IN 1984 the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) staged a pageant in Dublin’s Liberty Hall to mark its 75th anniversary. A closing scene presented James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin after the 1913 lockout. Connolly carried a green flag and said he was going to fight for an Irish republic. Larkin carried a red flag and said he was going off to America to fight for the international working class.
It was a potent image, which summed up a common view of the two giants of Irish labour. We like to think of them as complimentary, or dialectical, bookends. One was the theorist; the other the man of action. One was more interested in politics; the other in trade unionism. One appealed to the head; the other to the heart. One was nationalist; the other the internationalist.
How the perception developed of Larkin as disinterested in or hostile to nationalism is difficult to explain. Though I can understand it, I was convinced of it when I first started to research Irish labour history. And I clung to it for many years, despite a growing volume of evidence to the contrary.
As Desmond Greaves has established, Larkin was born in Liverpool, of Irish parents, in 1874. When he travelled to Ireland in 1907, as an organiser for the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), he made little of his Irish background.
There were over 900,000 waged workers in Ireland. Less than 70,000 were unionised, and about 75 per cent of these belonged to British-based unions. When it was suggested to Larkin that an Irish general union would be a more effective means of organising workers, he rejected the idea, saying that the working class should not be split along national lines.
However in late 1908 the growing friction between Larkin and the NUDL general secretary, James Sexton, came to the boil, and he was suspended from his job. With little alternative, as it was unlikely that any British union would employ him, he founded the ITGWU in December 1908. Having done so, he made nationalism a part of the union’s philosophy. The preamble to the ITGWU rules registered on 6 May 1909 asked:
“Are we going to continue the policy of grafting ourselves on the English trades union movement, losing our identity as a nation in the great world of organised labour? We say emphatically, No. Ireland has politically reached her manhood.”
While there was an obvious self-interest in the policy, it is also true that Larkin’s commitment to an explicitly Irish labour movement allowed him to express a suppressed sense of identity. After 1908 he would boast that his father and uncles had been Fenians, and that his father had enrolled him in the Irish National League. To his dying day he insisted that he was an Ulsterman, born in the maternal family homestead at Tamnaharry, near Burren, south Down, though he acknowledged his Liverpool childhood.
Connolly had a similar problem about his origins, and claimed to have been born in Monaghan, not Edinburgh.
When Larkin issued the Irish Worker in 1911, the paper encouraged republicanism and all forms of Irish culture. On 4 January 1913, it emphasised “again and again that the Irishising of everything within the four seas of Ireland is our object”. Mícheál Ó Máoileán provided notes on the Gaelic Athletic Association and Conradh na Gaeilge, and it was probably he who helped the Larkin household complete its census form for 1911 in impeccable Irish.
Larkin also sent his three eldest sons to the Pearses’ Scoil Éanna, which they heartily disliked for its spartan regime. His own command of Irish never went beyond a few expressions like ‘mar dhea’ or ‘ná bac leis’, to which he was partial at this time, or signing letters as ‘Seumas’.
Another misconception surrounding Larkin is that his Citizen Army was a class force, and Connolly led it towards republicanism. In fact, in March 1914 Larkin presided over the transformation of the Citizen Army from a picket-militia into a uniformed pocket army, with a republican constitution. In June he paraded it at the annual Wolfe Tone commemoration alongside the Irish Volunteers.
There was no difference between Connolly and Larkin on the world war, John Redmond’s support for Britain, or the need for a labour-republican insurrection during the war.
On the brink of world war, the Irish Worker called on ‘every man who believed in Ireland a nation to act now. England’s need, our opportunity. The men are ready. The guns must be got, and at once’. Indeed, Larkin embraced the mystical nationalism that Connolly balked at until the eve of Easter week. ‘To enlist for Caitlín Ní Houlihan may mean a dark and narrow cell for your body, but think of the joy it will bring to your soul’, he told a rally in Dublin in October.
Larkin’s last speech in Ireland before his departure for America was to a big anti-war rally in Cork City Hall on 22 October 1914. Arriving late, to loud cheers, and in fine form, he scorned the ‘canards’ about German and Austrian atrocities:
“What was the question at issue? It was the old never-ending struggle that has lasted in this country for seven hundred years… The question is the question of the Celt against Saxon despotism (applause)”.
The proceedings terminated with the singing of Who Fears to Speak of ‘98.
Larkin was burnt out after his defeat in the 1913 lockout. He could never cope with defeat, and he wanted to move on, hoping to make a career as a freelance speaker and agitator. His initial contacts in the USA were with John Devoy and Clan na Gael, and he had some part in the preparations for the Easter rising.
However, his notorious jealousy made him uneasy about anything happening in Ireland in his absence. Both his brother Peter and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington carried home messages for Connolly to ‘pull out of it’, and in late 1915 or early 1916, Larkin cabled him ‘not to move’.
The rising came as a bombshell. Larkin knew he was upstaged big time. For several days, he remained incommunicado. His only comment to the New York Times of 29 April was “I have nothing to say on the Irish question”.
Once the worst of the shock had passed, he organised a commemorative rally for the executed leaders of Easter week in the Chicago Grand Opera House on 21 May. His nerves were badly unsettled, as a heckler discovered; dashing from the stage, Larkin jumped on the unfortunate man, choking him almost senseless as Mrs Larkin shouted ‘Jim. Jim, think!’.
The rising and Connolly’s new stature never ceased to rankle him, and in private he frequently traduced his old underling. In public, he would claim to have been a key link between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Clan na Gael before 1916.
Larkin was arrested in New York during the red scare of 1919, and jailed in 1920 for ‘criminal anarchy’. He kept an eye on Ireland, and denounced the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 as a betrayal of republicanism.
Out on parole in 1922 he formed the Ulster Defence Alliance to raise funds for nationalist victims of loyalist violence in Ulster. Released in January 1923, he was deported from America in April, and returned to Dublin.
Much had changed since he left Ireland. The ITGWU, he felt, was no longer his union. In June he launched a venomous attack on the union executive, and in particular on the ITGWU general treasurer, William O’Brien. O’Brien had him expelled from the union in 1924, and Peter Larkin formed the breakaway Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI). Jim had been in Moscow when the WUI was founded, and became its general secretary on his return.
In Moscow, Jim entered an understanding with the Communist International. He would lead the communist movement in Ireland. In return, he expected financial help for the WUI, preferment in any commercial relations between Soviet Russia and the Free State, and British communists to campaign for the withdrawal of British unions from Ireland.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the continued presence of British unions in independent Ireland was a source of major friction in the Irish labour movement. The ITGWU was notably opposed to the British unions, and historians have caricatured William O’Brien as a narrow minded nationalist for his pursuit of an entirely Irish based movement.
Yet Connolly, Larkin, young Jim Larkin, and Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson all believed that the movement would be stronger for being headquartered in Ireland. Having -- as in the 1930s -- 20 per cent of organised workers in unions with head offices in another jurisdiction, addressing a non-Irish agenda, was a liability.
Politically, Larkin gave conditional support to republicans in the 1920s, and Fianna Fáil in the 1930s. He remained a strong admirer of de Valera, and defended Irish neutrality during second world war, though he would become a trenchant critic of Fianna Fáil’s domestic policies in the 1940s. Larkin’s nationalism was often sentimental, and not theoretical, or worked into his class politics, unlike Connolly’s. But he could certainly be described as a nationalist from 1909, a republican from 1911, and a consistent supporter of anti-imperialist politics from 1921. Shapurji Saklatvala, of the League Against Imperialism, canvassed for him in the general election of 1932.
So why, in the face of all this evidence, has the myth persisted of Larkin as a ‘pure class warrior’, as an ‘internationalist’, as the man with the red flag, as distinct from the green flag? Well…sin scéal eile.
James Larkin by Emmet O’Connor will be available in autumn 2002 and published as part of Cork University Press’s radical Irish lives series, priced £12.99 pbk
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2002 Emmet O'Connor