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 slept on the floor of the union office, donating his salary to the strike fund. His wife, Elizabeth’s, reaction is not recorded but this act of self-sacrifice is not likely to have been appreciated by her, especially as she was nursing her firstborn. Larkin had married Elizabeth Brown, the daughter of a Baptist lay preacher, in Liverpool in 1903.
Larkin addressed large demonstrations in Belfast in support of the port dispute and these were often followed by street battles between police and demonstrators. Things came to a head when a few hundred RIC men mutinied. In response, troops were shipped in and the resulting heavy security provoked riots in nationalist areas of the city during which two residents were shot. The until then impressive cross-community support began to crack. Sexton, the NUDL general secretary, himself of Irish parentage, arrived in Belfast with other British union leaders. They took command and settled the dispute on less than favourable terms for the workers. This aggravated tensions between Sexton and Larkin. Not for the last time though it was Larkin’s reputation that was enhanced. Larkin and Larkinism had become a worker’s rallying cry. Later that year Big Jim moved south.
From Dublin Larkin made organising forays to Sligo, Galway and Wexford, with mixed outcomes. It was a Cork dispute that led to his final break with Sexton and the NUDL. A dockers’ and carters’ dispute was disowned by the NUDL who refused to fund the strike and Larkin was suspended and ordered to relocate to Aberdeen. Instead, soon after Christmas in 1908, he convened a meeting of a few stalwarts in a tenement room in Townsend Street in Dublin where the decision was taken to break with the NUDL and found an Irish union. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union became formally established in the following year.
This didn’t mean he was rid of Sexton, however. Following a second outbreak of industrial strife in Cork, Larkin and leading members of the city branch of the ITGWU were arrested. They were accused of fraud, arising from union dues not being forwarded to the NUDL. The money was used to fund the Cork strike but Larkin’s disdain for records and accounts was not in his favour. It was believed that Sexton was behind the “trumped-up” charges, a suspicion confirmed when he arrived to give evidence for the prosecution. Larkin ended up in jail but again enjoyed victim status while Sexton was reviled. After a campaign for his release, he was freed and honoured with a torchlight procession. Presented with a “purse of gold” by the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) to celebrate his release, he asked that it be used to “keep Connolly at home in Ireland”. James Connolly had recently returned from the United States to become an organiser for the SPI. When it became evident that party funds, even with the returned gold, were insufficient to sustain Connolly and his family, Larkin secured him a job in the ITGWU. An auspicious beginning to what later proved to be a fractious relationship.
Success in a number of disputes contributed further to his popularity among the unskilled workers of Dublin. His appearances on outdoor public platforms didn’t disappoint. He was a big man with a loud booming voice, an important asset before the advent of amplification. Many paid tribute to his skill as an orator. A young John Swift, later to become general secretary of the Bakers’ Union, recalled:
I was never to hear a greater orator … With him anger and scorn or whatever other emotion, were on ready tap, as were the flows of words and cadences that made them poetry and drama to the spell-bound audience.
Countess Markievicz described her experience using meteorological metaphors:
I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never experienced before, some great primeval force, rather than a man. A tornado, a storm driven wave, a rush into life of spring and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke.
Even Lenin came to hear of Larkin’s “remarkable oratorical talent”.
His oratory transfixed both speaker and audience. O’Connor quotes a passage from one of his Irish Worker editorials in which Larkin describes lyrically his own sense of rejuvenation:
And then suddenly when things seem blackest and dark night enshrouds abroad, lo! thereunder rises wrath and hope and wonder, and the worker comes marching on.
Friends there is hope for the future. The mouse of industrial unionism has cut through the net of sectional trade unions … Hurrah for the Social Revolution!
The first two lines are borrowed from one of William Morris’s Chants for Socialists. Morris, a romantic socialist, was indulging in millenarian fancy when he wrote his chants in the 1880s but for Larkin the social revolution was a real possibility. When he lauded industrial trade unions and denounced sectional trades unions he was speaking of a movement already well advanced.
In the decade before 1900 change of great portent occurred in labour representation. Nineteenth century trade unionism had been dominated by trade unions that represented particular skilled trades. Despite legal restraints, these had gained a large measure of acceptance and respectability. They founded the Trades Union Congress in Britain in 1868 and the Irish Trades Union Congress in 1894. Note the plurality in both titles: there is no apostrophe; they were congresses of trades that, by definition at least, excluded the large majority of workers, who did not have trade status and were consequently deemed to be “unskilled”. The advent of “New Unionism” changed everything. The new industrial unions recruited the general or “unskilled” workers. They opposed the sectionalism of the craft unions and saw their role as representing the working class generally. They were more militant and political and were often prepared to engage in sympathetic strikes, refusing to handle goods produced or transported by strike breakers. Their emergence contributed to what become known as “The Great Unrest”, which convulsed Britain and Ireland from 1910 to 1914. The immediate stimulus was a demand for wage increases to compensate for rises in the cost of living. But there was a political aspect: the leadership of the new unions was imbued with socialist ideals. The level of strikes and lockouts was unprecedented; at the peak of the unrest in 1912 almost a million and a half workers were on strike. In the words of Emmet Larkin; “the working classes embarked on an odyssey of militancy” that seemed to herald the social revolution that was Larkin cheering on in the Irish Worker.
Syndicalism became popular with radicals in the industrial unions. Syndicalists focused on the industrial unions as the instrument for class struggle and revolution. French and American influences contributed to the spread of the ideology. Larkin’s use of the sympathetic strike was syndicalist in approach, although his interest in its revolutionary potential seems only to have manifested itself around the time of James Connolly’s return to Ireland from America. Connolly, while in the US, had worked as an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as the “Wobblies”, an international union that operated on syndicalist lines. Emmet O’Connor defines syndicalism as providing a “practical toolkit from which one could pick and choose à la carte”. Larkin, ever wary of being corralled, would have appreciated the flexibility afforded.
While Larkin used syndicalist vocabulary in his speeches, and adapted the sympathetic strike, he made no effort to develop the ITGWU along syndicalist lines. Although he affixed the syndicalist totem OBU – One Big Union – to the union badge under the red hand, there were no specific provisions in the founding rules that defined it as an industrial or syndicalist union. Its declared aim was to improve wages and conditions and that was to be achieved by negotiation, arbitration, or, as a last resort, strike action; a conciliatory approach likely to be repudiated by syndicalists. O’Connor puts this down to a cut and paste approach by Larkin to formulating the rule book. But it was not entirely out of character, for Larkin frequently sought arbitration. In April 1913, less than four months before the lockout began, he wrote an article in the Irish Worker on “How to Stop Strikes”, in which he called for a Trade Wages Board that would arbitrate to end disputes. The tenor of the article would not have gone amiss in an early twenty-first century apologia for social partnership. Of course it was inconsistent with much of what came before and occurred later, but Larkin was full of contradictions as mood influenced his thoughts and actions. His nemesis, William Martin Murphy, the leader of the Dublin employers, didn’t see things in this way. He regarded Larkin as a calculating and unbending syndicalist and his unwavering intention was to smash the ITGWU.
The events of 1913 established Larkin as figure of repute internationally. His leadership in a series of disputes earlier had already won him the admiration of Irish workers and the enmity of their employers but the dramatic events in Dublin that year became worldwide news. O’Connor defines the nature and origins of the dispute as follows:
The lockout was not a conventional dispute about wages, conditions, or even union recognition. It was about the balance of power in industrial relations. Yes, that had political and social ramifications, and yes, Murphy was determined to smash the ITGWU, while Larkin was willing to compromise on the sympathetic strike. But the lockout arose from a collision of union strategy and employer policy: it was a product of Larkinism in the framework of industrial relations, not social misery. The slums were a red herring. Undoubtedly they affected Larkin, reinforced his moral offensive, and generated graphic propaganda for the union cause. But Larkin had shaken Belfast, where housing was relatively good, and the Dublin slums became an explanation of working-class behaviour only after the riots that followed the start of the dispute.
The implied rebuke is presumably directed against those whom O’Connor may regard as guilty of allowing current preoccupations, for example union recognition, to influence historical analysis. Whatever about causality, surely the right to union representation became paramount given the declared intention of Murphy to destroy the ITGWU, and the demand of allied employers that their employees sign a pledge not to join or support that union on pain of dismissal? As for slum conditions, O’Connor is right in stating that they do not explain the cause, but they too are central to an understanding of how events unfolded. The riots he refers to began with attacks on strike-breaking trams, to which the police reacted with unrestrained ferocity. Hundreds were injured and two men, James Nolan and John Byrne, were killed. The police invaded tenements and the recently built Corporation Street flats complex, smashing every window. They were at war with a community. It wasn’t just the strikers that were involved in the rioting; the newspapers commented on the large numbers of women and young people involved. The following Sunday was Bloody Sunday.
It can be difficult for young people today to appreciate the centrality of class to early twentieth century living. A catalogue of cold facts can never convey the reality of life in the Dublin tenements. It was not, of course, a neverending vale of tears; the sharing, the banter, the songs and other aspects of tenement living made life tolerable much of the time. But there can be no gainsaying the degrading and destructive impact of the living and working conditions, especially when work became scarce during the regular trade recessions. Poverty, dirt and overcrowding robbed people of their dignity; it led to high rates of disease and death, especially among children. It contributed to depression, alcohol addiction and domestic violence that drove some women into prostitution. The inequalities were enforced and reinforced by state and Church institutions, which coalesced in putting down any sign of social rebelliousness. Socialism had already enlightened a few freethinkers, but it was Larkin’s gift to be able to convey the message in ways that all could understand: a man of their own background throwing down the gauntlet to the high and mighty; telling them that things didn’t have to be so; giving them hope. The situation was not unique; most large cities in Europe experienced similar worker uprisings around that time. But few were as prolonged, or involved the same degree of civic strife. The fury with which “the degraded class” ‑ a term used by Father Curran, the archbishop’s of Dublin’s secretary – held out is testimony to their hope, and to their desperation.
Towards the end of 1913, as defeat loomed, Larkin’s personality disorder became more evident to those in a position to observe. Already Connolly, in a letter to William O’Brien, later to become Larkin’s great rival within the ITGWU, complained bitterly of Larkin’s dictatorial ways and of his bullying tactics towards himself. Larkin also fell out with Jack White, who led the Citizen Army. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some deep insecurity compelled Larkin to spurn such talented allies. His “Fiery Cross Crusade” in Britain was a dashing but misguided attempt to provoke a grass roots revolt against the British trade union leadership and win support for sympathetic strike action. Sexton was an implacable enemy but the crusade alienated everyone. Then and later, Larkin burned his bridges with the recklessness of a pyromaniac.
In December the union’s executive recommended that strikers return to work on the best terms available. Larkin overruled them, but the strikers, wherever they could, drifted back to work anyway. He couldn’t accept defeat. Depression disabled him. He left for America in October 1914 just as John Redmond’s recruits, among them some of those who had lost their jobs in the lockout, were fighting the Germans at Ypres in support of “Catholic Belgium”.
The purpose of Larkin’s long sojourn in the US remains a matter for speculation. O’Connor’s view is that he aimed to earn money through speaking engagements, either for himself or for the union. It may also be that he wanted to experience again the adulation of crowds. If that was the case he would have been disappointed. Although he conveyed his patriotic and republican sentiments to Irish American gatherings, references to the cause of labour left many of them cold. When speaking on socialist platforms, his nationalist sentiments caused disquiet among the more doctrinaire. O’Connor dismisses the notion, current for a time, that Larkin was a reluctant nationalist. The Easter Rising dismayed him only because, in O’Connor’s words, “he grasped that he had been upstaged on a grand scale”: the lockout, his claim to fame, had been supplanted.
Like all advanced Irish nationalists, he took England’s difficulty to be Ireland’s opportunity. It shouldn’t surprise us then to learn that he conspired with agents of the Kaiser in America. What shocks, however, is that money apparently changed hands. He was reputedly offered as much as $12,000 on the basis that he would support industrial disputes within the American armaments industry and continue to oppose the war. It’s not clear how much was actually paid. The Germans wished him to become more directly involved in sabotage, something he refused to do, and this contributed to an acrimonious end to the relationship. He took enormous risks in his liaisons with the Germans; proof of collusion could have put him away for a long spell. Eventually, he did end up in Sing Sing prison, but this was for nothing more than being a communist supporter. The Bolshevik Revolution had encouraged and reinvigorated the left and Big Jim was not alone in voicing his support. Like thousands of American leftists, he was arrested in a reactionary “red scare”. He spent nearly three years in jail before being pardoned by Governor Al Smith in 1923.
He arrived back in Dublin to an enthusiastic welcome, although that enthusiasm was not shared by Thomas Foran, Thomas Kennedy or William O’Brien, the leaders of a revitalised ITGWU. A split was inevitable. Larkin was never going to share power with anyone in what he regarded as “his union”. O’Brien was now the effective leader of the ITGWU. He had overseen a nationwide expansion in membership, which had grown from about five thousand when Larkin left to over one hundred thousand, and he didn’t see why he should be relegated to second fiddle. The result was an unedifying battle, fought out at meetings, in the courts and, physically, on picket lines. Insults were traded without restraint on both sides. While the Dublin membership was mostly loyal to Larkin, recent recruits in the provinces supported O’Brien. The Larkinite Workers Union of Ireland was established and the two unions remained bitter rivals for nearly three decades. The split was disastrous for both the trade union movement and the Labour Party. Tom Johnston, the leader of the party, was excoriated by Larkin for sitting in the Free State Dáil. He called his fellow Liverpool-born compatriot a traitor and an “English anti-Irishman”. Johnston won a resulting libel case. Larkin, regarded as a valuable asset by the Comintern, formed the Irish Worker League (IWL) and successfully lobbied for the dissolution of the pre-existing Communist Party of Ireland, led by James Connolly’s son, Roddy. However, he stymied all efforts to establish the IWL as a functioning political organisation. It seemed to his growing body of detractors that he was prepared to destroy the labour movement, industrial and political, if he couldn’t control it.
He was separated from his wife by this stage. While the cause of the separation remains a mystery, life with Big Jim couldn’t have been easy. On two occasions Elizabeth and her young children were forcibly evicted from their home due to her husband’s action or inaction.
The bipolarity suggested in the title of O’Connor’s book could be applied to Larkin’s personality. His manic energy and commitment helped establish a vibrant labour movement on the island, while his vainglorious destructiveness almost destroyed it. In his later years he mellowed somewhat and repaired some of the damage. He was reconciled with Tom Johnston, but never with O’Brien, who spurned his overtures. The communist connection was allowed to lapse and Larkin became a valued member of the Labour Party. He and two of his sons, Young Jim and Denis, served as Labour Party TDs for a time. However, the trade union movement and Labour Party remained divided for a long period, in large part because of O’Brien’s undying enmity towards Larkin. The final reconciliation had to await the next generation of leaders, who united political Labour, rival trade union congresses and, later, merged the two “red hand” unions into SIPTU.
When Larkin died in 1947, thousands lined the streets of the capital on a bitterly cold January day to pay their respects. There is little doubt that they regarded him as a hero. O’Brien, who outlived him, was to have no comparable send-off. Like Larkin’s other great adversaries, Sexton and Murphy, he is not so fondly remembered.
O’Connor’s exhaustively researched biography of Big Jim is a great read and will undoubtedly be regarded as the definitive account of a great but troubled, and troublemaking, man. As to the question “Hero or Wrecker?”, his heroic status, although tarnished, survives. Although 1913 ended in failure, the legend was to inspire later generations. I suspect Donal Nevin, a brilliant but cautious man, didn’t write the Larkin/WUI story because he feared it would damage this inheritance. He needn’t have worried: plaster saints are no longer in vogue and Big Jim’s gift to his class will be remembered. His secular sermonising, although replete with invective against his enemies, was fundamentally moral, just and democratic. He can afford to be taken down a peg and still tower over us.
Tom Wall is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.