Like a Mighty Wave…
A closing highlight of this year’s Irish Festival was a talk given at the Casa by Francis Devine of the Irish Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union. Entitled ‘Like a Mighty Wave’, it traced the life of James Larkin and the Irish labour movement.
‘Big Jim’ Larkin was born in Dingle in 1874. He worked on the docks and in 1905 was one of only a few foremen to join the strike at the T J Harrison shipping line. He became an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers and in 1907 led a major strike in Belfast. The NUDL let him down and the action failed. He moved to Dublin the following year, where again there was friction with the NUDL leadership leading to his suspension. In December of that year he became founder general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
It was in Dublin that Larkin’s style of organisation reached its high point. As dramatist Seán O’Casey would later write:
“He was far and away above the orthodox labour leader, for he combined within himself the imagination of the artist, with the fire and determination of a leader of a down-trodden class.”
Larkin and his brother Peter led the strikers in the great Dublin Lockout from August 1913 to early the next year. The entire city ground to a halt in a dispute over union recognition. Devine asks: did it end in defeat or victory? True, the strikers drifted back to work as support from Britain failed to come through. But the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union survived and continued to grow: its members were active in the 1916 Rising and by 1920 the union had 150,000 members across Ireland.
Jim and Peter Larkin both left Ireland in 1914 and were active - and jailed for subversion - in America and Australia respectively. Both returned in 1923; Jim received a hero’s welcome but found himself in bitter dispute with his ITGWU successor William O’Brien. The next year Peter set up and Jim led the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI). From that point O’Brien and the ITGWU avoided the Larkins at every turn, leaving the Labour Party when Larkin joined (1942) and leaving the Irish TUC when the WUI was about to be allowed in (1945).
Jim Larkin died in 1947, the year after O’Brien retired. His son, James Larkin Junior, now forty-three, became General Secretary of the WUI and the next year leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He was central to the reunification of the Irish TUC in 1959 and was working to unite the ITGWU and WUI at his death in 1969 (the unions amalgamated to form SIPTU in 1990).
Devine asks if Young Jim’s legacy may be even more important than Big Jim’s. There’s no doubt about the answer. The son helped to unite some important organisations. But it is the defiance of Big Jim that people remember. The issues of our day are much the same as they were in 1913 – except that they are more global – and there are few slogans more inspiring than the inscription on that O’Connell Street statue:
“The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.”
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