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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
Tomás Ó Coısdealha
353 1 830-1133
Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Ireland