James Larkin (1876-1947)

Labor Leader & Irish Nationalist

James Larkin, the second of six children, was born to James Larkin and Mary Ann Larkin, nee McNulty on January 21, 1876  in the Toxeth Park district of Liverpool in England. The Larkin’s like most of their neighbors left Ireland during or after the Great Hunger of 1845 - 1851 to escape starvation and oppression; ubiquitous and ever-present evils lurking in the shadow of Ireland’s poor city dwellers and peasant farmers. Everything considered, leaving Ireland was the only viable option for the Larkin’s as it was for the millions of their countrymen and women who joined the institutionalized exodus out of Ireland that surged during the years of the Great Hunger and, afterwards, during periods of political oppression or economic stagnation.

Both of James's parents were of tenant farmer stock. His father's family eked out a meager living on a small holding (plot of land) in south Armagh as did his mother’s family in south Down.  Living in near poverty was a way of life for tenant farmers who slaved tirelessly to produce enough food to feed their families and pay rent to the landlord who owned vast landed estates that incorporated their plots. For the landlords who reaped the bounty -- abundance and privilege was the order of the day. 

Education was not the primary concern for those living in the slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, London or elsewhere. Eking out a living was their main focus. It’s not as if they did not value education, however, providing food and shelter was an all-consuming and an ever-present challenge.  Even so, the Larkin siblings and their peers received a ‘poverty-stricken’ education that afforded them the ability to read, write and perform basic math. 

In 1881 when James was five years old he was sent to live with his grandparents in Co. Down.  After returning to Liverpool in 1886 he attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church School in Chipping St. as a part time student.  When children of the slums reached the age of ten, or so, they became part time students so that they could work in the afternoon to supplement the family income. Child labor was an accepted practice at that time. 

James’s formal education ended at the age of eleven. After that he worked at a variety of jobs including, a butcher's assistant, a paper-hanger, a furniture polisher, an engineering apprentice and a dock worker. While working on the docks he was injured and was unable to work for a prolonged period of time. During that  time he studied literature, history and politics. He also studied the workings of the archaic socio-economic system that doomed the working class to perpetual poverty. His new-found understanding of that system fueled his lifelong crusade to better the lives of workers assigned to the bottom rung of society by its keepers, the ruling elite.

In 1893, unemployed and unable to find work, Larkin, a youngster of seventeen, stowed away on a steamer bound for Montevideo, Uruguay. After he was discovered he was put to work in the engine room. He returned to Liverpool a year later in 1894.

For some years following his return he worked whenever or wherever he could as fulltime employment was hard to come by.  He took part in the public protest meetings and became an active member of the Independent Labor Party. He joined the National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL) in 1901.

 In 1903 he was employed fulltime as a foreman with a shipping and trading company. Two years later he lost his job when he sided with the workers in a labor dispute -- an unwitting decision on his part that, nonetheless, portended his future as a labor leader. As a result of the leadership and oratorical skills he displayed during that dispute he was offered and accepted a job as an organizer with the NUDL. A year later he became a general organizer for the north of England and Scotland.

After successfully completing that assignment he was sent to Belfast early in 1907. Upon his arrival there he set about recruiting dock workers to join the NUDL. By April of 1907 over 2,000 workers had joined. When their demand for union recognition was denied they went on strike.

By the time the strike ended Larkin had persuaded other groups to strike in support of the dockers. Those striking groups including shipyard workers, sailors, firemen, boilermakers, transport workers and the women who labored in the tobacco factory. When the Royal Irish Constabulary were ordered to escort replacement workers through picket lines they refused to do so.  In late August the strike ended when the head of the NUDL made a secret deal with the business owners that was enforced by the British Army who deployed to the Catholic areas of the city to work their magic on the inhabitants.

Although the strike did not achieve its objective it, nonetheless, fueled a significant increase in trade union membership amongst Catholics workers.

The leadership of the NUDL, who had settled with the business owners, were considered by many of its members to be pawns of capitalism. The leadership was wary of Larkin influence on workers, his ability to unite Catholics and Protestants in common cause and his willingness to resort to militarism to protect workers.

 Spooked by the specter of Protestant and Catholic strikers united in common cause the NUDL founded a separate union for Protestant to divide workers and ensure and safeguard the institution of sectarianism. For good measure they transferred Larkin to Dublin to organize workers there. 

After arriving in Dublin in 1909 Larkin recruited workers in Dublin, Waterford and Cork to join the NUDL, a prospect vehemently opposed by business owners who considered workers to be their vassals.  Denied the financial resources to press the worker’s demands for recognition through industrial actions, Larkin parted company with the NUDL who, in retaliation, took legal action against him for 'embezzling" HUDL funds. With the deck stacked against him he was found guilty and to a year in prison. He was released after serving a few months for a charge that at best could be ascribed to sloppy book keeping.

 After parting company with the NUDL he founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU).  At the onset the ITGWU’s membership consisted mostly of disgruntled NUDL members who believed in what became known as Larkinism’s – a strategy devised by Larkin to promote and safeguard worker’s rights and to restore their dignity. Within three years the ITGWU had become Ireland’s largest and most militant union with branches in Belfast, Derry and Drogheda. It also had evolved to include both skilled and unskilled workers.

 In 1911 Larkin founded the ‘Irish Worker’ a weekly newspaper designed to promote the union and its aims and to unite and keep its members informed.  It was an immediate success with a circulation of over 20,000.  Shortly after launching the newspaper he acquired Liberty Hall as the Union’s headquarters. Liberty Hall was where James Connelly and his Citizen’s Army mobilized for the 1916 Rising.

In 1912, Larkin, together with James Connolly and William O'Brien, founded the Irish Labor Party in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary to serve as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC).  The political program advocated by ITUC included; an eight-hour working day, provision of work for all the unemployed, and pensions for all workers at 60 years of age. It also sought; compulsory arbitration courts, adult suffrage, the nationalization of the Irish transport system, and the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.

Later that year Larkin won a seat on the Dublin Corporation, but due to his earlier conviction he was barred from taking his seat.

In 1913, Dublin City employers led by William Murphy, the owner of Clery's Department store and a number of newspapers including the Irish Independent, demanded that their employees revoke their ITGWU membership and sign a pledge of loyalty to their employers. Their refusal triggered the great Lockout of 1913, considered to be the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history.  Early in 1914, after eight months, the Lockout ended in, at best, a draw. Union workers gained nothing and, by the same token, a great number of businesses went bankrupt. The British government, who stood behind the employers, was the ultimate winner when thousands of laid-off workers joined its army only to be sent to the Western Front and to the far-off Dardanelles to defend its Empire.   

On November 23, 1913, during the Lockout, Larkin, together with James Connolly and Jack White, founded the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to protect workers against the combined onslaught of mercenaries hired by the employers and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Other prominent members of the ICA included Seán O'Casey, Constance Markievicz, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and P. T. Daly.  In 1916 the ICA took part in the Easter Rising under the command of James Connolly.

At the onset of WWI in the summer of 1914, Larkin published the following appeal to his countrymen in the Irish Worker:  “stay at home, arm for Ireland, fight for Ireland and no other land”.  In furtherance of that appeal he organized large anti-war demonstrations in Dublin.

In the fall of 1914 Larkin went on a lecture tour of the United States to raise funds for the ITGWU, leaving James Connolly and William O’Brien in charge. What was meant to be a short visit turned into a nine-year odyssey.  After completing a nationwide lecture tour organized by Clan na Gael he took up residence in New York where he became a union organizer, a member of the Socialist Party of America and of the Industrial Workers of the World union.  

In 1918 he established the James Connolly Socialist Club in New York in honor of Connolly, a former ally and fellow traveler, who was executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Larkin was arrested in 1919 along with other targeted immigrants during the ‘Red Scare’ organized by the U.S. Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer and Jay Edgar Hoover.  The ‘Red Scare’ was a fanciful obsession hatched by the anti-Irish Wilson Administration similar to the McCarthy era witch hunts of the 1950’s. Despite the fact that the ‘Red Scare” was a farce, Larkin was charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government," convicted, and sentenced to five to ten years in prison.

Larkin was pardoned in 1923 by Al Smith, the newly elected Governor of New York. On his release Jay Edgar Hoover had him deported back to Ireland to justify his own extrajudicial ploys during the "Red Scare" prosecutions.  During his years in the U.S. including those spent in prison, he was re-elected general secretary of the ITGWU. From his prison cell he denounced the Anglo-Irish Treaty as a sellout.

On his arrival in Dublin on April 30, 1923, the day after the Republicans laid down their arms, Larkin told the welcoming crowd that the Treaty could be defeated by means other than by force of arms.  He believed that a strategy of strikes and mass protest could wrest the country back from the British-backed right wing elitists who had taken over control.  What Larkin failed to understand was that the Ireland he left in 1914 was not the Ireland he came back to in 1923.  The Irish patriots and workers who had participated in the Easter Rising of 1916, the anti-conscription General Strike of 1918, the War of Independence and the Treaty War were exhausted, defeated and resigned to the fact that they were sold-out and enslaved by their own so-called leaders. They were not willing to start over and, furthermore, any further industrial actions or protests would be harshly dealt by the Free State army.

The second reality that Larkin faced on his return was that the acting leadership of the ITGWU opposed his involvement in the union, particularly in a leadership capacity.  In 1924, Larkin was expelled from the ITGWU and the Labor Party after he accused the leadership of not working hard enough for worker’s rights. In response to his expulsion he and his brother, Peter, founded the Workers Union of Ireland.  The new union quickly grew when two-thirds of the Dublin membership of the ITGWU and of a smaller number of rural members switched allegiance.

In 1927 Larkin was elected to the Dail (Irish parliament). Six months later he was forces to resign because of an adverse libel judgment that he refused to honor. He was elected for a second time in 1937 and served until the Dail was dissolved in 1936.  He was elected for a third time in 1943 and served until that Dail was  dissolved one year later in 1944.

In 1930 Larkin was elected to the Dublin Corporation where he devoted much of his efforts to housing for the working-class. In 1942 he became chairman of the Corporation’s Housing Committee. He also served on the Dublin Trades Council and on the Port and Docks Board.

James Larkin passed away on January 30, 1947.  On the day he died Sean O’Casey wrote:

“It is hard to believe that this great man is dead, for all thoughts and activities surged in the soul of this Labor Leader. He was far and away above the orthodox Labor Leader, for he combined within himself the imagination of an artist with the fire and determination of a leader of a downtrodden class.”

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


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 Posted 11/11/2015