Born in the Irish slums of Victorian Liverpool, James Larkin (1876–1947) grew to become an influential labor leader in early twentieth-century Britain, Ireland and the United States. Larkin was a firm believer in syndicalism—the notion that trade-union involvement in direct industrial action was the best vehicle to bring about the socialist revolution. A fiery speaker and charismatic leader, Larkin excelled at mobilizing and organizing workers, inspiring fervent loyalty in his followers and equally emotive hatred in his opponents.
Larkin did important work in organizing for the National Union of Dock Labourers in Britain, but it was his Irish career that gave Larkin an international reputation. He first arrived in Ireland in 1907, determined to organize labor at Irish ports. Starting his work in Belfast, he briefly brought Catholic and Protestant workers together before his short-lived union was shattered by traditional sectarian animosities.
Undaunted by his failure in Belfast, Larkin moved on to Dublin to organize dockworkers there. It was here that Larkin achieved his greatest success, founding the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) in 1908. Aided by James Connolly, Larkin oversaw the rapid growth of the ITGWU from a fledging union to a force with 14,000 members by 1913. Determined to make their mark, Larkin and Connolly took on the business empire of William Martin Murphy, one of Dublin's leading entrepreneurs. Equally determined to face down and break Larkin's union, Murphy organized the Employers' Federation, which agreed to take on the ITGWU in 1913. The showdown that ensued—the great Lockout of 1913—resulted in a bitter defeat for the union. Larkin left Ireland for the United States in the following year.
Although he had not planned on staying so long, Larkin remained in the United States for nine years, speaking out against the war effort and participating in the foundation of the American Communist Party. When he returned to Ireland in 1923, he found conditions much changed. Faced with the aggressively conservative Catholic atmosphere of the newly formed Irish Free State, Larkin's influence was much reduced. "Big Jim" Larkin, that towering figure of Irish labor, lived out his days in relative quiet, dying in his sleep in January 1947.
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Gray, John. City in Revolt: James Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907. 1985.
Larkin, Emmet. James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader, 1876–1947. 1965.
J. A. Cannon