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Big Jim Larkin1876-1947

One of the most dynamic and fearless leaders in the history of the Irish Trade Union Movement was born, ironically, in Liverpool, England, on January 21, 1876. Jim Larkin was the second eldest member in a family of six children.

The question is, why was this fiery labor leader born in Liverpool, England. Like countless Irish families, Jim's father, James Larkin from Killeavy, just outside Armagh town, Co Armagh, was forced to leave Ireland because of the combination of "the pull of the Industrial Revolution and the push of the Great Hunger." So Jimmy Larkin set off for the "capital of Ireland" across the Irish sea, Liverpool, England.

James Larkin, the father, struggled for twenty years to support the family earning minimal wages. Like many during his time, he died at an early age. On Ash Wednesday 1887 and only 38 years of age, Jim's father passed away.

James, the son, was 11 years of age at the time of his father's death. He was taken in as an apprentice by his father's firm and his starting wage was approximately 30 cents a week. He did not remain long at this particular job, which was with an engineering firm, so he turned his hand to a butcher's assistant, a paper-hanger, a French polisher, and a dock worker. While working on the Liverpool docks he was injured and out of work for five months. He did a lot of reading during that five months and returned to work following his recovery. He was 16 years of age.

The year was 1893 and Jim Larkin sought adventure. He stowed on a steamer whose first port of call was Montevideo. Larkin was discovered and put to work in the engine room. One night after an exhausting work day, Jim retired to his bunk, however, he was ordered to relieve a fireman in the engine room, he refused. He was immediately sent for by the Chief Engineer. As he entered the passageway to the engine room he was seized and chained to a stanchion in the engine room. It was a night Jim did not forget. He makes reference to that night in his writings and in particular to the number of rats he had all round him. Jim returned to Liverpool and went back to working on the docks. At age 27, he was the youngest and toughest boss on the Liverpool Docks. His scrupulous honesty and his uncompromising devotion to the cause of temperance, won him the respect of his men and his employers.

On September 8, 1903, Jim Larkin married Elizabeth Brown. At this time in his life he was deeply involved in the Trade Union Movement, figuring in the turbulent labor struggles of the time.

His association with unions in Ireland began in 1907. As a footnote, a young man who was two years of age in 1907 and who was born in Gortlougher, Kilgarvin, Co. Kerry, was to become a future Union labor leader in New York. His name, Michael Quill, the "Mr Lindsley man," but that's another story. However, Jim Larkin had been sent to Belfast to organize the dockers in Belfast. A year later 1908, he arrived in Dublin. While in Dublin he organized several strikes of laborers and dockers and in that same year The Irish Transport and General Workers Union was born. Five years later the Union was 10,000 strong. "Big Jims" next move was to launch "The Irish Worker," a magazine that achieved a circulation of 90,000, causing many employers to become alarmed at his success.

The period from 1913 to 1914 became tumultuous times for labor unions and their members in Ireland. Unrest culminated in the 1913 lock-out. Ireland and in particular the city of Dublin were greatly disturbed by labor disputes and in August of 1913, 25,000 workers were unemployed. The Port of Dublin was closed to cross-Channel shipping from October 12 to December 10. Savage rioting and conflicts with the police occurred on August 31, September 1, and September 21, during which roughly 500 people and 50 police constables were injured. Two of the injured workers later died of wounds received. Ongoing conferences between the two parties, labor and management, were unsuccessful until January 19, 1914. The industrial unrest of the closing months of 1913 ended.

As in most labor differences, there was no clear winner. Many of the strikers only got their jobs back and then after signing a statement that they would relinquish their membership in the union.

Jim Larkin remained on as head of the I.T.G.W.U. until the 1940s. He entered politics and won a seat as a Labor Party candidate in 1943 for Dublin North-East. Four years later in 1947, "Big Jim" Larkin died in Dublin.
 

 

 

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