In 1906 James Larkin had been elected general organiser of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers and it sent him to Dublin to recruit dock labour there in 1908. That year after a breach with his employers, he established his own union the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU).
Meanwhile the ITGWU had succeeded in organising all the unskilled labour in the capital apart from the Corporation, the building trade, Guinness’ Brewery and the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC). Larkin’s confrontation with the DUTC precipitated the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Its purpose was to mobilise the city’s unskilled labour. By 1913 it had 10,000 members; it had rapidly become Ireland’s biggest and most militant union, with its own distinct blend of trade unionism, republicanism and socialism – ‘Larkinism’. Larkin himself was hero-worshipped by the Dublin working class.
On 16 November 1913 a historic meeting took place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in support of the Dublin Lockout, a huge industrial and social struggle which had brought the city of Dublin to a halt. The meeting was addressed by the leaders of the strike, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, and other trade unionists. The hall was packed and thousands gathered in the streets outside.
Constance Markievicz heard Larkin speak in 1913: “Sitting there, listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never come across before, some great primeval force rather than a man. A tornado, a storm-driven wave, the rush into life of spring, and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke. It seemed as if his personality caught up, assimilated, and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified. Only the great elemental force that is in all crowds had passed into his nature for ever.”
Larkin returned to Manchester on 26th September to send off the steamer Hare with 250 tons of provisions for starving families, in the company of Keir Hardie of Labour Party Fame, Jimmy Sexton and others. He was jailed for sedition in Dublin on 27th October, but released after just 17 days, following protests in Ireland and Britain by leading figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst and George Bernard Shaw.
Impatient with the lack of support shown by the British TUC, Larkin and Connolly toured Lancashire, speaking amongst other places at the Bolton Socialist Club in November, calling for more action to support the struggle in Ireland.
After the meeting he drove in a closed car through the crowds to a nearby speaking pitch, then got out and spoke again to several thousand people, publicly challenging his enemies. “Who am I? I am James Larkin, son of James Larkin, the son of Barney Larkin of County Armagh. Ask my accusers for yourselves. Send them over to face me in Dublin.”
The dispute ended in early 1914 “as a drawn battle” in the words of Connolly. In its aftermath it left a politicized working-class in Dublin conscious of its strength.
In October 1914, he left for the US to raise funds, whilst there he opposed American entry into World War I, acclaimed the Russian revolution and was imprisoned for almost three years during the ‘red scare’ (1919) before being deported to Ireland in 1923.
James Larkin assisted in establishing the Irish Citizen Army, to defend strikers from attack during the Dublin Lockout. An army of Irish working class.
“The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise”
We salute James Larkin, we are the risen people!