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Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?

Emmet O'Connor
UCD Press

Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? Jacket Image


From the Introduction

Jim Larkin is the greatest figure in Irish Labour mythology. He has of course very human and realistic significance also, but his first association -possibly we ought to say concussion - with the Irish mind in general was distinctly mythological. To many he is non-human and mythological still. W. P. Ryan1

'Another book on Ireland's most famous trade unionist needs no defence', began the 2002 biography James Larkin. If Larkin is getting better served, he remains understudied. Benchmarking Larkin against James Connolly, and vice versa, is facile, and irresistible. A 'parallel lives' beckons. Some 200 studies of Connolly were available in 1980. Today, the number exceeds 1,000, in languages as diverse as Danish and Catalan.2 By contrast, relatively little of substance has been written on Larkin, despite his longer, more colourful and controversial life, and greater impact on trade union history. While Connolly has attracted several comprehensive biographies and hundreds of thoughtful interpretations, the typical publication on Larkin is either a short monograph on an aspect of his career, or a semi-popular encomium. Even the centenary of the 1913 Lockout did not change this situation, and gave us more monographs, some indeed very valuable, and more encomiums. While Larkin is referred to in over 700 publications, the only substantial biography is Emmet Larkin's James Larkin: Lrish Labour Leader, 1876-1947 (1965), to which should be added Donal Nevin's edited collection, James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (1998), a great, if uneven and repetitive, compendium.

One can understand the reluctance to grapple with a complete wordpicture of Big Jim. He left no private papers, and scarcely bothered with documen­tation as a union leader. Information on the post 1930 period is particularly inadequate on the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). In part this was because of his distaste for paper work. In part it was deliberate, to prevent others knowing his business. The price he paid was that much of the extant comment on his character and motives was penned by his opponents or critics. Personal portraiture, the lifeblood of biography, is even more problematic. Little is known of his domestic life, though pioneering work on his relations with his sister, Delia, and Jack Carney, his sometime familiar, has been done by Moriartyand Curry.3 Larkin's life, over half of which was spent outside Ireland, has a disjointed, episodic character, and switched back and forth between apparent­ly messianic purpose and languid self-indulgence. The first 30 years were spent in obscurity. For the next seven, from 1907 to 1914, he seems too over­whelming a figure to be condensed in a book. The birth of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) was mythic, and the 1913 Lockout an epic. He then spent nine enigmatic years in America, and returned home to a quarrel the trade union movement wished to forget. There followed decades of disappointment, painful for a biographer as well as his subject. Emmet Larkin glossed over the last 25 years in as many pages, pleading: 'To chronicle nearly twenty years of decline is depressing.'4 Inevitably, all biographers of Larkin are judged on how they handle the darker side of his life. Character flaws and mistakes test the mettle of any writer who wishes to affirm the worth of his subject's work and ideas. As noted, comparison with Connolly is unfortunate and inescapable. Of the two Larkin has come across as the more one-dimensional figure with nothing to offer other than a powerful voice and the simple message of solidarity. In reality, he had plenty of good ideas on trade unionism and on politics, and offered insightful observations on topics as diverse as surviving imprisonment or the commemoration of World War I. They do not deserve to be forgotten just because, unlike Connolly, who obliged historians by collecting his thoughts neatly and clearly, their author scattered his about newspaper articles and speeches or embedded them too implicitly in his activities. And, of course, Larkin's Napoleonic genius for motivation ought to be required study for all would-be leaders of men and women.

My own James Larkin (2002) was commissioned as a short, synoptic overview. This did not appear to be a problem initially, given the volume, as distinct from the quality, of writing on the subject, the absence of private papers, and the paucity of sources in Ireland on his activities after 1923. There seemed little more to be said until the archives of the Communist International in Moscow and Larkin's FBI file, not available to previous biographers, presented much more information on the post-lockout years, and - more perplexingly-a radically different picture of the man to that in existing biographies. Now the word limit became a severe hindrance as it was not possible to write comprehensively on the fresh evidence or present prima facie the material on which conclusions were based. In consequence, the book's criticism of Larkin was sometimes taken to be unfair, or based on opinion, or an attack on Larkinism. Since 2002, the inadequacy of the book has been increased by the discovery of police files on Larkin in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and by new intelligence on Delia and Carney. Carney especially, will be an important window on the private Larkin.

Larkin's discrepancy and ego-centrism make him the kind of man who can be understood only through biography. He was no mere reflection of the cause or the organisations he claimed to serve. In consequence of his secretiveness, his private ambitions are not always evident from his public statements. The greatest mistake people make about Larkin is to take him at face value. The coyness has left him open to the charges of inconsistency, hypocrisy, and selfishness. It has also concealed a sophistication in his thinking. Far from being a mindless militant, for example, he appreciated that strikes were usually expensive and often futile. The Irish Worker, Liberty Hall, and Croydon Park, were not just a newspaper, a head office, and a recreation centre for the ITGWU. They were alternative methods of class struggle through the weapons of mass media, solidarity, and culture. At a more prosaic level, so many questions about Larkin, such as why he went to America in 1914, why he linked up with Moscow 1924, and why he broke with the Communist International in 1929, can only be answered by painstaking historical archae­ology. But they can be answered. Through exhaustive biography it is possible to construct a complete picture and surmount the three supreme challenges posed by Larkinology. The first of these is to be certain that one is dealing with the genuine Larkin, not the public image. The second is to find the evidence that will compensate for the want of records. The third is to do justice to the fact that Larkin's greatness lies not in what he did, but in image and idea; in the image of 1913 and the risen people, and the idea of workers' solidarity as a code of honour. He was unique in inserting an industrial dispute into mainstream Irish history, in creating a positive view of that struggle in an otherwise hostile climate, and in ennobling strike tactics into a morality of struggle. That Larkin has been celebrated more in art and literature than history is appropriate to the extent that we want to capture his relevance to contemporary society.