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Labor Action, 17 February 1947


Ray O’Neil

We Mourn Jim Larkin, Irish Revolutionist


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 7, 17 February 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In comparative obscurity, one of the world’s greatest socialists passed away this week in Dublin. James Larkin, “Big Jim” of the Irish labor movement, died quietly at the age of 70, almost forgotten by the outside world. Larkin came to the forefront of the Irish scene in the tumultuous period of 1905-10 when the labor movement grew arm in arm with the nationalist movement. He became closely identified with James Connolly who was later to achieve his greatest stature as leader of the Easter Rebellion. Together these two revolutionists were to Ireland what Lenin and Trotsky were to Russia.

Larkin had an amazing career that began at seven years of age. Before he was eleven, he knew what manual labor was, and unemployment and starvation. He learned many jobs; he traveled to many countries as a deckhand aboard freighters. It must have Been on one of his trips abroad that he joined the Argentine Workers’ Socialist Party, his first contact with a socialist group.

He worked in Liverpool and joined the National Union of Dock Laborers of Great Britain, later becoming an organizer. In 1908 Larkin formed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, soon to become a great force in Ireland. He was imprisoned in 1910 on a framed-up charge, but was released three months later.

The ITGWU began to flourish under the guiding hands of Larkin and Connolly, who had returned from America in 1910 to assist in organizing this “one big union.” Both had been organizers for socialist parties, Connolly for the IWW and Socialist Labor Party in the U.S., Larkin for the British Social Democratic Party. Their union grew to such prominence and influence, it threatened British imperialism in Ireland, for it fostered class solidarity and national feeling at the same time.

Of Larkin, Lenin once wrote “... the Irish proletariat ... is awakening to class consciousness. It has found a talented leader in the person of Comrade Larkin, the secretary of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union. Possessing remarkable oratorical talent, a man of seething Irish energy, Larkin has performed miracles among the unskilled workers ...”

In 1913 this “awakened, class conscious” mass faced the frightened Irish-British ruling class. Sections of the Dublin workers struck and the employers answered with a lockout that lasted eight months. This heroic struggle of the Irish workers in 1913 was but a foretaste of the later struggles from 1916 to 1921. But Larkin wasn’t to participate in these. In 1914 he departed on what may have been an ill-advised speaking tour of the United States. He wasn’t allowed to return as the war began soon after and he was considered dangerous to the British cause.

He spent the intervening years in the United States, speaking for the IWW, the Socialist Party, and later in helping to found the Communist Party in America. In 1919 he was charged with criminal syndicalism and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing. In 1923 Al Smith, then Governor of New York, pardoned him on the grounds that he had committed no overt act against the government, but had only spoken for its overthrow. Soon after, Larkin was expelled from the U.S. as an undesirable alien.

Favorite of the People

Space allows only a brief review of Larkin’s activities. On his return to Ireland, he became president of the Irish Workers League attached to the Communist International. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International from 1924 to 1927. By this time the once-powerful and militant ITGWU had already been taken over by the bureaucrats. Larkin lost a struggle to regain control and was later expelled from the union he founded.

In the late twenties he was elected to the Dail Eireann (Irish Congress) but was denied his seat because he was a bankrupt! He was again elected in 1937 on a labor ticket in a surprising upset over a capitalist candidate.

The last years of his life were relatively inactive ones, presumably because of his age. He, nevertheless, left a mark, a deep indelible mark, on the history of the world labor movement. The revolutionary period at the turn of the century produced a number of outstanding theoreticians and many capable activities, but few combined these two qualities to the degree they were found in James Larkin.

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