This Week in the History of the Irish: January 21 - January 27

Hulton Picture Library
'Big Jim' Larkin in his prime.

DOMHNAIGH -- On January 21, 1876, James 'Big Jim' Larkin, one of the greatest labor leaders of the 20th century, was born in Liverpool, England, the second son of a poor Irish couple. At 5 he was sent back to Newry, County Down, to live with his grandparents. He returned to Liverpool in 1885 and began to work as a laborer on the docks. After some time as a seaman, he returned to the docks and rose to be a foreman. When Larkin joined a strike by the men under him, he was fired from that position. He had lost a job, but he had found a calling. Larkin became an organizer for the National Union of Dockers Laborers. He was sent to Belfast in 1907 and organized a strike there, managing to get Catholic and Protestant workers to cooperate, rather than let those above them exploit their ancient animosities. So persuasive was Larkin that he even got the police to support his strike. But he was making enemies in high places, including the leadership of NUDL. They transferred him to Dublin, but his militancy caused him to be suspended from the NUDL.

In December 1908, he organized his own union, the Irish Transport, and General Workers' Union, the ITGWU, and through the force of his personality and oratory, the Union grew quickly. Most of the dock and factory workers he organized lived in some of the worst slums in all of Europe. In 1913 Larkin's successful organizing caused Dublin employers to move against him. They demanded that all employees quit Larkin's union. The workers refused, and, in August 1913, employers all over Dublin locked them out of their jobs. When other Unions supported them, over 100,000 workers ended up locked out. The employers ended the lockout at the end of January 1914. Many saw little if any gain for the workers as a result of the bitter fight, but others noted that with 'Big Jim's' leadership the workers had a solidarity not seen before. In August 1914, the British suppressed Larkin's paper, The Irish Worker, and he traveled to America to raise funds. He would not return for nine years, much of that time spent behind bars. Larkin found an America which was even more antagonistic to organized labor than Britain. In New York, in 1920, he was jailed and sentenced to 10 years for criminal syndicalism.' In 1923, Governor Al Smith had him released and he returned to Ireland. The Ireland he returned to had changed – for one, the British were gone from the Free State – and the tempestuous Larkin, still a committed Marxist, had not. He was expelled from the ITGWU after a bitter power struggle with the more moderate leaders who had rebuilt it in his absence. Nevertheless, 'Big Jim' continued to be active in the fight for worker's rights until his death on January 30, 1947. The world has seen many corrupt labor leaders whose only real agenda was lining their own pockets, but when 'Big Jim' Larkin died his estate consisted of a few personal items and £4.50 in cash.

LUAIN - January 22, 1760, at Wandewash, India, General Thomas Arthur Comte de Lally's French army, including his regiment of the Irish Brigade, was defeated by Irish-born Sir Eyre Coote's English army. Coote was born in Limerick in 1726; his father's side of the family had come over during the reign of Elizabeth I and intermarried with the Irish. Lally was second-generation Wild Geese, born in France in 1701. His father was Sir Gerard Lally of County Galway. Lally's military career began early and rose ever upward. He first served with the regiment of his uncle, Arthur Dillon. At Dettingen, in 1743, he saved the life of his father and the following year he was promoted to Colonel and given command of his own regiment in the Brigade.

(Right: Thomas Arthur Comte de Lally)

Commanding his regiment at Fontenoy in 1745, the most famous action in the history of the Irish Brigade, his actions in deploying several cannons against the flank of the English advance may have been the turning point in the battle. Lally was involved in the planning of 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie's rising in England later that year but did not accompany him to Scotland. By 1756, when Lally was selected as commander-in-chief of the French expedition to India, he was one of the greatest living soldiers of France. Lally's force was delayed and did not leave France until May 1757. Further delays occurred on route and he finally landed at Pondicherry, India, on April 28, 1758. In less than two months, Lally cleared the English forces from a huge area around Pondicherry and captured almost 300 pieces of artillery. Lally next laid siege to Madras, but his naval support abandoned him and, in January 1759, the English were reinforced, forcing Lally to retire toward Pondicherry. Forces away from India were conspiring against Lally now, as the merchant fleets of the French had been rendered useless by England's navy. Thus in January 1760, as Lally made his stand at Wandewash, his troops had not been paid in six months, he had few supplies, and no hope of help from France. The morale of his troops could not have been high; still, they gave a good account of themselves until finally they were driven from the field by Coote's army. Lally probably should have sought terms from Coote then, but he held out in Pondicherry for another year until finally, with the garrison facing starvation, he surrendered. Lally had done all a mortal man could do with the forces available to him, now he was on his way back to Europe in a British ship. There were more tribulations ahead for this tragic figure.

CÉADAOIN -- On January 24, 1862, Miles Byrne, United Irishman and officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion, died in Paris. He was active in the 1798 Rising in Wexford and fought all its major battles, right through the rebels' climactic defeat at Vinegar Hill.

(Left: Miles Byrne (from his 'Memoirs".)

He escaped to the hills and served with Michael Dwyer until the failure of the rising led by Robert Emmet, a close friend of Byrne's, in 1803. Byrne traveled to France hoping to arrange for more French aid to Ireland but after failing in that he joined the Irish Legion being formed in the French army. He had a long career in the service of France. Byrne rose to command a regiment and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. After his retirement, he wrote his Memoirs, which were published in 1863, a year after his death in Paris. 

Thomas Charles Wright

AOINE -- On January 26, 1799, Thomas Charles Wright, an officer in Simón Bolívar's South American army and founder and first commander-in-chief of the Ecuadorian navy, was born in Drogheda, Co. Louth. Wright joined the British navy as a teenager and served against the United States in the War of 1812. In 1817 he was moved so strongly by Bolívar's struggle for South American independence that he sailed for Venezuela to join his army. Wright found many other Irish among Bolívar's troops, including his aide-de-camp, Colonel O'Leary. Wright served in a number of land battles with Bolívar's army, including Carabobo, Bombino, and Pichincha. Like Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile, Bolívar had come to understand the need for a naval force to combat the Spanish and was encouraging the formation of revolutionary naval forces. In early 1824, Wright transferred to the Peruvian navy of Admiral Guise and was made captain of the 18-gun-brigantine Chimborazo. Guise praised Wright's conduct when his fleet captured Callao from the Spanish, and Wright then commanded his own fleet of small vessels. With these, Wright helped Antonio Jose de Sucre win the final victory at Ayacucho on December 9, 1824, effectively freeing Peru. As often happens after revolutions, the departure of the colonial power led to fighting among the factions that once were united against the common foe. In 1827, Peruvian President José Lamar invaded Bolivia, then Ecuador. Wright had settled in Ecuador after the ouster of the Spanish, and now he took up the cause of his adopted home, forming the first Ecuadorian navy. Wright's navy fought two battles with the Peruvians in the Gulf of Guayaquil, breaking their blockade of the port and defeating and killing Wright's revolutionary comrade, Admiral Guise. Wright would spend the rest of his days helping to build the Ecuadorian navy and taking part in the politics of the country. It was said he always supported the cause of poor Ecuadorians, perhaps driven by memories of the downtrodden people of his native land. Thomas Charles Wright died in Guayaquil on December 10, 1835.


Sir Eyre Coote

'I would like to know . . . what Orangeism or Protestantism has got to do with men fighting for their just rights, when the issue lies not in religion but is a question of bread and butter, and shorter hours and better working conditions, which we should have had 20 years ago.'
      -- A Protestant supporter of Jim Larkin's in Belfast, 1906

'Nobody has a higher idea than I have of General Lally, who, to my knowledge, has struggled against obstacles which I believe unconquerable, and has conquered them. There is certainly not a second man, in all India, who could have managed to keep on foot for so long a period an army without pay, and without any kind of assistance.'
        -- A written statement found in the papers of General Eyre Coote after Coote's death in 1783.

"Wright, as always, behaved well."
-- From the report of Peruvian Admiral Guise (later to lose his life in a naval battle versus Wright) after the battle of Callao.

January - Eanáir


21, 1876 - James Larkin (Labor leader - Liverpool.)
26, 1799 - Thomas Charles Wright (Officer in Bolivar's army and founder of Ecuadorian navy - Drogheda, Co. Louth.)
26, 1904 - Séan MacBride (Revolutionary, Statesman - Paris.)


21, 1919 - First Dáil Eireann meets, de Valera proclaimed Prime Minister though still in Lincoln Jail.
21, 1919 - War of Independence begins, 3rd Tipperary Brigade ambushes RIC patrol at Soloheadbeg.

22, 1760 – Gen. Lally’s French army, including his regiment of the Irish Brigade, is defeated by Irish born Sir Eyre Coote’s English army at Wandewash, India.
22, 1879Many Irish fight at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa.
22, 1972 - Éammon Broy, revolutionary, Police Commissioner, dies.
23, 1803 - Arthur Guinness, founder of the famous brewery, dies in Dublin.
23, 1875 – Irish-born John Dempsey wins the US Congressional Medal of Honor for saving a shipmate who fell overboard from the USS Kearsage in Shanghai, China.
23, 1898 - United Irish League founded by William O'Brien.
24, 1862 - Miles Byrne, United Irishmen and soldier in Napoleon's Irish Legion, dies in Paris.
26, 1942 - US expeditionary troops land in Northern Ireland.
26, 1945
- In Holtzwihr, France, Audie Murphy fights in the action that will win him the Congressional Medal of Honor
27, 1975 - Mother Mary Martin, founder of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, dies in Drogheda.

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Tags: Americas, Asia, Europe, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day


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