Union Leader, James Larkin dies quietly (unlike his life) in Dublin. In a beautiful tribute, Playwright Sean O’Casey said of Big Jim, ‘He fought for the loaf of bread as no man before him had ever fought; but with the loaf of bread, he also brought the flask of wine and the book of verse.’
James Larkin was probably the most effective labor leaders in Irish history leading major strikes of 1907 (Belfast and Dublin), 1911, and the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a six-month ultimately failed standoff between Dublin workers and employers. In 1908, he founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
Larkin who stood well over six feet tall was an excellent orator. O’Casey said Larkin ‘had the eloquence of an Elizabethan, fascinating to all who heard him, and irresistible to the workers. He was familiar with the poetry of Shakespeare, Whitman, Shelley and Omar Khayyam, and often quoted them in his speeches.’
Unusual for his time in working class Dublin, Larkin was a proponent of the temperance movement and strongly anti-sectarian. ‘I have tried to kill sectarianism, whether in Catholics or Protestants. I am against bigotry or intolerance on either side.’
Big Jim was a thorn in the side of authority everywhere. While in the United States, he was indicted along with many other socialists for attempting to overthrow the government, a charge he denied. In 1920, he was sentenced to 5-10 years jail. He was pardoned by incoming New York Mayor Al Smith in 1922 and returned to Ireland.
James Larkin was memorialised 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 worker and their appreciation of the changes made by Larkin and Connolly .
Today a statue of ‘Big Jim’ stands on O’Connell Street, 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.
Photo credit: 1916 Easter Revolution in Colour