I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized The Great Incendiary

The Great Incendiary

Tom Wall
Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?, by Emmet O’Connor, University College Dublin Press, 360 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1906359935 The late Donal Nevin was at one time contemplating writing a history of the Workers’ Union of Ireland. He had previously edited Lion of the Fold, a collection of essays on James Larkin, and, inevitably, Big Jim would have had to have been the main focus here too. I recall asking him how the work was progressing. He shook his head and with a resigned look and said: “He was mad, you know.” I was taken aback. I had assumed him to be an admirer of Larkin: apart from his literary work, he had been a close friend of his son Young Jim. It was well known that Larkin senior could be difficult, stubborn, hot-tempered and cantankerous. Was this what he meant? He didn’t elaborate, but I knew then he was never going to write that history. After reading Emmet O’Connor’s Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? I think I now know why. This is only the second biography of James Larkin, the only other being James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader by the late Emmet Larkin, which concentrated on his career. O’Connor has written the first warts and all biography of the man. The pages recount his deeds of heroism but also his darker side. It appears he wasn’t just volatile and cantankerous; he could be jealous, cruel and vindictive. When Larkin arrived in Dublin in 1908 he was already well-known. Born in Liverpool to Irish parents, he had lost his dock job for taking part in a strike. This led to him becoming an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). He was sent to Scotland, where he successfully organised Glasgow dock workers, securing them better pay and the union a closed shop. Reassigned to Belfast in 1907, he began the more difficult task of organising Protestant and Catholic port workers. He succeeded brilliantly and had the vast majority sign up within a few months. In a sequence of events that was to be repeated elsewhere, the union became embroiled in a dispute following the dismissal of workers for refusing to unload a ship crewed by strike breakers. The dispute spread and led to street battles involving union men and strike breakers. Once it became a test of strength, Larkin put all his impressive energies into winning it. He left his rented accommodation and…

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