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  Issue No 88 Official Organ of LaborNet 16 March 2001  




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Out of the Bog

Neale Towart looks at the life of big Jim Larkin, one of the heroes of an Irish trade union movement that continues to thrive.


Big Jim Larkin


The Irish were in town last week, telling us about the startling success of their economy, and the size and prospects of the union movement there. They have over 50 per cent overall member rates and over 70 per cent in the public sector.

The turbulent history of modern Ireland is not absent from union history, with James Connolly an early important figure and a key participant in the Eater Rising in 1916.

Probably the most significant man in the development of the Irish unions before and after 1917, and shaped it especially between 1907 and 1914, organized during the bitter and ultimately unsuccessful Dublin lockout of 1913. however, was Big Jim Larkin. James Plunkett, playwright (Strumpet City, Big Jim, The Risen People) was one of his admirers and wrote the following in is honour.

"Jim Larkin and the Risen People"

And I say to my people's masters: Beware,

Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people

Who shall take what you would not give.

Pádraic Pearse wrote those lines in April 1916, a time when the insurrection was imminent, yet the reference is broader than that. In the body of the poem the economic and social wrongs suffered by the poor and the destitute have their place beside the aspirations of nationalism. Back in the great Dublin lock-out of 1913, Pearse had come down strongly on the side of Jim Larkin and his ill-used followers, those outcasts referred to contemptuously by a largely antipathetic press as 'Larkin's rabble of carters and dockers'.

Ruth Dudley Edwards in her biography of Pearse quotes from his column 'From a Hermitage' in the Republican organ Irish Freedom, in October 1913 to establish his positive expression of support. He wrote:

I would like to put some of our well-fed citizens in the shoes of our hungry citizens, just for an experiment ... I would ask those who know that a man can live and thrive, can house, feed and educate a large family on a pound a week, to try the experiment themselves ... I am certain they will enjoy their poverty and their hunger ... they will write books on 'How to be Happy through Hungry'; when their children cry for more food they will smile; when the landlord calls for the rent they will embrace him; when their house falls upon them they will thank God; when policemen smash in their skulls they will kiss the chastening baton ...

And so on. The sarcasm is heavy-handed, but leaves us in no doubt about his sympathies.

Pearse had made his mind clear in an earlier article. In April of 1913 he had written:

My instinct is with the landless man against the lord of lands and with the breadless man against the master of millions. I hold it a most terrible sin that there should be breadless men in this city where great fortunes are made and enjoyed.

I calculated that one third of the people of Dublin are underfed; that had the children attending Irish primary schools are ill-nourished. Inspectors of the National Board will tell you that there is no use in visiting primary schools in Ireland after one or two in the afternoon; the children are too weak and drowsy with hunger to be capable of answering intelligently.

I suppose there are 20,000 families in Dublin in whose domestic economy milk and butter are all but unknown; black tea and dry bread are their staple articles of diet. There are many thousand fireless hearth places in Dublin on the bitterest days of winter. 20,000 families live in one-room tenements. It is common to find two or three families occupying the same room - and sometimes one of the families will have a lodger! There are tenement rooms in which over a dozen persons live, eat and sleep ...

That is the voice of Pádraic Pearse. But it could be Larkin himself.

When Jim Larkin took up residence in Dublin in 1908, his reputation for making trouble had traveled before him. He was thirty-two years of age, a handsome man, tall, broad-shouldered, with a commanding appearance. He had spent the previous year in Belfast as a temporary organizer for the National Union of Dock Labourers whose headquarters was in Liverpool. His militant methods while there had alarmed not only the authorities and the employers of Belfast, but also the executive of the union back in Liverpool. He had used his new-found weapon of the sympathetic strike and his doctrine of 'tainted goods' with devastating effect, closing down job after job and even persuading the Belfast police to go on strike too, by convincing them that they should claim extra payment for the extra hours they had to spend on duty trying to keep order during the unprecedented succession of strikes.

In Belfast the press and denounced Larkin as either a socialist, an anarchist, or a syndicalist. When this had no effect, they labeled him as a Papist. In Dublin the abuse was shaped to suit its different audiences. There he was declared to be an Orange-man and the rumour was circulated that he was a son of Carey, the informer.

In fact he was the second son of impoverished Irish parents who had emigrated to Liverpool. He spent most of the first five years of his life with his grandparents in Newry. At the age of nine, however, he was back in Liverpool, a breadwinner now, working forty hours a week for a wage of 2s.6d. As a young adult he worked his passage to South America and when he returned to Liverpool he got a job on the docks as a foreman, but lost it when he came out on strike in sympathy with the men who worked under him. This led to his appointment as a temporary organizer for the National Union of Dock Labourers and so to his recruiting campaign on behalf of the trade union movement at first in Belfast and then in Dublin.

When he settled in Dublin in 1908 he found as distressing a picture as any revolutionary might look upon. The population of the city at that time was 305,000 people, a total from which Pembroke, Rathmines and Rathgar were excluded. Of these a total of 87,000 (almost one-third) were destitute. They lived in decaying tenements left behind by the rich of a vanished Georgian society which had gradually melted away in the years following the Act of Union.

When Larkin's aggressive methods of protest expanded to include an attack on the housing conditions it resulted in the setting up of a Housing Inquiry in 1913. The official report of the Inquiry divided the houses into three categories: (1) houses which appeared to be structurally sound; (2) houses so decayed as to be on the borderline of being unfit for human habitation; (3) houses unfit for human habitation and incapable of being rendered fit for human habitation.

The structurally sound houses accommodated 27,000 people. The borderline houses held 37,000 people and in the houses declared by the Commission to be absolutely unfit for habitation 23,000 lived. Witnesses summoned by the Commission testified to the living conditions in the houses. One described seeing a room sixteen feet square occupied by the two parents and their seven children. They slept on the floor on which (the witness reported) there was not enough straw to accommodate a cat, and no covering of any kind whatever. The children were poorly clad; one wrapped in a rag of some kind and his only other clothing a very dirty loin cloth. There was no furniture; a zinc bucket, a can, a few mugs or jam jars for drinking. The rent was two shillings and three pence weekly; wages over some weeks four shills and sixpence, with a maximum of twelve shillings in the week.

A photographic survey of the tenements was commissioned by Dublin Corporation for submission to the Inquiry and these remain to add visual testimony to the grim living conditions.

However, no one who grew up in Dublin through the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s of the present century will need photographic proof because during those years many areas of the city continued in the same state of decrepitude. They will remember tottering tenements with broken or non-existent hall doors under shattered fan lights; rickety stairs and foul hallways exhaling malodorous breath of woodrot, inadequate hygiene, overcrowded human bodies, and filth which poverty had little or no means of controlling.

A spokesman for the employers admitted freely that the living conditions of the families of unskilled and casual workers were appalling but tried to excuse the part played by low wages in bringing it about. Explaining the situation as he (and, presumably, the other employers) saw it, he wrote:

While it is impossible to withhold sympathy from classes so depressed as these slum-dwellers of Dublin are, it cannot be overlooked that the very nature of their mode of living tends to reduce their value in the labour market.

One point upon which witness after witness insisted (in the course of the Inquiry) was the physical deterioration of men who found their way into these terrible hovels. Once drawn into the abyss, they speedily lose not merely their sense of self-respect but their capacity for sustained exertion. At the same time the thought of all that is implied in this vicious housing system in the way of demoralization and decadence of physical powers should make us wary of playing the role of critic to employers who have to use this damaged material.

He speaks of 'the men who find their way into these terrible hovels' as though it was their personal choice. It was not. Inadequate wages or complete lack of employment left them with no option but life in the hovels. And, because of their physical strength and health have been impaired by hunger and unhygienic living conditions he suggests it justifies paying them still lower wages, a recourse which can only leave them less able as labourers and more damaged than ever.

The society Jim Larkin came to scrutinize in angry detail was rigidly class-bound from the remote aristocratic stratum to the professional business classes, to the traders and shopkeepers down to the aristocracy of labour which consisted of the skilled craftsmen and artisans, most of whom could cast their history back to the old guilds with their coat of arms, their mottoes, their badges of trade, their colourful medieval regalia and customs. All of these had evolved procedures for regulating wage rates and control of the internal administration of their trades.

At the bottom of all were the unskilled and casual labourers. They were looked down on by the craftsmen. The middle and upper classes were barely conscious of their existence. No trade union had succeeded in creating an effective organization for them.

Larkin found this lowest of the classes apathetic and resigned to the hopelessness of their lot. He took on the task of instilling spirit and confidence in them through speeches which demonstrated his supreme skills as a demagogue, and impassioned exhortations in the Irish Worker which he began to publish in 1911. An example of the many was this:

At present you spend your lives in sordid labour, your abode in filthy slums; your children hunger and your masters say your slavery must endure forever. If you would come out of bondage you yourself must forge the weapons and fight the grim battle.

In fact, the rapid growth of the Irish Worker was a measure of his impact. In June 1911 it sold 26,000 copies; in July this became 66,500; in August it grew to 74,750 and in September it was 94,994.

His style was colourful and sometimes evangelical. At a Board of Trade inquiry into the endless outbreak of industrial unrest he warned those who were the root cause of the poverty and the suffering with the words: 'Christ will not be crucified any longer in Dublin by these men.'

Daniel Corkery noted his frequent recourse to poetry when addressing his impoverished audiences. He wrote about Larkin:

I took him to be a man of ideas, some of them wrong but most of them right - or at least right according to my lights ... I regarded him as one earnest to a fault, for I never heard him speak to the class for which he stood that he did not half offend them by dwelling on the failings which kept them powerless and timid ... By dint of experience he had slept in every workhouse from Land's End to John-o'-Groats; by dint of reading it was his custom to quote poetry as freely as I would myself if I had more courage ...

Another task confronting Larkin was to bring the artisans and the craft workers to the assistance of the unskilled and the casuals. He emphasised the element of brotherhood which should unite those who worked for the rulers of a capitalist society. It was a slow process to erode the skilled men's snobbery and sense of superiority over the unskilled and often illiterate denizens of the sums, but he moved matters slowly along the road. 'The great are not great' he told his followers time after time. 'The great only appear because you are on your knees. Rise up.'

Another task was to arouse awareness throughout society, especially the well-to-do and the intellectuals, of the direness of the plight of the poor and the destitute. Society, by and large seemed to be unaware of it, probably because a rigid class structure insulated them from brushing shoulders with it. Larkin's task was to implant and encourage the growth of a new social conscience. He was no mere reformer - he was a revolutionary. He described his campaign as his 'divine mission of discontent' and declared that his objective was to put on each poor family's table not only a loaf, but a vase of flowers as well.

So, from 1908 to 1913 the business life of the city staggered from crisis to crisis with thousands of unskilled workers galvanized into unprecedented acts of revolt and the employers rejecting any form of negotiation and fighting back, at first individually and then with determined solidarity through their newly formed Employers' Federation under the leadership of William Martin Murphy. That was in 1911. Matters waited to some to a head for two years. Then, on the morning of 18 August 1913, a letter appeared in William Martin Murphy's paper, the Irish Independent, over the signature of C.W. Gordon, acting secretary to the Dublin United Tramway Company (which was also controlled by William Martin Murphy) which read in part:

From the numerous applications to the company's officials by casual labourers seeking work, my directors believe there is a greater dearth of employment for this class of labour than usual. With a view to relieving to some extent the distress which is attendant on this condition of affairs, the company are about to start the relaying of some of the tramway lines they had not intended to relay until next year ...

The letter went on to invite applications, but warned that since the directors believed that much of the distress could be attributed to the disruptive tactics of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, members of that union would not be considered for employment.

To the middle-class reader at the breakfast table or on his way to the office the letter was an admirable demonstration of the Christian concern of the Dublin employers and their solicitude for the less fortunate members of the community.

But for Jim Larkin, the thirty-seven year old agitator and trade union leader, it was a declaration that confrontation on a massive and organized scale was imminent. Twelve months before he had served demands on the Tramway Company which had still not been replied to, while a few days previously the dispatch boys in the Irish Independent newspapers had been dismissed in a body because they had refused to leave the Transport Union.

The letter confirmed his suspicion already expressed: that William Martin Murphy, in expectation of a strike in the Tramway Company, was preparing for it by recruiting a double staff so that when the union men downed tools there would be a body of non-union employees ready to take their places.

On 21 August the employees in the Parcels Department of the Tramway Company were dismissed because they continued to be members of Larkin's Union. On 22 August the tram conductors and drivers were warned that if they went on strike for the reinstatement of their colleagues it could not last a single day, because the company had staff in readiness to take over their duties and also had guarantees of ample protection from the government and the forces of the Crown. Despite this warning the tram-men decided to do battle in defence of their colleagues and at ten o'clock on the morning of 25 August they left their cars in the street. The issue was joined.

That night Larkin addressed a massive meeting in Beresford Place. Scabs were already running the trams and feeling was growing high. Larkin spoke of the onslaught the employers had planned and of the fact that Lord Aberdeen had promised Murphy not only the police but the military as well. He advised his listeners to arm for their own protection. 'If Carson can arm his braves up in the North', he announced, 'we can too'. His resulting arrest on a charge of incitement put Dublin in a fever of protest. Riots broke out in various parts of the city and pitched battles took place with the police when the people stoned the trams and attempted at various points to dig up the tramlines. The military were called out.

Meanwhile the authorities, torn between the fury of the people at Larkin's arrest and his undoubted capacity for doing further mischief if he was let out, decided to risk releasing him on bail, probably feeling that the situation could hardly deteriorate much further. Larkin's first move was to announce that he would address a meeting in Sackville Street on the following Sunday. When the meeting was proclaimed by Magistrate Swift, Larkin assured his followers that it would be held. When Sunday came Sackville Street was packed with expectant citizens and heavily posted with Dublin Metropolitan Police and hundreds of extra police drafted in from the provinces.

There was no sign of Larkin until an elderly and apparently infirm man appeared on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel. He wore a beard and was dressed in a frock coat. He surveyed the crowd below for a while, then removed the beard and began to speak. It was Jim Larkin. Within a couple of minutes he was seized and arrested by the police. Then, as he was being led away, there began a series of baton charges of such violence that reports were carried in the press all over Europe and the United States. At home and in Britain eye witnesses of eminence and importance testified to scenes of unprecedented brutality.

However, the employers remained determined on a fight to the finish. There were now 400 of them in the Employers' Federation and they united to issue a form to each of their employees with an instruction to sign it. The form declared that the signatory would leave the Irish Transport and General Workers Union if he or she was a member or - if not a member - that he or she undertook never to become a member.

At this point Larkin's campaigning proved to have been successful. Not only did the Larkinites refuse to sign the form but trade unionists belonging to thirty-two other trade unions took up the challenge and also refused to sign. These included the craft workers' unions. The employers stuck to their guns and shut their doors all over the city. A huge lock-out was now in progress and thousands of workers and their families faced unemployment and hunger.

In spite of attempts at mediation, the lock-out lasted for over six months. Throughout its duration Larkin made a superhuman effort to hold the workers together. James Connolly was summoned from Belfast to add his expertise to the effort and night after night meetings were held at Beresford Place, which became known among the strikers as 'the old spot by the river'. Where eloquence alone might have lost its effect Larkin's unerring instinct for the dramatic prompted him to gestures which lifted up wavering spirits and fired their determination. One of the more spectacular occurred when the workers of Britain subscribed to create a relief fund. Larkin decided to show the workers something more inspiring than a subscription list. He had the food delivered to Dublin on a food ship which was hired especially, because he knew that the sign of a food ship steaming up the river with relief supplies from their fellow workers in Britain would be a sight still to be talked about when the food itself had been eaten and forgotten.

The lock-out dragged on and gradually petered out. Men either got their jobs back without being made to sign the form, or signed it in the knowledge that it had become an empty form of words which the employers were no longer anxious to enforce.

Yet when the clamour died away, the mists lifted to reveal what had been achieved. A whole forgotten class had emerged from obscurity into a society which was conscious of a new concept of their rights and dignity. The leading voices of the liberals, the intellectuals, the patriots, the artists and the writers had spoken out almost unanimously in support of their cause. Numbered among them were: Pádraic Pearse, W.P. Ryan, Sheehy-Skeffington, Handel Booth, Tom Clarke, Ernie O'Malley, Keir Hardie, James Stephens, W.B. Yeats, G.K. Chesterton.

Maud Gonne McBride had written in their defence. Constance Markiewicz had worked in the food kitchens of Liberty Hall to cook for them and feed them. Sir William Orpen the painter and master of portraiture, was a regular visitor to Liberty Hall throughout the six months and, in his work of reminiscences, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself describes seeing Sheehy-Skeffington returning to the hall with his clothes in tatters after an attack on him by fanatics when he was bringing the children of strikers to the quays to be brought to homes in Britain where people would feed and look after them.

And George Russell (A.E.) wrote his letter which he headed To the Masters of Dublin which has become a classic of powerful and precisely moulded invective in which every sentence strikes straight into the center of its target.

There were many many more who voiced their sympathy and compassion. In doing so they revealed that the seeds of a new concept of social responsibility had been planted in the conscience of the nation.

Others those who were inspired after meeting Larkin and whose memories of him are collected in Trade Union Century edited by Donald Nevin (Mercier Press in Association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and RTE, 1994) were Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Chaplin (author of Solidarity Forever), Keir Hardie, and other heroes in the Irish pantheon such as James Connolly, Constance Markievicz, Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty and Pádraic Pearse.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 88 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Labor Law
Shadow Attorney General Robert McClelland outlines his plans for workers entitlements, legal aid and a Bill of Rights
*  Unions: Poetic Justice
The ACTU kicked off its 2001 Living Wage campaign this week with a new shock tactic: poetry.
*  Technology: Big Brother’s Legacy
Organisations with restrictive staff email polices risk locking themselves in the Industrial Age by treating their staff as units to be monitored.
*  Corporate: Scumbags Exposed
On the eve of the inaugural Corporate Scumbags Tour, we look at the worst of the worst from the Top End of Town.
*  International: Playing Away
Pat Ranald looks at a proposal to hold Australian companies to basic standards when they invest in developing countries.
*  Environment: Nuclear Titanics
The Maritime Union has joined Greenpeace in a campaign to stop our seas becoming a nuclear highway.
*  History: Out of the Bog
Neale Towart looks at the life of big Jim Larkin, one of the heroes of an Irish trade union movement that continues to thrive.
*  Politics: Westie’s Macquarie Street Alert
The Workers MLC, Ian West, provides the first in a series of regular rundowns on the upcoming Parliamentary session
*  Review: The Next American Century?
How will the United States maintain its global power in an era when the very notion of the nation-state is under challenge?
*  Satire: Dollar Crashes Through Psychological 0.00c Barrier
The bedevilled Australian dollar dropped below the crucial 0.00c barrier losing its battle to avoid the humiliation of being worth less than the commemorative Bradman coins distributed by the Sunday Telegraph last weekend.

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»  Activists Notebook

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