Big Jim Larkin, the chameleon - Padraig Yates on a masterly new biography
History: Big Jim Larkin: Hero Or Wrecker?, Emmet O'Connor, UCD Press, hdbk, 360 pages, €40
Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30
Our reviewer on a masterly new biography of the Liverpool-born leader of the Irish Labour movement.
Jim Larkin will forever be remembered for his role in organising the unskilled workers of Dublin, leading them in the great Lockout of 1913 and, although defeated, founding the modern Irish trade union movement in the process.
While Emmet O'Connor gives due weight to this period in his masterly new biography he balances it with unrivalled research into Larkin's life after the Lockout, particularly his time in the United States, his relations with the German Empire during the First World War, with the Soviet Union subsequently and his debilitating feuds when he returned to Ireland.
He arrived in New York at the height of his international renown in late 1914. Typically he had no plan and no strategy beyond spreading his gospel of 'divine discontent'.
One of his early biographers, and by no means an unsympathetic one, Bertram Wolfe, compared him to the Greek tragic hero Antaeus, who was only strong as long as he kept his feet on the ground. Nora Connolly, who saw him in America while delivering despatches for her father James to the German embassy, reported back that Larkin was 'too Labour for the Nationalist crowd and too Nationalist for the Labour crowd'.
John Devoy of Clan na Gael reluctantly cast him adrift when he realised Jim Larkin was no man's puppet while the American left was alternately delighted and perplexed by his erratic behaviour and eclectic ideology.
When the Socialist Party organised a welcome for him with a mass meeting in New York he gave a tour de force address on the war in Europe in which he described the Kaiser as 'the one armed saint of Germany' and concluded his three-hour harangue by unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a cross and declare, 'There is no antagonism between the Cross and Socialism... I stand by the Cross and I stand by Karl Marx.'
He told another meeting that for every crime the Germans had committed in Belgium, 'England has committed one hundred in Ireland'. He stressed he was not pro-German but 'pro-human' and opposed to the sort of narrow nationalism 'that must always breed war'.
Larkin had an infinite capacity to enthral, inspire, antagonise and, above all, confuse his followers. An ardent nationalist as well as internationalist, he said on his return to Ireland that he was too busy to learn Irish but that he thought in Irish. As O'Connor points out he was never merely a reflection of the particular cause or organisation he currently served. For Larkin 'socialism was a humanist religion, rooted in morality, rather than a science' and it remained the motive force behind everything he did. He was also very much a man of his time. Born of Irish immigrant parents in Liverpool's working-class ghetto of Toxteth he worked his way up through the rough and tumble world of socialist politics and trade union activism, becoming a leading figure in the National Union of Dock Labourers before forming the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in Ireland. Throughout his chameleon-like existence on the left he always retained 'a Victorian sense of manly virtue and duty to women and family'.
When he found himself sharing a first class cabin with Madame Montefiore, a veteran socialist agitator and grandmother at this stage in her life on a trip to Moscow in the 1920s, he slept in the third class section. He never appears to have lost his Catholic faith, which made him far more formidable in challenging its hypocrisy than its avowedly anti-clerical critics. Amongst his unlikely allies and friends towards the end of his life was Dublin's Archbishop McQuaid.
Unfortunately the defining characteristic of his life on his return to Ireland was a duel with his former ally of Lockout days William O'Brien. If William Martin Murphy proved his nemesis in 1913, the second Bill in his life almost did for him in the Labour movement.
O'Brien had taken over the ITGWU during Larkin's sojourn in America although technically Larkin remained General Secretary of the union he had founded. Their frosty meeting after an interval of almost nine years in 1923 said it all. 'Hello Bill. You've got grey,' Larkin said, to which O'Brien replied, 'Yes Jim, and you've got white.'
A year later Larkin had been driven out of the ITGWU and was general secretary of the new Workers Union of Ireland. The feud continued until Larkin's death in 1947. Ironically it was Larkin who ultimately proved the more reasonable of the two and O'Brien, sensing his increasing isolation, unleashed a red scare that split the labour movement for 15 years.
It was Big Jim's son, 'Young Jim' who later played a leading role in reuniting the movement. Not as colourful as his father but often more effective, they complemented each other and were veritable giants in every sense of the word.
Pádraig Yeates is the author of Lockout: Dublin 1913 and A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918