The revolutionary life of James Larkin

The revolutionary life of James Larkin James Larkin speaking to workers in O’Connell Street.
T. J. Morrissey
Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?

by Emmet O’Connor (UCD Press, €40.00)

This is an important book by a historian who follows the evidence where it leads, ‘let the chips fall where they may’.

The work is marked by extensive research. It benefits from fresh evidence: from the Russian State Archives, from police files on Larkin in the National Archives of the UK, and from new intelligence on Larkin’s sister, Delia, and Larkin’s close friend, Jack Carney.

In his introduction, O’Connor provides a survey of writings on Larkin and an account of how he has been remembered in trade union celebrations and especially in those celebrating the centenary of 1913.

As to whether Larkin was a hero or a wrecker, the answer is he was both.

In the ‘glory years’, 1911-1913, he was seen as the inspirer and saviour of the working class, giving courage and hope to a people condemned to live in dreadful slum conditions.

In his paper The Irish Worker, Larkin skilfully presented the struggle as one of principle for the right to join a union of one’s choice, and as a protest against deplorable housing conditions.

On the reverse side, he made enemies among his own followers and later, in the 1920s, he split the trade union movement and was a major contributor to the social and economic divisions that added to the massive problems facing the new Irish state.

He was never content unless he was in charge. One gets a flavour of O’Connor’s analytic clarity in his summary of the 1913 strike/lockout:

“The lockout was not a conventional dispute about wages, conditions, or even union recognition. It was about the balance of power in industrial relations… The lockout arose from a collision of union strategy and employer policy: it was a product of Larkinism in the framework of industrial relations, not social misery. The slums were a red herring.

“Undoubtedly they affected Larkin, reinforced his moral offensive, and generated graphic propaganda for the Labour cause. But Larkin had

already shaken Belfast, where the housing was relatively good, and the Dublin slums became an explanation of working-class behaviour only after the riots that followed the start of the dispute.”

The author sees Larkin as both a hero and a wrecker, but concludes that what Larkin achieved between 1907 and 1913, and his foundation of the modern Irish Labour movement, cannot be taken away from him.

Fortunately, Big Jim’s concluding years brought contentment. “The last 10 years of his life were relatively productive and happy for him, when he enjoyed some degree of official recognition from his peers, and a measure of reconciliation with old adversaries.”

An important book as I say, attractively produced by the University College Dublin Press.