The great appear great because we are on
our knees: Let us rise! - Jim Larkin
June 1943 – May 1944
July 1937 – June 1938
Constituency Dublin North–East
September 1927 – September 1927
Constituency Dublin North
Born 21 January 1876
Died 30 January 1947(aged 72)
Resting place Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin
Political party Independent Labour Party (from 1893)
Labour Party (1912–23; 1941–47)
Socialist Party of America (1914–19)
Irish Worker League(1923–27)
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Brown
Children James Larkin, Jnr
Occupation Docker, trade union leader
Religion Roman Catholicism
James (Jim) Larkin (21 January 1876 – 30 January 1947) was a British and Irish trade union leader and socialist activist, born to Irish parents inLiverpool, England. He and his family later moved to a small cottage in Burren, southernCounty Down. Growing up in poverty, he received little formal education and began working in a variety of jobs while still a child. He became a full-time trade union organiser in 1905.
Larkin moved to Belfast in 1907 and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, the Irish Labour Party, and later the Workers' Union of Ireland. Perhaps best known for his role in the 1913 Dublin Lockout, "Big Jim" continues to occupy a significant place inDublin's collective memory.
1.1 Early years
1.2 Organising the Irish labour movement (1907–14)
1.3 Dublin Lockout 1913
1.4 Larkin in the US (1914–23)
1.5 Return to Ireland and communist activism
1.6 Return to the Labour Party
2.4 James Larkin Way
2.5 Liverpool Irish Festival 2008
3 See also
5 Other sources consulted
6 Further reading
Larkin was born on 21 January 1876 the second eldest son of Irish immigrants, James Larkin and Mary Ann McNulty, both natives of County Armagh. The impoverished Larkin family lived in the slums of Liverpool during the early years of his life. From the age of seven, he attended school in the mornings and worked in the afternoons to supplement the family income—a common arrangement in working class families at the time. At the age of fourteen, after the death of his father, he was apprenticed to the firm his father had worked for but was dismissed after two years. He was unemployed for a time and then worked as a sailor and docker. By 1903, he was a dock foreman, and on 8 September of that year, he married Elizabeth Brown.
From 1893, Larkin developed an interest in socialism and became a member of the Independent Labour Party. In 1905, he was one of the few foremen to take part in a strike on the Liverpool docks. He was elected to the strike committee, and although he lost his foreman's job as a result, his performance so impressed the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) that he was appointed a temporary organiser. He later gained a permanent position with the union, which, in 1906, sent him toScotland, where he successfully organised workers in Prestonand Glasgow.
Organising the Irish labour movement (1907–14)
In January 1907, Larkin undertook his first task on behalf of the trade union movement in Ireland, when he arrived inBelfast to organise the city's dock workers for the NUDL. He succeeded in unionising the workforce and, as employers refused to meet the wage demands, he called the dockers out on strike in June. Carters and coal men soon joined in, the latter settling their dispute after a month. Larkin succeeded in uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and even persuaded the local Royal Irish Constabulary to strike at one point, but the strike ended by November without having achieved significant success. Tensions regarding leadership arose between Larkin and NUDL general secretary James Sexton. The latter's handling of negotiations and agreement to a disastrous settlement for the last of the strikers resulted in a lasting rift between Sexton and Larkin.
In 1908, Larkin moved south and organised workers in Dublin,Cork and Waterford, with considerable success. His involvement, against union instructions, in a dispute in Dublin resulted in his expulsion from the NUDL. The union later prosecuted him for diverting union funds to give strike pay to Cork workers engaged in an unofficial dispute. After trial and conviction for embezzlement in 1910, he was sentenced to prison for a year. This was widely regarded as unjust, and the then Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, pardoned him after he had served three months in prison.
After his expulsion from the NUDL, Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) at the end of December 1908. The organisation exists today as the Services Industrial Professional & Technical Union (SIPTU). It quickly gained the affiliation of the NUDL branches in Dublin, Cork,Dundalk and Waterford. The Derry and Drogheda NUDL branches stayed with the British union, and Belfast split along sectarian lines. Early in the new year, 1909, Larkin moved to Dublin, which became the main base of the ITGWU and the focus of all his future union activity in Ireland.
In June 1911, Larkin established a newspaper, The Irish Worker and People's Advocate, as a pro-labour alternative to the capitalist-owned press. This organ was characterised by a campaigning approach and the harsh denunciation of unfair employers and of Larkin's political enemies. Its columns also included pieces by intellectuals. The paper was produced until its suppression by the authorities in 1915. Afterwards, theWorker metamorphosed into the new Ireland Echo.
In partnership with James Connolly, Larkin helped form theIrish Labour Party in 1912. Later that year, he was elected to the Dublin Corporation. He did not hold his seat long, as a month later he was removed as he had a criminal record since his conviction in 1910.
Dublin Lockout 1913
Main article: Dublin Lockout
In early 1913, Larkin achieved some notable successes in industrial disputes in Dublin; these involved frequent recourse to sympathetic strikes and blacking (boycotting) of goods. Two major employers, Guinness and the Dublin United Tramway Company, were the main targets of Larkin's organising ambitions. Both had craft unions for skilled workers, but Larkin's main aim was to unionise the unskilled workers as well. He coined the slogan "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay'.
Guinness staff were relatively well-paid, and enjoyed generous benefits from a paternalistic management that refused to join Murphy's lock-out. This was far from the case on the tramways. The chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company, industrialist and newspaper proprietor William Martin Murphy, was determined not to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce. On 15 August, he dismissed forty workers he suspected of ITGWU membership, followed by another 300 over the next week. On 26 August, the tramway workers officially went on strike. Led by Murphy, over four hundred of the city's employers retaliated by requiring their workers to sign a pledge not to be a member of the ITGWU and not to engage in sympathetic strikes.
The resulting industrial dispute was the most severe in Ireland's history. Employers in Dublin engaged in a sympatheticlock-out of their workers when the latter refused to sign the pledge, employing blackleg labour from Great Britain and elsewhere in Ireland. Guinness, the largest employer in Dublin, refused the employers' call to lock out its workers but it sacked 15 workers who struck in sympathy. Dublin's workers, amongst the poorest in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, were forced to survive on generous but inadequate donations from the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other sources in Ireland, distributed by the ITGWU.
For seven months the lock-out affected tens of thousands of Dublin's workers and employers, with Larkin portrayed as the villain by Murphy's three main newspapers, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and the Evening Herald. Other leaders in the ITGWU at the time were James Connollyand William X. O'Brien, while influential figures such as Patrick Pearse, Constance Markievicz and William Butler Yeatssupported the workers in the generally anti-Larkin Irish press.The Irish Worker published the names and addresses of strike breakers, Irish Independent published the names and addresses of men and women who attempted to send their children out of the city to be cared for in foster homes in Belfast and Britain. But Larkin never resorted to violence. He knew it would play into the hands of the anti-union companies and knew he could not build a mass trade union by wrecking the firms where his members worked.
The lock-out eventually concluded in early 1914 when the calls for a sympathetic strike in Britain from Larkin and Connolly were rejected by the British TUC. Larkin's attacks on the TUC leadership for this stance also led to the cessation of financial aid to the ITGWU, which in any case was not affiliated to the TUC. Although the actions of the ITGWU and the smaller UBLU were unsuccessful in achieving substantially better pay and conditions for the workers, they marked a watershed in Irish labour history. The principle of union action and workers' solidarity had been firmly established. Perhaps even more importantly, Larkin's rhetoric, condemning poverty and injustice and calling for the oppressed to stand up for themselves, made a lasting impression.
Larkin in the US (1914–23)
Jim Larkin at his 8 November 1919 booking for "criminal anarchism" in the state of New York.
Some months after the lock-out ended, Larkin left for the United States. He intended to recuperate from the strain of the lock-out and raise funds for the union. His decision to leave dismayed many union activists. Once there he became a member of the Socialist Party of America, and was involved in the Industrial Workers of the World union. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union and was expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1919 along with numerous other sympathisers of the Bolsheviks.
Larkin was reported as having helped disrupt Allied munitions shipments in New York City during World War I. In 1937, he voluntarily assisted US lawyers investigating the Black Tom explosion by providing an affidavit from his home in Dublin. According to British Army Intelligence officer, Henry Landau:
Larkin testified that he himself never took part in the actual sabotage campaign but, rather, confined himself to the organising of strikes to secure both higher pay and shorter hours for workmen and to prevent the shipment of munitions to the Allies.
Larkin's speeches in support of the Soviet Union, his association with founding members of the American Communist Party, and his radical publications made him a target of the "First Red Scare" that was sweeping the US; he was jailed in 1920 for 'criminal anarchy' and was sentenced to five to ten years in Sing Sing prison. In 1923, he was pardoned and later deported by Al Smith, Governor of New York.
Return to Ireland and communist activism
Upon his return to Ireland in April 1923, Larkin received a hero's welcome, and immediately set about touring the country meeting trade union members and appealing for an end to theIrish Civil War. However, he soon found himself at variance with William O'Brien, who in his absence had become the leading figure in the ITGWU and the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. Larkin was still officially general secretary of the ITGWU. The ITGWU leaders – Thomas Foran, William O'Brien, Thomas Kennedy: all colleagues of Larkin during the Lockout – sued him. Their counsel told the court that Larkin had justified the occupation by false and malicious attacks on their characters, to oust them and to gain sole control of the union. The Master of the Rolls, presiding, declared: "It is surprising that a man of Mr Larkin's intelligence should launch so desperate an invective against these people for irregularities, in the misapplication of funds and the falsification of documents, when I have before me a document which bears the name of James Larkin, which has been proved to be a mis-statement." Larkin's "mis-statement" asserted that the Transport Union had £1,746.69 in the Hibernian Bank in December 1913, whereas the union account was completely empty. Moreover, since all relevant union account books had mysteriously been destroyed, no explanation for the missing money was possible. The court duly found against Larkin, ordering him to pay the costs of both sides. The bitterness of the court case between the former organisers of the 1913 Lockout would last over twenty years.
In September 1923 Larkin formed the Irish Worker League(IWL), which was soon afterwards recognised by the Cominternas the Irish section of the world communist movement. In 1924 Larkin attended the Comintern congress in Moscow and was elected to its executive committee. On his return Larkin announced that he had addressed some 20 million Russians, having been elected as one of "the 25 men to govern the world" and boasted that he had been appointed a Chief of Battalion of the Red Army, whose 2.5 million men had "pledged to come to the assistance of Irish workers". However, the League was not organised as a political party, never held a general congress and never succeeded in being politically effective. Its most prominent activity in its first year was to raise funds for imprisoned members of the Anti-Treaty IRA.
During Larkin's absence at the 1924 Comintern congress (and apparently against his instructions), his brother Peter took his supporters out of the ITGWU, forming the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). The new union quickly grew, gaining the allegiance of about two-thirds of the Dublin membership of the ITGWU and of a smaller number of rural members. It affiliated to the pro-Soviet Red International of Labour Unions.
Larkin launched a vicious attack on the Labour leader, Tom Johnston, who like Larkin, was Liverpool-born. But whereas Johnston had spent most of his life in Ireland, Larkin had been as long in the US as he had in Ireland. "It's time that Labour dealt with this English traitor," Larkin trumpeted. "If they don't get rid of this scoundrel, they'll get the bullet and the bayonet in reward. There's nothing for it, but a dose of the lead which Johnson promises to those who look for work." This incitement to murder Johnston in a still-violent post-Civil War country cost Larkin £1,000 in libel damages.
In January 1925, the Comintern sent Communist Party of Great Britain activist Bob Stewart to Ireland to establish a communist party in co-operation with Larkin. A formal founding conference of the Irish Worker League, which was to take up this role, was set for May 1925. A fiasco ensued when the organisers discovered at the last minute that Larkin did not intend to attend. Feeling that the proposed party could not succeed without him, they called the conference off as it was due to start in a packed room in the Mansion House in Dublin.
At the September 1927 general election, Larkin ran (a huge surprise for all) in Dublin North and was elected. However, as a result of a libel award against him won by William O'Brien, which he had refused to pay, he was an undischarged bankrupt and could not take up his seat.
Larkin was unsuccessful in his attempts in the following years to gain a position as a commercial agent in Ireland for theSoviet Union, and this may have contributed to his disenchantment with Stalinism. The Soviets, for their part, were increasingly impatient with what they saw as his ineffective leadership. From the early 1930s Larkin drew away from the Soviet Union. While in the 1932 general election he stood without success as a communist, in 1933 and subsequently he ran as "Independent Labour". In 1934 he gave important evidence on the 1916 Black Tom explosion to John J. McCloy,allowing a case for damages against Germany to be reopened; presumably because of Germany's new Nazi government.
During this period he also engaged in a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. In 1936 he regained his seat on Dublin Corporation. He then regained his Dáil seat at the 1937 general election but lost it again the following year. In this period the Workers' Union of Ireland also entered the mainstream of the trade union movement, being admitted to the Dublin Trades Council in 1936, although the Irish Trade Union Congress would not accept its membership application until 1945.
Return to the Labour Party
Larkin's gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery
In 1941 a new trade union bill was published by the Government. Inspired by an internal trade union restructuring proposal by William O'Brien, it was viewed as a threat by the smaller general unions and the Irish branches of British unions (known as the 'amalgamated unions'). Larkin and the WUI played a leading role in the unsuccessful campaign against the bill. After its passage into law he and his supporters successfully applied for admission to the Labour Party, where they were now regarded with more sympathy by many members. O'Brien in response disaffiliated the ITGWU from the party, forming the rivalNational Labour Party and denouncing what he claimed was communist influence in Labour. Larkin later served as a Labour Party deputy in Dáil Éireann from 1943–44.
James Larkin died in his sleep on 30 January 1947. His funeral mass was celebrated by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and thousands lined the streets of the city as the hearse passed through on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery.
Larkin has been the subject of poems by Brendan Behan,Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor and Lola Ridge; his character has been central in plays by Daniel Corkery, George Russell (Æ), and Sean O'Casey; and he is a heroic figure in the background of James Plunkett's novel Strumpet City.
James Larkin was memorialised by the New York Irish rock band Black 47, in their song The Day They Set Jim Larkin Freeand The Ballad of James Larkin was recorded by Christy Mooreand also the Dubliners. Paddy Reilly sings a song simply entitled Jim Larkin that describes the lot of the worker and their appreciation of the changes made by Larkin and Connolly .
Statue of James Larkin on O'Connell Street, Dublin (Oisín Kelly 1977)
Today a statue of "Big Jim" stands onO'Connell Street in Dublin. The inscription on the front of the monument is an extract in French, Irish and English from one of his famous speeches:
Les grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux: Levons-nous.
Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal: Éirímis.
The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.
The slogan, first used on the 18th century French radical paper Révolutions de Paris, also appeared on the masthead of the Workers' Republic, founded by James Connolly in Dublin in August 1898. Originally the organ of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, this periodical later became the official organ of the Communist Party of Ireland, which was founded in 1921. The original slogan is usually attributed to Camille Desmoulins (1760–1794), theFrench revolutionary; but it appears, only slightly modified, in an essay written by Étienne de La Boétie(1530–1563) and first published in 1576.
On the west side of the base of the Larkin monument is a quotation from the poem Jim Larkin by Patrick Kavanagh:
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.
On the east side of the monument there is a quotation fromDrums under the Windows by Seán O'Casey:
...He talked to the workers, spoke as only Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience, or placid resignation, but trumpet-tongued of resistance to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward.
A road in Clontarf, North Dublin, is named after him.
James Larkin Way
A road in L4 1YQ, Kirkdale, in his home city of Liverpool, just off Scotland Road, is called James Larkin Way.
Liverpool Irish Festival 2008
To celebrate Liverpool's capital of culture, the Liverpool Irish Festival held a 'James Larkin Evening' at the 'Casa' bar-the Dockers pub in central Liverpool. This was attended by Francis Devine who wrote the general history of the Trade Union movement in Dublin and the formation of SIPTU, it was introduced by Liverpool/ Irish, Marcus Maher, who came over from Dublin to present a special commissioned painting by Finbar Coyle to James Larkin's last remaining Liverpool nephew, Tom Larkin. The painting reflects both Dublin, where Larkin would spend his remaining political career, and on the other side the 'Liver Birds' and his home city of Liverpool.
The Transport and General Workers' Union activist Jack Jones, whose full name was James Larkin Jones, was named in honour of his fellow Liverpudlian.