Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? review: When Big Jim looked small

Larkin was away during Ireland’s revolutionary years and cut a sorry figure, writes Bryce Evans, but remains a hero

Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?
Author: Emmet O’Connor
ISBN-13: 978-1906359935
Publisher: University College Dublin Press
Guideline Price: €40

Every summer the James Larkin Society gathers at the former site of a small house where the big man of Irish labour history was born in 1874. In 2012 its annual march into Liverpool city centre was targeted by a group called the North West Infidels. Loudly announced as an “anti-Irish rally”, the protest elicited bemusement at first: was the British far-right momentarily dropping Islamophobia in favour of some retrothemed weekend outing? The 26 arrests that followed suggested more sinister intent.

Such brouhaha would have been familiar to Jim Larkin, who, like his great Irish leftist contemporary James Connolly, was born in Britain of Ulster parentage. Larkin’s childhood was marked by scraps between Catholic and Protestant migrants, but it was the common working-class experience of exploitation that imbued him with his infamous “want of tact” and, crucially, his socialism.

Dublin is the city most associated with Larkin and Larkinism, but the University of Ulster historian Emmet O’Connor restores Larkin to Liverpool and Larkinism to Belfast. When he arrived there in January 1907, special-branch officers at dockside had no difficulty spotting their quarry: moustachioed and attired in a Bohemian black broad-brimmer, a worn-out old greatcoat slung over his broad docker’s shoulders. In Belfast, through the innovation of “blacking” goods, Larkin achieved remarkable unity across the religious divide.

If his subsequent standout role in founding the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, in 1909, and the Irish Labour Party, in 1912, and leading Dublin’s locked-out workers in 1913 is well known, the story thereafter isn’t. Indeed, in conventional accounts of Ireland’s revolutionary decade Larkin is frozen in aspic, defiant in defeat in 1913.


This is partly because he spent these crucial revolutionary years – half his life – outside Ireland. O’Connor explores Larkin’s intrigues with militant nationalists in the United States during the first World War, challenging the charge of the good Labour man fallen among republicans. In answering a criticism so often levelled at Connolly for his involvement in the 1916 Rising, a more generous general verdict on Larkin’s executed comrade may have been expected. Instead Connolly is relegated to the role of begrudging lieutenant.

Big Jim, though, isn’t let off the hook either. In 1916 a less virtuous Larkin, marooned on the other side of the pond, was consumed by jealousy for Connolly. After he was captivated by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, his patronage of the Industrial Workers of the World led to his imprisonment in Sing Sing prison in New York and a visit from Charlie Chaplin. Larkin’s celebrity, and his attendant transformation from Irish hero to imprisoned internationalist icon, only accentuated the bitterness. He denounced the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty as traitors, helots and Judases; even the staunchest Larkinite would have to admit that by 1922 he cut a sorry figure, way outside the tent but still trying to pee into it.

Coming from an author critical of its subject's role as a wrecker, this absorbing book is full of sideswipes. O'Connor is dismissive of today's bien-pensants, and their "decade of centenaries", and particularly sniffy about earlier, more sympathetic accounts of Larkin that end in 1914. He even has James Plunkett's Strumpet City in his sights.


The author has one thing in common with the subjects of his derision, though, and (spoiler alert) it’s revealed on the final page, where O’Connor considers it unfortunate that the story cannot be frozen in time. To do so would airbrush out some of the later big-headed embarrassments: his false claim that he was sent to the US by Connolly, Pearse and Clarke; his Anglophobic attacks on the Labour Party leader Tom Johnson (also born in Liverpool); his acquiescence with the clericalism of 1930s Ireland.

O’Connor almost implies that assassination, a prison death or, better still, martyrdom beneath a police truncheon would have been a good career move. But had Big Jim died earlier we wouldn’t have him, arms aloft, in the pose immortalised by the sculptor Oisín Kelly on O’Connell Street (an image from 1923, not 1913). Neither would we have some of his later feats: the first communist elected to Dáil Éireann, in 1927; invited by Nikolai Bukharin to speak in the great debate between Trotsky and Stalin in 1928; and burning the Trade Union Bill in 1941.

O’Connor does the hard labour of the historical biography, scratching away at the myth that Larkin would order a strike as casually as requesting bacon for breakfast. He reveals the man underneath: abstemious, a tad prudish; full of nervous energy and strong tea. Larkin was a champion of the sympathetic strike who didn’t like strikes; a revolutionary who welcomed the social reforms of the bourgeois state; and a communist who attended Mass.

To his credit O’Connor contextualises these apparent contradictions without revelling in them. He also does justice to the enduring legacy, image and ideas of his subject. Historians are often so nauseatingly intent on myth-busting that they fail to do this, but in addressing a subject with such messianic appeal it’s essential.

Larkin largely lived by example, from his early days as a dock foreman refusing to pay his men in the pub to his spartan journeys to Moscow accompanied by one change of underwear and a few books. His socialism was always of the moral variant. Even before his break with Moscow he never warmed to Soviet scientific socialism and its wearying theoretical debates.

For all that, great men don’t operate in a vacuum. O’Connor argues that, without the vogue for syndicalism among European socialists, Larkin – one of six children of a tubercular foundry-labourer father – would not have risen to such prominence. And if Irish labour relations had not been so peripheral and underdeveloped, the country’s early industrial relations may not have taken on such “violent edginess”.

This book follows O’Connor’s short biography of Larkin published in 2002. That book, considered overly critical by many, is candidly and surprisingly referred to as inadequate. Although Larkin’s dislike of paperwork remains a stumbling block, this latest effort is aided by new sources from both ends of the political spectrum: the records of the Communist International (where Larkin’s Catholicism raised eyebrows) and his FBI file (often hilariously misinformed). Neither, though, doubted his importance.

Yet, although you couldn’t walk down O’Connell Street today and miss Larkin, in the city of his birth you’ll find only a grimy plaque on a pub wall. Until recently a giant effigy of Larkin adorned the wall of a music venue in Liverpool. It’s now made way for fire doors. It sometimes seems that Larkin’s world, and the sort of world he fought for, are very far off. Nevertheless, as this very readable book concludes, he remains “a hero”.

Bryce Evans is senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University. His latest book is Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato's Cave