Jan 28


Larkin statue

(‘Big Jim’ Larkin died was born 150 years ago on the 28th January 1874). What follows is an unedited extract from an essay by Joe Mooney and the late Sarah Lundberg, completed as part of the Alternative Visions Oral History Project. The final essay was one of two they contributed to “100 Years Later: The legacy of the 1913 Lockout” published in November 2013. This extract looks at the legacy of Larkin, whose influence is memorably described by an interviewee as ‘a radical ghost’.)

“His name endures on our holiest page”

 On the main thoroughfare of our capital city stands the iconic statue of Larkin, the centre of attention. Not a bad achievement for a man labelled in his day as “A menace to the peace of Ireland” and “the devil in human flesh.” Born of Irish parents in Liverpool, he had been a dockworker and was already an experienced trade unionist when he arrived in Ireland. He was an organiser for the National Union of Dockworkers (NUDL) and had been active in Scotland before arriving in Belfast in 1907. He was to come to greater prominence here, leading a strike that foreshadowed many of the tactics soon to be adopted in Dublin, and he had some success in overcoming sectarian divisions in the docks and shipyards. His brand of trade union militancy did not sit well with the leadership of the NUDL, and they soon parted ways, with Larkin moving on to found the Irish, Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU) in Dublin.

 So, what was Larkins brand of trade union militancy? Soon to be identified as “Larkinism” it was recognised as a form of syndicalism, then a common current in the international Labour movement.

 In 1911, the Dublin Correspondent of The Times offered this summary:

“For the present it is enough to say that the object of Mr.Larkins Union is to syndicalise Irish Labour, skilled and unskilled, in a single organisation, the whole forces of which can be brought to bear on any single dispute in the Irish Industrial world.”


Larkins fellow trade unionist James Connolly had been an organiser for the syndicalist Industrial Workers of The World (IWW) in the United States. In his “Socialism made easy” he very ably articulated the principles of Industrial unionism –

“that natural law leads us as individuals to unite in our craft, as crafts to unite in our industry, as industries in our class, and the finished expression of that evolution is, we believe, the appearance of our class upon the political battle ground with all the economic power behind it to enforce its mandates.”

 And he stressed

“Every one who has the interests of the working class at heart…should strive to realise industrial union as the solid foundation upon which alone the political unity of the workers can be built up and directed toward a revolutionary end.”

While Larkin himself produced no comparable body of written work, this vision of a trade union movement as a vehicle for a revolutionary, socialist transformation of society was one he shared. Connolly himself would later state that “Our fight in Ireland was neither inspired nor swayed by theories nor theorists. It grew and was hammered out of the hard necessities of our situation.”

 And as one contemporary commentator claimed: “Yet the school in which Larkin had been made and moulded as a labour revolutionary had been one of pitiful and sometimes terrible realism.”

 Both men shared a desire for “less theory and more action” and ‘Larkinism’ delivered this action, with the tactics of sympathetic strikes and the backing of tainted goods becoming key weapons in an escalating of Industrial conflict.

 The playwright Sean O’Casey was part of North Dock community during these years, and half a century later would write:

“Before Larkin came it was the bosses determined the hour the worker should begin the work; the time they should end the day; the food they were to eat; the sort of home they’d live in; the kinda clothes they were to wear (I never saw a worker wearing a tall hat!).We workers went through life with our heads down; if one dared lift a head to look a boss in the face, it was time to go, for, if he didn’t, a day after he would be handed his docket and the foremen of the job pointed out the road to him. The bosses are humbler now. Now the workers have a say about the hours they work, the pay they get, the homes they live in, the clothes they wear, though the cap still suits us far better than the glossy tall hat.”

Larkin arrived in Ireland in 1907 and seven tumultuous years later he left for America and would not return for almost a decade. While we are considering the legacy of Larkin a century after his role in the Lockout, it is worth noting that his mythological status had already been achieved at this early stage and would be passed on through the generations and was not something that was created over time. In fact, in subsequent years his many human failings became more prominent, his behaviour and role was not always a positive one, but this has not taken away from or in any way diminished his influence or reverence.

Jim Larkin (centre) in Belfast in 1907, with the Dockers and Carters strike committee.

Jim Larkin (centre) in Belfast in 1907, with the Dockers and Carters strike committee.

 Jim Larkin died in 1947, and his funeral was attended by thousands of workers across the city. Sean Oliver’s father was a child during the Lockout:

“For Dad, it was like the death of a god, also for his entire working class generation. Ever after for my father he was like a radical ghost, telling him what to do when he was in trouble … trying to get better wages . . . Larkin was a god to them. Any time my father got into trouble, and my god he got into trouble, he was nearly sacked several times; it was all about that union, all about bringing it back to Larkinism.”

Larkin rallies the working class


This, written in 1919, illustrates the stature he had already received by this time:

“Jim Larkin is the greatest figure in Irish Labour mythology. He has of course very human and realistic significance also, but his first association –possibly we ought to say concussion-with the Irish mind in general was distinctly mythological. To many he is non-human and mythological still. Historians used to hold the view that only after long periods of time do fighters and heroes become transhumans, colossal, legendary, in the racial imagination; latterly there has been a tendency to adopt the theory that the process may be swift if not immediate: that a bold or revolutionary individuality may become a figure of myth and marvel in his own era or the one succeeding it.

Whatever we may think of the general application of the theory there is no doubt of its truth in the case of Jim Larkin. He was a legend in less than a year after he had broken with British trade union officialism to extend his labours amongst the under-men in Dublin and throughout his native land.”

 The author also provided a less prosaic and more direct assessment of Larkins appeal to the Dublin workers:

“The folk in question had been mostly ignored or given up as hopeless by the older trade unionist leaders. In sooth it would not be unfair to say that these were not wanted or even considered by the majority of the strict and conventional unionists. Solidarity was little of a philosophy in those days amongst those who had guided the placid course of the unions, and it certainly did not extend to the “lower” ranks of toil. The majority of the “aristocracy of labour,” the proud and exclusive skilled artisans and craftsmen, had scant feelings of kinship with the weaker brethren, the dockers, carters and casual labourer, who lived mostly in slums, and were dominated and victimized by slum-owners, money-lenders, publicans and more.” 

larkin liberty hall

 Sean Oliver recalls his first manager in the bar trade

“who came to Dublin in 1910 and worked in the pub at the top of Kevin st in 1911…he told me that Larkin had inspired starving ill paid live in barmen to get off their knees and fight for decent wages and decent conditions.”

 Tommy Dunne’s family were amongst the workers locked out in 1913. His grandfather was a dray-man, and an early recruit into the ITGWU. His own father was always conscious of the great sacrifice and suffering of the time when he spoke of Larkin:

 “He just said he was what they needed, you know, there was nobody else to bring them up, to push them. He said it was amazing how many people, that were hungry and all, that went out for him. They were really bad; my father could never understand that …. He was a light for them at the time, I can understand that. The circumstances of employers having the upper hand, making people see that, they had the guts to go out with Larkin, and to follow him, which they thought was right at the time. In the aftermath, some of them would have been sorry, because of the devastation afterwards. Having nothing, trying to make ends meet, you know.”

During the Lockout the Dunne  family were among 62 East Wall families  evicted

During the Lockout the Dunne family were among 62 East Wall families evicted

According to the author and socialist, Liam O’Flaherty, writing in 1927: “The Dock Workers idolized Larkin. Somebody has said of him that he ‘seized the Dublin Workers by the scruff of the neck’ and made them stand erect.” 


Sean Oliver himself became active in the Trade union movement, and remembers an important moment:

“I joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, as it was then. I was one of the very last people to have seen it, the old liberty hall. I walked in and I couldn’t get over it, I was twenty two, twenty three years of age. When I went in and saw it I couldn’t believe the dirt and the dust, and yet it was full of history. And the next thing it was gone!”

 He also recalls the impact when “Strumpet City” was first published in 1969:

 “The novel was discussed endlessly. Elderly men were proud to have read it, perhaps the only novel they’d ever read, because they had lived through it.”

"The Risen People" - East Wall PEG Drama & Variety Group commemorate 1913 Lockout

“The Risen People” – East Wall PEG Drama & Variety Group commemorate 1913 Lockout

Sharing a recent bus journey with a retired North Wall Docker, travelling along the South quay we discussed the deaths of Nolan and Byrne in 1913. Looking over at the new Luas Bridge being constructed across the Liffey, he mentioned the campaign to name it:

 “I was asked what did I think of the name, calling it the James Connolly Bridge. I was against it; it should be the Jim Larkin Bridge. Everybody knows what Connolly done, but it was Larkin, he was the one, he started it all.”


A short video of 1913 Lockout commemoration in East Wall featuring “The Day they set Jim Larkin Free” by Black 47 (courtesy Larry Kirwan / Starry Plough Music):


(Statue photograph courtesy of East Wall photographer Karl Larkin).


CONTACT: eastwallhistory@gmail.com



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