Book Review: Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? By Emmet O’Connor (2015)

James_LarkinOne of the most enduring mysteries of Irish Labour history, which Emmet O’Connor valiantly attempts to answer here, is why ‘Big’ Jim Larkin was so respected, even beloved, despite being an absolutely terrible human being. “Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own,” wrote Harry Pollitt, a leading British Communist, before conceding, “and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.”

Pollitt saw first-hand Larkin’s capacities for leadership during his visit to Ireland in April 1924. In Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, roadmen dissatisfied with both their employment and their nominal union, the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), appealed to Larkin to attend their fundraising hurling tournament.

Larkin did not need to be asked twice, given how he had been feuding with the ITGWU ever since his return from the United States to find his former fiefdom not nearly as subservient as he had left it. Having failed to force the resignation of his main rivals and been expelled himself instead, Larkin formed his own counter-union, the Irish Worker League (IWL), and prepared for war.

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James Larkin with other members of the ITGWU in happier times

Larkin arrived in Roscrea to see a mass of streamers welcoming him. Over five hundred IWL members had paid to travel with their hero, resulting in what Pollitt was told was one of the largest meetings ever seen in Roscrea. With good reason was Pollitt convinced that the IWL had a “tremendous chance” if Big Jim managed to take it seriously.

In that regard, Pollitt was missing the point. Larkin had already lost a court case he brought against the ITGWU two months earlier, accusing his former colleagues of illegally using union funds for political purposes. The fact that he was citing the anti-union legislation of the 1913 Trade Union Act did not seem to have embarrassed him.

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James Larkin

Acting as his own legal counsel, Larkin proved to be, according to O’Connor, “more than usually disorganised, vituperative, petty and unfair to witnesses.” Not that Larkin had much chance of winning in the first place, which begs the question as to why he bothered at all. The likeliest explanation that O’Connor offers is that he just could not help himself.

In his personal life, Larkin was no more amiable. Estranged from his wife, he was living with his siblings, Delia and Peter, both of whom were also involved in trade unionism. Peter was used as a go-between as the other two were not on speaking terms. When he was away, others would have to step in. “It was a dreadful position for grown-up people to create,” as one unfortunate guest recalled with a shudder, “particularly when to make any political headway friendship and comradely tolerance were an absolute necessity.”

Necessary or not, such virtues were to be in short supply. With his brother’s support, Peter had formed the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI), attracting defections from two-thirds of the ITGWU’s Dublin membership. That set the tone for relations between the two unions which, from June 1924, were locked in a fierce battle for control, with disputes breaking out in places as varied as fish markets, docklands and cinemas as the WUI protested at the employment of ITGWU members.

The Irish Worker, of which Larkin was editor, was unabashed in its naked ambition:

The Transport Union Card is nothing but a pass to a scab. There is only going to be one labourers’ union in Ireland and that will be the Workers’ Union, which has earned its place by right of conquest.

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Seán McLoughlin

But it was within the WUI that the nadir of this intolerance and venom was reached. From August 1924, the union was in dispute with the Great Southern and Western Railways Works in Inchicore. Leading the strike was Seán McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’ of the Easter Rising, now secretary for the WUI branch involved. By September, the Railways Works had offered to take back all strikers save for the hundred or so whose places had already been filled by strike-breakers.

McLoughlin wanted to hold out for a better deal, one with no victimisations, but Larkin took the offer and blamed it all on McLoughlin. The branch secretary won a showdown with Larkin a month later at a meeting held in the Inchicore Picture House, where the WUI executive and about two hundred members were present. The mood in the room turned against the union leadership and Larkin stormed out but McLoughlin knew that his days in the union were numbered and left soon afterwards, upon which Larkin accused him of absconding with branch funds.

All of which makes for fascinating, if grisly, reading, and O’Connor fully exploits the range of sources open to him, from contemporary newspaper reports, private correspondence, Soviet archives and police files from both sides of the Atlantic (Larkin was frequently a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, wherever he was).

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Mugshot of James Larkin upon his arrest in New York in 1919 for “criminal anarchism”

From these, O’Connor deftly weaves a story that would not be amiss for a medieval monarch or a particularly despotic cult leader. Sometimes the seemingly endless succession of bitter feuds and spiteful machinations can grow exhausting to wade through, though mitigated by titbits of bone-dry humour from O’Connor, such as when Larkin implored an audience to “’hold up the hands of Stalin’; perhaps the only analogy ever drawn between Stalin and the Biblical Joshua.”

After 300+ pages of such malice and mayhem, it is surprising that the book ends on a positive note for its subject: “What Larkin did achieve can never be taken from him. He remains the greatest of Irish Labour leaders.”

Was he? Those on the receiving end of his perniciousness might have disagreed but Larkin captured the public imagination in a way that no other Irish Labour leader has since. Anyone who gets a statue to themselves in Dublin’s O’Connell Street must be something special, after all.

Certainly, Jack Carney never lost his faith in the man he served loyally for many years. By the time he was sixteen, Carney had found himself working eighty-four hours a week for a pittance, with nothing better awaiting him:

My dreams were smashed, and I had not a single hope in life…until one Sunday I heard ‘Jim’ Larkin speaking…always to me he will be the big-hearted champion of his class – incorruptible and unpurchaseable. Crucified he will be, nailed to a Cross of a misunderstanding people…but ‘Jim’ has left his mark on his people…they are better men and women because of his coming.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether Larkin was a hero or wrecker – the question posed to us in the book’s subtitle – he was most definitely a force of nature, which are rarely gentle to those caught in their wake.

Publisher’s Website: UCD Press

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Statue of James Larkin on O’Connell Street, Dublin
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