed as the villain by Murphy's three main newspapers, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and the Evening Herald, and by other bourgeois publications in Ireland.
Other leaders in the ITGWU at the time were James Connolly and William X. O'Brien; influential figures such as Patrick Pearse, Constance Markievicz and William Butler Yeats supported the workers in the generally anti-Larkin Irish press. The Irish Worker published the names and addresses of strike-breakers, the Irish Independent published the names and addresses of men and women who attempted to send their children out of the city to be cared for in foster homes in Belfast and Britain. However, Larkin never resorted to violence. He knew it would play into the hands of the anti-union companies, and that he could not build a mass trade union by wrecking the firms where his members worked.
When a meeting called by Larkin for Sunday 31 August 1913 was proscribed, Constance Markievicz and her husband Casimir disguised Larkin in Casimir's frock coat and trousers and stage makeup and beard, and Nellie Gifford, who was unknown to the police, led him into William Martin Murphy's Imperial Hotel, pretending to be her stooped, deaf old clergyman uncle (to disguise his instantly recognisable Liverpool accent). Larkin tore off his beard inside the hotel and raced to a balcony, where he shouted his speech to the crowd below. The police – some 300 Royal Irish Constabulary reinforcing Dublin Metropolitan Police – savagely baton-charged the crowd, injuring between 400 and 600 people. MP Handel Booth, who was present, said that the police "behaved like men possessed. They drove the crowd into the side streets to meet other batches of the government's minions, wildly striking with their truncheons at everyone within reach ... The few roughs got away first, most respectable people left their hats and crawled away with bleeding heads. Kicking victims when prostrate was a settled part of the police programme." Larkin went into hiding, charged with incitement to breach the peace. James Connolly was arrested and told the authorities "I do not recognise the English government in Ireland at all. I do not even recognise the King except when I am compelled to do so".
The violence at union rallies during the strike prompted Larkin to call for a workers' militia to be formed to protect themselves against the police, thus Larkin, James Connolly, and Jack White created the Irish Citizen Army. The Citizen Army for the duration of the lock-out was armed with hurleys (sticks used in hurling, a traditional Irish sport) and bats to protect workers' demonstrations from the police. Jack White, a former Captain in the British Army, volunteered to train this army and offered £50 towards the cost of shoes to workers so that they could train. In addition to its role as a self-defence organisation, the Army, which was drilled in Croydon Park in Fairview by White, provided a diversion for workers unemployed and idle during the dispute.
The lock-out eventually concluded in early 1914 when calls by Connolly and Larkin for a sympathetic strike in Britain were rejected by the British TUC. Larkin's attacks on the TUC leadership for this stance also led to the cessation of financial aid to the ITGWU, which in any case was not affiliated to the TUC.
Although the actions of the ITGWU and the smaller UBLU were unsuccessful in achieving substantially better pay and conditions for the workers, they marked a watershed in Irish labour history. The principle of union action and workers' solidarity had been firmly established. Perhaps even more importantly, Larkin's rhetoric condemning poverty and injustice and calling for the oppressed to stand up for themselves made a lasting impression.
In the US (1914–23)
Some months after the lockout ended, Larkin left for the United States. He intended to recuperate from the strain of the lockout and raise funds for the union. His decision to leave dismayed many union activists.
Once there he became a member of the Socialist Party of America and was involved in the Industrial Workers of the World union (the Wobblies). Within days of arriving in the country, he addressed a crowd of 15,000 people gathered at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the election of Socialist candidate Meyer London to the United States House of Representatives. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union and was expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1919 along with numerous other sympathisers of the Bolsheviks during the Red Scare of that year.
Larkin was reported as having helped to disrupt Allied munitions shipments in New York City during World War I. In 1937, he voluntarily assisted US lawyers investigating the Black Tom explosion by providing an affidavit from his home in Dublin. According to British Army Intelligence officer, Henry Landau:
Larkin testified that he himself never took part in the actual sabotage campaign but, rather, confined himself to the organising of strikes to secure both higher pay and shorter hours for workmen and to prevent the shipment of munitions to the Allies.
Larkin's speeches in support of the Soviet Union, his association with founding members of the American Communist Party, and his radical publications made him a target of the "First Red Scare" that was sweeping the US; he was arrested on 7 November 1919 for 'criminal anarchy', and sentenced to five to ten years in Sing Sing prison. In 1923, he was pardoned and later deported by Al Smith, Governor of New York.
Return to Ireland and communist activism
Upon his return to Ireland in April 1923, Larkin received a hero's welcome and immediately set about touring the country meeting trade union members and appealing for an end to the Irish Civil War. However, he soon found himself at variance with William X. O'Brien, who in his absence had become the leading figure in the ITGWU and the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress. Larkin was still officially general secretary of the ITGWU. The ITGWU leaders (Thomas Foran, William O'Brien, Thomas Kennedy: all colleagues of Larkin during the Lockout) sued him. Their counsel told the court that Larkin had justified the occupation by false and malicious attacks on their characters to oust them and to gain sole control of the union. The Master of the Rolls, presiding, declared: "It is surprising that a man of Mr Larkin's intelligence should launch so desperate an invective against these people for irregularities, in the misapplication of funds and the falsification of documents, when I have before me a document which bears the name of James Larkin, which has been proved to be a misstatement." Larkin's "misstatement" asserted that the Transport Union had £1,746.69 in the Hibernian Bank in December 1913, but the union account was completely empty. Moreover, since all relevant union account books had mysteriously been destroyed, no explanation for the missing money was possible. The court duly found against Larkin, ordering him to pay the costs of both sides. The bitterness of the court case between the former organisers of the 1913 Lockout would last over 20 years.
In September 1923, Larkin formed the Irish Worker League (IWL), which was soon afterwards recognised by the Comintern as the Irish section of the world communist movement. In 1924 Larkin attended the Comintern congress in Moscow and was elected to its executive committee. On his return, Larkin announced that he had addressed some 20 million Russians, having been elected as one of "the 25 men to govern the world" and boasted that he had been appointed a Chief of Battalion of the Red Army, whose 2.5 million men had "pledged to come to the assistance of Irish workers". However, the League was not organised as a political party, never held a general congress and never succeeded in being politically effective. Its most prominent activity in its first year was to raise funds for imprisoned members of the Anti-Treaty IRA.
During Larkin's absence at the 1924 Comintern Congress (and apparently against his instructions), his brother Peter took his supporters out of the ITGWU, forming the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). The new union quickly grew, gaining the allegiance of about two-thirds of the Dublin membership of the ITGWU and of a smaller number of rural members. It affiliated to the pro-Soviet Red International of Labour Unions.
Larkin launched a vicious attack on the Labour leader, Tom Johnson, who like Larkin, was Liverpool-born. But whereas Johnson had spent most of his life in Ireland, Larkin had been as long in the US as he had in Ireland. Larkin said that it was "time that Labour dealt with this English traitor. If they don't get rid of this scoundrel, they'll get the bullet and the bayonet in reward. There's nothing for it, but a dose of the lead which Johnson promises to those who look for work". This implied incitement to murder Johnson in a still-violent post-Civil War country resulted in the court awarding Johnson £1000 in libel damages against Larkin. In his 2006 biographical anthology, Donal Nevin noted that his attacks on colleagues in the labour movement, including those the subject of this libel action, meant that Larkin "alienated practically all the leaders of the movement [and] the mass of trade union members".
In January 1925, the Comintern sent Communist Party of Great Britain activist Bob Stewart to Ireland to establish a communist party in co-operation with Larkin. A formal founding conference of the Irish Worker League, which was to take up this role, was set for May 1925. A fiasco ensued when the organisers discovered at the last minute that Larkin did not intend to attend. Feeling that the proposed party could not succeed without him, they called the conference off as it was due to start in a packed room in the Mansion House, Dublin.
At the September 1927 general election, Larkin ran (a huge surprise for all) in Dublin North and was elected. However, as a result of a libel award against him won by William O'Brien, which he had refused to pay, he was an undischarged bankrupt and could not take up his seat.
Larkin was unsuccessful in his attempts in the following years to gain a position as a commercial agent in Ireland for the Soviet Union, which may have contributed to his disenchantment with Stalinism. The Soviets, for their part, were increasingly impatient with what they saw as his ineffective leadership. From the early 1930s, Larkin drew away from the Soviet Union. While in the 1932 general election, he stood, without success, as a communist and in 1933 and subsequently, he ran as "Independent Labour". In 1934, he gave important evidence on the 1916 Black Tom explosion to John J. McCloy, allowing a case for damages against Germany to be reopened; presumably because of Germany's new Nazi government.
During this period he also engaged in a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. In 1936, he regained his seat on Dublin Corporation. He then regained his Dáil seat at the 1937 general election but lost it again the following year. In that period, the Workers' Union of Ireland also entered the mainstream of the trade union movement, being admitted to the Dublin Trades Council in 1936, but the Irish Trades Union Congress would not accept its membership application until 1945.
Return to Labour Party
In 1941, a new trade union bill was published by the Government. Inspired by an internal trade union restructuring proposal by William O'Brien, it was viewed as a threat by the smaller general unions and the Irish branches of British unions (known as the 'amalgamated unions'). Larkin and the WUI played a leading role in the unsuccessful campaign against the bill. After its passage into law, he and his supporters successfully applied for admission to the Labour Party, where they were now regarded with more sympathy by many members. O'Brien in response disaffiliated the ITGWU from the party, forming the rival National Labour Party and denouncing what he claimed was communist influence in Labour. Larkin later served as a Labour Party deputy in Dáil Éireann from 1943 to 1944.
James Larkin died in his sleep, on 30 January 1947 in the Meath Hospital. Fr Aloysius Travers, OFM (who had administered last rites to James Connolly in 1916) also administered extreme unction to Larkin. His funeral mass was celebrated by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who had visited him in hospital before he died, and thousands lined the streets of the city as the hearse passed through on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery.
Larkin remained a Catholic throughout his life, and asserted there was no inherent conflict between his religious views and his politics:
There is no antagonism between the Cross and socialism! A man can pray to Jesus the Carpenter, and be a better socialist for it. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between the vision of Marx and the vision of Christ. I stand by the Cross and I stand by Karl Marx. Both Capital and the Bible are to me Holy Books
Larkin has been the subject of poems by Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor, Donagh MacDonagh and Lola Ridge; his character has been central in plays by Daniel Corkery, George Russell (Æ), and Seán O'Casey; and he is a heroic figure in the background of James Plunkett's novel Strumpet City and Lyn Andrews' Where the Mersey Flows.
James Larkin was memorialised by the New York Irish rock band Black 47, in their song The Day They Set Jim Larkin Free, and Donagh MacDonagh's The Ballad of James Larkin was recorded by Christy Moore and also the Dubliners. Paddy Reilly sings a song simply entitled Jim Larkin that describes the lot of the worker and their appreciation of the changes made by Larkin and Connolly. The song The Lockout by Joe O' Sullivan describes Larkin's organisation of workers which led to the Dublin Lockout of 1913.
Today a statue of "Big Jim" stands on O'Connell Street in Dublin. Completed by Oisín Kelly, and unveiled in 1979, the inscription on the front of the monument is an extract in French, Irish and English from one of his famous speeches:
Les grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux: Levons-nous.
Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal: Éirímis.
The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.
The slogan, first used on the 18th century French radical paper Révolutions de Paris, also appeared on the masthead of the Workers' Republic, founded by James Connolly in Dublin in August 1898. Originally the organ of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, this periodical later became the official organ of the Communist Party of Ireland, which was founded in 1921. The original slogan is usually attributed to Camille Desmoulins (1760–1794), the French revolutionary; but it appears, only slightly modified, in an essay written by Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) and first published in 1576.
On the west side of the base of the Larkin monument is a quotation from the poem Jim Larkin by Patrick Kavanagh:
And Tyranny trampled them in Dublin's gutter
Until Jim Larkin came along and cried
The call of Freedom and the call of Pride
And Slavery crept to its hands and knees
And Nineteen Thirteen cheered from out the utter
Degradation of their miseries.
On the east side of the monument there is a quotation from Drums under the Windows by Seán O'Casey:
... He talked to the workers, spoke as only Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience, or placid resignation, but trumpet-tongued of resistance to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward.
A road in Raheny, north Dublin, is named after him.
James Larkin Way
Liverpool Irish Festival 2008
To celebrate Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture, the Liverpool Irish Festival held a James Larkin Evening at the 'Casa' bar-the dockers' pub in central Liverpool. This was attended by Francis Devine who wrote the general history of the trade union movement in Dublin and the formation of SIPTU. It was introduced by Liverpool Irishman Marcus Maher, who travelled from Dublin to present a specially commissioned painting by Finbar Coyle to James Larkin's last remaining Liverpool nephew, Tom Larkin. The painting reflects on one side Dublin and on the other side the Liver Bird and his home city of Liverpool.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to James Larkin.|
|Trade union offices|
|New office|| General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union
William X. O'Brien
William X. O'Brien
| President of the Irish Trades Union Congress
|New office|| General Secretary of the Workers' Union of Ireland
James Larkin Jnr
| President of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions