Human Volcano

Larkin, feared and admired in equal measure, had an almost religious appeal, writes Des Geraghty


Jim Larkin was undoubtedly the most charismatic, forceful and radical labour leader of his generation, a fact quickly grasped by friend and foe alike when he arrived in Ireland over a century ago.

The late Dónal Nevin referred to him as the “Lion of the Fold”. James Sexton, the general secretary of the National Union of Dock Labourers, who was no admirer of Larkin or his industrial tactics, described him as “a compelling, forceful and impetuous personality who crashed upon the British public with the devastating roar of a volcano”.

William Martin Murphy, the nationalist leader of the Dublin employers, recognised that Larkin could not be ignored and denounced him as a “British agitator and trouble maker” who was promoting “godless socialism” in Ireland.

Big Jim Larkin, a former seaman and dock foreman, was the son of Irish emigrant parents. He came from Liverpool to Belfast in 1907 as an organiser for the British National Union of Dock Labourers and had some notable successes in Belfast organising dock and port workers.

As pointed out by his biographer RM Fox, he “smashed his way through sectarianism and created an unprecedented unity in the North”. The fact that he “headed a police revolt in Belfast that was momentarily successful” is also described as “another tribute to his compelling personality”.

In 1909, following differences with Sexton, he joined with other trade union supporters in Dublin to establish a new, more militant Irish union for unskilled workers. The Dublin playwright Seán O’Casey wrote: “in a room in a tenement in Townsend Street, with a candle in a bottle for a torch and a billycan of tea, with a few buns for a banquet, the church militant here on earth of the Irish workers, called the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was founded, a tiny spec of flame now, but soon to become a pillar of fire.”

The new union espoused many of the more militant tactics of the newly-emerging unions in the United States, such as the the Industrial Workers of the World or the “wobblies”, whose policies and tactics were well known to both Jim Larkin and James Connolly. The new union proclaimed a socialist philosophy, a belief in sympathetic strikes and the boycott of “tainted goods”, along with support for political action.

Larkin and Connolly were both influenced at different times by syndicalism, a philosophy that generally rejected orthodox party-political action and was more in favour of industrial struggle. However, Larkin pointed out that “I am an industrialist and at the same time appreciate the fact that labour can achieve a great deal through the intelligent use of the ballot. Why use one arm when we have two? Why not strike the enemy with both arms, the political and economic.”

There can be no doubt that Larkin’s powerful personality was the dynamic factor in the early development of the new union. The Dickensian living conditions of unskilled workers and their families in the city of Dublin, with over 20,000 families living in one room in decaying tenements, also provided fertile territory for the arrival of a new working class “messiah”.

O’Casey, a lifelong admirer of Larkin, who had become disillusioned with the nationalist leaders of that time, lionised Larkin. He warmly embraced his “Bread and Roses” philosophy, which he felt was of deeper significance than the traditional pay and status protectionism of the earlier trade union leaders.

In O’Casey’s autobiographies, he writes of Larkin speaking from a window of Liberty Hall, “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 in the way of their march onward.” He could see that “here was a man who would put a flower in a vase on a table as well as a loaf on a plate”.

The gospel of Larkinism soon inspired the most deprived sections of the city’s working class with a self belief that as organised workers they could actually begin to transform their own lives. It rejected charity or hand-outs as an option and advocated industrial organisation and concerted political action.

That credo was embraced by my own parents and many more of their generation who steadfastly supported the philosophy of Larkin as they grew to recognise the abject failure of the Irish Free State, or the subsequent Republic, to seriously address poverty or inequality.

This semi-religious appeal was a strong feature of Larkinism. Although described by William Martin Murphy as a “godless socialist”, Larkin was clearly driven by a deeply spiritual conviction about his role as a crusader for the downtrodden. He also recognised the pernicious influence of alcohol on the lives of poor families in Dublin and attacked the public house employment practices of the gangers and stevedores on the docks with the zeal of a Fr Matthew.

His “Divine Mission of Discontent”, his “Fiery Cross Campaign”, his declaration to the Asquith Tribunal that “I am engaged in a holy work” and that “Christ will not be crucified any longer in Dublin by these men” all carried very strong spiritual overtones. WP Ryan the author of The Irish Labour Movement and assistant editor of the Daily Herald wrote that during the 1913 lockout “it was plain and palpable that labour in Dublin had suffered a spiritual revolution.”

The strong, impetuous personality of Larkin sent shockwaves through the ranks of the employers. It also won him few friends among the older, British-based craft unions. The concept of the “one big union” supported by both Larkin and Connolly threatened their very existence.

They had been the traditional guardians of skill and status in the working class, a position exploited ruthlessly by Murphy and his employer associates when he spoke of “legitimate unions not disreputable organisations”.

Larkinism also threatened the nationalist political establishment who saw it as a serious threat to their hegemony. Arthur Griffith was particularly scathing of Larkin. During the Lockout he wrote, “In Dublin the wives of some men that Larkin has led out on strike are begging on the streets. The consequences of ‘Larkinism’ are workless fathers, mourning mothers, hungry children and broken homes. Not the capitalist but the policy of Larkin has raised the price of food until the poorest of Dublin are in a state of semi-famine.

“The curses of the women are being poured on this man’s head. Mr Larkin’s career of destruction is coming to a close, but when it has closed it will have established his name in the memory of Dublin as the man who did the maximum of injury to trade unionism and the industrial revival.”

It is a curious turn of events that the Citizen Army, which Larkin and Connolly founded during that strike, later played a pivotal role in winning political power for Arthur Griffith and Sinn Féin. The ITGWU was also to achieve a membership of over 100,000 by 1920, though Larkin had left Ireland for America by 1914. While the personalities of Jim Larkin and William Martin Murphy were important factors in the lockout, the dispute was an inevitable clash of interests between capital and labour in the emerging Ireland of the 1900s.

Murphy and his employer allies recognised this and took the opportunity of the tramway workers strike in August 1913 to initiate their planned Lockout, which dragged on through the winter of 1913 and on into the following year. The impetuous personality of Larkin was the excuse, but their overall objective was the destruction of the ITGWU.

Larkin and the Irish trade union movement certainly did not have the organisation or the resources to withstand the massive attack by the employers in 1913. The powerful support of the RIC, the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the British military was given freely to “nationalist” Murphy and the employers.

Connolly gave a cautious assessment when he described the Lockout as “a drawn battle”. It was clearly a defeat for the workers as regards any of the issues that were in dispute, but it was later to become recognised as a “spiritual revolution” for the working class of Dublin.

Larkin, with all his imperfections, was certainly the man who inspired the fighting spirit of that revolution. The poet Austin Clarke reminded us in 1947 that “His name endures on our holiest page, Scrawled in a rage by Dublin’s poor”.

Larkin himself deserves the final word with his compelling argument at a particularly divisive special delegate conference on May 14th 1923. “Don’t submit your minds to any man. Think these problems out for yourselves. A leader who can lead you out of the wilderness can lead you back again. If there is a thinking intelligent movement, no leader can mislead you.”

Des Geraghty worked as an industrial officer for the ITGWU and subsequently became president of SIPTU following the amalgamation with the Workers Union of Ireland.