‘Big Jim’ Irish Trade Union Orator

Written by Ellen Tranter. Edited by Emma Ward.

Jim Larkin was a docker, trade union activist, socialist and accomplished orator. His speeches advocated a revolutionary socialism, and he desired to effect a profound social transformation of Irish society. Speech-making dominated Larkin’s life, even when courting his later wife Elizabeth their engagement revolved around socialist meetings and speaking engagements. Born in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1874, he first became involved in trade union activity when he joined the Liverpool branch of the independent Labour Party at the age of seventeen. After participating in labour disputes in Liverpool, Larkin moved to Belfast where he organised a strike in 1907. His commitment to socialism and syndicalism began to form; in 1909 he founded the Irish Trade and General Workers Union. It was to become the largest and the most militant union in Ireland. The success of the union was undoubtedly assisted by Larkin’s charisma. He was to become one of the most influential members of the Irish Labour movement, and gained an international reputation for his politics. Most prominently Larkin was heavily involved with the Dublin Lockout of 1913, where the employers and William Martin Murphy clashed with the striking workers over working conditions and pay. Here, Larkin harnessed his ability as an orator to inspire large crowds of workers.

'Big Jim' Larkin at the Dublin Lockout

‘Big Jim’ Larkin at the Dublin Lockout

The Dublin Lockout was one of the largest industrial disputes of the century, and the most significant in Irish history. The majority of the city’s population were unskilled workers living in tenement slums. Unstable and unsanitary, the tenements were wretched places to live. Often they would collapse or catch fire; Larkin himself was once burned while saving people from a fire in Capel Street. Collective family strategies were improvised to allow the workers to continue with their strike action. Normal life in Dublin city ground to a halt.

Larkin’s physique and character, combined with his way with words made him an unparalleled speaker. His speeches never skirted around the adversity the workers faced, yet despite this he managed a grim humour which resonated with the workers. A contemporary literary observer, David Garnett, described Larkin’s behaviour; ‘There striding about the platform one beheld the whole of the sweated, starved, exploited working-class suddenly incarnate in the shape of a gigantic Tarzan of all the slum jungles of the west.’ Larkin’s presence was transformative.

Larkin was often shirking the police, which made the public necessity of speech making tricky. He once appeared on a balcony disguised as an old man revealing his identity dramatically to begin his speech. He was later arrested still wearing his disguise. Upon one spell in prison, Larkin delivered a speech from the gates of Mountjoy Gaol. Here he focused upon advancing solidarity amongst the workers and strengthening their resolve. He ambitiously declared them ‘unconquerable’ despite many of the workers from the Lockout eventually returning to work through necessity by 1914;  those who did not return to work often did so not through choice but because the doors to the factories remained closed to them. Larkin attempted to transcend the daily bitter exigencies of the workers in the demands of his speeches, giving them a higher purpose. He connected their plight as Dublin workers with wider trade union movements and revolutionary socialism: ‘This great fight of ours is not simply a question of shorter hours or better wages. It is a great fight for human liberty of action, liberty to live as human beings should live’. He tied them to a historical struggle by ‘trying to achieve in our own time the dreams of great thinkers and poets of this nation’. He employed the symbolism of the Red Hand of Irish trade unionism to express a unity among the fighting workers.

In a speech called ‘Out of Bondage’ Larkin declared ‘We are fighting for bread and butter. We will hold our meeting in the streets, and if any one of our men fall, there must be justice. By the living God if they want war they can have it.’ Larkin used dramatic rhetoric to call the workers to arm themselves against the police. The clashes between the workers and the Dublin police were brutal and laced with a bitter class conflict. Although the strikes Larkin advocated bred a class struggle, its revolutionary potential was never to be realised.

With the recent centenary of the Dublin 1913 Lockout there have been re-enactments of Larkin’s speeches. They were performed daily at Glasnevin Cemetery, the final resting place of many of the men and women who bore witness to these prominent events in Irish Labour history. Larkin’s famous speech to the Lockout workers is re-enacted with the momentous line ‘The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!’

Irish labour failed to assert influence in the Free State government. The trade union movement suffered the loss of their articulate leader; Larkin was absent from Dublin after the Lockout, raising funds in America and spending time in the Soviet Union. When Larkin died in 1947 thousands of Dubliners flanked his funeral procession through the streets. Eventually the trade union proved successful in one key aim; never again did employers as a class attempt to destroy trade unionism. There was no workers’ revolution, yet Larkin remained optimistic; ‘We have established a great human principle. Once again the Dublin workers stood as pioneers in the upward and onward march of Labour.’