Jim Larkin: Giant in the History of the Irish Labor Movement

Jim Larkin is one of 20th-century Ireland’s most important labor leaders, standing behind significant events in the country’s labor history, including the 200,000 worker-strong Dublin Lockout.

Larkin was born in 1976 Liverpool to working-class Irish parents and had established himself as a trade union leader by 1905. Two years later, he was sent to Belfast by the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) to lead a strike of transport and dock workers. Following his actions there, he was transferred to Dublin, which had a highly unfavorable environment for employees

After a falling out with the NUDL, he formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which quickly gained momentum. The first Irish trade union to include both skilled and unskilled workers, the ITGWU began to have some success gaining concessions from employers.

Jim Larkin, however, found his fame in 1913 when William Martin Murphy, a prominent Dublin businessman, dismissed hundred of employees suspected of holding ITGWU membership.

The ITGWU launched a massive response and the situation quickly escalated with employers across the city locking out workers. Both strikers and strikebreakers were subject to violence with Larkin’s appearance at rallies and meetings often serving as a flashpoint.

The lockout fizzled out in early 1914 as workers lost the support of British trade unions and began to seriously suffer from lost wages. Soon after the lockout ended, Larkin departed for the United States, where he quickly took up with the growing American socialist movement.

When the American movement fractured, he ended up firmly on the side of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union, associating closely with the founders of the American Communist Party. Larkin was caught up in the first Red Scare and was sentenced to five to ten years in a New York State prison in 1920; he was pardoned, released, and deported just three years later.

Upon his return to Ireland, he fell into a dispute with William O’Brien, who had taken over day-to-day leadership of the ITGWU in his absence. In response, he founded the Irish Worker League (IWL) with direct ties to Moscow and poached many former ITGWU members to his newly-formed and Soviet-friendly Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI). The League and Union briefly thrived but Larkin began to have a falling out with the Soviet leadership.

The next decade was marked by attempts, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to hold elected office. By the early 1940s, he had moved to solidly support the Labor Party, bringing many of his followers with him.

Larkin passed away from natural causes in 1947, leaving behind him a legacy as one of Ireland’s more influential labor leaders.

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