Emmet O’Connor looks at the early 20th Century industrial action on Leeside’s docks that helped reboot the Irish trade union movement under Big Jim Larkin
Cork had a chequered place in Jim Larkin’s early career. It inspired some of the great developments associated with Larkinism, and presented Big Jim with a few headaches.
In 1908, Larkin organised Cork dockers and would later claim that the idea of the Citizen Army arose during the campaign, when dockers were equipped with red armlets and long staves.
Cork was also a factor in the combination of elements that led Larkin to break with the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers and form an Irish union. Arguably, it was the most important single decision ever taken affecting Labour as it led to the rebirth of an Irish trade union movement.
In 1909, Cork coalporters went on strike, other Transport Union men came out in sympathy, and the Employers’ Federation retaliated with a general lockout — since dubbed the “real lockout”. The remarkable thing is that Larkin was not based in Cork at the time. It was the first example of Larkinism without Larkin.
Larkin hastened south to negotiate a settlement, but when he failed, he returned to Dublin, and left the men to their fate. To have called off the struggle would have meant losing face.
As the Cork branch of the Transport Union disintegrated, Larkin was arrested, taken to Cork, and charged with “conspiracy to defraud” for taking dues from local dockers in 1908, and spending the money in Dublin.
Impartial observers were sceptical about the Crown’s concern for the dockers’ welfare, and noted that the Crown prosecutor was also legal adviser to the Cork Employers’ Federation.
However, the case would cost Larkin 10 weeks in prison in 1910.
Evidently, the setbacks did not change his affection for Cork. On Whit Sunday, 1911, Larkin bade farewell to an ITGWU excursion to Cork, Queenstown (Cobh), and Blarney.
His attention to the social side of the union was very much a part of his appeal. An advertisement for the trip invited readers to: “Visit sweet Cork, where your soggarth was born.”
The “soggarth” was Father Patrick O’Leary, who had helped Larkin resolve disputes in Cork and said Mass for the excursionists.
However, Larkin still lived under the cloud of having abandoned his men in Cork in 1909.
When the Irish Trades Union Congress resolved to meet in the city in 1913, there were rumours that he would chicken out.
As late as March 1913, when he was under enormous mental strain for being blamed for all the country’s industrial woes, he was insisting that he wouldn’t go.
In the heel of the hunt, Larkin did attend the Congress, which opened in Cork City Hall on May 12. Travelling south on the train, endlessly relighting his pipe — there is no doubt about his love of strikes in that respect — he fretted about his reception and talked of how he’d be “kicked through the streets”.
He had already refused to deliver his chairman’s address to the Congress, passing the buck to William O’Brien, who would later become his most bitter enemy in the union.
Public meetings on Grand Parade and in Queenstown went ahead and Jim and his brother Pete spoke with little of the anticipated disruption.
Nonetheless, Jim complained subsequently of “a rather severe campaign carrying the truth [to] the misguided men of Cork”.
The Congress itself put him in better form. Larkin spoke frequently, and received the rare honour of a second term in the chair.
The Labour movement was more Larkinite than ever.
As Jim took the train back to Dublin in May of 1913, the future must have seemed bright.
Emmet O’Connor holds a PhD from St John’s College, Cambridge. Since 1985, he has lectured in the School of History in Ulster University. He was co-editor of Saothar for almost 20 years and is an honorary president of the Irish Labour History Society. At present, he is working on a study of the Irish in the Spanish Civil War. Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? by Emmet O’Connor, UCD Press, will be launched this evening.
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