James (Big Jim) Larkin (Irish: Séamas Ó Lorcáin; 21 January 1876 – 30 January 1947), an Irish trade union leader and socialist activist, was born to Irish parents in Liverpool in 1875. 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 Ireland in 1907 and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, the Irish Labour Party, and later the Workers’ Union of Ireland. Perhaps best known for his role in the 1913 Dublin Lockout, “Big Jim” continues to occupy a significant place in the collective memory of Dublin.
Larkin’s 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 seaman 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.
Organising the Irish labour movement, 1907-1914:
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 police 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 in 1910, he served three months in prison, a sentence widely regarded as unjust.
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 and Waterford. 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, as a pro-labour alternative to the capitalist-owned press. This organ was characterised by a campaigning approach and the harsh 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 the Dublin Corporation. He did not hold his seat long, as a month later he was removed owing to his fraud conviction.
The Dublin Lockout, 1913:
In early 1913, Larkin achieved some notable successes in industrial disputes in Dublin; these involved frequent recourse to sympathetic strikes and blacking (boycotting) of goods. Two major employers, Guinness and the Dublin United Tramway Company, remained non-union firms and targets of Larkin’s organising ambitions.
Guinness staff were well-paid and enjoyed generous benefits from a paternalistic management. As a result, they had little interest in trade unions. 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 forty workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week. On 26 August, the tramway workers officially went on strike. Led by Murphy, over four hundred 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 lockout of their workers when the latter refused to sign the pledge, employing blackleg labour from Great Britain and elsewhere in Ireland. Dublin’s workers, amongst the poorest in the then United Kingdom, were forced to survive on generous but inadequate donations from the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other sources in Ireland, distributed by the ITGWU.
For seven months the lockout affected tens of thousands of Dublin’s 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. Other leaders in the ITGWU at the time were James Connolly and William X. O’Brien, while influential figures such as Pádraig Pearse, Countess Markievicz and William Butler Yeats supported the workers in the generally anti-Larkin media.
The lockout eventually concluded in early 1914 when the calls for a sympathetic strike in Britain from Larkin and Connolly were rejected by the British 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.
Larkin in America, 1914-1923:
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 syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World union. 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.
Larkin was also recruited by Imperial German diplomats in New York City into helping sabotage Allied munitions shipments. In the aftermath of the First World War, he would describe his espionage career in detail to the American lawyers investigating the Black Tom Explosion.
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 “Red Scare” that was sweeping the nation; he was jailed in 1920 for ‘criminal anarchy’ and was sentenced to five to ten years in Sing Sing prison. In 1923, he was pardoned and later deported by Alfred E. Smith, Governor of New York.
Return to Ireland and communist activism:
Upon his arrival in 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 Civil War. However, he soon found himself at variance with William O’Brien, who in his absence had become the leading figure in the ITGWU and the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. Larkin was still officially general secretary of the ITGWU, and a bitter struggle between the two men ensued which would last over twenty 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 and was elected to its executive committee. 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. However, like the IWL, the WUI would be hampered in its growth by Larkin’s chaotic and dictatorial approach.
In January 1925, the Comintern sent British communist activist Bob Stewart to Ireland to establish a communist party in cooperation 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 in Dublin.
In the September 1927 general election, Larkin ran in North Dublin and was elected. This was to be the only time that a self-proclaimed communist was elected to Dáil Éireann until the election of Joe Higgins in 1997. 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, and this may have contributed to his disenchantment with the communist cause. The Soviets, for their part, were increasingly impatient with 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, in 1933 and subsequently he ran as “Independent Labour”. 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 in the 1937 general election but lost it again the following year. In this period the Workers’ Union of Ireland also entered the mainstream of the trade union movement, being admitted to the Dublin Trades Council in 1936, although the ICTU would not accept its membership application until 1945.
Return to the 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 (1943-44).
James Larkin died in his sleep on 30 January 1947. His funeral mass was celebrated by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and thousands lined the streets of the city as the hearse passed to Glasnevin Cemetery.
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.”
The Dubliners – James Larkin
Today a statue of “Big Jim” stands on O’Connell Street in Dublin. 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 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 that was founded in 1921. The original slogan is usually attributed to Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794), the French revolutionary.
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 Sean 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 Clontarf, North Dublin, is named after him.
James Larkin Republican Flute Band:
A marching band in Liverpool, the James Larkin Republican Flute Band, is named after him. Formed in 1996 by members of the Liverpool Irish Community, it is a fife & drum marching band, that promotes and celebrates Irish music, culture and political pride and awareness on Merseyside.
Photo courtesy of Glasnevin Museum.