Big Jim Larkin, the unmistakable man in the above photo, was a giant of the Irish labor movement as well as the workers movement in the United States. His role in the Belfast Dockworkers strike of 1907 and the 1913 Dublin Lockout placed him at the head of the labor movement at a crucial time: the coming of the Irish Revolution. Connolly, Larkin’s comrade-in-arms in Ireland, had spent the years before Easter 1916 enriching the American class struggle and bring Marxism to wide layers of workers.
Connolly’s writings are a treasure trove for understanding the early American Marxist movement, the IWW and the Socialist Party in the US. His writings are archived here. A new film starring Peter Mullan as Connolly and Patrick Bergin as Larkin is in the works. Mullan is a Scottish socialist and actor whose credits include several of Ken Loach’s films. We have our fingers crossed that it will at least mention his role in the States as well as do the man and his politics justice in general.
I haven’t been able to get the bad taste out of my mouth since seeing Neil Jordan’s pablum, Michael Collins. More than a sprinkling of historical inaccuracy at the service of the then “Peace Process” infected the popcorn I had at the theater. I can still hear Julia Roberts’ awful accent. Shudder, guffaw, barf. Even Loach’s brilliant The Wind That Shakes the Barley couldn’t completely cleanse my palate.
And I need not mention films starring Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford or Daniel Day-Lewis. OK I’ll mention the thoroughly reactionary Day-Lewis movie The Boxer. It’s main message is that killing in Ireland is wrong…unless it is killing for “peace” and only crazed dead-enders can’t see the wisdom in that. It could have been written by Tom Hartley. Maybe it was. A future post will analyze the Troubles Film Industry. But back to Larkin….
Unfortunately Larkin was fleeing persecution in the aftermath of the Lockout and missed the momentous events that would unfold in quick succession: the Rising, Revolution and Civil War. The working class Larkin had left behind had been transformed by the struggles engulfing Ireland.
In those crucial years Larkin was in the United States, as a leader of the IWW and the Socialist Party he brought the message of industrial social unionism to tens of thousands. Touring around the Midwest and Michigan, Larkin addressed dozens of events and thousands of people.
Other organizers visited the striking copper and iron miners in the Upper Peninsula whose conditions were some of the worst in the country. Woody Guthrie wrote a chilling song about the 1913 Calumet Massacre in in the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The boom ended and the area was decimated.
The Keweenaw, once one of the most densely populated areas of Michigan is now home to some of its finest natural spaces and a good, but modest bit of tourism given its distance. Capitalism creates and capitalism destroys. Though in this case I’ll take Bete Grise Bay and a slow boat to Isle Royale to the “The Dark Satanic Mills” that were the iron and copper ranges. Save the Wild UP deals with some of the environmental struggles in the area arising from continued mining interests.
The radicalizing effect of the Bolshevik Revolution meant the the Socialist Party was an inadequate vehicle for the new struggle. He and other sympathizers of the Bolsheviks, a majority of the SP, were bureaucratically expelled from the Party in 1919. Larkin would do time in New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison for “criminal anarchy.” Larkin would do a lot of time in a lot of places.
Larkin, like so many other Irish labor leaders from Mother Jones and Larkin’s comrade James Connolly were, in many ways, as instrumental to the formation of the socialist and workers movements in the United States as they were to the movements’ formation in Ireland.
Two years after Connolly’s execution Larkin formed the James Connolly Socialist Club in New York which would introduce thousands of Irish Americans and Irish immigrants to Marxism, many of whom became members and leaders of the newly formed Communist (Labor) Party. He co-edited The Revolutionary Age with Benjamin Gitlow, the suppression of which ended in a celebrated court case.
He was also quite a character. He traveled throughout the Midwest on speaking tours, organizing strikes and attending meetings. In an incident that made the New York Times Larkin attacked a man at a meeting organized to protest English atrocities in Ireland in Chicago in 1920. The man accused the meeting of being mere propaganda for the IRA; relaying false stories of English cruelty. It didn’t help that, though the man claimed Irish ancestry, he had an English accent. The irony being that Larkin himself, though he returned to Ireland’s County Down at a young age, was born in Liverpool, England.
Larkin’s temper would be the source of many a legendary story. His later years and return to Ireland are for another time. They were complicated to say the least.
Another Irish contributor to the US workers movement was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She wrote Larkin Comes to America about Larkin and Connolly’s arrival to the States and the influence these two seasoned revolutionaries had on the struggle in the US. James T. Farrell, an Irish American socialist, man of letters and former Trotskyist wrote this appraisal after Larkin’s death in 1947. And finally a fitting poem to the enigmatic fellow.
In Dublin City in nineteen thirteen
The boss was rich and the poor were slaves
The women working and children starving
Then on came Larkin like a mighty wave
The workers cringed when the boss man thundered
Seventy hours was his weekly chore
He asked for little and less was granted
Lest given little then he’d ask for more
In the month of August the boss man told us
No union man for him could work
We stood by Larkin and told the boss man
We’d fight or die, but we wouldn’t shirk
Eight months we fought and eight months we starved
We stood by Larkin through thick and thin
But foodless homes and the crying of children
It broke our hearts, we just couldn’t win
Then Larkin left us, we seemed defeated
The night was black for the working man
But on came Connolly with new hope and counsel
His motto was that we’d rise again
In nineteen sixteen in Dublin City
The English soldiers they burnt our town
The shelled our buildings and shot our leaders
The Harp was buried ‘neath the bloody crown
They shot McDermott and Pearse and Plunkett
They shot McDonagh and Clarke the brave
From bleak Kilmainham they took Ceannt’s body
To Arbour Hill and a quicklime grave
But last of all of the seven heroes
I sing the praise of James Connolly
The voice of justice, the voice of freedom
He gave his life, that man might be free
Larkin remains an inspiration to radical social-unionism in Ireland. This coming weekend the Independent Workers Union will be having their 5th annual conference in Cork, Ireland. An agreed “Social Partnership” in Ireland codifies in law the collaboration of union bureaucrats with the government and the bosses in swindling the workers. The IWU was set up to challenge this state of affairs. More information can be found on their website.
We have had the pleasure of working with these comrades for a number of years now. Socialists, activists and trade unionists sent this greeting to their conference. Hopefully we’ll have an interview with Patricia Campbell, President of the IWU, on what was discussed in the coming weeks. She’ll be in the States around the Labor Notes conference in Detroit. Watch this space.
To the comrades assembled in Cork, Ireland for the 5th Annual Conference of the Independent Workers Union:
We salute the struggles waged by the Independent Workers Union over the last year and wish the IWU success at this conference and in the coming year’ s battles.
In firm knowledge that both of our struggles, and those beyond our two countries, are advanced by association and exchange with warmest comradely regards we welcome the opening of the 5th Annual conference of the Independent Workers Union.Athróm anois na sean-drochídí,’ S téanam i mbaol ar thóir na bua!