The definitive biography of Big Jim Larkin

Jack O’Connor welcomes the definitive biography of Big Jim Larkin, the trade union leader who transformed the Irish labour movement but who, paradoxically, was at least partly responsible for splitting it apart for decades    

JIM LARKIN’s legacy to the Irish trade union movement is immeasurable. He transformed it from a select lobby of craft unions and staff associations, narrowly focused on improving pay and conditions for members, into one that embraced the great mass of workers. 

He also gave it a new agenda aimed at transforming Ireland into a socialist commonwealth.

At the same time, he proved a divisive figure who played a leading role in splitting that same movement and waging a long and acrimonious war with his former comrades that lasted for more than 30 years.

It is this dual legacy Emmet O’Connor addresses in Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? 

The title sells the book short because O’Connor does far more than present a balance sheet of Larkin’s life.

It immediately takes its place as the definitive biography of Larkin and provides us with the first detailed account of his life after Given that Larkin emerged as a significant figure in the labour movement during the 1905 Liverpool docks strike, the post-lockout era accounts for more than three quarters of his tenure as a trade union activist and socialist advocate. 

The latter period was marked by the daily grind of trade union work in the economically and socially backward culture of the Irish Free State and is as worthy of study by trade unionists as his early triumphs.

Larkin first made his name in Ireland as an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in 1907. 

Famously, he united Catholic and Protestant workers in a fight for better pay and conditions. 

A longer lasting legacy was forcing local employers to recognise the right of dockers and carters to union representation and collective bargaining.

Larkin’s empathy for the poor and hatred of injustice drove him, and was encapsulated in his slogan, ‘An injury to one is the concern of all’. Although he sometimes described himself as a Marxist, his Socialism was an eclectic mix of ideas as rooted in Christianity as any secular ideology.

When he parted company with the NUDL and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to spread his ‘divine mission of discontent’, he did so in an age when the spoken word was still the main means of communication and Larkin excelled as a public speaker. 

‘Sitting there, listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of... some great primeval force rather than a man’, Countess Markievicz recalled years later.

By 1913 he was the leading advocate for the newly-created Labour Party to give workers a voice in the proposed Home Rule Parliament. 

However, it was Larkin’s leadership of the workers in the great Dublin lockout of 1913 that immortalised him.

Although he is often portrayed as an impractical ideological crusader in this battle, it was the employers’ leader William Martin Murphy who was driven by a detestation of Larkinism, which he saw as a threat to the hegemony of Irish Catholic nationalism.

Far from being a mindless militant, Larkin was a pragmatist when it came to advancing the interests of his members.

It is often forgotten that he was pursuing a successful pay strategy which would have resulted in the establishment of a conciliation board when Murphy launched the offensive which was designed to destroy the ITGWU. 

George Askwith, the British government’s chief industrial relations negotiator who tried to end the Lockout, was impressed not only by Larkin’s capacity to mobilise and negotiate for members but to take on his own militants as well as the employers.

O’Connor highlights Larkin’s preference for using the Irish Worker to embarrass employers into conceding demands rather than engaging in industrial action. 

If the Worker could be scathing of bad conditions, O’Connor says it could be ‘gushing’ in praise of employers who conceded pay rises.

In one report on ‘a most pleasant and informal discussion’ with the Watkins, Jameson and Pim firm of maltsters and brewers, Larkin did everything short of urging readers to consume their products, although he added that they could do worse. 

The newspaper was itself the most successful socialist publication in the labour movement’s history.

After the lockout, the ITGWU was focussed on survival. An exhausted Larkin travelled to America on what was envisaged as a short-term fundraising project.

He arrived in New York with no plan and the next nine years would see him move from one project to another. 

Highlights such as his oration at the funeral of Joe Hill, the legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organiser and songwriter, were punctuated by rows with Irish American and labour movement leaders. 

He was too much of a socialist for the former to stomach and too much of a nationalist for the latter.

Like Connolly, Larkin was opposed to Ireland’s involvement in the First World War, which he saw as an imperialist conflict and, on his arrival in America, he campaigned against the United States, becoming a belligerent. Along with his involvement in the IWW and support for the Russian revolution, he became a target of the FBI. 

This culminated in his trial for criminal anarchy in November 1919. On May 3, 1920, he was sentenced to five to 10 years imprisonment, most of it spent in New York’s Sing Sing prison.

He again achieved international renown as a political prisoner and was visited by celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin. 

He was given a free pardon by the newly-elected Democratic governor of New York, Al Smith, in January 1923. He was deported and returned to Ireland on the day that the anti-Treaty forces declared the ceasefire that ended the Irish Civil War.

During his absence, O’Connor points out there was no small measure of resentment by Larkin at being upstaged by Connolly, a man he had rescued from the obscurity of the small left-wing Irish- American diaspora, who now overshadowed him in the national pantheon. 

Larkin’s abiding weakness was his insistence on dominating any movement in which he was involved. 

This made confrontation with those he left running the ITGWU in his absence inevitable on his return. If Murphy was his nemesis on the industrial relations front, his former ally of Lockout days, Bill O’Brien, now general treasurer of the ITGWU, was to perform the same role within the trade union movement.

The ITGWU executive hastily amended union rules to curb Larkin’s powers before he returned. The dispute descended into a bitter court battle that saw Larkin expelled from the union he had founded. 

His brother Peter and son Jim established the Workers’ Union of Ireland in 1924 during one of his numerous trips to Moscow. It was a recognition by them of the fact that there was no way back.

Paradoxically, he was achieving international recognition at the very moment when he was becoming an outcast at home. 

He was the only Irishman elected to the Moscow Soviet, and to the executive of the Communist International.

However, he proved no more able to work with the Communists than with anyone else. Meanwhile, the split at home had serious consequences. Many ITGWU members in Dublin defected to the new union and O’Brien blocked its affiliation to the ITUC.

Larkin would mellow with age and eventually the WUI would be allowed to affiliate to the Congress. Larkin also returned to the Labour Party fold.

He represented Dublin North East in the Dáil until 1944 and served on Dublin City Council until his death in 1947. 

His son, ‘Young Jim’ succeeded him as leader of the WUI and would prove a more effective strategist than his Father. Unfortunately his early death in 1969 and that of ITGWU President John Conroy, within five days of each other, prevented the early reunification of the two unions, which did not finally occur until 1990 when they came together to form SIPTU. 

Hopefully Young Jim will one day have as fine a biographer as his father.

Emmet O’Connor does an immense service with this book.

It is essential reading for all those seeking to understand Larkinism and the complex history of the Irish working class throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?

Emmet O’Connor

UCD Press, €40


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