Indefatigable Irish Labour Leader 'Big' Jim Larkin: 'Let Us Rise'

James Connolly said of "Big" Jim Larkin, his colleague in the labour movement: "We have amongst us a man of genius, of splendid vitality, great in his conceptions, magnificent in his courage." George Bernard Shaw described him as "the greatest Irishman since Parnell."

In 1913, Constance Markievicz said of Larkin: "Sitting there, listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never come across before, some great primeval force rather than a man. A tornado, a storm-driven wave, the rush into life of spring, and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke. It seemed as if his personality caught up, assimilated, and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified. Only the great elemental force that is in all crowds had passed into his nature for ever."

Bertram D. Wolfe who worked with Larkin, and went on to write “Strange Communists I Have Known,“ wrote: “James Robert Larkin was a big boned, large framed man, broad shoulders held not too high, not too proudly, giving him the air of stooping over ordinary men when he was speaking to them. Bright blues eyes under dark heavy brows, a long fleshy nose, hollowed out cheeks, prominent cheeks bones, a long thick neck, the cords of which stood out when he was angry, a powerful stubborn chin, a head longer and a forehead higher than in most men, suggesting plenty of room for the brain pan. Big Jim was well over six feet tall, so that I, at six foot, felt small when I looked up into his eyes. With long arms and long legs, great hands like shovels, big rounded shoes shaped in front like the rear of a canal boat completed this picture.“

Larkn's brother Peter and his sister Delia were heavily influence by their big brother and they too became trade union organizers. Delia also became a journalist and an actress, and they all followed him to Ireland, becoming very prominent during the 1913 Dublin Lockout.

James Larkin was born in Liverpool to Irish parents on January 21, 1876, the eldest son of James and Mary Ann [nee McNulty from County Armagh] Larkin. Like the majority of Irish immigrants in this era, the Larkin family lived in impoverished conditions in Liverpool's slums. He had relatively little formal schooling during the early years of his life.

From the age of seven years, he went to school in the mornings and worked at all kinds of jobs in the afternoon, to supplement the family income -- a common arrangement in all Irish families of poor and working-class people in this era.

His father died when Larkin was 14 years of age. As it was common practice in this era that the eldest son was apprenticed to the firm his father worked for, Larkin worked in his father's firm. He remained there for about two years but was dismissed. He then acquired work at a variety of jobs: a butcher's assistant, paper-hanger, French polisher, engineering apprentice, and then as a seaman and dock worker.

Larkin knew full well that his family now depended on him to provide the much needed money to sustain them. A brash, temperamental and restless adolescent, from his early teens, Larkin took his duty to his family very seriously. Some sources suggest that on one of his voyages to the Americas, he holed up in a cargo ship. When found, he was imprisoned, and studied socialism while incarcerated, and then transported back to Liverpool.

He was renowned for his moral compass. He never pilfered through the ship’s cargo, did not gamble, drink or smoke cigarettes, although in later life he enjoyed smoking a cigar or a pipe. Any free time he had was given to charitable works in the slums of Liverpool and the Independent Labour Party. Later in Ireland, he joined the temperance movement.

It was from his own personal experience of deprivation and poverty that he acquired his life-long commitment to revolutionary socialism, the destruction of capitalism and his hatred of exploitation of the working class. He identified very strongly with the underprivileged.

By 1903, he had earned promotion to dock foreman. In September 1903, he married Elizabeth Brown, from a Baptist lay–preacher family. The couple went to live with Larkin's widowed mother at 37 Roche St., Toxteth Park, Liverpool. They went on to have four sons: James (1904–69), Denis (1908–87), Fintan (1909–81), and Barney (1914–78). Some sources suggest that he also had a daughter.

”it was a marriage of chalk and cheese” as Elisabeth was given to home making and doing good works. His whole family later moved back to live in a small cottage in the Burren, South Armagh.

He initially rose to prominence during a dock strike in Liverpool in 1905 and in 1906 he was invited to become the full time organizer of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). In late 1906, he was sent to Scotland, where he successfully organised workers in Preston (Scottish Boarders) and Glasgow.

Larkin's name became synonymous with leadership and having the ability to recruit and organize mass demonstrations of people, so much so that he was sent to Belfast in 1907 to organize its unskilled workforce. He established a union branch and succeeded in uniting both Protestant and Catholic workers in his quest for better pay and conditions. He found his efforts raising the hackles of local employers, who were up in arms and sought to break his hold on the workers' hearts and minds. He called a strike and a bitter dispute followed (May-November 1907). Such was his force of presence and charisma that he succeeded in recruiting members of the local Royal Irish Constabulary and encouraged them to strike at one point. However, the leaders of the NUDL went over his head and reached a settlement with the employers.

At this time, Larkin was feeling betrayed, undermined and frustrated by this ‘sell out,’ as he called it. NUDL General Secretary Sexton's handling of the negotiations with the employers had led to a disastrous settlement for the workers.  Tensions arose between Larkin and Sexton and resulted in a lasting rift between them. At that point, Larkin was sent to Dublin to organize the workers in Dublin, Cork and Waterford, which he undertook with considerable success. However in a dispute with employers in Dublin and Cork, he went against union instructions and this resulted in his expulsion from the NUDL in 1908.

The NUDL then prosecuted him for diverting union funds to give as strike pay to workers in Cork, who were engaged in what they called an "unofficial dispute."  After a trial where he was charged with embezzlement, he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. This was widely regarded as unjust, with the media reporting on this daily, and then Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen pardoned him three months into his term of imprisonment. Although described by Arthur Griffith (see TWG) as an Englishman who was importing political disruption into Ireland and putting native industry at risk, Larkin took no notice of Griffith.

By December 28th, 1908, he had founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union -- his argument was that Irish workers needed Irish unions. As general secretary, he went on to run this union in a dictatorial manner. He faced real opposition from Sexton's NULD  and other conservative trade unions. He was then elected to the Parliamentary Committee of the Irish Trade Unions in 1908, and in 1909 he tried and failed to get the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) recognized at the 1909 Congress. Undeterred, he presented again in 1910, where he won admittance to the Congress. By 1911, he had been re-elected to the ITGWU parliamentary committee.

Larkin became preoccupied with trade union politics and journalism, and concentrated on this element rather than on the mundane tasks of union organisation. He also had a penchant for personal attacks on his enemies. Despite the fact that James Connelly now worked for the ITGWU, Larkin's production of James Connelly’s paper ‘The Harp’, which Connelly had issued in the USA when he was living there, had resulted in repeated threats of libel action that Larkin ignored. Larkin also established a left–wing newspaper, The Irish Worker, in 1911, which was very successful and which identified exploitative employers and corrupt government officials; this did not endear him to either the employers or the government officials. 

Unrepentant and eager to get into politics, he joined James Connolly in founding ‘The Irish Labour Party.' Despite their differences, they shared the same goals -- the intention being that the party would become the political wing of The Irish Transport and General Workers Union. They hoped it would get them seats in the Dublin Corporation, and they achieved modest success. Later in 1912, Larkin was jubilant when he won a seat in the Corporation. His jubilation, however, was short-lived as within a month of being elected into office, he was removed on the grounds that as a convicted felon (despite his being pardoned) he had no right to be a Corporation member.

After James Connolly was executed, Thomas Johnson became the leader of the Irish Labour Party; a decision was made to stand aside for the 1918 and 1921 election. Not losing sight of the goal of Larkin and Connolly, the Irish Labour Party came back with force in the 1922 elections and would later form a coalition with other parties and become a main opposition party in Dáil Éireann. (When Connolly was executed, Larkin, then living in the United States, grieved for his friend and sparring partner.)

By 1913, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was 10,000-strong and had secured wage increases for most of its members. Dublin workers were among the poorest in the United Kingdom and lived in squalor; their tenements were filthy, with hundreds sharing rooms, and were overcrowded to the point where people were sleeping in hallways and doorways and were dying each day by the hundreds from tuberculous and starvation. At this point, attempts by employers to stop their workers from joining the TGTWU resulted in what has become famously known as the “Dublin Lockout of 1913.” Notably, Guinness, the largest employer and biggest exporter in Dublin, refused to lock out its workforce.  As they were relatively well paid, with bonuses such as housing and medical benefits, their workers were reluctant to go on strike.

The Guinness Brewery Co., however, did contribute a considerable amount of money, about £400, to the Dublin United Tramway, operated and run by Chairman William Martin Murphy, the industrial and newspaper proprietor who was determined not to allow the Irish Transport and General Workers Union to unionize his workers, sacking 40 of the men who were suspected of joining the union on Aug. 26, 1913 and following that up with the sacking of 300 workers over the next two weeks. The resulting industrial dispute called by Larkin, was the most severe in Irish history.

Left to right, Connolly and Larkin, Dublin Lockout 1913

By this time, Larkin was a wanted man, and was hiding out in people's homes. He wanted to address his followers, but knew that he would be arrested on the spot if he conveyed a meeting. So Countess Markievicz, her husband Casimer and Nellie Gifford (who was unknown to the police) arranged for Larkin to address the crowds from the balcony of the Imperial Hotel, on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). The crowds flocked onto Sackville Street. Unbeknownst to Martin Murphy, Larkin was smuggled into Murphy’s Imperial Hotel, disguised as a stooped, feeble, hard-of-hearing clergyman.

Once inside, Larkin threw off his disguise and raced to the balcony, as Markievicz, her husband, and Gifford locked them all onto the balcony, so that Larkin could conduct his speech. Not unsurprisingly, the police were soon alerted, but not before Larkin had conducted his speech. An MP, Handel Booth, who was present, said that afterwards the police “behaved like fleeing men possessed“; they brutalised the crowds with their batons, injuring many, with many hundreds (400-600) crawling away bleeding. Larkin was not caught despite there being some 300 policemen present; he had fled in the confusion. Connolly was arrested and charged with incitement to breach the peace. He refused to recognize the court.

Left, Larkin being hoisted above the crowds to stop police arresting him in 1913.

It was during the famous 1913  “lock-out” that Connolly, Larkin, Jack White, Séan O’Casey, Countess Markievicz, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and P.T. Daly founded 'The Irish Citizens Army' to help the workers defend themselves from of the brutality of the police batons.

Not only that, however. The Irish Citizens Army combined with Cumann na mBan and opened  soup kitchens and took meals into the schools to feed the starving children. It has been estimated that there were 20,000 workers on strike, plus their dependents. fused to allow any merchant ships or other ships into Dublin docks, extending this ban along the Eastern seaboard.

By this time in early 1914, however, it had become evident that the General Transport and General Workers Union had lost the dispute. The lock-out eventually ended in early 1914 when Larkin and Connolly called on a sympathetic vote in England, only for it to be rejected by the British TUC. Larkin's attacks on the TUC leadership resulted in the cessation of financial aid to the ITGWU. They were by now desperately lacking in resources, with no money left and the vital support of the unions in England had stalled to a trickle. Plus the fact that some of the workers had started returning to work as they could not sustain their families any longer.

Larkin himself had to concede that they had been beaten. They may have lost the battle but had not, however, lost the war, as the employers did not dare treat their workers with the same casual brutality as they had previously. It marked a watershed in Irish labourers' working conditions, with the principle of union action and workers solidarity firmly established. What became more important was that Larkin's rhetoric of condemning poverty and calling for the oppressed people of Ireland to stand up for themselves made a lasting impression.

Later in 1914 when World War I broke out and Irishmen were being encouraged and recruited to join the British army, Larkin called on Irishmen not to become involved in the conflict. In The Irish Worker, he wrote: "Stop at home. Arm for Ireland. Fight for Ireland and no other land." He also organized large anti-war demonstrations in Dublin, which did not, of course, endear him to the British or Irish Parliaments.

By autumn 1914, Larkin, exhausted from the trials and tribulations of the “lock out “ and the many arguments with employers, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and not least the British and Irish parliaments, made the decision to go to the United States. Ostensibly, this visit was to allow him to recuperate and raise funds for the now depleted Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He had left the union in the able hands of Connolly.

In America, he took up the baton once again for the workers. He joined the Socialist Party of America and became highly involved in the Industrial Workers of America union (known as the Wobblies). Then he went that one step too far in public opinion, as he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union, not unlike numerous other such sympathisers in that era. But a nationwide fear of communists, anarchists, Bolsheviks and other dissenters had entered the psyche of American citizens, and Larkin was made a target and became synonymous for what became known as the Red Scare of 1919.

Larkin's alignment with these groups would get him dismissed from the Socialist Party that year. In 1920, he was arrested for ‘criminal anarchy’ and was sentenced to Sing Sing prison for a sentence of 5 to 10 years. Despite the fact that he was unable to return to Ireland, he was re-elected annually as a representative of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He served three years before being pardoned by Al Smith, governor of New York, and deported back to Ireland.

Above, Larkin, in a prison photo from his time in the United States. 

He returned home to a triumphant welcome and despite the fact that he had the popularity to be re-elected annually while in the United States, his welcome lasted but a very short time -- the new leader of the Transport and General Workers Union was unwilling to step aside and somehow managed to get Larkin expelled from the union, the very organization that Larkin had founded.

However, this was not the only issue that concerned him, as the leading figures in the Transport and General Workers Union,  William O’Brien et al were now suing him for malicious attacks on their characters and the misapplication of funds to the tune of £1,746.69 (a lot of money in that era) that they alleged had been in the Hibernian Bank in December 1913 but had been found empty when Larkin had gone to the United States.

Since all relevant account books had mysteriously been destroyed, no explanation for the missing money was possible. The court ruled against Larkin and ordered him to pay the costs for both sides. The bitterness of this court case between the former organizers of the now infamous “1913 Dublin Lock-Out” would last for 20 years. In 1923, Larkin formed the Irish Workers League and soon afterwards it was recognized by Comintern [the communist international abbreviated as Comintern] as the Irish section of the world communist movement.

He also became head of the Comintern and while he was head of this organisation, he was invited to the Soviet Union in 1924. He was not impressed with the communist system. He said he found nothing there to attract him. To the Soviets' disappointment, they did not see in him the same wild-hearted rebel as they had in the United States. He continued to cause mayhem in Russia, he complained about the food, and the waiters who could not understand his Irish accent. The Russians were said to be very happy when Larkin returned to Ireland.

Interestingly, when Larkin returned to Ireland, he boasted that he had been appointed the chief of battalion of the Red Army, addressing 20 million Russians, and had been elected as “one of 25 men” to govern the world, and who had pledged to come to the assistance of the Irish workers. However, the Irish Workers League were not impressed with these tall tales and made it clear that they were 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.

Undaunted, he again founded a new union, called the Workers Union of Ireland. Some sources suggest that it was while Larkin was out of the country in 1924 that his brother Peter helped found this union. Whatever the truth, this new union thrived and within in a very short period had gained approximately two thirds of the Dublin membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, with a smaller number coming from rural members.

The Workers Union affiliated itself with the pro-Soviet International of Labour Unions. Not content with being at the top of a union once again, Larkin launched an attack on Labour’s Tom Johnson, accusing him of being an English traitor. He threatened him, saying: "It's 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." That incitement to murder Johnston, in a still-violent post-Civil War country, cost Larkin £1,000 in libel damages.

In January 1925, the Comintern sent one of the activists to Ireland to establish a Communist party in co-operation with Larkin. However, Larkin had no intention of attending this formal conference with Bob Stewart, which was to be held at the Mansion House. When Stewart heard this, he cancelled the conference as the proposed party could not succeed without Larkin.   

At the general elections September 1927, "Big" Jim ran for election in Dublin North, and against all the odds and everyone’s expectations (even Peter his brother did not expected him to win), he won the seat. Once again his triumph in attaining high office was short-lived as he had been declared an undischarged bankrupt, and as such could not take his seat. In the following years, his attempts to gain a position as a commercial agent for the Soviet Union were unsuccessful, which some sources would suggest may have contributed to his disenchantment with Stalinism and the Soviet Union. For their part, the Soviets had become impatient with what they saw as Larkin's ineffective leadership. By the 1930s, he drew away from communism, yet he once again tried to gain a seat in the 1932 general elections, standing on a Communist ticket -- he failed miserably. For the 1933 elections and thereafter, he stood as an “Independent Labour” candidate.

In 1934, he was asked by the United States government, headed by John J. McCloy,  a lawyer and a banker, to give testimony for the 1916 Black Tom explosion inquiry, underway in New Jersey. It was a munitions factory and was heavily involved in making ammunition for World War I. Larkin was suspected of having some involvement in this explosion, as he was affiliated with the Soviet Union and was also a member of Clan na Gael at this time -- they, too, were also suspected of having a part. However, Larkin's testimony allowed a case for damages against Germany to be reopened, and he always remained adamant that he had nothing to do with the explosion.

During this period in his life, after raising a family, having helped to care for his elderly mother, and after all the trauma of libel suites, acrimonious relationships with former colleagues and distancing himself from communism and after many years of being separated from the Catholic Church, Larkin re-engaged with his spiritual need for the resumptions of harmonious relationship with Catholicism, his childhood faith. This remained a momentous time in his life, and he took his faith very seriously thereafter.

His admiration for de Valera, as well as his distancing himself from communism, was rewarded with an appointment to the commission of vocational organisation. An enthusiastic and enigmatic nominee, Larkin was thwarted in fulfilling this role by his expressed reservations about the commission's fascist potential. As well, he did not attend many sessions and refused to sign the final report in 1943.   

By 1936, he had regained his seat on Dublin Corporation, following up this triumph with a new Dáil seat in 1937's general election, but lost it the following year. During this period, Workers Union of Ireland entered the mainstream of the trade union movement and, in 1936, they had been admitted to Dublin Trades Union Council 1936; however, the Irish Trade Union Congress did not accept the union's membership until 1945.

The year 1941 brought more turmoil to his life, when a new trade union bill was published by the government, inspired by an internal union restructuring proposed by William O’Brien (Larkin's nemesis). He led an unsuccessful campaign against the bill. After its passage into law, Larkin and his supporters successfully applied for admission into the Labour Party.

They were fortunate to be regarded with sympathy by some members of the rank and file. However, his nemesis, O’Brien, in response to this amalgamated structure of unions, disaffiliated the Irish Transport and General Workers of Ireland from the Labour Party. O’Brien was so frustrated by Larkin's involvement in the Labour Party that he went on to found the National Labour Party, claiming that there was a communist influence in the Labour Party that he regretted, and thereby distanced himself from Larkin altogether. Larkin went on to serve as a Labour Party deputy from 1943 to 1944.

Larkin's hopes of crowning his municipal career with a term as lord mayor of Dublin were frustrated as he was not elected. In March 1946, however, he did enjoy the vicarious honour of initiating the conferment of the 'Freedom of the City ' on George Bernard Shaw. Larkin had always taken a lively interest in literature and drama, and was the subject of plays, poems, and songs in his lifetime. From 1939, he renewed his acquaintance with Sean O'Casey, arguably his greatest admirer, who took him as the model for ‘Red Jim’ in his play ‘The Star Turns Red’ (1940).

Although Larkin and his wife had been estranged for many years, when she died in December of 1945, he grieved for her in a manner that effected his very health (she was the love of his life). In 1946 he told colleagues in the Irish Transport Union (ITUC) that he was heading rapidly to the grave. In late '46 while supervising repairs at the union office's Thomas Ashe Hall, he fell through the floors and suffered internal injuries. He was taken to Meath Hospital, where he died in his sleep in January 1947. Archbishop John Charles McQuoid attended him during his period in hospital and his formal reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

His funeral was celebrated by McQuaid. Along with many dignitaries of the political world who attended his funeral, there were many, many thousands of Irish people, who lined the streets leading to Glasnevin Cemetery where he is buried.

His material wealth amounted to £16.26 pence. His son, known as Young Jim, succeeded him as general secretary of the WUI. 

 …His Legacy         

*Larkin has been the subject of poems by Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor and Lola Ridge; his character has been central in plays by Daniel Corkery, George Russell (Æ), and Sean O'Casey and he is a heroic figure in the background of James Plunkett's novel Strumpet City.

*James Larkin was memorialized by the New York Irish rock band Black 47, in their song The Day They Set Jim Larkin Free and 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 workers and their appreciation of the changes made by Larkin and Connolly.

*Today a statue of "Big Jim" stands on O'Connell Street in Dublin. The inscription on the front of the monument is an extract from one of his famous speeches, in French, Irish and English:

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.

* There are many archives and images of Larkin who left no private papers or major writings, though he published an as yet unknown number of ephemeral articles, unsigned contributions and editorials in various newspapers, notably The Irish Worker. The substantial material on Larkin in Russian state archives is cited in detail in IHS, xxxi (1998– and many more but too numerous to mention here).

* The numerous images of Larkin include a life-size bronze statue by Oisín Kelly in O'Connell St., Dublin; a bust by Mina Carney in the Hug Lane Gallery, Dublin; drawings by Sir William Orpen, done in Liberty Hall, Dublin. But here again, there are too many to mention.

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Tags: Big Jim Larkin, Jim Larkin, activism, labor movement, labor unions, labour movement, unions

Comment by Jim Hawkins on August 20, 2016 at 5:03pm

Terrific article about Jim Larkin. The Countess summed it up. He was a primal force who accomplished so much

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 26, 2016 at 11:25am

Yes ... he was altruistic ..... not that he was without flaws .But then which of us are without flaws 


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