The Irish socialist and labor leader Jim Larkin, born 150 years ago this week, was an evangelist for the workers’ movement who preached a divine mission of discontent — and sought a final reckoning with the capitalist class.
The Irish Labour leader and organizer Jim Larkin (1876–1947). (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)
The fact that Jim Larkin insisted throughout his life that he had been born in 1876 in Ireland makes it a little strange to write a tribute on his 150th anniversary. In fact, his iconic gravestone in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery carries that date, as did the first thorough biography of his life, written by his namesake, the late Irish American historian Emmet Larkin. But the discovery of a birth certificate by another historian, Desmond Greaves, established with some certainty that James “Jim” Larkin had been born on January 28, 1874, at 41 Combermere Street, a son of Toxteth in Liverpool.
Both of the labor leader’s parents hailed from Ulster; his father, also James Larkin, from County Armagh and his mother, Mary Ann McNulty, from County Down. At the time he was born, Liverpool was riven by sectarian division, and Toxteth, an Irish Catholic slum surrounded by a larger Irish Protestant slum, more so than most. The trade unionist Fred Bower, Larkin’s friend and comrade in later life, would remember the young Jim as a leader of the Catholic schoolboy gangs who would fight with the Protestant ones from Bower’s own area. In the course of the brawls, Bower recalled, Larkin gave him “two marks I will carry to the grave.” Many years later, in a court room in New York, Jim Larkin would give his own account of his youth:
I told you in my own statement the amount of schooling I got. I went to school for three-and-a-quarter years. It was a poverty-stricken school, and I was taught the truth of eternal justice. I was taught the brotherhood of man was a true and living thing, and the fear of God was a thing that ought to cover all my days and also control my actions.
And then I had occasion to go out into the world and found out there was no fatherhood of God, and there was no brotherhood of man, but everyman in society was compelled to be life a wolf or a hyena, trying to tear down the other man that he might gain an advantage either by the other man’s suffering or the other man’s sorrow.
At the age of seven, Larkin was permitted to split his days between schooling and work, taking on various odd jobs, from delivering milk to helping out at a butcher’s. His father, who had eschewed the notorious Liverpool docks for work as a quarryman, foundry laborer, and then fitter, was determined that Jim would avoid them too. When he died from tuberculosis in 1888, fourteen-year-old Jim and his brother Hugh were taken on by their father’s former employer as engineering apprentices. It looked for all the world as though Jim Larkin and the Liverpool docks would never cross paths.
But the young Larkin was both stubborn and principled. One day his boss encouraged him to contribute to the Grand National sweepstake. Larkin refused; his upbringing had led him to a moral objection to gambling. In fact, many decades later, he would have a card room in his trade union offices in Dublin — but gambling on the games was forbidden. In that case, Larkin was the boss and could set the rules. As a sixteen-year-old in Liverpool, however, he wasn’t, and he soon found himself sacked from his apprenticeship. It was around this time that he later claimed to have played youth football for Liverpool Football Club. Whether or not his connection to that city institution was bona fide, he would soon find himself firmly ensconced in another.
The young Larkin was both stubborn and principled.
Initially, Larkin worked as a seaman. In another of his well-known anecdotes, he would profess to have tired of this job and stowed away on a ship that reached Montevideo, Uruguay, and Valparaíso, Chile. This, he said, had given him a “working knowledge of Spanish.” Whatever the truth about his international voyages, he would soon settle down in Liverpool as a docker. And the physical nature of dock labor suited him. Bertram D. Wolfe would describe him as “a big-boned, large-framed man” with “great hands like shovels.” On the docks, he could put this frame to use, and the casual nature of the employment allowed him more freedom to come and go than he would have enjoyed almost anywhere else.
By 1903, he had become a foreman dockporter. The historian Emmet O’Connor, author of the authoritative Larkin biography, writes that he was especially suited to this role. “He did not gamble or drink. Unlike most foremen, he refused to pay his men in the pub. He never took bribes, which were a major grievance with dockers, and he cut pilferage on the ships he handled to a minimum.” O’Connor also cites an injury during this period as the driver of his political awakening, affording him the time off to attend meetings and read voraciously.
To some extent, Larkin had come from a political home. His father’s family had been Fenians in Armagh and, when anti-Irish riots consumed Liverpool in the 1890s, his brother Peter established the Catholic Democratic League to defend the local community. But it was socialism that swayed young Jim, and he joined both the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and the more eclectic Independent Labour Party. During this time he became a regular visitor and then speaker at the Clarion Café, progressing to sell the Clarion newspaper, which provided inspiration for his own radical publication, the Irish Worker, many years later. (In 1904, Larkin and Bower would stow a copy of the Clarion in the foundations of the new Liverpool Cathedral alongside a note reading: “From the wage slaves employed on the erection of this cathedral.”)
In 1903, Jim married Elizabeth Brown, the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Their tempestuous relationship would define his love life. A year later, the first of their four sons, James Larkin Jr, was born in Liverpool. However, while many might have taken a new marriage, a young son, and the start of their thirties as incentives to moderate, Larkin’s life as a labor radical was only just beginning.
Jim Larkin’s first significant involvement with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) came in 1905. The powerful employers’ organization, the Shipping Federation, operated what was effectively a scab labor exchange, providing anti-union workers for its affiliate companies. Larkin and his fellow foremen in T&J Harrison organized to prevent the company from hiring these scabs. When the employer refused, they went on unofficial strike, and the NUDL leader James Sexton was forced to back his members.
The power of the Shipping Federation was a key reason for the miserly conditions on both docks and ships in Britain and Ireland in those days. It was a pioneering strikebreaking organization, operating its own navy of six ships that could ferry scabs into ports across the two islands. Larkin was elected to the strike committee and quickly assumed a leading role. The dispute was a chastening experience that resulted in both an industrial defeat and Larkin losing his job.
However, in the process of the dispute, Larkin had helped to build a new NUDL branch of around twelve hundred members. The union appointed him to an organizer job and, within a year, elevated him to national organizer. He traveled the north of England and Scotland, helping the union to build its branches in Preston, Aberdeen, and Glasgow. Soon the union, which was colloquially known as “the Irish union” in Britain due to the density of Irish migrant workers on the docks, decided that it needed a more organized presence in Ireland itself. It sought to reorganize in Belfast and, given his much-vaunted Ulster roots, Larkin was selected to lead the campaign.
The NUDL was one of the so-called new unions that emerged in the late nineteenth century to organize unskilled and casual labor. Its origins were quite different from the old craft unions, and so were the ideas that fulminated within its ranks about how trade unions should operate. Upon his arrival in Belfast in 1907 (as a delegate to the Labour Party conference), a mustachioed Larkin, replete with a trademark broad black brimmer, set about expanding the membership of the union to include not only dockers but carters, whose labor was essential for the operation of the docks. This was a departure from Sexton’s policies in Britain and an indication that Larkin was flirting with a new school of thought: industrial unionism.
Larkin was flirting with a new school of thought: industrial unionism.
Larkin’s early success in the north of Ireland was remarkable. By April, he had organized almost three thousand workers into the union in Belfast and a further one thousand in Derry. Determined to consolidate these gains, he resisted early opportunities to strike when workers were locked out and sacked in smaller companies — but this wave of unionization wouldn’t be tolerated by employers for long. Belfast industry, especially, had built its position on the basis of comparatively low wages. Any campaign that significantly improved pay or conditions was viewed as an existential threat. When the strike came, the powerful Shipping Federation was once more the adversary, supplying scabs to the Belfast Steamship Company, which in turn locked out 160 union men.
As spring progressed into summer, these dockers were joined by carters, sailors, coal-heavers, transport workers, and more as the dispute became generalized. The motor force of this escalation was sympathetic action, with workers refusing to handle “blacked” goods from other workplaces in dispute. This progression of trade unionism from bargaining on behalf of workers in one section of the workplace to coordinating across entire industries and, even more radically, fostering solidarity among workers as a class became a centerpiece of what the newspapers dubbed “Larkinism.” Employers were quick to contrast this form of trade unionism with its moderate craft union alternative. They were less swift to point out that employers had successfully lobbied to outlaw craft unions, then known as combinations, a century earlier when the same city had given birth to the United Irishmen.
If the United Irishmen had tried unsuccessfully to unite “Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter,” Larkinism made a great deal more headway. Sectarianism threatened the dispute in Belfast from the start, with the dock workforce itself divided on confessional terms; cross-channel dockers were almost exclusively Protestant, while deep-sea dockers were Catholic. But by July, Larkin was at the head of a one-hundred-thousand-strong, cross-community demonstration that marched down both the Falls and Shankill Roads in support of the strike. There had even been a collection for the strikers on July 12 by a pro-labor wing of the Orange movement. By the end of that month, the police had mutinied, demanding better pay and conditions, with the leader of the mutineers publicly siding with the strikers. It is hard to think of a moment of greater class unity across sectarian divides in Irish history.
In the end, Sexton and the NUDL unraveled the strike by negotiating settlements section by section, precisely the opposite of the approach undertaken by Larkin. Rather than aggregating worker power, this ensured that each weak agreement further weakened the hand of the next section of workers, a domino effect that collapsed into almost total capitulation by the time it reached the dockers. The situation was worsened further when soldiers brought in to cover mutinying police shot rioters on the Falls Road, an event that the local press utilized to reintroduce sectarian division.
The relationship between Sexton and Larkin, already strained, never recovered from this moment. Sexton saw Larkin as feckless, prepared to “order a strike as soon as he would order bacon for breakfast.” Larkin, on the other hand, believed Sexton had betrayed Belfast’s workers. Larkin spent a further year attempting to organize NUDL branches elsewhere in Ireland, but the bad blood between the men only grew and, when Larkin supported an unofficial strike in Cork against Sexton’s wishes, the latter took him to court for embezzlement of union funds. Larkin spent three months in prison before being pardoned after widespread outrage at the injustice.
By the time he was expelled from the NUDL, however, Larkin was pursuing an entirely different model of trade unionism. What the press called Larkinism was in fact an Irish iteration of the syndicalist movement. Born in France through the establishment of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the writings of figures such as Georges Sorel, it had been honed in the United States, especially in the wake of the foundation of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago in 1905.
Syndicalism gave a theoretical basis to some of the practices that Larkin had deployed so successfully in Belfast. It posited that all workers, regardless of skill or grade, should be organized by industry into “One Big Union” and strike together with the aim of winning power. Here at last was a philosophy that would allow Larkin to combine his revolutionary instincts with the tactics of labor insurrection.
It is no coincidence that Larkin was so taken by the American labor movement. The IWW had risen like a phoenix from the flames of another organization, the Knights of Labor, whose leader, Terence V. Powderly, was a devout Christian. His writing and oratory gave strong religious basis to the struggle for workers’ rights. The constitution of the Knights encouraged its members to “obey the divine injunction, ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’”
There was a long tradition of such connections in the political sphere. After all, the Communist League, through which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels created The Communist Manifesto, was formed from the Christian League of the Just. But it was less common in the labor movement — something that made the religiosity of the protosyndicalist milieu in the United States far more appealing to Larkin than the anti-clericalism of their European equivalents. (The IWW itself was less religious. Its approach could be summed up by the fact that Joe Hill invented the term “pie in the sky” to satirize Christian promises of salvation in the afterlife.)
Throughout his life as a militant, Larkin utilized his Christianity to bless the workers’ movement and damn its enemies. He was, however, a peculiar Catholic, and not only because he rarely (if ever) attended mass in his adult life. Larkin was an evangelist, a preacher of a revolutionary gospel, something more often associated with the radical Protestantism of England and the United States than the Catholicism of Ireland. “I have a divine mission,” he would say, “to make men and women discontented, and no one can stop me carrying on the work for which I was born.”
Larkin was a millenarian, a believer in a world made anew, and perhaps this is the point at which his faith and his politics combined most intimately. “There is no antagonism between the Cross and socialism!” he would once tell a meeting in New York. “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.”
After breaking from the NUDL, Larkin made a more comprehensive break with the British trade union movement. It was, he decided, time for an Irish trade union that would be able to promote syndicalist ideas among Irish workers. Fittingly, Seán O’Casey’s description of the union’s formation is filled with religious zeal. “In a room in a tenement in Townsend Street, with a candle in a bottle for a torch, and a billycan of tea, with a few buns for a banquet, the church militant here on earth, called the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union [ITGWU], was founded.”
Throughout his life as a militant, Larkin utilized his Christianity to bless the workers’ movement and damn its enemies.
The gospel according to the ITGWU was the same as the one Larkin had learned in Belfast. They set about organizing unskilled and casual labor across the island, focusing first on transport workers (the union was, in fact, briefly the Irish Transport Workers’ Union, ITWU) but broadening to include anyone discontented enough to be willing to form a new union and begin agitating for better conditions. The union was founded in January 1909, and within six months it had its first lockout — although it had little to do with Larkin himself. Rather, these tactics were spreading without him.
In June 1909, coalporters in Cork docks went on strike and were swiftly followed by their Transport Union colleagues. Within weeks, six thousand men were locked out by the city’s employers. The dispute ended swiftly — in part a result of the union’s inability to fund strike pay — but it set the scene for what was to come. Strikes involving ITGWU sympathetic action and coordinated employer responses spread from Cork to a national railway strike in 1911, the Wexford lockout of the same year, and then a run of strikes in Galway, Limerick, and Sligo in early 1913.
The union didn’t win all of its early disputes, but it won many of them. And where it did, it won big — by summer 1913, it was winning wage increases averaging between 20 and 25 percent for its members. Membership rose from four thousand in 1911 to over ten thousand in three years, as Ireland’s own wave of labor militancy chimed with the “Great Labour Unrest” that defined the prewar period in Britain. The employers were outraged by the tactics of sympathetic action, but for Larkin and the ITGWU, “federation, consolidation, and organization” were the “watchwords” of a movement that aimed to “let the workers stand firmly together, shoulder to shoulder, just as the masters do.” They, after all, didn’t mind sympathetic action when it came from above, in the form of organizations like the Shipping Federation.
During this period, the ITGWU grew as a broader working-class institution. In 1912, the union bought the old Northumberland Hotel on Beresford Place in Dublin for its new headquarters. Under Larkin’s stewardship, that building acquired a new name: Liberty Hall. It contained a printing press that he used to print the union’s publication, the Irish Worker, which had launched a year earlier. A banner hung outside the building that read “Do you work? Read The Irish Worker” — and many followed its instructions. The weekly newspaper was a revelation and quickly acquired a circulation in excess of twenty thousand. In its first issue, Larkin explained the paper’s mission:
The written word is the most potent force in our modern world. The Irish Worker will be a lamp to guide your feet in the dark hours of the impending struggle; a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives, and a weekly banquet from which you will rise strengthened in purpose to emulate the deeds of your forefathers, who died in dungeon and on scaffold in the hopes of a glorious resurrection for our beloved country.
The Irish Worker was a firebrand publication, and its approach of naming and shaming the enemies of labor — from lambasting sweatshop employers to pillorying slum landlords and printing the addresses of scabs — earned it the nickname “libel a line” from its critics. But even they had to recognize its influence. Within a few short years, the paper had become one of the most powerful in Dublin, a genuine counterweight to the antiworker Irish Independent, which was owned by employers’ leader William Martin Murphy. It was, Desmond Greaves would later write, “read or discussed by the entire working class of the city.” In addition to his job running the ITGWU and editing the paper itself, Larkin managed to write a remarkable four hundred articles across the first forty months of its existence, a thoroughly prolific output.
The ITGWU was expanding in other ways, too. In 1911, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) was founded as an affiliate, with Larkin as its first president and his sister, Delia, as its secretary. It began with a bang: winning a major dispute in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory in Dublin, with eighteen-year-old Rosie Hackett leading more than three thousand women on a strike to improve pay and conditions. Delia also established a Workers’ Choir and Dramatic Society in Liberty Hall and opened the union’s headquarters to workers’ education for the first time — the ITGWU was beginning to serve a role not merely as a trade union but as a vehicle for improving the cultural life of the Dublin working class. The Irish Worker summed up the mood: “There is no topic from stars to strikes in which the workers should not be encouraged to take an interest.”
By 1913, the union expanded this role still further, purchasing a mansion estate in Croydon Park in what is now called Marino in Dublin to use as a recreation center for its members. The Irish Worker hailed this as the beginning of a “social revolution” and carried the most incredible account of its opening:
To watch a dock labourer walk into a mansion, saunter into the dining room and proceed to put a tuppence doorstep sandwich and a penny bottle of minerals out of sight without the slightest air of surprise at his surroundings struck me as the most revolutionary sight I ever saw in my life. . . . Not so long ago a mansion was a place which working men were supposed to pass with cap in hand and with a mumbled blessing or curse for the lord of the manor. Nowadays things have changed. Through organisation the workers of Dublin have secured a spirit of independence and self-reliance which enables them to snap their fingers at the lords of the manor, of the factory and of the workshop. With this spirit of independence also the workers are realising that they require a fuller and more enjoyable life. If employers and their families need lawns and gardens to sport in, then the workers and their families need them also. If the sons and daughters of the employing class require tennis-courts and croquet greens, then the sons and daughters of the working class require them also. The idea may be revolutionary, but it is merely bare justice nevertheless.
But the opening of Croydon Park was soon to become a footnote to the history of 1913. This juggernaut of working-class organization would not be tolerated by Dublin’s employers, who had watched with horror as the ITGWU’s sympathetic action won victory after victory in a campaign that appeared to surround Dublin. Determined not to yield wage increases of a comparable size in Ireland’s largest city, the bosses rallied behind Ireland’s most prominent capitalist, William Martin Murphy, and began to plot to kill the infant ITGWU in its cradle.
The backdrop to the seminal 1913 Dublin Lockout, which still defines Larkin in the popular imagination more than a century later, were the slums of Dublin — deemed by Britain’s own surveys to be the worst in the entire British empire. By 1911, twenty-six thousand families lived in tenements in what had once been the glorious Georgian townhouses of Dublin, with twenty thousand of these crammed into single rooms. A housing committee report of the time found that more than 830 people lived in just fifteen houses on Henrietta Street.
The crowded tenements, combined with poverty wages and little by way of state support, led to calamitous social conditions. The death rate in Dublin was almost 50 percent higher than in London at the time, with deaths from tuberculosis outstripping anything seen in England or Scotland. The infant mortality rate was 142 per 1,000, the highest in Europe. The condition of the housing itself was also disastrous. In September 1913, a collapse in Church Street, Dublin, killed seven people, including three children under the age of six. One of those killed, Hugh Sammon, was a seventeen-year-old ITGWU member in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. He died trying to save his four-year-old sister. The poet Patrick Kavanagh would later express the connection between these conditions and the emergence of the industrial struggle:
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.
The Lockout itself began in the summer of 1913. William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company as well as Clery’s department store, the Imperial Hotel, the Irish Independent, and numerous other interests, organized a meeting of three hundred employers that July. There they determined to sack any worker who was a member of the ITGWU. Murphy began himself by firing first forty, then three hundred, suspected trade unionists. The term “worker militancy” is often used to discuss the dispute, but in fact it was initiated by militancy on behalf of the employers.
By late August 1913, 404 employers in Dublin had declared war on more than twenty thousand workers. James Connolly would describe the coming conflict in epochal terms. “The vultures of capital descended upon Dublin,” he wrote, “resolved to make Dublin the grave of the new unionism.” On August 26, Larkin gave the order for the tramworkers to stop work at 9:40 a.m., when most of the trams would be on the city’s main thoroughfare, Sackville (later O’Connell) Street. With the help of scab labor, Murphy had them back up and running within the hour. The trams were soon stoned by strikers, and Larkin, speaking at a meeting in support of the workers, declared a mass demonstration for Sunday, August 31.
It was then that the British authorities weighed in on behalf of the employers. The King issued a proclamation banning the demonstration, and strike leaders, including Larkin, were charged with sedition. Never one to shy away from a fight, Larkin was defiant: at a meeting of ten thousand outside Liberty Hall on August 29, he burned the proclamation. Connolly, by now Larkin’s deputy in the ITGWU, was arrested the next day, but Larkin evaded the police. While more moderate elements of the union movement hatched a compromise and proposed to march to Croydon Park, Larkin had other ideas.
On August 31, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, expecting an attempt to break the ban, gathered en masse on Sackville Street. Larkin, alongside his comrades Constance Markievicz and Helena Molony, organized to deceive them by donning disguises. Replete with a fake beard and a form of makeup designed to make him appear older, Larkin snuck into the Imperial Hotel, stormed through the restaurant, and burst through the door onto the first-floor balcony. “I am here to speak,” he proclaimed to the fast-assembling crowd, “and will remain till I am arrested.”
It didn’t take long for police to storm the hotel, but by then there was chaos on the streets. Workers surged forward to hear Larkin and were met with baton charges. As riots spread across the city throughout the day — with the police ransacking tenements in Dublin’s slums — two workers, John Byrne and James Nolan, were beaten to death with truncheons. A sixteen-year-old IWWU member, Alice Brady, was accidentally shot by a demonstrator and later died from her injuries. These three became the martyrs of the first Bloody Sunday.
Replete with a fake beard and a form of makeup designed to make him appear older, Larkin burst through the door. ‘I am here to speak,’ he proclaimed.
Another of Larkin’s lieutenants, William Partridge, escaped Dublin on a night boat to Manchester to address the Trades Union Congress (TUC). He brought with him a baton covered in blood. The headline of Britain’s labor newspaper, the Daily Herald, made public opinion clear: “Crown Cossacks bludgeon strikers, women and children alike. Irish bosses write in blood.” Despite the efforts of its leadership, the TUC meeting resolved to support the Dublin Lockout. Over the course of the dispute, it provided over £100,000 in aid, most famously in the form of food ships loaded by the cooperative movement and sent across the Irish Sea. But the employers matched this step for step, with the Shipping Federation and Guinness family among those to provide significant financial support for Dublin businesses to carry on the lockout.
Once released from prison, Larkin resumed his schedule of rallies. He never failed to remind the workers of the events of Bloody Sunday. “Look at them, well-dressed, well-fed!” he would say of the police at the meetings, “And who feeds them? You do! Who clothes them? You do! And yet they club you! And why? Because they are organized and disciplined and you are not!” Soon Larkin, Connolly, and a former British Army captain turned anarchist, Jack White, set about remedying this by organizing the Irish Citizen Army, a militia to defend striking workers from the violence of scabs and the police.
The Dublin Lockout is sometimes presented as a mere curtain-raiser for the 1916 Rising. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a titanic class struggle in its own right, one that swept aside many mythologies of capitalist society and revealed the stark divide between owners and workers that lay just beneath the surface. Larkin’s words were reproduced in newspapers and read across the world. “The employers in this city think they have the right to deal with their own as they please. [. . .] The workers are determined that this state of affairs must cease. Christ will not be crucified any longer in Dublin by these men.”
Unfortunately for Larkin and the workers of Dublin, the crucifixions were to go on. His “fiery cross” speaking tour in Britain — designed to win support and spread the strike by sympathetic action across the Irish Sea — gathered huge crowds but spooked union leaders. Larkin’s declaration that he was “out for revolution or nothing,” and his decision to side with the left-wing critics of the TUC in the Daily Herald Leagues, led to a sharp turn against the Lockout among the bureaucracy. This wasn’t helped by some of Larkin’s own eccentricities. At one particular rally, he caused chaos by refusing to share a stage with socialist activist Ernest Marklew on the basis that he was a divorcée, an episode all too easily exploited by Larkin’s opponents.
The Dublin Lockout had raised the prospect of a general strike in Britain for the first time since the Chartists. But, when the TUC decided not to endorse sympathetic action and refused to “black” Dublin goods in British ports, the Lockout’s last chance of success had passed. The workers, many of whom were on the brink of starvation, agreed to return to work. The strike was a bitter defeat for Larkin and, before long, he was planning to leave Ireland. His stated intention was to raise funds for the ITGWU with an international speaking tour, and the first stop would be the country that inspired him to begin his syndicalist journey: the United States of America.
Larkin’s trip to America was prompted by Bill Haywood, the iconic IWW leader who visited Dublin in the midst of the Lockout. Plans leaked during the dispute, with a New York Times headline proclaiming “Larkin Is Coming,” causing chaos within the ITGWU and drawing the ire of Connolly.
Haywood had suggested a lecture tour to Larkin as a means of bolstering the popularity of his own union with Irish workers. For Larkin, the trip offered the chance to recuperate after a brutal year and to build up his own name on the global speaking circuit. As Emmet O’Connor notes, this was an era of unprecedented internationalism of labor, probably the only time that the workers’ movement genuinely rivaled capital in its cross-border reach. Labor leaders such as Tom Mann had engaged in speaking tours and organizing missions across the world, and Larkin, one of the movement’s most captivating speakers, had every right to believe that he would find a similar path. Whether he ever intended to return in short order to Dublin and the ITGWU is doubtful.
Regardless, that option was soon closed for him. He arrived in New York shortly after the outbreak of World War I, and the development of that conflict would make international travel far more difficult. But it would also give Larkin a new sense of purpose. He threw himself into antiwar organizing and made that the key theme of his speeches. This had the happy consequence of aligning his position closely with John Devoy, the editor of the Gaelic American and key figure in Clan na Gael. Just days after arriving, Larkin spoke to a mass rally in Madison Square Garden, with newspapers reporting that fifteen thousand people had come to hear denunciations of the imperialist conflict that had broken out in Europe.
Larkin threw himself into antiwar organizing and made that the key theme of his speeches.
But Larkin, like Connolly, was more sympathetic to the German side in the war than many of his socialist comrades. From the outset, the German consulate in America had tried to recruit him as an agent. His flirtation with this ultimately resulted in Larkin taking paid work from the German state for nonviolent sabotage. This relationship alienated many of his IWW allies. He also fell out with Clan na Gael; Larkin’s habit of denouncing traitors in the Irish national movement and calling for international revolution did not particularly suit more conservative Irish American audiences. Despite this, his lecture tour of the West Coast was relatively successful, although his friendship with Tom Mooney, who would later be wrongly convicted of the Preparedness Day Bombing, drew the close attention of the American intelligence services.
From there, Larkin went on to his most significant labor movement role in the United States, helping the IWW to organize mine workers in Butte, Montana. By the time Larkin arrived in the city, it had the highest proportion of Irish people of any American city — more substantial even than Boston. However, this also meant that the Irish were firmly ensconced in Butte’s political and business establishment. They mounted a determined campaign against Larkin, even ensuring that his invitation to speak was withdrawn on the first day of his arrival. But over a number of years, Larkin enjoyed remarkable success in breaking the Irish working class away from this conservative leadership and aligning them with the IWW.
Partly as a result of this, Larkin was asked to give the oration at the funeral of IWW organizer Joe Hill in Chicago in November 1915. Hill was the movement’s greatest songwriter, author of enduring labor classics like “Power in a Union” and “The Rebel Girl,” and he had been executed in the state of Utah on trumped-up charges. Larkin, a keen admirer of Hill, rose to the occasion:
They lied in their verdict, and they knew they lied, but a victim had to be found and so the itinerant IWW propagandist and poet, Joseph Hillstrom, one of the Ishmaelites of the industrial world, was to hand and they shot him to death because he was a rebel, one of the disinherited, because he was the voice of the inarticulate down trodden; they crucified him on their cross of gold, spilled his blood on the altar of their God: Profit.
Because he cried out in the market place, on the highways, in the dark places where the children of men gathered together, because he said the truth that would make men free, for such a crime they crucified the Man of Galilee, for such a crime they crucified John Ball, Parsons, and a million unnamed, aye and for such a crime they will crucify millions unborn, if we cry not halt.
Not long after this speech, one of Larkin’s oldest comrades was crucified himself, tied to a chair in Kilmainham Jail. Since the start of World War I, Larkin had argued both that the labor movement should resist it with force of arms and that Ireland should revolt against British rule. But he had been rather more circumspect about the Citizen Army’s plans, warning Connolly against hastiness on multiple occasions. In the event, he was taken by surprise by the 1916 Rising, pointedly refusing to speak to the American press in its aftermath.
After the initial shock wore off — and after he adjusted to the reality that an insurrection had taken place without him — Larkin set about organizing commemorations for the martyrs, the largest of which took place in Chicago’s Grand Opera House on May 21. Soon he was organizing James Connolly Socialist Clubs, first in New York and then in cities with substantial Irish populations across America. Fittingly, the Pearse-Connolly Club in Butte became a major institution, displacing the Ancient Order of Hibernians from its role in organizing the St Patrick’s Day parade. It also marched at the funeral of IWW organizer Frank Little, lynched in the city for union organizing in 1917, with one thousand members donning green sashes.
It was at one of these Connolly Club meetings in New York that Larkin met and befriended John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World. By then he had joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA) and shared the stage with Eugene Debs in his congressional campaign in Indiana. He would go on to be a speaker on the Debs presidential campaign when the candidate himself was incarcerated. But Larkin had also become a convinced Bolshevik, and the Connolly Club became the editorial offices of the SPA’s left-wing faction, hosting its publication, Revolutionary Age, as well as another dissident journal, Reed’s Voice of Labor.
When the split in the Socialist Party came in 1919, Larkin sided with the Communist Labor Party, believing that the Communist Party of America was both too intellectual and too European to win the support of American workers. But by this time, he had repeatedly been arrested for his antiwar efforts and, in 1920, finally fell afoul of J. Edgar Hoover’s Red Scare. (Larkin’s FBI file also reveals a bizarre Irish nationalist plot to kill him with cyanide around this time — and send a fake Larkin to Dublin in his place to argue in favor of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.) Larkin defended himself in court, invoking Abraham Lincoln as an inspiration for his politics, but he was convicted of criminal anarchy and sent to Sing Sing prison.
During his time in Sing Sing, Larkin became one of America’s most well-known political prisoners. Campaigns for his release sprang up across the country as well as internationally. In prison, his most regular visitor happened to be the most famous star in the world at the time, Charlie Chaplin, who was taken by Larkin’s eloquence and considered him a personal hero. In his obituary of Larkin, the American sci-fi author James T. Farrell relays a wonderful anecdote about his time in Sing Sing (Ossining):
At Ossining, he was popular with both the guards and the prisoners. One of the stories about Jim at Ossining was told to me by a class war prisoner who served time at a later date. Most of the guards (called “hackies”) were Irish. On St Patrick’s Day, they asked Jim to make a speech, and he got up on a table. Jim’s speech began: “St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. They all came to America and they became hackies and warders.” This was the beginning and the end of Jim’s St Patrick’s Day speech in Ossining.
After serving three years of his initial five, Larkin was pardoned by New York governor Al Smith in 1923 and, when Hoover organized his deportation, he happily departed. His sojourn in America was over. In his later years, this period would be regarded as a lesser chapter — but that only speaks to the enormity of Larkin’s life. His deeds in America alone would afford him a place in revolutionary history.
Years Later and Legacy
Jim Larkin’s return to Dublin in 1923 is immortalized by the photo that would eventually be used for his statue; it shows a giant man, arms spread wide, beckoning to an assembled crowd. But in truth, the Dublin that Larkin returned to was vastly different from the one he left. The labor movement had grown considerably during the War of Independence — even managing over one hundred Soviets across the island between 1919 and 1920 — but the aftermath of the Civil War had foreclosed most radical possibilities. And after such a tumultuous decade, Irish civil society was exhausted.
As labor historian Francis Devine notes, the ITGWU had enjoyed considerable success in the years before Larkin returned. Under the stewardship of William O’Brien, union membership had grown from five thousand in the wake of the 1916 Rising to one hundred thousand by 1920, with 573 branches across Ireland. O’Brien was a competent administrator who built the union assiduously while avoiding confrontation with employers where possible. He lacked Larkin’s charisma and radicalism, but his approach proved fruitful in building the ITGWU as an institution, particularly outside Dublin among the rural working class.
However, upon his return, Larkin almost immediately quarreled with O’Brien. Newly appointed to the executive of the Comintern, he was not prepared to abide moderation, and he set about creating a new party, the Irish Workers’ League, which would become Ireland’s Communist party. He soon sought to reclaim his position as general secretary of the ITGWU too, but he was thwarted by O’Brien and expelled from the union he had created in 1909. While Larkin was in Moscow, his brother Peter and his son James Jr organized his followers into a new union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI) — although it remains unclear whether Jim himself supported this move at first.
The Dublin that Larkin returned to was vastly different from the one he left.
What followed was a bitter and at times violent split that badly damaged the Irish labor movement. There were certainly theoretical and practical differences between the approaches pursued by Larkin and O’Brien, but both men had worked together in the same organization before and, in all honesty, continued to work alongside comrades of similar persuasions in the years afterward. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a substantial portion of the split was personality-driven. Larkin, however, would defend it on the basis of the need to pursue a particularly Communist approach to trade unionism, and the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI) joined the Communist trade union international, the Profintern.
Dublin itself had stayed loyal to Larkin, with two-thirds of the ITGWU’s members in the city leaving to join the WUI. But the rest of the country was firmly ITGWU. This resulted in a bizarre parallel union structure, with two competing general unions of significant size organizing the same industries but with regional distinctions. Larkin, once such an adherent of the idea of One Big Union, had played a role in ensuring that would be impossible in Ireland for a generation. O’Brien too allowed pettiness to deepen the wound, effectively banning positive mention of Larkin, including in the foundation of the ITGWU, from union meetings and allowing the union paper to play into a Red Scare smear campaign against WUI activists.
Thankfully, by the 1930s, some of the heat had dissipated. As the Soviet Union embraced a Popular Front strategy, the Profintern was disbanded, and the WUI was admitted to the Dublin Trades Council. But in the three years after the split, the combined membership of the two organizations had effectively halved. The division helped to facilitate a full-frontal assault on workers’ wages by the new Free State government and led to the ITGWU losing much of its base among farm laborers, which had been behind its remarkable growth in the pre-schism years. It was, in short, a disaster, which served few political or industrial ends.
Larkin, always an eclectic Communist, grew increasingly disenchanted with Stalinism. Moscow, in turn, viewed him as a “first generation communist leader,” whose worldview had been shaped before the Bolshevik Revolution. In this they were correct: Larkin continued to believe in the primacy of workplace organization and that workers had their greatest power at the point of production. Despite this, he ran and was elected to the Dáil in 1927, the first Communist elected to the Irish Parliament, although an unpaid libel bill to O’Brien ensured that he was barred from taking his seat. By the time he was elected again in 1937, he had long since broken with the Comintern and was an independent labor candidate.
Larkin eventually found his way back to the Labour Party in the years before his death, prompting a final farcical spat with O’Brien, who promptly disaffiliated the ITGWU from the party and formed a short-lived National Labour Party. Upon Larkin’s death and O’Brien’s retirement, that Labour Party rift would swiftly heal, but it would take a further forty years before the ITGWU and WUI would reunite again in the form of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU).
In his biography of Larkin, Emmet O’Connor raised the valuable question of whether the man was a hero or a wrecker. Certainly many of his critics viewed him as an impediment to effective trade unionism, prone to flights of egotism and destructive vendettas. Neither his departure from Ireland in 1914 nor his return in 1923 reflect particularly well on him. However, socialists have made an enormous mistake in underplaying the role of the individual in history. Material conditions might set the table for social change, but it is conscious activity that moves the wheel of history. In this sphere, the force of personality is a powerful thing — and there were seldom more forceful personalities than Jim Larkin.
There are few better descriptions of that personality than the one offered by Larkin’s ITGWU comrade Markievicz in 1910:
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.
In the years since his death, many have hypothesized a more successful Irish labor movement without Larkin. And yet it is Larkin whose statue stands on the main street of Ireland’s capital, one of the only labor movement statues to have achieved such prominence anywhere in the world. It is Larkin who is memorialized in poems by Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, plays by AE and Seán O’Casey, who lights up James Plunkett’s magnificent Strumpet City and was portrayed by the great Peter O’Toole. One hundred fifty years after his birth, when Irish trade unions want to explain their history, relate to the popular imagination, or launch a new campaign, it is for the rhetoric, spirit, and imagery of Jim Larkin that they reach. Where, in those moments, are his critics? Who, in a century and more’s time, will remember any of their names?
For the intellectuals, he was too inconsistent. For the moderates, he was too impetuous. For the nationalists, he was too internationalist. And for the Communists, he was never sufficiently doctrinaire. But Larkin helped the workers of Dublin to find their pride. Connolly once said that the seat of progress was not the brain but the stomach. And yet thousands stood with Larkin in 1913 when their stomachs were empty. “The hunger that we have awakened,” he would say, “shall not be satisfied by bread alone.” Larkin had won them to the cause of their own emancipation, and that cause inspired thousands to take on the might of global capital. Even in defeat, their grandchildren’s children remember the stand they took; the residents of the most impoverished slums in Europe won their page in the annals of history.
Jim Larkin, with all his human flaws, was less important than the spirit of Larkinism that he created. Years later, Larkin’s friend and comrade Seán O’Casey, himself injured by a baton on Bloody Sunday in 1913, summed up what it felt like to hear Big Jim’s Good News:
Larkin is calling you all! And many were afraid, and hid themselves in corners. Some ventured as far as the rear and dusky doorway to peer out, and to say, Mr. Larkin, please excuse us, for we have many things to do and to suffer; we must care for the cancerous and tubercular sick, and we must stay to bury our dead. But he caught them by the sleeve, by the coat collar, and shouted, Come forth, and fight with the son of Amos who has come to walk among the men and women of Ireland. Let the sick look after the sick, and let the dead bury the dead. Come ye out to fight those who make the ephah small and shekel great; come out that we may smite the winter house with the summer house; till the houses of ivory shall perish and the great houses shall have an end. And Seán had joined the Union.Original post